Unfair discrimination of Malays in National Service

~by: Shiwen Yap~

It is past time to seriously reconsider the treatment of Malays in the SAF and National Service in general. While potential enemies in the form of Malaysia and Indonesia are both Islamic, I would like to state a simple truth: bullets do not care what creed or race you are, they harm and kill regardless. To quote the film Blood Diamond: “There was no apartheid in the foxhole” – a sentiment echoed by the mercenary character Danny Archer, played by Leonardo di Caprio, talking about serving beside black soldiers during the apartheid era in South Africa.

There is a need to start treating our comrades as equals, regardless of creed and race, for to treat them with mistrust and alienation will only destroy any affinity they have to Singapore. I feel as a Chinese-Indian, straddling a minority and majority culture, that this is a policy which commits a major injustice. And it is within the bounds of our power to correct.

I served as a Signaller in 35 SCE, HQ Company, from 2005 to 2006. The fact remains that the Signal Formation is distinct in its exclusion of Malays, as are certain other units, such as 39 SCE, CBRE Defence Group, the Armour Formation, Reconnaissance units and Military Intelligence amongst others. This is anecdotal evidence and also based on personal experience and observation within the institution – as most Singaporean men can attest to. The token Malays are a consolation, an exercise in Public Relations. Only a fool would think otherwise.

Malays are subject to an official policy of systemic general discrimination and treated with distrust even before enlistment. Malay absence from SAFOS scholarships and near-absence from SAF Merit Scholarships deserves special mention. This absence of Malays is an extension of the discrimination against the admission of Malays into senior and sensitive positions in the SAF that is officially sanctioned by this policy.

The discrimination against Malays has been discussed in parliament and the media, and is justified by the assertion that the loyalty of Malays cannot be assumed, both because they are Muslim and because they have a racial and ethnic affinity with the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia (Barr,2006).

This discrimination hits Malay men hardest, first because it deprives many of promising careers in the military, and second—and more pertinent for our study of the elite—it all but completely excludes potentially high-flying Malays of a chance of entering the scholar class through the SAF (Barr,2006). To quote a blogger on this issue which I feel sums up the situation:

This policy of excluding local Malay-Muslims from sensitive key positions in the SAF has, for obvious reasons, drawn quite a bit of flak, not only from neighbouring countries which perceive it as an implicit suggestion that they, being of a Malay-Muslim majority, would be the enemies of Singapore but also from members of the local Malay-Muslim community who perceive it as an act of implicit discrimination and suggestion that they may be disloyal to Singapore. (LCC,2009)

Maintaining the policy is a detriment to social cohesion. Both by the implicit distrust expressed to all Malays as a community and a detriment to the SAF as a military force, by its discouragement and exclusion of a large pool of candidates from enlisting, with the knowledge of their limited career paths and progression. By pursuing this policy of Malay/Muslim discrimination, there is an implicit message sent to the minorities and the other communities that dissuades and works against any concept of national unity or investing in the nation-state as a stakeholder.

From psychology I would like to draw upon labelling theory and self-fulfilling prophecies. Labelling theory states that people gain labels from how other view their behaviour and tendencies, with individuals being aware of judgement from others due to attempting many different roles and functions in social interaction and gauging reactions of the community. This allows them to build a conception of their self, a subjective identity.

However as others intrude into reality of that life, the subjective identity changes as objective data, external to the person, is presented to them, forcing reappraisal of their identity. This reappraisal is dependent upon the authoritativeness of the person or institution making the judgement. Socially representative individuals and institutions such as policemen, judges, government officials and military commanders are perceived to make globally respected judgements. This reappraisal affects behaviour which attempts to fit within society’s norms and conform to social roles, which are necessary for the organisation and function of any society.

When a highly authoritative institution such as the military and government apply a policy that discriminates implicitly, it sets in motion a pattern of interaction between the individual(s), community and society at large, with stereotypes reinforced and the behaviours engineered as a result. The pursuit of the discrimination policy almost certainly will result in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of disengaging and alienating a large and significant community within Singaporean society from the nation as a whole. People end up engineering the behaviours they expected. If one expects betrayal, then one will get betrayal. It one expects loyalty, then one will get loyalty. You treat others with respect to get respect. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy, set in motion by the treatment extended and experienced.

Having openly stated the reason for the policy, of avoiding placing Malay personnel in situations where loyalties are conflicted, owing to national allegiance and religious affiliation, enough time has passed that the policy looks set for a thorough re-evaluation of both its practicality and scope. The younger generation are not as burdened by this question of conflicted loyalties as the older generation. We are Singaporeans first and foremost.

The words on the SAF crest, “Yang Pertama dan Utama, Tentera Singapura”, mean First and Foremost, a Soldier of Singapore. It is an obligation to the future generations and current generation to relook at this policy, without the baggage of the past.

I would like to conclude this with the following quote by Lee Hsien Loong. “There is no policy too sensitive to question, and no subject so taboo that you cannot even mention it.”

This was said by Lee Hsien Loong when he was the Deputy Prime Minister in the Straits Times on 17 Jan 2000. Let us hold the man who is our current Prime Minister to this promise made in his younger days, for it is a chance to change an injustice inflicted on the Malay community.


Barr, M.D. (2006). The Charade of Meritocracy. Far Eastern Economic Review. Retrieved from http://www.singapore-window.org/sw06/0610FEE3.HTM

LCC. (2009).A Malay-Muslim BG does not a Policy change make. Random Thoughts of a Free Thinker. Retrieved from http://searchingforenlightenment.blogspot.com/2007/07/post-no-112b-saf-review-part-ii.html

picture credit: Singapore News Alternative