Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia and Its Singaporean Inferiority Complex

Written by johnleemk on 4:10:34 am Mar 22, 2007.
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Malaysians have this odd obsession with Singapore. While reading Malaysia Today a few days ago, I scrolled past several pieces with only half a dozen comments, down to a piece posted around the same time with over 50 comments. Its subject? Singapore.

The only things that can get more controversy are, I think, race, religion and sex (not necessarily in that order). But why are Malaysians so pathetically insecure that we live virtually in the shadow of our southern neighbour? Why is it that nearly every political debate has to include some reference to Singapore?

What makes this neighbour of ours so special? Historically speaking, it's probably the fact that Singapore was considered an integral part of the country until after World War II, when the Malayan Union failed to include it.

Afterwards came a painful merger between an independent Malaya with Singapore and the former British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak. Then two years later came an even more painful separation between Singapore and Malaysia.

To that, I think, a lot of our insecurities can be traced. Since separation, Singapore has moved forward much more than Malaysia, joining the ranks of developed countries and overshadowing Malaysia. Even today, the one thing people tend to credit ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad most for seems to be for taking Malaysia out of Singapore's shadow. (This seems to be patently untrue, though; when I tell Americans I'm from Malaysia, they get confused until I tell them we're just north of Singapore.)

Thanks to this, whenever Singapore gets brought up in casual conversation, things can get heated — and often political. Almost everyone seems to have an opinion about Singapore, and a rather strongly-held one, too.

Generally, these strong-held opinions fall into one of two categories. The first is one extremely enamoured with Singapore. The people who fall under this category often tend to be non-Malays, especially Chinese, who look up to Singapore as a model for meritocracy, and an oasis of good governance in a desert of administrative inefficiency.

The other category is for opinions which are diametrically opposite. These opinions often are held by Malays upset with what they perceive to be the injustices of a country where minorities are implicitly discriminated against, where the country is not really much more free or much less corrupt than Malaysia, and where the stuck-up Chinese majority continually thumbs its nose at its neighbours across the Straits of Tebrau.

As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. But that's a subject for another day. For the time being, what we are concerned with is the apparent inferiority complex Malaysians have with Singapore, to the point that half the country appears to long to ape the island republic's every move, while the other half refuses to do anything that might be seen as learning from the island republic's lessons — both for the sake of menegakkan maruah Malaysia (loosely translated, standing up for the honour of Malaysia).

I think that, in the end, it all comes down to two things: race. No, there's no mistake — I mean "race" as in "ethnicity" and "race" as in "competition".

When it comes to the first issue of race, Malaysians can't help but feel terribly strongly about our relationship with Singapore. Malaysia has had pro-Malay policies in place from the time of the British colonial era, while Singapore refused to bow to Malay demands for greater Malay hegemony, with the end result of separation.

When it comes to the second issue of race, in almost every sphere of competition, Singapore has us beat flat. Whether it's tourism, biotechnology, industry, prestige, the exchange rate, net immigration — we're on the mat, begging for mercy, and Singapore is kicking the hell out of us. It's hard not to feel touchy and inferior about this desolate rock we had the temerity to kick out 40 years ago.

During the administration (or maybe regime would be a better word) of Mahathir, the relationship between the Malaysian and Singaporean governments was probably at an all-time low. It was even worse than at the time of separation — indeed, part of the reason Malaysia and Singapore separated was because Tunku Abdul Rahman, our PM at the time, thought he could get along better with Lee Kuan Yew as a neighbour rather than a rebelling local statesman.

Since then, things have improved. There have been changes in heads of government on both sides of the causeway, and there's cause for optimism at the elite level. But at the grassroots level — in the mamaks and in the kopitiams — it seems that controversy about the Malaysia-Singapore relationship is more alive than ever.

Malaysians have yet to release themselves from the grip of this inferiority complex. When we stop thinking about political questions in terms of "What would Singapore do?" and then decide to do as they would do (or, in the case of the contrarians, precisely what Singapore would not do), and reason without reference to that neighbour down south, then maybe we'll have made some progress to actually beating Singapore in some race.

But of course, it's doubtful that this will happen. Malaysia's relationship with Singapore is much like a relationship between two bitter exes — they can't stand to see each other, but bitch about the other at every opportunity they get. Until we escape this bitterness, we will remain as politically immature as a nation as we were at independence.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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