By Khartini Khalid
I AM A Malay Singaporean and I am proud of it - though the label 'Malay Singaporean' often seems to make little sense to people outside of South-east Asia.
In my travels to other countries and in my current place of residence in the United States, I am often quizzed as to the meaning of this label. 'You mean, you are Malaysian?', I am asked. Or: 'I thought Malays are Malaysians?'
My answer, each time, is 'no'. Regardless of how often I have to repeat myself, I try, each time, to explain the differences between Malay Singaporeans and Malay Malaysians. I say that history had united us and then separated us. Political leaderships and national policies have made us very distinct from one another.
This was not always the case. For many years after Separation, the racial and religious identities of Malay Muslims in Malaysia and Singapore took precedence over their national identities.
However, things have changed drastically over the past few decades and much of that has to do with how politics shaped the two communities.
I first realised how different I am from Malay Malaysians when I stayed in a kampung in Negeri Sembilan for a week. I was there for a mini research project with some students - a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian Singaporeans, plus a few foreigners. We stayed with host families in a Malay village.
After the first four days in the village, I felt something was amiss. I could not put a finger on what it was. It was only when I was hanging out at a roadside stall and saw a Chinese man that it dawned on me what I was missing: I had not seen a single non-Malay person (outside of my student group) for four whole days!
The Chinese in the area lived in a separate village across the street while the Indians lived in yet another village near some plantations. In Seremban, I saw a building for a Chinese leisure club and another for Malay games or social activities.
Singapore was once like that. But over the decades, it changed. Every day now, when we step out of our flats, we see our Chinese, Indian and perhaps Eurasian neighbours. We share the same lifts, corridors, void decks, community parks and common spaces. We go to the same schools and workplaces. Our parliamentary representatives are multiracial. Malay Singaporeans are as much a part of the everyday realities of Chinese, Indian and Eurasian Singaporeans as they are of ours. This cannot be said of Malay and non-Malay Malaysians. In short, Malay Malaysians and Malay Singaporeans live in different political and social realities.
In a recent column published in Utusan Malaysia, former Malaysian information minister Zainuddin Maidin said that Malaysia's current racial controversies mirror the issues that surfaced in the country during the May 1969 riots. He also said that Malaysia was right to remove Singapore as it had been a thorn in Malaysia's flesh. The 'poison...spilled by Kuan Yew more than 40 years ago,' he suggested, is the reason race relations remain fraught in Malaysia.
I wonder how wanting a system that promises equality for all, as compared to one that is biased and discriminating, can be 'poison'. Well, perhaps one man's meat is another man's 'poison'. Thanks to the 'meat', Singapore has become a city state where different races co-exist peacefully and all benefit from a meritocratic system.
Should Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew have ruled Singapore using the Malaysian 'model', with discriminatory policies favouring one racial group over others, people like me might have failed to enter university though our grades are good while people of another race are admitted though their grades are poor. We would then, understandably, have felt aggrieved and over time this would have manifested itself in unpleasant social tensions.
This brings me to Datuk Seri Zainuddin's comment that 'Singapore sticks to a Third World democracy despite having a developed world mentality while Malaysia has a Third World mentality but a developed world democracy'.
I accept his point that Singapore has a developed world mentality and do not deny that Singapore's democracy is not like that of other First World countries'. Whether we will be better off having such a democracy is another debate altogether. However, I think Singapore has greater political, economic and social democracy than Malaysia. There is no money politics here, and our system of equity based on merit pervades almost all sectors of our society.
Singapore has changed phenomenally since its separation from Malaysia. There are still challenges to overcome in the different communities, including among Malay Singaporeans, but we are at least at peace with one another.
History teaches great lessons - but only to those who want to learn from it.
The writer is an educator and a former journalist. She is pursuing a master's in international relations at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.