Book Review by Alfian Saat on The Singapore Dilemma by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim

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.

10 Responses to Book Review by Alfian Saat on The Singapore Dilemma by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim

  1. the_reader says:

    i’ve read this book. excellent. outstanding commentary. brilliantly researched, cleverly written.

    best of all, by a malay author, with connections to prestige as well, not to mention published by oxford university press

  2. sour_bodhi says:

    the ‘constitutional right’ of malays in the context of Singapore is largely symbolic; the government’s strong advocation of meritocracy would seem to override the ‘respect’ for ‘indigenous people’. article 152 was probably conceived as an expedient measure to appease the sensitivities of the malay population upon separation.

  3. ZR says:

    Dear Libertas

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I followed the link, and I’m pleasantly surprised to be reading very thoughtful postings on issues which I am myself interested in; although of course our perspectives would obviously be coloured by the almost mirror-image-ness of the Malaysian Malay’s experience vis-a-vis the Singaporean Malay.

    I hv had the pleasure of starting to read Lily Rahim’s excellent book (I say “started” cos I hv since been derailed into reading other books, putting this excellent book into my “pending” list) and I was struck at the systematic-ness of the way in which the Singaporean Malays hv been put in their place 😦

    I am also putting this comment here becos I want to test a hypothesis of mine. Sour_bodhi mentioned that the Singaporean govt’s “strong advocation of meriticracy” is what has led to the inadvertent(?) abeyance of the constitutional rights of the Malays. My own view (formulated after some contemplation, reading and conversations with friends) is that the Singaporean govt’s dedication to meritocracy is only true insofar that that meritocracy is applied to the Chinese majority. Yes, academic endeavour, leadership and initiative allows for significant social mobility and co-optation into the elite. But this is only true for the Chinese majority; the Malay majority (in particular because of Singapore’s geopolitical sandwiching between Malaysia and Indonesia) on the other hand has an “ethnic glass ceiling” put up to deter their progress.

    Of course, this holds lessons for Malaysia too. In Singapore, although the dominance of the Chinese elite is carefully maintained, genius and ability are still valid passports for the lower- and middle-classes to promote themselves into the elite. This exists in the Malaysian Malay elite, but to a more limited extent. The old school tie and family networks count for a lot more in Malaysia. This is what has paralysed Malaysia.

    Would love to hear what you think. Of course, I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong, if the facts are not in accordance with my views.


    p.s. Libertas, I’d be keen to take up this discourse further, if ur keen. E-mail me at if you’re free.

  4. […] And I am tired of excuses. I am tired of Malay apologists making the excuse that we couldn’t match Singapore mile for mile over the years, because we have “other agendas” to protect. As if Singaporeans don’t have an agenda themselves! […]

  5. Libertas says:

    Dear Ziakrazak,

    Thanks for your reply! Its always great to hear from other young Malay intellectuals keen on discourse about Malay issues, albeit the difference in political and socio-economic experiences living on different sides of the causeway.

    I would agree with your hypothesis to some extent that “the Singaporean govt’s dedication to meritocracy is only true insofar that that meritocracy is applied to the Chinese majority”. However, I believe that the Singapore government is quite subtle in its approach, in the sense that the policy makes it extremely hard for Singaporean Malays to experience upward social mobility. The Singaporean Malays were never on an equal socio-economic footing as the Chinese. (This has several resounding echoes to Dr Mahathir’s own postulations in his book The Malay Dilemma) That is why I feel the policy of meritocracy only serves to trap Malays into a perpetual socio-economic lacuna of stagnation, and divides the community between the small group of elites and stereotypical Malay individual who prides in living in moderation and utter relaxation (rather than trying to upgrade themselves academically, economically, politically etc).

    But, that being said, I also don’t agree with Malaysia’s Bumiputera policy which only serves to feed on our crutch mentality, internalised through contact with other races as well as the British colonial policies (its not due to our culture alone). This policy only places a limit to the potentiality of our own success, and inhibits healthy development of the Malay culture as it tries to find its place in the modern world.

    I myself am the “successful product” of the state’s project of meritocracy in the education system. But as Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim accurately pointed out, what it had created is a phenomenon of “double alienation”, from the lower echelons of the Malay community and the general Non-Malay society. By virtue of my success, does it mean the Malay society has progressed in a direction that would be favourable to the Malay community and to the Singapore society?

    In my opinion, we must always view the “ethnic glass ceiling” through two different perspectives: from the eyes of the Malays and the Non-Malays. One is imposed by the dominant Chinese community as a means of self-protection or blatant discrimination (in other words racism). But we must also deal with the “ethnic glass ceiling” we impose on ourselves, that we cannot go beyond the defensive racial barrier of being Malay, having internalised the culture deficit thesis or as a means of comfort for one’s marginalised state.

    Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim is right to be critical of the government, but what she’s not is critical of some aspects of the Malay culture and values, which Dr Mahathir has dealt with in his book. I personally believe that something within the Malay culture needs a thorough revolution. A paradigm shift in our outlook of life that is forward-looking rather than escapist or fatalistic (perpetuated at times by Islam) and one full of initiative and drive rather than utter resignation and total acceptance of every mishap which falls on our path. It is then when we can uplift our community to one which is actively engaged in creating a new paradigm of modernity and technology, while at the same time staying close to our roots and heritage.

  6. Samir Ashraf says:

    Dear writer,

    I have recently found out about your blog. Allow me to present my position and then my comment. I am not a Malay, I am a 3rd generation Malaysia with decendency from North Pakistan/India. According to the Malaysian constitution I am Malay but not according to the people.

    From where I stand, what you wrote about the old school networking and family networking is extremely true. However I beg to differ on the old school paralysing Malaysia. The old school theory works all over the world, especially true for the US and Britain. Old boys from Oxford, Cambridge, London University, Stanford, Yale, Harvard.. need I say more?

    What truly is handicapping the Malays in Malaysia is the dependency on family ties and networking. The Chinese do the same as well in Malaysia but it comes down to can you do the job? If not get out of my face. In the Malay society, I would say due to the nature of Malay culture (being polite and giving pity) economic sense does not come into play in business decision. Allow me to demonstrate two companies for my argument 1- Malaysian Airlines & 2-Proton Holdings. Imagine at Proton the son of the CEO (Now former CEO)is the head for Race Research & Racing (3R). Here is a 20 something year old heading the research facility for high performance of Proton. Now go figure

    By the way where can I get the Singapore Dilemma?

  7. Libertas says:

    You can get it from or if you’re in Singapore, you can try Kinokuniya bookstore. That was where I got my book from.

    Your hypothesis that Malay culutre is diametrically opposed to “economic sense” seems valid when compared to the cut-throat Western capitalist systems which favours profits above everything else. You seemed to have internalised the culture deficit thesis argued by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim as the reason for the persistent marginalisation of the Malay community, at least in Singapore.

    But isn’t “economic sense” more than just rudeness and ruthlessness in business dealings? The fact that the spirit of enterprise is not wired into our Malay history and culture does not mean we are not at all capable of it. The issue is whether we are able to assimilate such experiences into our culture itself and make it relevant in today’s capitalist world. And this is the true dilemma the Malay community is facing – how fast are we able to integrate such crucial DNA into our systems, without loosing what it means to be essentially Malay.

    It would be interesting to compare Malaysia’s Bumiputera policies and Singapore’s meritocratic systems to analyse the success and failures of the Malay community, assuming ceteris paribus. While difference in history, mentality and culture of politics may prove to be a major impediment to such a research, it would nevertheless be uselful to highlight certain key learning points the the experiences of both communities on both sides of the causeway.

    To what extent should the Malay community be given help, knowing the economic strength of the Chinese community in history, the so-called Malay aversion to business as well as structural inequalities in the system itself which perpetuates the constant marginalisation of the Malay community?

  8. Chaerul Salleh says:

    No, Samir, you got it wrong…

    “What truly is handicapping the Malays in Malaysia is the dependency on family ties and networking. The Chinese do the same as well in Malaysia but it comes down to can you do the job? If not get out of my face. In the Malay society, I would say due to the nature of Malay culture (being polite and giving pity) economic sense does not come into play in business decision. Allow me to demonstrate two companies for my argument 1- Malaysian Airlines & 2-Proton Holdings. Imagine at Proton the son of the CEO (Now former CEO)is the head for Race Research & Racing (3R). Here is a 20 something year old heading the research facility for high performance of Proton. Now go figure”

    Your example of MAS and Proton is not appropriate. Mas and Proton are govt linked companies (GLCs). And the managers there are not majority owners; so economically, they have greater incentives to abuse their positions to their private advantage. Perhaps the problem lies in the lack of monitoring and control mechanism; this problem allows these managers to expropriate the GLCs instead of maximizing the overall value of the company.

    “The Chinese do the same as well in Malaysia but it comes down to can you do the job? If not get out of my face”… The Chinese would do this as they are managing their own family business… So they have the incentive to maximize the value of the company. But this is true only if the all the capital (debt and equity) of the company is generated by the family. If the company have outside equity and borrows from banks, the story is different.

    If the company have outside equity and borrows from banks, the Chinese company also engage in unproductive undertakings (i.e. wasteful expenditures) as well.

    As indicated by several studies Chinese majority owners would expropriate minority shareholders and creditors, given the chance.

    Read this:

    Samir, stop glorifying the virtues of the so-called Chinese family networks.

    Remember this saying… A Chinese family enterprise has 3 books. One for the patriarch and insiders; another for the tax office and yet another for creditors and outside shareholders.

    To Libertas:
    You say: “ To what extent should the Malay community be given help, knowing the economic strength of the Chinese community in history, the so-called Malay aversion to business as well as structural inequalities in the system itself which perpetuates the constant marginalisation of the Malay community? “
    I say, this is an empirical question. Currently, there is abundance of literature on overseas Chinese business networks in South East Asia. But surprisingly very few on indigenous business enterprises. I can name major works on overseas Chinese i.e. by Gordon Redding and even Yoshihara Kunio etc…… Can you name me works on indigenous, Pribumi or Bumiputra companies, enterprises or business networks??? And that infamous work by Yoshihara : The Rise of Ersatz Capitalism paint a bad picture on pribumi businesses. Oh yes, one more shot to Samir: Yoshihara also describes Chinese businesses acting as compradors and pariah capitalists… so much for the virtues of the so Chinese family networks.

  9. Rufus says:

    Who marginalised Malaysia?

    Aliran, Friday, 26 January 2007
    The most indisputable fact is that we were once at par with Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in 1970 when the NEP was first introduced, writes Koon Yew Yin.
    When the NEP was first introduced in 1970, soon after the infamous racial riots, the bumiputeras had only 2.4 per cent equity ownership in Malaysian companies. After 20 years, in 1990, it was acknowledged that the bumiputras had 19.4 per cent equity and they needed the continuance of the NEP.

    In 2005, at the 56th UMNO general assembly, its youth leader, Hishamuddin Hussein, raised his keris to demand their bumiputera rights of the NEP because they have only 18.9 per cent equity.

    Why would they have less than what they had 15 years ago when the Government has not stopped handing out goodies to the bumiputeras all along? How can this be possible?

    Asli’s report

    Ever since the publication of the finding of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) that the bumiputeras already own 45 per cent equity, many bumiputera leaders, including Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, openly disputed the study’s accuracy. UMNO vice president, Muhyiddin, said that the finding was rubbish and demanded that Asli retract it before it upsets the racial harmony. He must bear in mind that the continuance of the NEP (Never Ending Policy) also upsets the non-bumiputeras.

    Emotions over the NEP have overcome our reasoning; and many people are shocked to read that Asli had withdrawn its contentious report under political pressure. Nevertheless, many still believe Asli’s findings and the learned people, who are behind Asli, are prepared to stand by their report. In fact, Asli has been closely watching the NEP issue for many years and their intention is honourable.

    Asli is not against the government; it merely wants to ensure Malaysia progresses in the right direction and UMNO leaders should take advantage of their findings.

    In fact, we must admire Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, the director of Asli’s Centre for Public Policy Studies for his integrity in standing by his report and defending his findings with his resignation. He told the media, ‘It is the fundamental right of the Malaysian public to question all government statistics and policies, more so when these are not transparent or defensible.’ He also stressed that no other country in the world has seen a marginalised community, such as the Malays, come up so quickly and attain this position of economic, social and political dominance or success.

    Regardless of what Dr. Lim, Lee Kuan Yew, and all the UMNO leaders might have to say, the rating agencies in the United Nations, the World Bank and all fair-minded Malaysians have their own opinion. The fact is, the bad publicity created by this controversy is driving foreign investors away as shown by our current slow-paced stock market index while most of the leading indices around the world, including the DOW, are striking an all time high. Our political leaders must realise the adverse effect this has on our economy and formulate a better policy for the good of all Malaysians.

    It is time this NEP issue is discussed openly and a better solution found for the benefit of all Malaysians. One of the major points of dispute is the inclusion of all the shares held by the government in all government-linked companies. Who are the ultimate owners of these shares? Does that really matter? The more important question is, who are controlling these companies and how are they helping the Malays in terms of employment, contract work and other business spin offs?

    NEP after 36 years of implementation
    My purpose of writing this article is not to expound a new method of measuring the percentage of bumiputera equity ownership that will be acceptable to all the parties concerned, but to explore a better solution to resolve this contentious issue. What is wrong with the NEP and why does it not produce the benefit as originally planned after 36 years of implementation?

    The bumiputera leaders in control of the government cannot be blamed for not implementing the NEP seriously and vigorously. After all, the bumiputeras have all of the APs, the big concessions, contracts without competitive open tenders, most of the university places, full control of the GLCs, and almost all the jobs in the civil service.

    Under the NEP, the government can openly offer incentives to bumiputeras and no one can question its intention. No one is even allowed to discuss this sensitive issue in Parliament as if all the politicians representing the minority groups have lost their tongues.

    And yet, the bumiputeras are not at all satisfied with what they have already achieved.

    If the NEP does not work after 36 years, we must not be afraid to talk about it openly. Perhaps the NEP may be the cause of the undoing of the Malays. In fact, the NEP had actually reduced the Malay’s self-confidence. Under the NEP, no Malay could ever be sure that the “victories” that came his way were fully deserved.

    They have been over-pampered with all the goodies over the years that they have not learned how to walk without the crutches any more. They have become less efficient and not competitive in the real world. This is becoming so obvious that it will not do the Malays any good if they continue to be pampered this way.

    They have to face the reality around them; especially in the globalised world of open competition where there is no NEP offered to anyone.

    The bumiputera mindset
    For a start, the bumiputeras have to change their mindset and their attitude and exert more determination to succeed. They need to realise that they do not need crutches to get through life, but, together with other Malaysians of all races, they need to work towards a clear and sensible policy direction that will, at least, enable them to make a real contribution to national development. They must accept open discussion and criticism of the NEP. They cannot just hope to get some APs, contracts or other handouts and not be willing to struggle like the non-bumiputera mere mortals.

    The non-bumiputeras must also accept the needs of the bumiputras and learn how to survive with this handicap, especially with regard to entrance to universities. If we look around, we will see many people who managed to succeed without a tertiary education. Everyone must learn from the shortcomings of the present system and move forward. We must bear in mind that if the bumiputeras fail, Malaysia will fail and we will all suffer.

    Malaysia’s failing grade

    We must realise that all the vital statistics – GDP/capita, corruption index, competitive index and Government efficiency index – show that Malaysia is performing very poorly. The most indisputable fact is our GDP/capita was about the same as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea in 1970 when the NEP was first introduced. After 36 years, the GDP/capita for Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea are 3, 3.2, 2.5 and 2 times respectively that of ours. This clearly shows that our present system of government is not efficient and the NEP is retarding our growth.

    At the rate we are progressing, the differential gaps in comparison with our neighbours will be widened even more. If we do not stop the slide, we will soon be a Third World country instead of realising our aspiration of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

    Our developed neighbours
    The four neighbouring countries mentioned above are all classified as developed nations. But they were classified as developing nations like Malaysia 36 years ago with almost the same GDP/capita. Instead of disputing Asli’s figures and tussling and scrambling among ourselves, UMNO leaders should focus on how all Malaysians can achieve more to match our neighbours. They must find out why Malaysia is progressing slower than our neighbours in spite of the fact that we have fossil fuels, palm oil and other natural resources which they do not have.

    But then, our neighbours also do not have the NEP, which is obviously the stumbling block. Without the need to marginalise anyone, they can freely practice meritocracy to improve competitiveness and efficiency. University places are offered to students with the best academic results.

    Our neighbours realise that education forms the foundation upon which the development of an economy rests. Even economies with few natural resources can overcome this handicap and flourish based entirely on their stock of human capital, created by offering university places to students with the best academic results.

    They promote the most deserving people in all work places and award contracts to the most efficient contractors who can offer the best prices. All contracts are open to competitive tenders and all awards are transparent and open to public scrutiny.

    Under this system, every citizen will be happily trying their best to work diligently. Their nation’s wealth is being managed efficiently and they, therefore, expand faster than Malaysia. Our leaders should look to these neighbouring countries and use them as benchmarks in identifying our country’s weaknesses, strengths and opportunities and identify where they may need to focus policy attention and future investments.

    Can Malaysia achieve Vision 2020?

    I was not surprised to hear Keadilan treasurer Khalid Ibrahim openly saying at a recent forum in Ipoh that Malaysia will not be a developed nation by 2020. It looks like we have lost our way to Vision 2020. All the declarations made by our Prime Minister – that he will fight corruption as long as he lives and Vision 2020 is his most important mission – are actually mere political rhetoric.

    Whatever it is, he cannot find enough of APs and other goodies to satisfy all Malays. And although there should be equality of opportunity among Malays, it is not always applied objectively.

    The gap between the rich and poor Malays is getting wider and the number of non-Malays who are marginalised is also growing. All these people who are disillusioned and dissatisfied will have to think long and hard before the next general election.

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