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.