Pritam Singh

There appears to be a shift in how the People’s Action Party (PAP) is handling public communication involving the influx of foreigners into Singapore. In his National Day 2010 speech released to the mainstream media on 8 Aug 2010, PM Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged “Singaporeans’ concern” about the government’s hitherto open-door policy towards foreigners. He went on to state:

“We will control the inflow, to ensure that it is not too fast, and not too large. We will only bring in people who can contribute to Singapore, and work harder to integrate them into our society. And we will make clear that citizens come first. After all, we are doing this for the sake of Singaporeans.”

While this belated acknowledgment of the opinion and feedback of Singaporeans over the foreign talent (FT) policy is welcome, the Prime Minister has not gone far enough in communicating to Singaporeans the medium to long-term social impact of the policy, and what measures will be taken to address these impending changes. For the Malay community in particular, the changes may be profound. These challenges are illustrated in three overlapping areas that this article will explore.

The Total Fertility Rate problem and the Malay Community

It is well known that both the Indian and Chinese communities in Singapore are not reproducing at the level required to replace themselves (the population replacement level is statistically set at 2.1, i.e. each couple on average must have at least two children). According to government statistics, the total fertility rate for the Chinese community in Singapore correct as of 2009 stood at 1.08, while the Indian community fared little better at 1.14.

According to Department of Statistics data, the TFR for the Malay community stood at 2.54 in 2000, falling rapidly to 2.07 in 2005 (i.e. below the population replacement figure) and continuing its downward slide in 2007 to 1.94, with 2008 recording a TFR of 1.91 and finally with 2009 revealing a TFR of 1.82. According to a government document released in June 2010 titled “Population in Brief 2010” collectively produced by five government agencies[1] compared to all the races in Singapore, the TFR for the Malay community “showed the most significant decline over the past decade”.

One of the fundamental prongs of the PAP’s FT policy has been to rely on Chinese and Indian immigrants to make up for the abjectly low birth rates of local Chinese and Indian citizens. A separate prong of that very policy calls for additional Chinese and Indian immigrants, so as to increase Singapore’s population size.

In the first place, opening the floodgates to Chinese and Indian immigrants only when the TFR problem affecting local Chinese and Indians reached a critical point reflects a lack of foresight by the PAP. In fact, the unhappiness among local Indian and Chinese communities over the sudden introduction of large numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants respectively at the expense of national, social and intra-community unity was raised even in the PAP-dominated parliament well before PM Lee’s 2010 National Day commitment to “control the inflow”.

With the Malay community’s TFR rate dipping below population replacement levels from 2005 and continuing on a steady downward trajectory, the government would do well to immediately initiate a process of inducting Malay immigrants into Singapore so as to “top up” the Malay population to population replacement levels, rather than to wait till the problem reaches critical levels, a mistake the PAP government committed with the Indian and Chinese communities. Such a move to introduce a much more socially manageable number of Malay immigrants will pre-empt and greatly reduce the potential prospect of any social friction that might be felt between resident Singapore Malays and potential Malay immigrants.

With a second prong of the PAP FT policy seeking to encourage greater immigration into Singapore to increase the population size of the country, the critical question for the Malay community pertains to the number of Malay immigrants that have been granted citizenship on this account. In the interests of inter-racial and intra-communal harmony in Singapore, the relevance of this question cannot be understated.

From the demographic percentages, the numbers for the Malay community have dropped from the traditional 15% mark to around or perhaps even less than 13% today (the latest figures were not stated in the aforementioned “Population in Brief 2010” document). This is not surprising, given the steadily falling TFR rate for the Malay community from a high of 2.69 in 1990. Malay community leaders ought to make enquiries into the sweeping effects of the PAP’s FT policy before the problem of falling numbers creates feelings of insecurity and irreversibly damages Singapore’s social fabric because of the Malay community’s demographic hemorrhage.

The PAP “Malay-Security-Dilemma”

The second tectonic effect of the FT policy on the Malay community finds its roots in a more primordial, pre-independence political worldview – one that has operated below the surface, with little active PAP intervention at invoking a more vocal stance against seeing the world through its eyes – Race.

Three separate illustrations will frame this section. First, from independence, relations between Singapore and Malaysia often turned on the lot of the Malay and Chinese minorities in each country respectively. Traditional historians often cast the racial riots of 1964 in Singapore as the straw that broke the camel’s back resulting in Singapore, through Goh Keng Swee, requesting to leave the Malaysian Federation.

A second bone of contention was Singapore’s water dilemma, with Singapore having to rely on pre-independence colonial treaties signed with the southern-most Malaysian state of Johor to secure its fresh water supply.

Thirdly, in the 1990s, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew questioned the wisdom of having a Singaporean Malay commander put in charge of a machine-gun unit in Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) – a somewhat catch-all metaphor positing why Malays had to be excluded from certain military appointments, and perhaps a convenient explanation of the abject lack of Malays holding top appointments in the SAF and in the meritocracy-based civil service.

Forty-five years after Singapore’s independence, it is argued that the relationship between Malaysia and Singapore has taken a fundamental turn with the Badawi and Najib administrations.

A HongKong-Shenzhen modelled hinterland relationship has been mooted between Singapore and Johor (Malaysia) through Iskandar Malaysia, in addition to talk of passport-less travel and a possible SMRT line extending to Johor from Singapore. Corporate interests, with some linked to government entities on both sides of the causeway have already committed to a slew of investments in Johor. In addition, from March 2010 this year, the PAP government has allowed Singaporeans to use their Medisave savings for treatment in selected Malaysian hospitals not just in Johor, but in the farther state of Malacca as well, a move that is perhaps the most concrete reflection of a new phase of not just cordiality, but inter-connectedness in Singapore-Malaysia relations.

Singapore’s reliance on raw water from Johor, often seen by military strategists worldwide as the harbinger of any military hostility between the two nations, is also steadily decreasing. Singapore has already announced it will allow the 2011 Water Agreement with Malaysia to lapse, a move made possible by Singapore’s diversification strategy via NeWater, desalination and an increased rainwater catchment area.

The perennial PAP Malay-security-dilemma of a Singaporean Malay soldier with family ties in Malaysia who may hesitate to shoot a fellow Malay in Malaysia in times of war, has always sat uneasily with this writer. Although specious, it does not address the prospect of the same dilemma should a Singaporean Chinese with family ties in Malaysia have a Malaysian Chinese in his gunsights, ditto the same quandary for an Indian soldier.

Regardless, any talk of conflict between the two neighbours sounds increasingly remote today largely thanks to the efforts of the business community on both sides of the causeway from the beginning of this decade in particular. With significant Singaporean investments in Malaysia, and with the soon to be operational joint development company, M-S Pte Ltd,  incorporated to develop Malaysian railway land in Singapore, both countries have so much economic capital and resources at stake that it makes historical sense to reconsider the traditional bilateral narrative and question the military narrative underlying Singapore-Malaysia relations.

Any such exercise ought to have far-reaching, albeit positive implications for the Malay community in Singapore. The image of the loyalty-divided, machine-gun totting Malay Singaporean is increasingly obsolete precisely because of the ever-increasing amounts of economic capital being invested by Singaporeans in Malaysia and Malaysians in Singapore.

The aforementioned point notwithstanding, the FT policy has ironically put the issue of the PAP Malay-security-dilemma on the front foot. On the grounds of nation-building and national unity, no reality can be more unfair or emotionally jarring than that of a new immigrant of non-Malay heritage, superseding a Singaporean Malay citizen on grounds of “security” in regard to military or civil service appointments.

One of the more positive effects of the FT policy in the mind of this writer is that it has forced all Singaporeans to appreciate the nation-building contradiction inherent in the preceding point. In this age of immigration in Singapore, the race-loyalty dialectic makes even less sense, especially since the cornerstone of any immigration policy must be loyalty to the country, not loyalty to race.

All said, if the PAP casts the question of the impact of the FT policy on the Malay community as a can that can be kicked further down the road for the next generation to resolve, this writer is convinced that the problem will become exponentially more problematic to address, at the expense of our multi-racial compact.

The PAP’s Meritocracy and the Malay Community

Finally, the ideological bulwark to the Singapore success story – meritocracy – is supposedly the ultimate barometer of equality in Singapore. While no one doubts the theoretical principles that underlie meritocracy, its impact in the practical realm for the Malay community has been decidedly mixed at best and only benefitting a minority of Malays at worst, notwithstanding former Singapore Minister for Malay-Muslim affairs, Sidek Saniff’s resolve in a feature in the Straits Times on 4 Jun 2010 (“Taking the tough road pays off”) that:

“Meritocracy has hastened the sense of confidence and equal treatment of Singaporean Malays, who feel they are not being stigmatised and can compete on a level playing field.”

While the aspirational objectives of meritocracy for the average Malay (or indeed a Singaporean of any race) in Singapore were put across rather lucidly by the ex-Minister, the educational performance of the Malay community viz. the other communities and the ground reality leaves a chasm that cannot be solely adequately explained or addressed by a PAP commitment to meritocracy.

In concert with the 25th anniversary of Mendaki (the Malay self-help community organisation that focuses on education in particular), PM Lee asked for a comprehensive report to trace how far the Malay community had come since the formation of Mendaki in 1982. Taken alone, the report shows good progress made by the Malay community, a feat that speaks well of all the Malay community representatives, regardless of political affiliation, who sought to improve the lot of the Malay community from 1982.  However, as revealed in the report, the progress of the Malay community remained statistically poorer when contrasted against the progress of the Chinese and Indian communities along the same range of indicators, and in some cases, acutely so.

Separately, in a question put to the Minister of Education in parliament early this year, Mr Zaqy Mohamed, PAP MP for Hong Kah, asked “what more can be done to help Malay students progress at the same rate, if not better, compared to their peers from other race groups?” The Minister’s answer was rather standard-form and broad-brushed, without policy specifics.

“Schools will do their part in helping weaker students improve. But MOE also works in partnership with community groups such as Mendaki, parents support groups and other VWOs to provide extra support for these students. Parents and families, of all races, can support students by ensuring that they attend school regularly, motivating them to work hard, and adopting good habits like reading widely. Community and self-help groups can also help families deal with problem issues related to finances, jobs and relationships, in order to create a more supportive home environment.”

In fairness to the government, the community-self help solution has improved the status quo of the Malay community in some ways. But any message of meritocracy and equal competition automatically puts Malays in an inferior position largely because of their relatively lower income and lack of access to opportunity: meritocracy does not mean everybody begins the race at the starting line. Many of our Malay brothers and sisters have other socio-economic battles to fight before they even get in the race, and even when they do, many face an incline right from the get-go.

In a thoughtful commentary written by Lendra Putera Nurezki, “Academic dilemma of the Malay Community Revisited” for the Singapore-based Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the latter observed that “little progress” had been made in regard to the academic performance of Malay students over the last 10 years. He suggested that the problem of education and the Muslim community ought to be elevated to the “national level” so as to “spur a consolidated effort…and generate productive solutions”.

It is clear that fresh ideas are required to assist the Malay community – ideas that do not diminish their self-respect or which suggest that Malays require a crutch to succeed in Singapore.

One possible solution in the education realm posits the creation of a national endeavour that seeks to buttress the goals of meritocracy against rising inequalities in Singapore. This solution portends the creation of an independent government-funded body that operates alongside self-help groups but which transcends race. Depending on its focus, such a body can look at issues in regard to poverty, education etc. from a national perspective, and separately, source its funding (up to10%, or a similar GDP percentage the state spends of education) from the profits accrued from successful divestments made by Temasek Holdings and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation. In the case of education for example, it can offer classes or specialized education programs at little-cost only to students who constantly do poorly in schools, complete with specially-teachers trained to assist such students who very often come from poorer backgrounds. And because it would be a non-race based national program, over-representation of Malays or any other race for example would be purely coincidental, particularly since the objective of that very program would be a more egalitarian and inclusive society.

In a M.A. thesis submitted to the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore in 2006, one Hafsah binte Mohammad Kassim, contended that tuition classes alone did not represent the elixir that will solve the problem of the relatively poorer performance of Malay students in school. Significantly, she also raised the issue of “educationalism” within the Malay community, and posited that it was time for Malay/Muslim leaders “to look beyond education in formulating reforms amongst the Malay/Muslim community”. In addition, Hafsah queried the unexplored correlation between improved performance in school and improved occupational prospects for Malays contending that it was “naïve to believe that all problems and challenges facing the community would inexplicably vanish with the panacea of education.” Any national effort along the lines prescribed in the preceding paragraph would do well to consider Hafsah’s caveat and look to propose holistic, not piece-meal policy solutions.

Hafsah’s contention represents a good place to end this article that sought to define the principal issues that ought to be at the top of the minds of the Malay community in Singapore today. The long-standing question of Malay loyalty and commitment to Singapore has often found substance in the PAP Malay-security-dilemma as highlighted earlier by this writer. However, in a recent poll done carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, many Singaporeans I spoke to were surprised to note that Malays topped all the ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Others) in their “Willingness to Sacrifice” for Singapore.

With the impact of FT policy and the increasingly less contentious relationship with Malaysia upon us, Singapore’s Malays find themselves at a critical junction – one that ought to be seized upon by the government of the day to better integrate the Malay community within the Singapore social compact. The product of any such policy will compensate for the increasing inequalities prevalent in Singapore society, strengthen the function of meritocracy as national ideology and give real meaning to a more inclusive Singapore.

Pritam Singh is the founder of OpinionAsia ( <> ). He is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at the Singapore Management University and a member of the Workers’ Party. The views expressed here are his own.

He also blogs at

Pritam would like to request Malay Singaporeans in particular to give him feedback and/or criticism on this article. Please pass this article on to your Malay friends and relatives too for the same purpose. Pritam’s email address is [email protected] <http://[email protected]> . Thank you and Selamat Ramadhan.


Useful Links and Resources

1.  Population in Brief 2010 – <>

2. Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at MENDAKI’s 25th Anniversary Dinner and Awards Presentation, Orchid Country Club, Sunday 2 Sep 2007 –

3. Progress of the Malay Community since 1980 - at:

4. Hafsah binte Mohammad Kassim, M.A.Thesis, Singapore Malays’ attitude towards education: A look at the impediments to educational development – Available at Scholarbank@NUS-

5. Parliamentary Question by Zaqy Mohamed on educational progress of the Malays –

6. Institute of Policy Studies: LKY School of Public Policy Survey (NUS) Survey – Citizens and the Nation: National Orientations of Singaporeans Survey (NOS4) –

[1] National Population Secretariat, Singapore Department of Statistics, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority


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