Singapore: Challenging Political Co-option


Garry Rodan

The birth of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), which was formalised in October 1991, represented an explicit challenge to the monopoly right of Mendaki – the council for the development of the Muslim community – to represent the interests of Singapore’s Muslim-Malay community. Mendaki, whose leadership is dominated by ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) members of parliament, was regarded by the AMP as too lame and ineffective an advocate. The AMP called for the reform of Mendaki so that Malay MPs were progressively replaced by independent community leaders. Rather than try to dissolve the AMP or affect changes to Mendaki, the government sought to co-opt the AMP, most notably through the offer of financial support for its community development work. As a result, some S$9 million of government funds were provided to the AMP in the last decade. Until recently, it seemed a political masterstroke by the government. Now, the issues of the early 1990s are being revisited. Throughout the 1990s, there were subdued grumblings from within the Malay community over a variety of policy issues. Moreover, a growing sense of marginalisation has been brewing as the rapid pace of development is accompanied by widening relative, if not absolute, socio-economic disparities in Singapore. Compared with either the majority ethnic Chinese or the minority ethnic Indian communities, Malays are disproportionately concentrated in lower socio-economic positions. The emergence of a knowledge economy threatens to sharpen this divide since Malays also lag behind in educational levels.

Against this background, the AMP has revived its challenge to Mendaki by calling for a ‘collective leadership’ of the Malay community, comprising ‘independent non-political’ Malay leaders to break the supremacy of government MPs. In a stern rebuke of the idea, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong observed that the AMP had begun to ‘show an ambition beyond what the Government supported it to do’. Goh countered the proposal with a suggestion that the AMP seek institutional membership of Mendaki and the establishment of a ‘consultative leadership’ through that mechanism. This would mean an end to any aspirations of competing with Mendaki in favour of working with it. Mendaki chief executive Sumardi Ali has endorsed the idea with the overture to the AMP that ‘you can influence the agenda and decision-making process of Mendaki itself’.

The AMP response awaits, but in the meantime AMP leader Yang Razali Kassim has explained that his organization thought the ‘collective leadership’ proposal was within the spirit of ‘active citizenship’ – to which Singaporeans have been officially urged in order to promote a more vibrant civil society. It would seem, however, that the government’s vision of civil society does not entail increased political competition with the PAP and institutions under its control. As such, the AMP saga has a symbolic significance well beyond the politics of ethnic organisations in the city-state.

WATCHPOINT: The AMP saga has a symbolic significance well beyond the politics of ethnic organistations in the city state.


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