[Singaporean Literature]

Lee Kuan Yew on Malay vs. Chinese Culture

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

In Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas, his biographers relate how Lee sought explanations for the different economic approaches -- and degrees of success -- found in Singaporean Chinese and Malay communities. Long before becoming Singapore's Prime Minister -- in fact, while still a student -- he had rejected colonialist notions that some races were superior to others, and so he sought other explanations. Turning to contemporary anthropology, he came upon a convincing one in the work of Bryan Parkinson, a Fellow at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hull, whose 1968 article in the journal Modern Asian Studies argued that Malays and and Chinese had different "maximising postulates" or ways of conceiving success:

This desire to succeed is no more absent from rural Malay society than it is from any other, but to the Malay success means something different from what it does, for example, to the Malaysian Chinese. The Chinese seem to regard success as being the improvement of their economic position even if this requires fundamental change or innovation. The Malays seem to regard success as doing what their forebears have approved and practised, but doing it as well as they can. Wealth and economic advancement are desired by the Malays, but not at the expense of renouncing utterly the traditions and traditional occupations of their forebears to which they have grown accustomed.

Parkinson further argued that although there was "nothing irrational about Malay values," they would explain why Malay economic advancement has been and will likely "remain relatively low" in comparison to what Lee termed the "achievement-orientated, striving, acquisitive" Indian and Chinese communities.

Attempting to solve this "extremely delicate problem," Singapore has tried several approaches, the first being a form of affirmative action that provides "free education from primary school right up to university for any Singapore citizen who is a Malay. This is something we don't give to the majority ethnic group -- the Chinese. They pay fees from secondary school onwards." Second, the government has employed "judicious intermingling of the communities so that, thrown into the more multiracial milieu we have in our new housing estates, Malay children are becoming more competitive and more striving" [147].


Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez, Sumiko Tan. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times, 1998.

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