Singapore: The Politics Of Gut Feelings


Eugene Tan

Singapore’s political scene is livening up in the lead up to the general elections, which are likely to be held in the latter half of 2001. A relatively generous budget, further expansion of the upgrading programme for public housing estates, and plans for limited overseas voting have been unveiled in the past few weeks. The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has also revealed that it has close to twenty new potential MPs and is now prepared to consider men who are single or divorced, and more women in the corridors of political office. In short, political space seems to be widening. Yet it remains to be seen if this extension of political participation will be sustained once the polls are over.

However, race and religion issues are still seen as sensitive issues to be dealt with carefully. Recent ethnic violence in Indonesia and Malaysia has also reinforced the ruling elites’ position that race and religion are volatile mixes in a sensitive regional environment. On 2 March, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's much-awaited and delayed closed-door dialogue session with Muslim leaders saw a reiteration of the government’s position. He told the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP, a Malay-Muslim self-help group), Majlis Pusat (the central council for 38 Malay-Muslim cultural bodies) and Malay social leaders that the minority Malay community, comprising about 14 per cent of Singapore's population, has yet to earn the ‘confidence and trust of the younger leaders’. SM Lee stated that the government’s ‘gut feelings’ about the realities of race and religion meant that it ‘must never put the person in a situation where he may face a conflict of loyalties’. As such, race and religion cannot be ignored in deciding suitability for appointments in the security services. Indeed, after 35 years of independence and much-proclaimed success in nation-building, inter-ethnic bonds have yet to reach a stage where ‘inter-communal relations are such that we have trust and confidence between communities in the whole society’.

SM Lee, while stating that integration is a two-way process, put to the Malay-Muslim groups the stark choices available: support the policy of gradual integration as is currently practised; or differentiate and distance itself from the mainstream of larger society. In this regard, the AMP’s proposal for collective Malay communal leadership is seen as not only challenging the legitimacy of PAP’s Malay MPs but also as being anathema to multi-racialism and meritocracy. Concern was also expressed about segments of the Malay-Muslim community’s emphasis on mosques and madrasahs (religious schools) leading to restrictions on inter-ethnic interaction.

Despite it being a closed-door event, extensive media coverage before and after the 2 March discussion ensured that the message is loud and clear for all. Race, religion, and politics should be left to the enlightened government, and the PAP government’s formula of gradual integration is non-negotiable. Yet the dialogue session left more unanswered questions. For instance, what is the basis for the government’s ‘gut feelings’? Has the majority ethnic Chinese community done its part in seeking to integrate the minority Malays and Indians? After all, integration is a two-way process.

WATCHPOINT: The ruling PAP will pay even closer attention to race and religion issues in the lead-up to and during the general elections. Special efforts will be made to appeal to the voters from the minority races, especially the Malays.


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