Mobilizing around Inequality in Malaysia and Singapore

Meredith L. Weiss

Survey data and pundits alike located the root of pivotal opposition gains in the most recent elections in Singapore (2011) and Malaysia (2013) in economics—specifically, rising costs of living, fear of declining opportunities, and awareness of a growing chasm between those with ample abundance and those with not enough. While electoral returns in both states reflected this economic anxiety, it is evident, too, in increasingly widespread and avid political participation beyond elections, and threatens regime stability.

Malaysia and Singapore represent two core variants of a “hybrid” regime, or one that combines attributes of liberal and illiberal regime types: competitive authoritarianism and hegemonic electoral authoritarianism, respectively. In each, the same party or coalition has held power since independence, winning successive elections through a combination of plausible legitimacy (substantially performance-based), targeted inducements, and a self-servingly skewed playing field. In recent years, new challenges have arisen to shake that equilibrium. On the one hand, new online media, from news sites to social networks, have expanded the terrain for political discourse, opening up political space comparatively impervious to state intervention. On the other hand, the externalities of determined growth—rising income and wealth inequality, heavy employment-driven in- and out-migration, cautiously pruned social safety nets—offer ample grounds for debates over these new forums. Seeking neither to slow the pace of “development” nor to cede political ground in the face of alternative priorities and frameworks, these regimes face challenges unprecedented since the incumbent governments—under the People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) in Malaysia—first consolidated their control in the 1950s-60s. 1

Evidence of inequality

Both Singapore and Malaysia have experienced upticks in indicators of economic inequality, as well as increasing—and increasingly heated—discussions of those trends since at least the 1990s. Even Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged in parliament in 2011 that, “income inequality is starker than before … children of successful people are doing better while the children of less successful people are doing less well,” leaving families “desperate, anxious, worried about themselves” (Lee 2011). And yet government leaders in both states have largely tolerated these shifts, driven as they are by the imperatives of competition: of building and advancing an ever better-educated, high-capacity labor force, while ensuring also an adequate mass of workers for construction, plantation agriculture, manufacturing and other low-skilled, low-paid positions. Part of that effort has entailed accepting a deepening divide among citizens; part has meant more aggressive embrace of labor migration, perceptibly shifting demographic patterns.

From the Straits Times, early 2015,

Siingapore’s Straits Times,1 February 2015, reports that the NTUC, which forms the majority of the county’s labour movement, says more needs to be done to close the wage gap for low income workers.

While perceptions of inequality may well outpace reality, in fact, the evidence is there. Singapore and Malaysia have vied since the late 1990s for the dubious distinction of the highest Gini coefficient, an index of economic inequality, in Southeast Asia. The OECD average Gini coefficient was 32 in the late 2000s; values range from 1 (perfect equality) to 100. Despite generous government income transfers, Singapore’s Gini index peaked at 46.7 in 2007 and had declined only to 45.9 by 2012. 2 While part of that disparity is intra-ethnic, within the Chinese majority, ethnic stratification persists: rates of income and education are slightly lower among ethnic Indian than Chinese Singaporeans, while ethnic Malay citizens have an average monthly income only 60 per cent that of the Chinese, and one-sixth the rate of tertiary education; (Fetzer 2008, 147-8). Despite redistributive gains from affirmative action, Malaysia’s Gini coefficient is similarly worrisome, at 46.2, 3 and individuals may actually be worse off in Malaysia than this household-level metic indicates (Lee 2013).

Meanwhile, costs of living continue to rise. Inflation had been consistently low in Singapore—generally no more than 2 per cent per annum since the mid-1990s. Inflation reached 6.5 per cent in 2008, then dropped incrementally to about 4.5 per cent. 4 In Malaysia, too, surveys indicated the cost of living was voters’ key concern at the time of the 2013 elections. Inter-ethnic income disparity has decreased over time, thanks largely to far-reaching preferential policies to benefit bumiputera, Malays and indigenous minorities, but intra-ethnic disparity has risen, for instance, as disproportional benefits flow to urban than most rural areas (Gomez, et al., 2012, 10). Even among bumiputera, uneven access to benefits or patronage—the privileging of a so-called UMNOputera, with ties to the ruling party—has fostered concern and critique.

Experience of belt-tightening triggers anxiety. Those fears are piqued especially in Singapore by fears in part, of competition and in part, of a challenge to the national character, given the government’s declared intention to grow the labor force to meet employment needs through ever greater foreign recruitment. Immigration into Singapore has surged dramatically since the 1990s. Singapore citizens and permanent residents comprised 97 per cent of the population in 1970, 95 per cent in 1980, 90 per cent in 1990, 81 per cent in 2000, but just 72 per cent now. In other words, one-quarter of Singapore’s current 5.1 million population are non-resident foreigners, most from elsewhere in Asia.

These demographic changes have encouraged both usually-quiescent “heartlanders” as well as English-educated, upwardly/outwardly mobile “cosmopolitans” (Tan 2003, 758-9) to speak out, in modes ranging from agitated online discussions to supporting opposition parties. Electoral and opinion data suggest young, middle class, well-educated Chinese—presumably beneficiaries of PAP policies—to be most skeptical of the party now (Fetzer 2008, 136). Expressed everywhere from film, to fiction, to blogs, such issues as the state’s preference for skilled “foreign talent” raise hackles: these newcomers are perceived to take away jobs, do not complete the national service obligatory for Singaporean men, and seem otherwise to enjoy special treatment and allowances (Ortmann 2009, 37-41). Moreover, a significant share of non-citizen residents align ethnically with local minorities, invoking engrained biases.

Mobilization around inequality

Economic inequality or frustration is clearly not citizens’ only grievance. In Malaysia, for instance, calls for Islamization or communal rights may coincide with those related to material well-being, but reflect a different premise and may exercise different subsets of the citizenry. However, economic inequality has been an increasingly salient, and legitimacy-challenging, basis for mobilization in both states.

At the same time, the internet offers new public space for articulation of alternatives. Singapore is among the world’s most “wired” societies: not only are nearly three-fourths of Singaporeans overall online, but 97 per cent of those aged 15-19 use the internet regularly and 80 per cent of 25-34 year olds are on Facebook (Kemp 2012b). About 60 per cent of Malaysians, too, are online, 90 per cent of whom visit social media sites (Kemp 2012a). Mainstream media in both states face tight curbs; the availability of online media opens access to information, discussion, and mobilization, since to appease investors, both states limit internet censorship (Weiss 2014a).

Recent protests in both Singapore and Malaysia have been largely organized online. When a Singapore government document made clear the regime’s plans to continue with rapid recruitment of foreign workers to supplement the declining local population, popular anger at this perceived threats to local jobs and quality of life (e.g., given overcrowding of Singapore’s very limited space) found an outlet online. Virtual diatribe gave rise to real-world protest, when anti-immigration activists made use of Facebook to organize two of the state’s largest protests in decades in early 2013. 5 The virulence of these complaints forced the PAP government to reinforce the specific benefits only Singapore citizens receive, as opposed to migrants (for instance, in schooling). Opposition political parties have benefited, too. Online coverage of their rallies and platforms during the 2011 campaign not only extended the reach of messaging (much of it about “bread-and-butter” concerns), but appears to have encouraged greater numbers to turn out in person for opposition events, then to vote for those parties.

This is a inaugural labour day protest against the 6.9 million population white paper and labour-related matters that affect Singaporeans.

Inaugural Labour Day Protest – For A Better Singapore – Organised by in 2013.
Image taken from their Facebook page

Similarly in Malaysia, an unprecedented 23 per cent increase in new voters between the previous election and 2013—mostly presumed young, internet-savvy, and inclined toward the opposition—was widely presumed linked to online news and discussion, as well as recent mass protests organized largely online, the largest of them for Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections. The crux of opposition ideology is good governance—a core theme also for Bersih—and opposing corruption, yet the key promises the combined opposition highlighted in the 2013 campaign were narrowly economic, pitched to a worried middle-class base: free higher education and wi-fi access, reductions in road tolls and petrol prices, and the like. Counterpoised against these messages were colorful images and exposes of BN personalities (not least the incumbent prime minister and his wife) as suspiciously wealthy, and rapacious “cronies.”

Implications for the regime

I have argued elsewhere (Weiss 2014b), these developments may have significant implications for the nature of these hybrid regimes. Electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia and Singapore alike rests on a premise of active, but narrowly contained, participation and curbed contestation—far from Robert Dahl’s ideal-type “polyarchy” (Dahl 1971). The developmental state’s failure to sustain promised benefits, in absolute or relative terms, has not only encouraged a more engaged politics, but has propelled new participants into political office and new issues onto policy agendas. Regime hybridity requires a high level of consensus with the status quo: belief that what limited “democracy” there is, is sufficient, without need for too-overt coercion to force compliance. Increasing breadth and scope of engagement, and the emergence of new political voices, likely entail either the sort of heightened competitiveness now apparent or government crackdown to quell that effervescence—the latter response less likely, perhaps, given the chance of disturbing trading partners or investors, or of pushing the best and brightest to emigrate. Either scenario pushes the regime toward a new stasis, however, forging a path to regime change. Spurred by both grievance and the mobilizational resource that new political space represents, recent electoral challenges shed light on a deeper, wider shift underway, toward a more participatory, contested political order in both these hybrid states.

Meredith L. Weiss
Associate Professor
University at Albany, SUNY

Issue 17, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, March 2015


Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Fetzer, Joel S. 2008. ‘Election Strategy and Ethnic Politics in Singapore’. Taiwan Journal of Democracy 4, no. 1: 135-53.
Gomez, Edmund Terence, Johan Saravanamuttu and Maznah Mohamad. 2012. ‘Malaysia’s New Economic Policy: Resolving Structural Inequalities, Creating Inequities?’ In The New Economic Policy in Malaysia: Affirmative Action, Ethnic Inequalities and Social Justice, edited by Edmund Terence Gomez and Johan Saravanamuttu. 1-28. Singapore: NUS Press/ISEAS; Petaling Jaya: SIRD.
Kemp, Simon. 2012a. ‘Social, Digital and Mobile in Malaysia’. We Are Social, 4 Jan.
––––. 2012b. ‘Social, Digital and Mobile in Singapore’. We Are Social, 5 Jan.
Lee Hsien Loong. 2011. ‘Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Debate on the President’s Address, 20 October 2011 at Parliament’. Prime Minister’s Office.
Lee Hwok-Aun. 2013. ‘Is Inequality in Malaysia Really Going Down? Some Preliminary Explorations’. Paper presented at World Economics Association Conference on the Inequalities in Asia: 27 May to 12 July.
OECD. 2011. Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Ortmann, Stephan. 2009. ‘Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity’. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 28, no. 4: 23-46.
Statistics Singapore. ‘Key Household Income Trends, 2012’. Department of Statistics Singapore (February 2013).
Tan, Eugene K. B. 2003. ‘Re-Engaging Chineseness: Political, Economic and Cultural Imperatives of Nation-Building in Singapore’. China Quarterly 175 (Sept.): 751-74.
Weiss, Meredith L. 2014a. ‘New Media, New Activism: Trends and Trajectories in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia’. International Development Planning Review 36, no. 1: 91-109.
––––. 2014b . “Of Inequality and Irritation: New Agendas and Activism in Malaysia and Singapore.” Democratization 21, no. 5: 867-87.

Read Alex Tham’s piece from Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia’s Young Academic’s Voice where he talks about prioritizing social growth in Singapore:


  1. The argument here draws heavily on Weiss 2014, which offers an expanded, more in-depth discussion and analysis.
  2. Statistics Singapore, “Key Household Income Trends”, 12; OECD 2012, 22.
  3. World Bank, GINI index <>.
  4. At <> (accessed 29 March 2014).
  5. See <>.