Singapore’s first Malay general – a star of things to come?

Khairulanwar Zaini / Current Affairs Department

From 1st July, Colonel Ishak bin Ismail caps his 28 years with the Singapore Armed Forces by being the first Malay to attain the rank of brigadier-general. The first Malay one-star general is clearly one for the history books, but the question remains whether it will be the only star shining for the foreseeable future.

The Straits Times lauded the promotion of the current Commander of 6th Division as “a milestone in Malays’ efforts to be fully accepted in the military”; it was only in 1987 that another brigadier-general doubted the loyalty of Malay soldiers by virtue of their religion: “If there is a conflict, we don’t want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his emotions for his religion … We don’t want to put anybody in that position where he feels he is not fighting a just cause, and perhaps worse, maybe his side is not the right side.” (Then-BG (Res) Lee Hsien Loong, who was also then Second Minister for defence.)

BG Ishak: Trailblazer or token?

There are many unresolved issues in the prickly relationship between the government and the largest minority race, particularly about its role in the military. Member of Parliament Zaqy Mohamad acknowledged in TODAY that COL Ishak’s promotion “dispels some talk” of “Malays (not) serving in the upper echelons of the SAF”. However, is COL Ishak a trailblazer or, in Mr Zaqy’s own words, the “token”?

Citing sui generis examples like COL Ishak as testament of progress has its limitations. That it required 44 years post-independence to see a Malay general indicate progress long overdue; meanwhile, the single Malay general reflects another somber truth: while Malays are arguably more integrated into the rank-and-file of the SAF, their representation in the officer and staff ranks remains lamentable.

The harsh reality is that COL Ishak, foisted to be the standard bearer for Malay achievement in the military, is also the exception.  Furthermore, it is an open secret that certain vocations are made inaccessible to Malays for security considerations. Gradual steps have been taken to open hitherto sensitive vocations to Malays, but most remain tight-shut.

More work, and numbers, needed

Measuring the progress of Malays in the military requires more than the promotion of one man. The selective interpretation of the first but singular Malay general, or that the infantry has a high proportion of Malay specialists, misses germane concerns.

For a more accurate assessment to determine whether Malays are “fully accepted” in the military, more numbers could be made transparent by MINDEF without much risk to security: the racial breakdown of the officer corps by rank structure, and also the racial profile of every cohort that gains entry into the prestigious Officer Cadet School and the School of Infantry Specialists.  Furthermore, a racial breakdown of manpower strength by vocation will be useful in confirming (or debunking) the veracity of anecdata that purports overrepresentation of Malays in combat service support such as transport, medical and logistics while being virtually absent in the more technical and sensitive combat arms like artillery, armour and combat engineers as well as the other two armed services, the navy and air force.

The Value of Citizenship over Race

Underlying this backslapping of “Malay progress” is the deeper issue of racial identities vis-a-vis a national one.

Ironically, efforts at racial integration has been impeded by the government’s own CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) policy that typecasts a racial profile for every citizen. The policy presupposes that every Chinese is a Confucianist, that every Indian is a cultural traditionalist, and that every Malay is a strict Islamic practitioner who prioritizes adherence to faith over country.

With a single stroke of an alphabet, every Singaporean is automatically embedded with a culture at birth; a child inherits the father’s ‘race’ – with all its associated trappings – while all possible ambiguities of racial identities are dismissed. Other than failing to identify with the dilemma of ‘mixed’ parentage, the government’s predilection with hyphenated-citizens undermines national identity for a more parochial racial one.

Not only does this policy results in the partition self-help groups along ethnic lines which can conceivably encumber social work efforts, it is also partly responsible for perpetuating the impression of the enigmatic Malay Singaporean whose loyalty is always mired in doubt. In the words of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “It would be a very tricky business for the SAF to put a Malay officer who was very religious and who had family ties in Malaysia, in charge of a machine-gun unit.”

As long as the government holds onto this perspective, the promise of Minister for Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim as mentioned in TODAY that “hard work and playing by the rules would bring its rewards in a meritocratic society” remains a distant dream.

Progress: Community and National Pride

Considering that Malay youths were not conscripted in the initial decade after the inception of National Service, Brigadier-General Ishak is undoubtedly a watershed, albeit much belated. While not depriving the man of his deserving success, it may be more prudent to dampen the carousel and examine whether the promotion has any effective and lasting significance on the notion of meritocracy and race relations not only in the military, but in the general public sphere as well.

1st July will be a proud day for one Malay man and his family, and the Malay community will collectively bask in shared glory. It will be a much prouder day for the nation if PM Lee Hsien Loong rescinds the policy statement that he made in 1987 and the government abandons the CMIO scheme.

The long-lasting hope to nurture and develop a full-fledged nation out of this city-state is laudable. That can be realized if Singaporeans, of varying racial affiliations and religious persuasions, can be identified for whom they fundamentally are, first and foremost: Singaporean citizens.

With contributions by: Ravi Philemon

Pictures from Mindef website.

—-