The concept of prison abolitionism is not simply about tearing down the prison complex, but must also include channelling greater resources into marginalised communities, said legal professional and writer Ryaihanny Sahrom earlier this month in a piece for Beyond The Hijab.
In “Why I Believe Prison Abolition is A Muslim Issue”, published on 4 August, Ms Ryaihanny referenced the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a Black American prison scholar who identified a possible connection between institutionalised racism and earlier deaths of people from ethnic minority communities.
Within the Singapore context, Ms Ryaihanny observed that Malays and Indians inmates “are disproportionately overrepresented in prisons” and “less likely” to be reintegrated into society “compared to their Chinese counterparts”.
“Any stabilising factors that they might have salvaged, and the factors that caused their crimes – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, addiction, and other external influencing factors – are made worse by prison, not better,” she wrote.
Quoting Professor Gilmore, who theorised that the concept of abolitionism is about eradicating “the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons”, Ms Ryaihanny argued that a “societal shift” from a retributive or punitive approach to a restorative one is in line with the values of mercy and humanity in Islamic teachings.
“From neglectful policy and action, to deprivation of basic necessities which include proper medical treatment and medication for incarcerated people, to literal violence and torture enacted by prison guards, the purpose of the prison system is social discipline and punitive retribution.
“To put simply, punitive punishment does not reap any tangible benefit to society at all. In fact, subjecting people to torture and violence violates a socio-religious sensibility in Islam,” she wrote.
In practice, a restorative approach to justice would include investing in community resources such as mental health facilities, schools, after school programs, and career centres, Ms Ryaihanny said.
A restorative approach, she added, is “victim-centred and trauma-sensitive, and not responding to violence with state-sanctioned violence”.
Myths surrounding “Malay delinquency” an example of racialised narrative looming over Malay inmates or former inmates in S’pore
Around two months ago, the Transformative Justice Collective published a book report on National University of Singapore Malay Studies alumnus Siti Hazirah Mohamad’s paper on how Malay youth delinquency is portrayed in Singapore media through two television shows, namely “Anak Metropolitan” and “Hanyut”.
The cultural deficit theory, she argued, is central to discussions on possible factors behind the supposed phenomenon of Malay youth delinquency in Singapore, as previously explored by academicians Tania Li and Lily Zubaidah Rahim in 1989 and 1998 respectively.
Earlier, historian Syed Hussein Alatas in his seminal work, “The Myth of the Lazy Native” in 1977 described how colonisers had played a role in depicting Malays as “indolent, dull, backward, and treacherous”.
Professor Alatas also criticised certain sections of the Malay political or social elite’s move to adopt the myth to secure and justify their privilege over the masses.
“Such a tendency to blame Malay tradition, culture, or presumed inherent attitude detracts from other factors likely to be behind such a phenomenon, such as socioeconomic conditions and other facets of Malay youths’ backgrounds,” Ms Siti Hazirah noted.
She referenced Professor Li’s observation that critical analysis appears to be “suspended” when social issues in the Malay community are examined from an academic lens.
Problems such as homelessness, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, low-income families, and youth delinquency are frequently referred to as “masalah Melayu” or the Malay problem, Professor Li noted.
“Thus, in analyzing the backward position of the Malays vis-à-vis the other ethnic groups in Singapore, their weak cultural values and undesirable attitudes are then pinpointed as the source of their shortcomings and as the reason behind their persistent entrenchment within the poverty cycle.
“In placing the blame for their current condition on the Malays themselves, this negates the possibilities of structural inequalities as a possible factor in the lives of Malays who are deemed as dysfunctional,” Ms Siti Hazirah argued.
Such a narrative is brought into the public sphere through annual National Day Rally speeches and other avenues of communication through which the government relays its messages to the people.
From 2005 up to 2009, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong “has continuously and consistently raised the spectre of problematic (and later dysfunctional) young Malay families as a factor that is hindering the Malay community from progressing in tandem with the other communities”, said Ms Siti Hazirah.
“Despite his acknowledgement that this issue also affects the Chinese and Indians, he stressed that this issue is impacting the Malay community more significantly as there is a trend among Malays to marry early and divorce young,” she highlighted.
Ms Siti Hazirah argued that the “indictment of the dysfunctional Malay family with its undesirable traits and attitudes” in the PM’s speeches parallel the perception projected by the myth of the lazy native.
“Unstable, dependent on welfare and unmotivated to do well in school, the traits highlighted by the PM bear close resemblance to the stereotypical image of the lazy, indolent and backward Malay natives who were unwilling to free themselves from the clutches of poverty despite the opportunities presented to them,” she said.
Associating Malay youths with drug addiction, broken families, and delinquency a long-running “feature of Singapore politics” since inception, says academician
In his paper, “Prison’s spoilt identities: Racially structured realities within and beyond“, academician Nafis Hanif highlighted that associating Malay youths with drug addiction, broken families, and delinquency has been “a feature of Singapore politics” since its emergence as an independent nation.
This narrative, he added, has been “dominated and sustained by scholars as well as the political elites”.
Assistant Professor Nafis, who is from Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences and studies crime and behaviour, also posited that the cultural deficit theory perpetuates the stereotype that ethnic Malay minorities in the country lag socioeconomically “as a result of their inept cultural values and attitudes”.
“By constantly reminding the national audience that the Malay community is a ‘soft community where high standards or difficult goals are not thought to be worth the effort’, such a pejorative image is not only maintained but continues to be perpetuated (Nasir 2007),” he wrote.
Referencing Dr Lily’s observations as well as those of previous authors on the subject, Assistant Professor Nafis argues that beyond purely cultural endorsements of multiracialism, the construct of race in Singapore has posed challenges to minorities on an institutional level and has rendered the idea of meritocracy a “questionable” one.
The government’s aversion towards calls in the 1960s and 1970s by Malay elites and key community leaders to uplift the Malay community in terms of educational attainment “has directly disadvantaged the Malays”, he stated.
The exclusion of Malays from ‘sensitive’ units in the Singapore Armed Forces and police force, Assistant Professor Nafis added, “illustrate the dereliction of the multiracial and meritocracy ideals in Singapore”.
In her book “Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges”, Dr Lily observed that even when Malays are made to serve NS after the 1980s, the “recruitment of Malays into the SAF was virtually halted after 1967, even though Malays made up 80 per cent of volunteers in the armed services”.
Existing Malay officers were “systematically transferred from field command to logistics and support sections while others were retired or shut off from promotion”, she added.
Dr Lily, a senior lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia, noted that the first Malay pilot in the Air Force was only appointed in 1992, while the first Malay fighter pilot was only appointed slightly over a decade later in 2003.
Of the colonial-born CMIO model and the State’s concept of multiracialism
Assistant Professor Nafis also examined how the government’s idea of multiracialism often conflates race with ethnicity.
He argued that such a conflation has resulted in the “overall pervasiveness” of the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) model, “where the ethnicity of each ‘race’ is not only assumed to be unique and particularistic, but also serves an ascriptive function in Singapore society”.
Similar to what has been explored by academicians above, Instagram page left.sg noted on 7 June that British colonialism in the 19th century had laid the roots for the CMIO model in Singapore.
The need to ‘tame’ the diversity of Singapore and the rest of Malaya, the page noted, resulted in the blending of ethnic groups such as ‘Javanese’, ‘Boyanese’, ‘Bugis’ and many others into a single ‘Malay’ category for the convenience of the colonisers’ census.
Stereotypes such as the Chinese being more “industrious” while the Malays being more “lazy” — when the latter was a form of resistance against colonial rule — also originated during British colonial rule, said left.sg.
Presently, Assistant Professor Nafis observed that the CMIO model continues to shape the way Singaporeans conduct their “relations with the state if not in their everyday lives in relation to other ethnic groups”.
This is, arguably, mostly to the detriment of the majority of racial minorities, as seen in the myths and stereotypes broken down by Ms Siti Hazirah in her paper earlier.