Beyond Tokenism- Malays, Integration and the SAF

By Kamal Mamat

I would like to propose several hypotheses which I gathered after conducting a series of intense and scholarly empirical research on the levels of representation of the Malays in the SAF.

Due to space constraints, I will only list down three of them.

1. Malays’ absence in the Navy. Malay men generally cannot swim because they cannot afford the swimming lessons when they were young. In any case, they have to attend mengaji (Quranic recitation) classes in the afternoons, soccer training on Saturdays and wedding invitations on Sundays at different void decks.

2. Malays’ absence in the Armour unit. It is medically proven that Malay men are more likely to be afflicted with claustrophobia. They hate enclosed spaces, which unfortunately include the armoured vehicles of the SAF. Their propensity for spatial wealth instead of material wealth can be seen in their natural ability to congregate at void decks and the beaches of East Coast Parkway and Changi.

3. Malays’ nominal presence in the Air Force. This is the simplest one- Malay men don’t aim for the sky, they aim for the stratosphere after the sky, a.k.a. the hereafter. A Malaysian Malay proved it recently by being the first Malay to space. Coincidentally, the word hereafter can be referred to in spiritual terms. This hypothesis strongly correlates with hypothesis 2.

 I don’t mean to mock the serious nature of this forum. Let me say that that I really cannot find other reasons to explain why the Malays are under-represented in the Navy, the Air Force and key, presumably sensitive, units of the Army. Bearing in mind that the Malays make up almost 15% of the population, the lack of corresponding representation in the SAF in this day and age begs questions on why tokenism persists.

When the SAF celebrated forty years of National Service recently, you cannot help but notice that in the early years of NS, the Malays were conspicuously absent. Those black and white photos that were shown was a trip down memory lane for those who had been in it, those who had experienced it. Alas for us Malays, the lane did not exist. It begs my question, what should the Malays do to convince the government that we’re ready to be deployed fully in the armed forces?

Before anyone shout cliché or label me outdated, let me assure you that there is no better time than now to resurface this prickly issue of Malays in the SAF. The events of the recent past provide new impetus for changes to be made and the issue of integration to be taken more seriously. Inherent in this are questions of security and trust, which I am going to discuss here.


The events of 2001/2002 surrounding the Malays have been the clarion call for the government to pay close attention to the issue of integration. If one were to recall, the WTC collapse of September 11, 2001, the crackdown of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in December 2001 and the tudung (headscarf) affairs of January 2002 came like a fusillade which left an indelible mark in the consciousness of the Malay/Muslim. Throughout this period, the Malay community was put in a spot by virtue of its ethno-religious association to the events.

Malay leaders scrambled to denounce those events and call for greater understanding amidst increasing suspicions about Islam, fundamentalism and ultimately, Malays’ loyalty to the country. In one report, it was highlighted that an elderly Chinese lady refused to take the same lift with a Malay man, presuming that he was a potential terrorist. This is just one instance of the fear the events have unfortunately created among the wider society then.

It was to its credit that the government responded quickly in suppressing any signs of inter-ethnic tensions. Over the years, the Malay community itself responded by using different platforms to promote greater understanding about Islam.

However, while asserting that extremism is an exception rather than the norm within Singapore’s Malay community, the pressure on the Malays not to isolate themselves from the wider society was simultaneously made. Essentially, it is a call for the Malays to participate actively in national and grassroot activities, noting its under-representation.

Judging from this call, it is only logical for the government to take the first step and reciprocate by opening more avenues for integration. The SAF, one of the key symbols of the nation, is one avenue which can and should be fully opened to every Singaporean, including the Malays.

In fact, in a report on ethnic relations conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies in October 2002, it noted, albeit subtly, that ‘posting a mandatory percentage of minorities into each army unit could further ethnic cohesion’. I’ll put it more bluntly. It is the sine qua non to further integration. It is in the government’s hand now to take this recommendation seriously.

Security and trust

Security and trust are two narratives our leaders trumpet to account for the under-representation of the Malays in the SAF. But these narratives do not hold water anymore. Singapore is an island nestled between its two dominant countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. One draws similarity to Israel, a small Jewish nation in the middle of the Arab world.

Our founding leaders drew upon their experience to develop a siege mentality which, for reasons of security, prevented the Malays from partaking in the defence of Singapore. In fact, Israel has been instrumental in the formation of our armed forces and the development of our defence capabilities.

But this mentality is flawed when one looks at the different historical contexts. On the one hand, the birth and the subsequent history of Israel was a contentious and complex one, full of bloodbaths and cycles of violence.

Singapore, on the other hand, has seen relatively trouble-free years of independence. Except for the Konfrontasi episode of the late sixties, we have gone through a relatively peaceful forty-two years of co-existence with our neighbours. The parallel between Singapore and Israel ends here.

The siege mentality must go.

Granted, the geopolitics of ethno-religious identities, shared memories and historical proximity between Singaporean and Malaysian Malays necessitate a cautious approach in the conscription of Malays in the SAF. This explain why up to the 1980s, the Malays were hardly enlisted into National Service.

However, since the mid-90s, we saw a small but increasing number of Malay men in more sensitive units such as the air force and the commando units. If this trend is any indication of the government’s plan for integration of the Malay community, it is now the right time for this plan to go further and support full integration of the Malays in the SAF.

What about the question of trust? Wouldn’t a Malay man be put in a dilemma when asked to fight his brethren? The history of the world has shown us that common identity does not prevent people from killing each other. We have seen the two Koreas and northern/ southern Vietnam at war in spite of their commonalities.

It all boils down to ideological differences. And ideologies can be propagated when a society is more cohesive, more integrated. What better ways can the government think of other than allowing our Malay men to fight, not just in the infantry but the first lines of defence? Wouldn’t the ideology be more easily disseminated? After all, the Malays want to embrace Total Defence in its totality, not a fraction of it.

In a passionate plea written during National Day many years back, Zuraidah Ibrahim, now the political editor of The Straits Times, argued for Malays’ trust to not be questioned. I share her sentiments. Let’s dispense with tokenism, please. After which, we can truly say Majulah Singapura.

About the author: Kamal is the latest addition to the TOC’s writing team. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Politics at Queen’s University in Belfast. Kamal describes himself as “your typical brudder, typical Mat, typical Singaporean. Also a son, husband, father and a student of politics.”

Kamal has a blog here.


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