“Affirmative action” means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and business from which they have been historically excluded. Indeed if one were to see affirmative action in the light of John Rawls’ maximin approach to give the greatest benefit to the least advantaged in society, it would seem to be a just and fair way to organise society. Hence it’s no surprise that affirmative action is prevalent in many countries today principally to ameliorate the disenfranchised in the society to become ‘full partners’ in the society. However, when affirmative action involves preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—it tends to generate intense controversy. For the purposes of this paper a comparative analysis on the affirmative action practised by two countries namely Singapore and Malaysia with regards to their indigenous populations– the Malays - will be attempted.
Affirmative Action In Malaysia
Affirmative Action for the majority in Malaysia, the Malays, also known as the ‘bumiputeras’ – literally meaning “sons of the soil” - is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution itself. Malays are accorded special rights through quotas for educational institutions, public sector employment and business licenses - as a constitutional right as per, Article 153(2), of the Federation of Malaysia Constitution promulgated in 31st August 1957. However Racial riots in Kula Lumpur in May 1969 brought to the fore the economic imbalances that characterized Malaysian society then. In effect, all social indices – infant mortality, per capita income, literacy rate – were all lagging for the bumiputeras. And because of these imbalances extra help in the form of affirmative action was seen both as morally and socially justified.
Hence the racial riot was used as a reason for a 2nd Malaysian Plan - also known as The New Economic Policy or NEP for short. Although it espoused “National unity is the overriding objective of the country ... more equitable distribution of income and opportunities for national unity and progress”, more importantly it clearly provided that “the modernization of rural life, a rapid and balanced growth of urban activities and the creation of a Malay commercial and Industrial community in all categories and at all levels of operations, so that Malays and other indigenous people will become full partners in all aspects of economic life of the nation. One can arguably say that affirmative action for the Malays was now aggressively employed in the way the Malaysian society was organised. In effect the Malaysian government’s goal was to have at least 30% of corporate equity in Malay hands and under Malay economic management by 1991 – “yet this is to be achieved without adversely affecting the existing economic status of the Chinese and Indians.”
This sort of Affirmative Action can be justified under the Rawls idea of justice as Fairness. In effect his principle behind the idea that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged can be seen in the NEP – alleviating the ‘arbitrary handicaps resulting from (our) initial starting places in society” . Indeed Rawls’ idea of distributive justice seems to be the raison d’etre of such an affirmative policy.
However, the NEP policy when it came to an end in 1990, “ was succeeded by a National Development Policy in 1991 designed to continue many of the affirmative action policies until bumiputeras attained their vaunted 30 percent share of publicly listed corporate wealth.” Whilst for the Malays the NEP or its successor policy has been a boon, for the minorities, especially the Indians, it has been a bane with especially access to education and business and...