Are Malays in Singapore special?

In Article 152 of the Constitution of Singapore entitled ‘Minorities and special position of Malays’, it is stated that:

(1)    It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.

(2)    The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.’

Article 152 is probably one of the vaguest in the Constitution, and is quite frankly the elephant in the room which comes up in online and offline debates time and time again.

In 2009, the issue of race equality was hotly debated when then-NMP Viswa Sadasivan proposed equal treatment of all races and to defer to the National Pledge when debating national policies.

The rebuttal from Mr. Lee came fast and furious, who had last spoken in parliament over two years prior over another controversial topic: ministerial pay increases. This time around, MM Lee threw Article 152 into the spotlight. He said in his speech: “The Constitution of Singapore enjoins us to specially look after the position of the Malays and other minorities…Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal. It’s not reality, it’s not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle”.

Although MM Lee acknowledged the impracticality of Article 152, he also noted in the same speech that “we’re trying to reach a position where there is a level playing field for everybody but it’s going to take decades, if not centuries, and we may never get there”.

Sadly, and quite obviously, Article 152 hasn’t actually made much of a difference to the development of the Malays in Singapore. The truth is Article 152 is nothing but purely symbolic. Sure, the national anthem is still in Malay, commands in the SAF are still in Malay, and yes, the national language is Malay.

But how many non-Malay Singaporeans actually know the words to “Majulah Singapura”, understand the meaning of the commands in the SAF, or heck, even know how to speak and write in Malay?

The numbers would probably be too insignificant anyway. Funnily enough, for a country where Malay is the national language, the government encourages its citizens to speak Mandarin in an official campaign. All these don’t accrue to anything special for the Malays, don’t you reckon?

I’d go so far as to say that Article 152 only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes of Malays – that they are indeed “special”, but not in a good way. Whether it’s about the free education they receive (NOT TRUE), or about their true loyalty in case of war with Malaysia or Indonesia (NOT TRUE), or even about their inherent laziness (ALSO NOT TRUE), these myths and misconceptions continue to exist and sadly permeate modern Singapore society.

Local playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at argues that “inequalities already exist in any society where there is a dominant ethnic majority…(so) instead of sabotaging the idea of racial equality, this remedial clause actually tries to promote it – by recognising that minorities do not enjoy the economic and political clout of the majority, and would require special attention and assistance”.

While Alfian does present a logical argument, the reality on the ground speaks otherwise.

Since independence in 1965 when the Constitution and Article 152 were drawn up, Malays have still not reached the much-touted “level playing field”; for example, aside from the common administrative language of English, the fact that they speak Malay and not Mandarin precludes them from many job opportunities.

Malays are also viewed with suspicion in the SAF where they aren’t allowed to hold appointments in certain vocations (eg. the Commando Formation, Combat Engineers, Artillery, Signal, and most if not all of the Navy and the Air Force). Again, these are hardly reflective of the “special position” accorded to the Malays.

Article 152 is indeed flawed, too vague, and too much of an inconvenience. In fact, it’s pointless to keep it in the Constitution if it’s merely rhetoric. It would only serve to create a delusion among Malays that they’re well-protected by the system; as such their complacency may actually be contributing to their downfall.

Thankfully, the new generation of Singaporean Malays is increasingly realising that instead of assuming to be a privileged bunch because of their indigenous status, the truth is that they have to work doubly hard to stand a chance alongside their peers to be successful in mainstream society.

We like to think that everybody is equal, but the grim reality is that some are more equal than others. We just have to deal with it in the best way we can.

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Rizal Azlan

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11 Comments

  • Hi Bro,

    I have a question for you as Singaporean perspective.
    1. What do you think about ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ in Malaysia?
    2. Do you think is it fair for other races and necessary?
    3. Are you enjoying yourself as a Malay in Singapore?
    4. Do prefer to live in Singepore or Malaysia? (From your experience being a Malay)

    That’s all.If you think this question would hurt other ppl’s feeling, you can email me personally. Thanks.
    -Mareshiajin.

  • Hi Mareshiajin,

    Thanks for your queries! These are indeed very good questions and I’m happy to share with you my thoughts.

    1. What do you think about ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ in Malaysia?

    Well, this is indeed a very sensitive issue in Malaysia and I have struggled with the concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ – and ended up being neither for or against it.

    On the one hand, the reality is there is always a dominant race in any nation-state and it’s human nature for the majority ethnic group to want to maintain the status quo. If the majority race does not make an effort to hold on to what they believe is theirs, they could end up being outsiders in their own country. This is the mentality in many other developing and even fully developed nation-states. Recently in the US, there was an outcry when an ethnic Indian won Miss America – because she wasn’t what some Americans considered the “All-American girl”. That’s a simple example of how race relations are still very fragile in our world today regardless where we are. In Singapore, it’s no secret that the authorities want to maintain its “Chinese-ness”; even with falling birth rates over the last two decades largely due to the Chinese not having enough children, the Chinese still maintain a huge majority making up 74.2% of the Singapore resident population in 2012 compared with 77% in 1970 [-2.8%] (while the Malay population is 13.3% in 2012 vs 14.8% in 1970 [-1.5%], and the Indians making up 9.2% in 2012 vs 7% in 1970 [-2.2%]) [Source: Singstat.gov.sg)

    On the other hand, another school of thought considers ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ as being rubbish and baseless, since the Malays were also immigrants to Malaysia several hundred years ago. The same sort of immigration pattern and eventual domination by a race can be said of Australia, the US etc. Some historians claim that the truly indigenous people of the Malay Peninsular were the Orang Asli, and they’re right. But has that changed Bumiputra policy in Malaysia to exclude Malays? No. Even with special rights given to the Orang Asli, has that improved their economic status? No.

    The truth is, ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is just a political concept used by politicians to reinforce the status quo in Malaysia. As an individual, I believe in equal opportunity regardless of race or religion. However, the reality is that there is no such thing as a truly meritocratic society or political system. The hard truth is that some people receive more opportunities than others by virtue of their race and/or religion, as superficial as that may sound. Malaysia might be more open about Malay nationalism than other countries in regards to their respective ethnic identities, but nationalism exists everywhere (and that’s how state borders are drawn up, as a result of dominant ethnic groups asserting their rights to self-determination).

    2. Do you think is it fair for other races and necessary?

    As what I had mentioned, there is no such thing as a truly meritocratic society or political system. In my article, I highlighted that “some are more equal than others”. As a human being, surely it’s not fair that anyone should being judged by the colour of their skin. But do we continue to play the victim card? Or do we work harder to ensure we stay competitive with the majority race?

    If all else fails, then there’s the option to migrate to another country but there’s no guarantee that they’ll treat you any better there (even if you’re ethnically similar, but still culturally different). For example, I doubt many Malaysian Chinese would want to emigrate to China, or Malay Singaporeans to Indonesia, or Singaporean Indians to India.

    3. Are you enjoying yourself as a Malay in Singapore?

    Indeed! There’s no reason for me not to enjoy myself as a Malay in Singapore! I don’t let my race define who I am as a person. And I don’t allow the social stereotyping of Malays become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As far as I’m concerned, despite whatever external challenges that I may face because of my ethnicity, only I can write my own destiny and only I can chart my own path to success (God-willing)! It’s all about the choices you make.

    4. Do prefer to live in Singapore or Malaysia? (From your experience being a Malay)

    I have never lived in Malaysia so I can’t make an informed comparison. What I do know is I enjoy living in Singapore and I consider myself to be quite successful despite being in a very competitive society. In fact, because it’s so competitive, I’ve been compelled to push myself to get better and better.

    I’m happy where I am, Singapore is where I was born and raised and have always loved, and it is where my heart is. Nothing can change that.

    If I had a chance to move to Malaysia for work, would I do it? Well, if the remuneration package was truly irresistible, how could I refuse?!

    Just out of curiosity, are you Singaporean or Malaysian? And what is your ethnicity?

    • You are full of shit. There is racism everywhere including the United States but there is no institutional racism in the US as there is in Malaysia. So no, no one here cares if you are Indian or Chinese or Malay when you are being interviewed for say the job of a CEO. Lookup how many ethnic Indians run companies here. And of course no Malay does, coz you people need a crutch and the rest of us need to be told how your religion and language and culture is the best. Enjoy Singapore and stop the bullshit. Think critically and stop whining why you aren’t in some special service.

      • [ but there is no institutional racism in the US ]

        but there is. affirmative action is a form of racism against asian, there are state in which it is technically illegal for asian to own land, while this law is not enforce strictly, it still exist.

    • I disagree with you on PAP being “pro-chinese” they are quite anti chinese. while you mention “speak mandarin” policy, it is not targeted as minority by chinese themselves as a mean of stripping the chinese of their identities (like hokkien). PAP itself is “pro-english”, if it is pro chinese, you would be writing this in chinese now, not english. so one has to be clear where the root of this government is it. it is clearly not pro-malay, but it isn’t pro-chinese, it is pro-english.

      PAP justify to us the people the use of english is because of it dominance. if that is the case, when chinese become the dominance language of trade, does that mean we have to switch to chinese? I think the real problem facing singapore is we are too dependent on foreign trade, but there is really no way around it because we lack resources to self-sustain. we have no choice but to fill ourselves into the shape the world expect of us.

      imo, singapore need to be more pro-chinese in order to survive the future. there are european country where chinese is already compulsory education. because of race relation, singapore is already behind in adopting chinese. even malaysia produce better chinese student, as well as more malays and indian that are chinese educated(and I am talking about full education in chinese, not just language) singapore doesn’t even have such a program for chinese student, much less minorities so it is harder for minorities in singapore to learn chinese and take advantage of the chinese market then malaysian can. that is something we need to consider.

      Singapore can do more for equality but our problem with equality isn’t one of race but willingness of government to pony up the money. there is very little welfare, what has the malay gotten? maybe only a few hundred dollar of education cost a year, that is like peanuts, that is like only a NS voucher amount… I am surprise despite our claim of valuing education, we do not have free education for primary and secondary and school is still demanding money from parents. and as cost of living goes up, equality become harder to achieve, so we have structural and philosophical problem in how we govern.

      as for malay uniqueness, it is reduce to a token, invisible to the daily live of singaporean and more so as the government take in more foreigner who has no/lesser reason to care about malay interest. this must be acknowledged.

  • My guess is that Mareshiajin could be doing a research on the topic, reseacher or even a journalist.

    Hey Rizal, happened to stumble upon this, good piece of write up!

    I wish our fellow Malaysians could think likewise. Unfortunately mostly don’t, and worse being those ‘NGOs’ that’s been cultivating counter-competitive thoughts to our simple-minded folks.

  • I think you’ve missed out the fact that Malays actually do get more funding when it comes to school education. One clear example is the TTFS, tertiary tuition fee subsidy from mendaki. It gives mid-income Malay households 50% subsidies for tertiary tuition fees and low income households 100% subsidies. Free tuition fees with no bond whatsoever. No grade requirements either. As long as your household income falls in that range, you will be eligible for it. I myself am currently a recepient of a full fee subsidy by mendaki and I don’t have to pay back a single cent or serve any bond. Heck, most of my Malay friends in uni are under this TTFS scheme. You can google it, it’s on mendaki’s site.

    I’ve compared this to other racial self-help groups like SINDA and CDAC and neither of them gives as much subsidies as Mendaki for university students. In fact, you can check the annual reports of the three groups. It will show you that mendaki receives the biggest amount of funds from the govt and disburses the most due to the TTFS. 1 student can cost up to 32k-44k of subsidies.

    So yes, in some cases, Malays do get free education. Whereas their Chinese and Indian peers do not.

    That said, it doesn’t mean that this somehow absolves the discrimination faced by Malays. But it is also a very strong sign that the govt wants low-income Malays to prioritize education to get them out of the poverty cycle.

    • yes malay has some benefit, but it is not really that much more. imo, primary and secondary education should be made completely free. the reality is while the “fee” itself is subsidy, school are charging more and more for “extra/additional” program so the stress on parent i feel has gone up not down. with some school even expecting student to bring computer to class it is not cheap if to study in the best school.

      and while i think most parent are willing to pay if their children can get into such school, the hardship is still going to be there especially if they are low income to begin with. i think singapore equality issue is not a race only issue. and we can do more to help family who are less well off regardless of race, and if one group is behind the money should go to those that need it, however our government opposition to welfare make equality an impossible dream, how can we do anything if we are unwilling to invest the money.

  • I always prefer to look at things in a more pragmatic way, which in my opinion will serve a much better purpose. I worked for a food operator and have the following real-life anecdote:

    In a foodcourt, one Malay stall operator complained that he was not doing so well because he had a smaller customer base compared to the other Chinese stall holders.

    In an adjacent foodcourt, another Malay stall holder was doing a brisk business and there were queues even during off-peak period. With some prompting, the operator of this Malay stall smiled and said he was blessed since the Chinese, the Indians and Malays can eat his food, while the Malays cannot eat from the Chinese stalls.

    The morale of the story is, if we only look at the negative side of things, we will continue to wallow in self-pity and will always be trapped in our own small box.

    The fact of life is, nothing is completely equal and never will be. It is not just about race. In our daily lives, discrimination is rife from gender, looks, physical heights n strength, age, ranks, wealth, connections etc. etc. and all these are happening not just outside on the road, at the working place or in school, but it is also happening right at home! So, deal with it!

    Since we can’t really eliminate it, we just have to find a way to get around it and move along as best we can.

    I am not advocating anybody to quietly acquiesce to it or submit meekly to any blatant discrimination or bullying.

    Some things can and ought to be dealt with immediately, while others need more tact and can only move along at a pace where society feels comfortable or unthreatened. Sensitive issues, if forced can only lead to more faults and fractures in a society.

    At the end of the day, there is no perfect place on earth, lets not kid ourselves. If we migrate for the wrong reasons, we will only live to regret that decision and having to find excuses everyday to justify that wrong decision in order to comfort your aching soul.

    Therefore, if everyone is completely honest and reasonable, we look around the region and further, we will realise that Singapore, for all its warts and all, is a good place to live in and bring up our children.

    We are in foreign country and someone sings Singapore’s praises. If at that moment, we feel damn proud to identify ourselves as a Singaporean, then surely, Singapore has done very well and we are not too far off either.

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