Maori Seats and Multiculturalism
In my first year of life, my family took me from my country of birth, Sri Lanka, to Singapore. I remember in my early years of schooling in Singapore. we had to learn our National Language, which was Malay. But this soon was stopped and the focus was on the official languages of Singapore – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Even though Malay is still regarded as a National Language for historical reasons, it is now treated as one of our four official language.
Malay was given the National Language status because the Malays were the indigenous people of Singapore. The British came to Singapore to establish a British port on the island. On 29 January 1819, Raffles signed a preliminary treaty with the Temenggong (title of nobility) Abdul Rahman to set up a trading post, and on 6 February of the same year, a formal treaty was signed with Sultan Hussein of Johor the de facto rulers of Singapore, giving the British control of the island. Its status as a free port drew many Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab traders to Singapore.
On 9th August 1965, Singapore became a sovereign nation. In the same year Singapore was admitted to the United Nations, and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. On 22 December 1965, Singapore officially became a Republic with its own President with Lee Kuan Yew becoming the first Prime Minister. When Singapore got its independence, the national demographic distribution stood at 75% ethnic Chinese, 17% Malays, 7% Indians, and a small percentage of “Others,” which included everyone outside the first three categories. With the dominant culture being Chinese, the government worked hard to ensure that a healthy racial and cultural balance was maintained within society. The rights of Malays were enshrined in the Constitution of Singapore. I remember in my growing up years the government kept working hard to change people’s mindsets and to help the citizens appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the nation.
In 2009, the issue of race equality was hotly debated in the Singapore Parliament when a motion to treat all races equally was tabled. Lee Kuan Yew, who is still in Parliament as a mentor, stood up and spoke. He said, “The Constitution of Singapore enjoins us to specially look after the position of the Malays and other minorities…Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal. It’s not reality, it’s not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle”. Lee Kuan Yew knew that to develop a strong multi-cultural society, the government had to manage this well. Singapore is often looked up as a model of a multi-cultural society and its because of Lee Kuan Yew’s wisdom and insight. Singapore do not have seats assigned specifically to Malays as we do here in New Zealand for the Maori. However Singapore has a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), which is a type of electoral division or constituency. In GRC political candidates stand as a group for a constituency and are voted in as a group. The group of political candidates had to include a minority culture. GRC was implemented to ensure that the minority cultures are well represented in Parliament.
Singapore went through a long and difficult road to develop multiculturalism. I still think they have got a long way to go before society moved from just tolerating the different cultures to accepting and understanding the cultures that make up the nation. But the nation is getting there.
New Zealand on the other hand, has become very Eurocentric where many Kiwis view the world from a European-centred perspective. I have seen, read and heard comments in our media that if migrants were to come to our country, they need to become like ‘us’ or else they can go back to where they come from. When ask what does ‘us’ mean, I hear that people need to follow western mindset. In New Zealand multiculturalism means becoming like the white majority. The Treaty of Waitangi is our founding document and personally I believe will preseve multiculturalism in New Zealand. The whole pressure to move on from the Treaty of Waitangi is because we have not taken the time and effort to understand the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi in biculturalism and the preservation of multiculturalism.
To me preserving the Maori seats will be the key to preserving multiculturalism in New Zealand. As Lee Kuan Yew correctly said we cannot treat everybody as equal if we want to preserve multiculturalism. The dominant culture will become the culture of the nation when we seek to treat everyone as equal. If we believe in multiculturalism, then we must fight to preserve the Maori seats and to ensure that the dominant culture dictates the culture of the nation.
Lee Kuan Yew is a wise man. Maybe New Zealand can learn from him in developing a multicultural society.