This is a commentary I read in JG News written by Yasuko Kobayashi who is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He identifies accurately what the government sees as the Malay problem and its inherent contradictions, that the government has consistently tried to colonise the Malay mindsets of perpetual inferiority, while at the same time euphemistically highlight infinitesimal growth and progress within the community.
Like in yesterday’s Malay newspaper dated 20th August 2005, in the article “Yakin Melayu akan bertambah makmur”, the president again emphasized that the Malay community should not compare themselves with other communities or be totally dependant on figures of our own progress. If you read between the lines, again it highlights how the government feels there is little or no progress within the community itself.
Even though SM Goh noted the positive achievements the Malay community had made up to date, the title of his speech nevertheless shows, the two elements jaya (success) and ubah sikap (change attitudes) continue to be the basic framework for referring to the Malays.
Ever since the independence of Singapore, the history of the formation of Malays in the Singapore context has been a story of constant “striving” by Malays to achieve a package of targets set by the government.
Masalah Melayu – “The Malay Problem”
Malay efforts to make Malays successful began as early as 1970s, although it was not until the 1980s that the ‘Malay issue’ was recognized nationwide (when state statistics revealed that Malay students had the lowest education level in Singapore and Mendaki was subsequently formed.)
Soon after independence, Malays organized dozens of seminars to discuss their situation in Singapore. Gradually the term “the Malay problem” (Masalah Melayu) began to be used among Malays.
In 1971, one seminar – titled “Malay Participation in the National development of Singapore” and organized by the Majlis Pusat (Central Council of Malay Cultural Organizations of Singapore – became a land mark.
Participants at this seminar identified and stated problems of the Malay community in the context of nation building, and secondly, discussed how to seek jaya (success). “Jaya” became a key word as a goal for Malays to achieve. Since this seminar the term ‘Malay problem’ was frequently used in Malay newspapers.
What did it mean at this time for Malays to achieve jaya? It was interpreted by Malay political and other leaders as meaning: changing the attitude of Malays to successfully adopt themselves to a new nation-state.
Another key word at this time was “Ubah Sikap” (change attitudes). For instance, Malays had to increase the level of their children’s education. Malays had to become fluent in English. Malays had to enter the commercial sector by running small shops like the Chinese. They had to limit the number of their children, so they could supervise their children’s education well and so that the family could fit into an HDB flat. For that reason Malay women were advised even by Islamic religious leaders to use contraceptive pills.
These goals were set by the government in the 1970s as a model for successful Singaporeans in the 1970s. They were then consumed by Malays as a way of framing “Malay” success in Singapore.
The continuous strive to succeed
This pattern originating in the 1970s continues today. Firstly the state sets a package of targets. The Malays then diagnose themselves in order to identify problems preventing them from reaching these targets. They articulate these problems and resolve to change their attitude to overcome them and thus prove that they can be successful Singaporeans.
In this way, any new target, no matter how unreasonable it could be, can stimulate a desire among Malays to prove that they can be successful.
This mentality also launches them on a permanent journey of becoming. As they are always looking to a future goal, then where they are right now is not good enough. They have to keep going till they reach some destination.
The question at stake for Malays is whether one day this will make them a visibly “successful” community in their own right, without any comparison with other communities. This is in line with their longing in the 1980s to change the perception of Malays in the 1980s as second class citizens.
State power to define difference
For the state, it is effective to label some people as those who are not quite on par with rest of society, hence different. Why? In order to recognize “standard” Singaporeans versus “non-standard” Singaporeans some form of difference is inevitably required. For instance if we want to determine whether something is (say) tall, or dark, we always need a yardstick for comparison (i.e. taller than X; darker than X).
The majority can tell what the majority is and what it means by looking at those who are not majority, not standardized, not the same as them.
This need to create someone different is met by the frequent change of instructions to Singaporeans by the government. The government constantly creates new targets, and therefore can constantly produce and demarcate in new ways those who are not coping quite as well as other communities such as the Chinese.
In this regard, Goh stated in his 17th February 2005 speech above, “In 2003, Manpower Ministry figures showed that Malays, who formed about 11 per cent of the workforce, made up 14 per cent of the retrenchments. Also, within 12 months of retrenchment, 74 per cent of Chinese were able to find another job, compared to 69 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively, for Malays and Indians.”
The gap shown by this figures is not large, but the point for the government is that there is a difference, which serves demarcate the minority from the majority.
If Malays have achieved well already – as Goh in fact acknowledged in his speech – then why does he point out this difference? The ‘underachievement’ of Malays has to be constantly remembered, or more precisely re-created. Thus, in his speech, Goh sets new targets for Malays, such as “the acquisition of skills in new growth areas” as “globalisation accelerates the pace of economic change.”
Will this end? Until Malays in Singapore can free themselves from their habitual way of perceiving jaya (success) and ubah sikap (change attitude), they will always function as the inevitable element of difference that validates the majority within Singapore.