Post-independence racial policies – Part 1

by Khan Osman Sulaiman

Today, the Malays are known to be the community with the weakest economy in Singapore. But it has not always been this way.

In discussing the Malay community’s economy prior to independence, Tania Li, a professor on Anthropology noted*:

“They were excluded from large sections of the economy dominated by the Chinese, but they had an established niche as employees of Europeans. Prior to 1959, the majority of Malays were not generally worse off economically than the majority of the Chinese.”

Instead, in quoting Dr Goh Keng Swee who conducted a social survey in 1953-54, she stated that the Malay “average household income is, in fact, larger than that of the immigrant Chinese.”

How did the situation change? How did the Malay community go from on similar economic ground with the Chinese to being so weak? Tania Li offers an explanation in the way the post-independent government treated the Malays.

Malays viewed civil service and especially the uniformed services as their primary venue for social mobility.

“In 1957, almost 20 per cent of Malay working men were employed in the uniformed services… The Singapore government did not take over, or renew, the contracts of Malay uniformed personnel, and this is probably a major factor in the decline in Malay incomes in the 1970s…

From 1965 onwards, the government of independent Singapore had an unspoken, but widely known, policy of excluding Malays from recruitment into the new Singapore armed forces and police. This was discrimination against Malays, denying them employment opportunities in their major field of expertise… Malay youth were not called up for National Service during the 1970s, and some were still not being called up in 1984…

There was an unfortunate side effect to the non-recruitment of Malays into National Service. Employers in Singapore are generally unwilling to recruit or train young male workers who have not completed National Service or obtained exemption papers as these youths can be called up at any time. Since Malays were not officially exempted from National Service, Malay youths were unable to obtain apprenticeships or regular jobs, and many were forced into an extended limbo period of about 10 years from ages 14 to 24 when they could only obtain irregular work.”

*Li, Tania. Malays in Singapore: Culture, economy, and ideology. Oxford University Press, USA, 1989. 100-109