Singapore: Malay issues are national issues — Andrew Loh
SEPT 9 — For the longest time, Singaporeans were told to either be “very careful” when they talk about minority issues, in particular issues affecting the Malay community, or to not talk about them at all. These are “sensitive issues” and are best discussed and resolved by the community itself. Singapore’s past history of communal riots have often been cited as one of the reasons why such issues are best spoken in hushed tones behind closed doors, if at all.
But Singapore (and Singaporeans) has come a long way from the riots and violence of earlier days. If there were any doubts that Singaporeans are incapable of discussing these matters openly, honestly, and even robustly, they were demolished at a forum organised by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) yesterday.
The forum, titled “The future of Singapore — Do Malays have a part?”, saw a turnout of more than 100 which packed the room at Bras Basah Complex. The SDP described the event as “historic” in its pre-forum article on its website. And in many ways, it is. It has been a while since such an event was held on such “sensitive” matters.
But the forum met with a hitch, as SDP chairman, Mohd Mahmood Jufrie, revealed at the forum. The authorities had wanted to stop the event, saying that the forum was on “sensitive issues” and that a permit was needed. The SDP however insisted that since the event was to be held indoors, there was no need for a permit. Indeed, the Government had changed the law to forego such requirement some years back. In the end, the event was allowed to go ahead — after the SDP paid S$22 (RM55) for the permit, Mr Jufrie said, to laughter from the audience.
It was a good thing that the event was not barred because there have been rumblings on the ground in recent times among the Malay community about various issues. The organisers of the forum, however, were mindful that it not degenerate into a PAP bashing session, or one which was overshadowed by emotive expressions, a point which Dr Vincent Wijeysingha, the moderator for the afternoon, reminded the audience of. Thankfully, everyone generally stuck to the issues and kept the emotive and Government bashing to the minimum.
The forum is to “discuss several issues including education and economic progress affecting Singapore Malays — and therefore Singapore — with the view to formulating an SDP alternative policy position on the subject,” the party said.
Indeed, one of the main points raised was that minority — especially Malay — issues are not confined to the community alone. Instead, they were national issues and pigeonholing Malay issues will have consequences for wider society. It was point reiterated by panellist Mr Walid Jumblatt, who teaches at the Political Science Department at NUS, who explained that social friction and stratification, and a growing socio-economic gap between the Malays and the other races, will emerge if the concerns were not addressed.
Speakers urged that the Malays be not disadvantaged, especially when Singapore has seen an influx of workers from China and India. This has led to sentiments that the Malay community is being further marginalised and has caused more anxiety and feelings of dislocation — within their own country. Of the influx itself, questions were raised on why the Government has allowed such a large number of mainland Chinese and Indians to flood to Singapore when the same is not seen with regards to Malaysians and Indonesians who are our next-door neighbours.
Mr Maarof Salleh, who is the former president of the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), says Malays are not looking for handouts or entitlements.
Mr Abdul Halim bin Kader, another of the panellists, agreed. Mr Kader had held several positions within the PAP, including being secretary of the PAP’s Kampong Kembangan Branch and deputy chairman for the PAP Bedok Reservoir-Punggol Branch at the Aljunied GRC of which he is still a member. He is a founding member of Yayasan Mendaki and has served as Mendaki’s assistant secretary-general. Mr Kadar urged the Malay community to step up and be involved, and for the non-Malays to contribute as well.
One of the more contentious issues raised at the forum was the issue of the political leadership for the Malays. While criticisms have often been hurled at PAP ministers and Members of Parliament for being inadequate in representing the community, Mr Maarof and Mr Kadar said there have been much done in the last few decades. Mr Kadar cited the Malay self-help group, Mendaki, as an example — and the 53 programmes which it has to help those in need.
Mr Walid, however, raised the issue of legitimacy of Malay PAP politicians. He explained that some may have a lower regard or respect for them because of the group representation constituency (GRC) system through which they become MPs. These Malay MPs are seen as riding on or needing to ride on the coattails of other more capable non-Malay candidates to help them into Parliament. While Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, had helmed the PAP’s Moulmein-Kallang GRC team and led it to victory in last year’s general elections, Mr Walid said he is perhaps an exception. The perception that Malay MPs are somehow less capable remains.
Mr Maarof defended Mr Yaacob and suggested that perhaps the problem lies “upstairs”, referring to the higher-ups in Government, who may not be as cognisant of the issues the Malay community is facing.
A member of the audience suggested that the solution is to vote out the PAP Government. Mr Kadar, however, said this is not the solution because there are no alternatives from the opposition. He urged the opposition parties to do more to let the non-Chinese communities know what they propose with regards to these issues. Only then will these communities have alternatives to choose from.
The forum, which was scheduled for three hours, ran a half-hour longer because of the lively exchanges between the panel members and the audience. The SDP says it hopes to hold a second forum on the issue.
Audience members this writer spoke to all agreed that the forum was not only a much-needed one but they were also encouraged and happy with how it turned out. One of the main sentiments was that Singaporeans perhaps are now ready and “mature enough” to discuss openly and honestly these longstanding “sacred cow” issues which needs to be addressed.
It is fitting perhaps that the forum was held on the same day that the Government introduced its own panel of committee members for its National Conversation initiative. Ironically, it is the SDP which has shown how such a conversation can take place — even if the topic for discussion is a “sensitive” one. — TR Emeritus
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.