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


This entry was posted in Community, Current Affairs.
  • kingisk

    “Yang pertama dan utama” is written in malay for ” The first and foremost” Literally for the Malays to die first because majority in Infantry and not the other way round -____-

  • Andy RumRaisin Yeo

    Why are you playing the role of a self righteous white knight when you’re not being discriminated against? Chill man ~~

  • Mikhail Kalashnikov

    What people do not seem to understand is that it isn’t a discrimination towards Malays; it’s a discrimination towards Muslims. So please stop spewing more drivel about Cheena China or India or the like.

    How many people actually know how the SAF came about? The SAF was trained by the IDF, that is to say, the Israeli Defense Force. Till today, the SAF considers Israel a close advisor and bases its structure according to the IDF’s.

    I’d like to point out that Israel is pretty much an unrecognized country and is nothing more than an invasion force to her surrounding countries (for those who don’t understand: they’re hated by everyone surrounding them)- and oh look, they’re holding tight and happen to be THE most battle hardened and one of the most highly trained militaries in the world, as well as having a tremendously strong economy.

    What has been the primary threat our country has faced over the past decade or so? Islamic Jihadists.
    So back to the SAF, the reason why the SAF discriminates against Muslims is simple; the government doesn’t ever want Muslims to have to decide between their religion and their country. Simple as it is.

    Religion is an extremely delicate subject, and I believe the Malays here would certainly say they’d choose god over their country. You may think “oh, those Jihadists are crazy and evil, I won’t listen to them”. But the fact remains that national security isn’t going to based off those assumptions.

    Terrorist cells are highly organized and they CONSTANTLY recruit people from the local population, so don’t expect the SAF’s policy against Muslims to change.

    • Beng Chiat Seah

      this is BS.
      do u know there r muslims in IDF?
      if we let terrorists decide our policies, don’t u think we hv lost?
      what is a country?
      just land?
      i think not, its a collection of ideas.
      and discrimination should not be part of singapore’s ideas.

      • JT

        National security considerations are valid for the time when Singapore was in crisis with the Separation, racial riots, and political agitation from the Malayan Malay supremacists in the 60s. At that time, the thinking of the local Chinese was that good sons do not join the Army.

        But isn’t it ironic that as our fellow Malay countrymen become more religious (a worldwide trend for Muslims, not just in SIngapore), more Malays are serving National Service in the SAF? In time, the historical considerations and anomalies will be overcome as even now, more Malays are rising up the ranks in the Armed Forces. I was so inspired when I saw that young Malay lieutenant training the recruits in Tekong on National Geographic’s “Every SIngaporean Son.”

        Nevertheless, the fact remains. The reality of the majority will mean that Malay officers will always remain a small number. This fact of life is true anywhere. Are there more blacks in the US Army than Causasians?

        Anyway, my final thought is that even writing this, I loath having to write with the prefix Malay or Chinese.

      • Mikhail Kalashnikov

        There are muslims in the IDF, likewise with the SAF. And your point would be?

  • Hang Nadim

    The govt must shed its ‘cold war’ mentality, the past emotional baggage, the fear and the mistrust of its past. The Singapore Malays are now distinctly different, in outlook, mindset from Malaysians or Indonesians, look at how they carried our Spore flags proudly in games against our Malaysia. Our neighbors are not interested in military conflicts, Malaysia is very active in UN peacekeeping forces and have been actively involved in solving disputes like in south Thailand and in Phillipines. In fact our region is more peaceful compared to other regions. Be alert, ready yes, but to harbour mistrust and fear tells a lot about our insecure emotions.