The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community
Lily Zubaidah Rahim
Oxford University Press
One of the most revealing, and perhaps even shocking passages in The Singapore Dilemma is one which was not written by the author, but excavated from the pages of the Singapore Constitution. Identified as ‘Section 152’, it reads as follows: “It shall be a deliberate and conscious policy of the Government of Singapore at all times to recognize the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of the island and who are most in need of assistance and accordingly, it shall be the responsibility of the Government of Singapore to protect, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests, and the Malay language.”
At first glance, such a provision would seem to challenge Singapore’s much-trumpeted rhetoric on meritocracy and multiracialism. Why should a certain ethnic community be granted special privileges over others? And considering how the genesis of Singapore as a nation was founded on principles of equal opportunity regardless of race, would not any programmes advocating affirmative action run counter to such ideals?
With an arsenal of hard facts, resources dredged from years of social field-work, as well as a certain degree of polemical fire, Lily Zubaidah systematically investigates the ideological assumptions that belie such questions. One of the most overlooked statements in Section 152 is perhaps the one which states, quite blankly, that the Malays ‘are the indigenous people of the island’.
It is a fact that is often ignored or downplayed, with history books constructing the starting points for Singapore’s economic and political history as 1819 (the time of Raffles’ landing) and 1965 (the separation from Malaya) respectively. The insemination of such ideologies into the Singaporean psyche shows up a certain defect in our multicultural project: in attempting to homogenise ancestral experiences in order to create an illusion of ‘equality’, the voice of the native becomes an unfortunate casualty. In fact, the tongue of the indigene is severed to allow him to hum along with the rest in a peaceful, yet artificial chorus of harmony.
Native myths are not the only ones demolished in this book. Also held up for scrutiny are the way Singaporeans (even Malay-Singaporeans) have internalised cultural deficit theories (where the ‘backwardness’ of a certain ethnic group is blamed on their culture, or even on genetic inheritance, the latter a view held by many who believe in the state’s eugenic and elitist agendas), the obfuscation of class differences (as a factor which enforces marginality) by obsessively focusing on racial ones, and finally certain programmes, like the housing quota system, which serve to erode electoral clout.
Among the wealth of well-researched and rigorous arguments, a noticeable absence is observed: a discussion on the viability of programmes which advocate an actively interventionist, rather than a minimalist, approach to Malay marginality. Lily Zubaidah, while doggedly pursuing a line which calls for more pro-active strategies, does not devote much to elaborating on alternatives such as for example, Malaysia’s Bumiputra policy, and whether they create other kinds of social inequalities.
In essence, the Singapore Dilemma is about a game of power. Indigenous narratives possess the power to impinge on the sense of identity of immigrants, and might even upset attempts to construct a ‘national heritage’. While this is a valid concern, there has to be cause for alarm when attempts to privilege one history over another results in the oppression of minority voices. An African proverb states that, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. The publication of this book, the storm it is creating in the Malaysian press, and AMP’s recent call for Malay leaders to be apolitical agents, all add up to a collective statement: who says there are no lions left in the Lion City?
Anyone who actually does a book review on this book must deserve a pat on the back. Its extremely long and technical! But I’m happy I got through the whole book, being able to associate myself to many ideas being discussed in the book.
Andee, here’s what I mean about the our constitutional right being entirely forgotten in the state apparatus. I’m not promoting a Malaysian Bumiputera policy. But I would not want our history to be convoluted into a colonial propagandising tool of power and so called “unity and equality”.
I don’t think the main aim of her book was to find solutions. It was much more an exposition of the true essence of the Malay dilemma faced by the Malays living in Singapore.