Wednesday, 4 October 2023

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Lee Kuan Yew – The modern Malay pahlawan

The Online Citizen wishes all Muslim Singaporeans a blessed holy month of Ramadan.

Khairulanwar Zaini

The Malay community has found its new defender – Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Usually the community’s harshest critic, Lee invoked a Constitutional clause long regarded as dormant: Section 152, a Malaysian heritage that calls upon the government to ‘exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language’.

Malay Singaporeans must be left bemused by this. The government has long hectored them not to expect any special privileges or affirmative action, for Singapore operates upon the sacrosanct principles of meritocracy and racial equality. However, on Wednesday, Lee declared that ‘it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal’.

Lee’s speech was in response to Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan’s call for racial equality. Viswa had, in the previous sitting, alluded to instances of racial inequality, particularly the ‘issue of Malay-Muslims in the SAF, SAP schools and cultural elitism’, among others.

Lee affirmed that racial inequality not only exists, but is also mandated by the Constitution. In a rich display of parliamentary irony, he said that the Government has a ‘duty to treat Malays and other minorities with extra care’. Apparently, ‘extra care’ to minorities means marginalizing the Malays in the military and emphasizing the preeminence of Chinese culture.

The Guardian of Minority Interests

The Malaccan sultanate, during its zenith, counted among its ranks pahlawans – Malay warriors who would embody the spirit of Malay nationalism and uphold Malay interests.

Lee may seem like a modern Malay pahlawan in invoking Section 152 and Malay privileges, but in truth he was hiding behind shadows. Section 152 is hardly a convincing shield, since the clause has been diluted in substance over the years.

Arguably, the only substantive and tangible ‘privilege’ that emanates from Section 152 is the Mendaki Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy. This financial scheme has however ceased to be an outright privilege, but has been subjected to means-testing instead.

The means-testing was introduced by Lee, who had ‘asked Mendaki to ask (the Malays) to agree not to have their special rights of free education at university, but to take the fees they were entitled to and use the money to help more disadvantaged Malays.’

This ‘redistribution of resources amongst the poor’, to borrow a phrase from Michael Barr in his book Constructing Singapore, hardly goes with the spirit of Section 152.

The Spirit of 152 vs Reality

However, it is true that the government espouses a policy of racial inequality: but one diametrically opposite from the spirit of Section 152.

Viswa Sadasivan raised a cogent concern with the example of the SAP schools. Manifest of the government’s bent towards Chinese cultural hegemony and Confucian values, Michael Barr noted in Constructing Singapore that in 1985, when measured against mainstream schools, SAP schools had a better teacher-student ratio of 22.8% while the expenditure per student was 56.45% higher.

Meanwhile, the government’s ‘responsibility to protect, safeguard, support, foster, promote their … educational … interest and the Malay language’ entailed the closure of Malay-medium schools.

Compounding this is the whole-hearted devotion of the entire state apparatus in promoting the annual Speak Mandarin Campaigns, which runs the real risk of alienating and marginalizing one-quarter of the population that is not proficient in Mandarin.

The Malay Snowflake

Lee also argued that the PAP style of racial stratification was necessary, since ‘we will not be able to get a Chinese minister or an Indian minister to persuade Malay parents to look after their daughters more carefully and not have teenage pregnancies.’ It was more appropriate to get MUIS and Mendaki to form ‘a committee to try and reduce the numbers of such delinquents’.

The uncharacteristic display of sensitivity notwithstanding, this perspective affirms the notion of Malays suffering from cultural deficit (and by extension of Lee’s eugenics, a biological deficit as well) and perpetuates the impression that Malays are delicate snowflakes requiring special care and attention.

However, it may be worthwhile to examine the race-centric approach that the PAP seemingly adopts with every problem that plagues the Malay community. It would be inconceivable to think of teenage pregnancies as a problem isolated only in the Malay community; rather, this delinquency can be viewed as a product of socio-economic hardship.

Hence, what is essentially a socio-economic problem has unnecessarily acquired a racial element that leads to the further reinforcement of negative racial stereotypes. It may be that ethnic-based self-help bodies such as Mendaki are aggravating this predicament, since it provides a convenient community-oriented outlook to manage any given problems.

Racially Unequal: It’s their Fault

The deeper implication of Lee’s speech is that the perpetuation of racial inequality is not the fault of the government’s, but the minorities.

By citing the constraint of Section 152 to dismiss the practicality of racial equality, Lee effectively pins the blame of the government’s racially unequal policies on the need to provide ‘extra care’ to the minorities.

Therefore, the stumbling block to a sense of civic nationhood – where the ideal of ‘regardless of race, language and religion’ is lived up to – is not the government, but the pesky constitutional need to protect minority interests.

It is the Malays and Indians, who need to be protected and taken care of, they are the ones who are thwarting your idealistic notion of racial equality, Mr Viswa!

Abolishing 152

Lee mentioned that the abolition of Section 152 would cause some ‘grave disquiet’, but resentment, if any, to its repeal is misplaced. Looking at the flimsy substance that Section 152 provides to the Malays, it is doubtful that even they would rue its dismissal.

As it stands, Section 152 hardly accords any privilege that is over-and-out of those provided to other races. The Mendaki TTFS can remain, or else be integrated into a national pool that can fund all students from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, regardless of their race.

The Administration of Muslim Law Act, although arising from a separate article – 153 – may be affected, but there are surely legal avenues to provide for the effective administration of Muslim affairs without having to entrench a principle of racial inequality. In any case, it may be a judicious time to examine whether it is necessary to place MUIS under the state subordination, given that the churches have operated fine under the non-governmental umbrella of the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS).

Sharia courts can also remain without interfering with racial equality, as the British have shown. Behaving as ‘arbitration tribunals’ under the Arbitration Act of 1996, the sharia courts, along with Jewish courts, have effectively functioned without having to impose a state of racial inequality in Britain.

Mental Gymnastics

Whatever their sentimental attachment, Malays would rather have a choice of racial equality over Section 152 if the former will mean that they can finally enter the navy and serve in the sensitive vocations of the armed forces.

Lee’s was a fine display of mental gymnastics as he held up an empty clause devoid of meaning to defend racial inequality in favour of the minorities, when the concern was the racial dominance of the majority.

As much as it is amusing, it is also damaging to our nation-building efforts. In his parting shot to Viswa, Lee said that ‘Brahmins will not be in Sinda. It is the non-Brahmins who are in Sinda’. Lee seems to have confused socio-economic disparity with racial inequalities.

That’s the price we pay for living in racial silos.


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