Malay Singaporeans are a marginal community but they are not marginalized: SDP Forum

By Kumaran Pillai –

Mr Walid Jumblatt, Mr Abdul Halim bin Kader, Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, Mr Maarof Salleh, Mr Mohd Jufrie Mahmood

In a rare show of solidarity, a grassroots member of the ruling elite had a “conversation” at the SDP’s Malay forum to address the issues facing the Malay community in Singapore. While Minister Heng Swee Kiat has deployed thousands of people into his national conversation project; a two man team of Mr. Jufrie Mahmood and Dr Vincent Wijeysingha were having their own “national conversation,” starting off with the Malay community.  

Dato Abdul Halim Kader, PBM and PAP-Malay grassroots leader spoke about how the Malays have made drastic improvements in all walks of life in the last 20 years. He spoke passionately and intensely about Malay issues and said that there are currently about 30,000 tertiary students in the various varsities in Singapore. He also warned that it was pointless throwing rhetoric and criticisms at the ruling elite if basic economic needs of the community were not met.

In a sharp rebuttal, Mr Walid Jumblatt said that aggregate numbers distort reality and that the improvement in the last 20 years for Malays entering universities has been just a mere 3%. Echoing the same sentiments, Mr Maarof Salleh said the only way to be heard was to "speak at the ballot box."

However, after realizing that the next General Elections are another four years away; Salleh, made an open declaration to a rousing audience that the Malays were not “stupid.” The forum then pushed ahead focusing on more immediate issues facing the community.

Jufrie Mahmood, Chairman of the SDP took issues with MM Lee’s characterization of Malays and how Malays have been marginalized in the last half a century. “There have been only one General in the Army and one President’s Scholar in the last fifty years,” he said. Speaking in Malay, the outspoken Mahmood said, “our brains are filled with grey matter and it is not empty.”

All speakers spoke about the unequal starting lines – that the Chinese and Indians were hundred metres ahead and that the Malays were constantly playing “catch up.” But, when posed with a question of whether the Malays were “systematically marginalized,” Jumblatt, a lecturer at a local university, did a tactical side-step to speak about semantics instead. “There is a difference between marginal and marginalized. The Malay Singaporeans are a marginal community and not marginalized,” he said. I found his wordplay bewildering. Perhaps, he was out of his comfort zone to speak openly or in-depth about the inequalities, “the unequal starting lines,” as he so articulately put it.  

It is important to note at this juncture that Dr Micheal Barr, an eminent sociologist has written extensively about the structural discrimination of Malays in Singapore.  I reproduce an excerpt of his essay below:  

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the saga of Singapore's Malays, however, is  not the actual discrimination, but the fact that Singapore's multiracial meritocracy has provided the rationale for its justification, and that this rationale has been effective to the point that even Malay teachers have come to accept this "cultural deficit" explanation of Malay underachievement. The perception of the cultural deficiency of the Malays is, to some extent, a continuation of the prejudices fostered by the British colonial authorities who regarded the Malays as slow and lazy because they preferred their agrarian kampong lifestyle to working in tin mines for money. This interpretation, however, ignores the role of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in moulding the ideological and social perceptions of Singaporeans.

Speaking of cultural or structural deficits in the Malay community or about the semantic of words is purely academic. That conversation is best left at the campuses of our universities. The real litmus test is to count the number of Malays holding senior management positions in the Government Linked Companies or statutory boards. Save for one Zaqy Mohamad and some token Malays, there is a distinct under-representation of Malays in senior positions in our workforce.

The SDP has promised to take this conversation further, perhaps with another round of discussion. By which time, I hope the Malays in Singapore have a better understanding of their wants, their needs and the unequal starting lines that they are speaking of. It would be easier for all of us, if they called a spade a spade.