What is more important – being a member of a racial group, or speaking out for that racial group when it is most in need of help?
Despite not being a member of the Malay community, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock has been referred to as ‘the other Malay MP’, for his strong track record in speaking out for the Malay community and earning the respect of Malay leaders both in and outside the Government.
I attach the following article from The Straits Times, published 4 February 2005:
‘Veteran backbencher Tan Cheng Bock does not shy away from controversial issues. Recently, he highlighted the link between race and the ranks of the needy when speaking of the high number of Malays seeking help at his meet-the-people sessions. Azhar Ghani reports
THEY call me ‘the other Malay MP’, said veteran Member of Parliament Tan Cheng Bock matter-of-factly.
Twice, in fact.
And there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of a boast.
But the look in his eyes each time he said it during the interview at his home off Holland Road spoke volumes of his sense of pride in having won the confidence and respect of Malay leaders – both in and outside the Government.
He recounted how the Malay MPs thanked him for standing up for them while he was chairman of the Feedback Unit.
Dr Tan had told off a group of Malays who were ‘walloping the Malay MPs’ during one of its sessions.
‘I got up, I told them off: ‘Do you expect your Malay MP to be a communal leader or a national leader? If you want him to be a communal leader, he’s finished,’ I said. ‘Because the Chinese is the majority. He will be voted out. So don’t you all criticise them so much. You should come on board with them and help them.’ They kept quiet,’ he recalled with a wry smile.
Then, there was the episode in 2000, when the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) proposed that the Malay-Muslim community be led by a ‘collective leadership’ drawn from the ranks of community groups so as to better represent its aspirations and ideals.
This was seen as a challenge to the leadership provided by Malay-Muslim MPs from the People’s Action Party. The Government responded forcefully to the proposal and accused its proponents of moving dangerously towards communalism.
‘I was also one of those who cautioned the AMP leaders,’ said Dr Tan.
Yet, it was to the Ayer Rajah MP’s home, with its beautifully landscaped garden complete with a koi pond, that the bruised AMP leaders – ‘the whole lot’ – went to seek counsel.
He listened to their explanation patiently and, convinced that they meant no mischief, put in a good word for them with his close friend and then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
‘I think sometimes we all get into trouble not because we’re mischievous, but because we have idealism and passion,’ said Dr Tan.
The veteran backbencher has had his fair share of trouble for his often outspoken views in Parliament. In the early days, he angered then-Education Minister Goh Keng Swee when he spoke out against streaming.
In 1999, he provoked sharp retorts from then-Information and the Arts Minister George Yeo and then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when he called for the Government to think ‘Singaporean first’ when it came to jobs during the recession.
Dr Tan also spoke out on what he saw as the negative effects of Special Assistance Plan schools on inter-ethnic integration, and had even voted against the Nominated MP scheme.
Recently, this ‘other Malay MP’ did it again. Speaking in Parliament on Jan 19 on the plight of needy Singaporeans, he highlighted a disturbing trend that he and several other MPs had noticed: that more Malays were seeking help at meet-the-people sessions.
Mr Ahmad Khalis Abdul Ghani (Hong Kah GRC) and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim responded a day after he spoke, citing efforts which the community – on its own and working with government agencies – had made to address the issue.
Dr Yaacob, who is Environment and Water Resources Minister, noted Dr Tan’s observations, but added: ‘While the small number that appears at our meet-the-people sessions may present a dismal picture, the large numbers out there show admirable resilience.’
Dr Tan did not want to be drawn into whether he was satisfied with Dr Yaacob’s response.
He said he began to notice that it was a problem ‘about four or five years’ ago.
While only 26 per cent of Ayer Rajah’s residents are Malays, 60 per cent of those who attended his meet-the-people sessions were from the Malay-Muslim community.
‘Four or five years back, I can’t remember having to pay the power bills for my residents. Nor did I hear stories like they had their taps cut completely so that they were without water,’ he said.
‘And I realise that most of them are Malays and I know they are genuine cases. They really can’t find jobs. Or if they do have a job, the pay is too low for them to cope with the increases.
‘That made me realise that this is getting more and more serious. It is not just a simple one-off problem. It is going to stay with us for quite some time.’
Dr Tan disagrees with those who argue that such families are chronically needy and would have asked for assistance regardless of the state of the economy.
‘If I were an MP for just three or four years, I would have no comparison. But because I have 24 years as an MP, I can see this trend. That’s why I had to raise it. I thought I better highlight this so that we will all be aware that this is becoming a national problem. It’s not a Malay problem, it is a national problem, it’s our problem. And if a particular race seems to be more involved, then we must find answers why.’
But why then didn’t other MPs, who also noticed this trend, raise it?
For once, the man, whom everyone calls ‘Doc’, was reluctant to offer a diagnosis. ‘You must ask them why,’ he said simply.
‘But we must not be afraid to bring it up. If we don’t bring it up, we are only bringing the nation down. We must face it all together as a team. The day we hide the little problems of our community here and there, is the day we are not facing the truth.’
He added: ‘As a national leader, I cannot pretend that this thing doesn’t exist. Or else, I’m doing an injustice. So I’m glad I brought it up. I think if it stimulates debate, it’s good.
‘It stimulates debate not only on poverty, but also on what the Malay community has to do.’