Singapore: A Place In The Sun

2002

Dr James Chin

The relationship between the Malay community, that makes up about 13-14 per cent of the population of Singapore, and the largely Chinese-led government has often been seen to be an uneasy one. Some accuse the government of overt racism (such as not allowing Singaporean Malays to serve as fighter pilots) while others accuse the government of marginalising the Malay community in the education system by perpetuating the myth that the Malay community suffers from a ‘culture deficit’. Repeatedly, surveys have shown that Malay students, on average, score much lower grades than Chinese students, from primary school all the way to university. The Singapore government, for its part, can never be sure where the real loyalties of the Malay community lie since almost all Malays in the Republic have close relatives either in Malaysia or Indonesia. In fact, a substantial number of Singaporean Malays hold Malaysian permanent residency or have taken up Malaysian citizenship.

The most recent spat between the government and Singapore’s Malay community has reinforced the view that racial harmony in the Island Republic is still a long way off. The dispute centres on two issues: Islamic extremism and the tudung (headscarf) issue. The former refers to a spate of arrests of Muslims, who allegedly form the Southeast Asian component of the Al-Qaeda network. Video evidence found in Pakistan suggested that they were planning to bomb American, British and Australian targets in Singapore. The Malay community was unhappy that the government kept referring to the terrorists as ‘Malay Muslims’. The government persisted, arguing that telling it ‘as it is’ was the best policy, while at the same time reminding Chinese Singaporeans that not ‘all’ Malay Muslims are terrorists. But by this time harm was already done and some Malays were complaining that their Chinese neighbours gave them suspicious second looks. The government was forced to hold an unprecedented public forum with community leaders on this issue to reassure the Malay minority. An outcome was the establishment of inter-racial ‘confidence circles’ in every neighbourhood where the Chinese, Indian and Malay residents can get together.

The second, tudung, issue blew up in February when several Malay students were suspended by the Education Ministry for ignoring orders not to wear the tudung to school. The government claimed that the common-uniform school rule was an integral part of building a common Singaporean identity. The parents argued that wearing the tudung was part of their religious obligation. A Malay NGO, Fateha, began to accuse the government of being insensitive to Muslims and disrespect for Islam. Its website, Fateha.com, contained allegations that the Malay community was being suppressed. The government called Fateha a danger to communal relations and heavy pressure was applied. Several Fateha members quit the organisation shortly afterwards. The Head of Fateha, however, sought support from Malaysia, with the result that several Malaysian groups, including ruling political parties, protested the ‘suppression of Muslims’ in Singapore. There was even a public offer for any Singapore Malay students who were suspended over the tudung issue to study in Malaysia.

WATCHPOINT: The spat is a rude awakening that the old antagonism and suspicion between the Singapore government and the Malay minority is still very much alive despite 37 years of nation building, and that the religious barrier between the Malays and the Chinese majority may never be removed. Expect the government to spend a lot more effort to show that the Malay community have a place in the Singapore sun.

 

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