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What we should consider now about Malay rights

by Terence Tan

Just came back from a conference about ASEAN volunteerism in Bangkok, and for what it's worth, I'm still glad we can discuss about the Malay world openly like this. It's what I love about being Singaporean.

Now that the jig is up, and we have to talk about Singapore's protection of Malay rights again, I think the first step is to go back to the point of why the Singapore constitution chose to protect Malay people and Bahasa in its own way. It's not enough to say it's because of racial riots, as that's just a symptom. Knowing the source of the problem is what would keep tensions at bay. I suppose the notion of having to protect the Malay "race" - however outdated the concept - stems from those who colonised and owe their successes to this region. Many of our non-Malay forefathers did ok, and some very well here, but at the cost of destroying much of the Malay world. The most manipulated of all seemed to be the indigenous people of Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Java, and all the islands around. Hence our government needed to discuss more about their rights than for the Indian peoples. Of course, the line between that, racism and imperialism, can be pretty fine and grey.

These sentiments were then debated and enforced by social contracts (i.e. laws, commissions, and policies) to protect our city and its people in light of the conflicts within the Malay world, exacerbated by European and East Asian interventions. This includes the founding of Singapore's sovereignty and its laws. I find the 1966 constitutional commission's statement most admirable, Singapore having just seen the two racial clashes of '64, for it understood the balance our society sought; the need to protect the rights of indigenous people of the Straits while giving room for non-Malay citizens who also consider Singapore home. And it also recognised their desire, practice, and vision of multiculturalism and multiracialism. Hence Islam wasn't used to define malayness in Singapore's constitution, though we can only hope the UK-based procedure was fairly understood by all.

This is important for our views and understanding regarding our president-select, because it helps us understand why her having an Indian father irks some people instinctively, or why the recently amended constitutions calling for reserved elections and the $500million criteria feels so problematic. I might agree that it shouldn't matter whether it's mum or dad who has the indigenous ties, but what are we protecting when the very same person has to be from the 0.01 percentile in assets as well? Who is this long-gone Raja (or the female equivalent) we are trying to give opportunities to? For this, I believe that PE2017 should have seen at least three contenders from the Malay community, with the minimum equity temporarily lowered in recognition that private sector candidates faced different business challenges being from the minority community, and still contend if protecting the minority communities should be done on this platform. #notmyparliament.

The other matter is now that this can of worms is open, we need to reconsider how we've handled our Malay brothers' and sisters' rights, and quickly to prevent tensions getting worse. One of my thoughts for now is to start asking what aspects of the Malay world clearly needs protection, in a way that agrees with all our citizens and educates us why things came to be. My first instinct is culture, attire in schools and state institutions, social support, Bahasa, history, and architecture. Something to ask while considering these is if we should correct the wrongs of our colonial masters, and start recognising Bugis, Orang Laut, and Javanese cultures too? And should there be more state funds going into Bahasa usage and education, as that is the one communications channel linking the diversity of the Malay world? I've always wanted to learn.

The most immediate matter should be to help build avenues for the Malay community to work this out in a way the other communities can understand, better yet, be invested in. Our social support policies and procedures would also have to reflect our election committee's decision on who qualified as president for PE2017. Such as Yayasan MENDAKI assistance, since it was revealed recently that Malays with Indian fathers are prone not to qualify. As much as clauses 19 and 152 of our constitution are now at odds, where we have to protect the minority communities' rights in spite of their financial achievements, I believe our realities would speak for themselves if our social activities helps us look past our government's inconsistencies. Thus I believe that the more privileged Singaporeans of all descents should lead the way in assisting those who would have done much better for themselves, knowing there were those whose indigenous inheritances and ways of life were robbed, guns and ships blazing. But I do believe this is the okay thing to do, as we find the right balance of social support for all Singaporeans and however sensitive our Straits' geopolitics. It would be a societal development and position many Singaporeans wanted, whether they gained or lost their Singapore, as soon as it was possible.

People have always made decisions, with dialogue or violence, of what constitutes and defines their community so that they as individuals feel safe and whole. I certainly would prefer the former, and whatever the outcomes I believe that all citizens still have the responsibility to support and sustain theirs and the Malay community(s) here, regardless of race or religion for justice and equality.

I write all this as I am taking a break from work whilst enjoying Teochew fishball noodles because I'm an English speaking ka-ki-nang who lost his Teochew roots thanks to another government ruling in 1979, and because I have to answer the bigger question: "What is the ASEAN identity". As I've said, I really love being Singaporean.