“The rhetoric that Singapore is a meritocratic society where equal opportunities are available to all has also served to add legitimacy to the cultural deficit thesis which infers that Malays have not been able to make it in a meritocratic society because they have not worked hard enough and thus have only themselves to blame.”
This basically sums up the argument by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, on the reasons behind the near political nonexistence as well as the educational marginality of the Malay community in Singapore. The cultural deficit thesis underlines the persisting socio-economic marginality of certain ethnic communities, as a result of their inept cultural values and attitudes. Such communities are afflicted by inertia, complacency, unstable familty units and an overwhelming desire for immediate gratification. This line of contention is echoed by Dr Mahathir in his book, The Malay Dilemma, which I have read prior to this book.
Evidently, Ms Lily Zubaidah (I’ll call her by her first name because its too weird calling her Ms Rahim because its as if I’m feminizing her father or something) has clearly antithetical viewpoints on the Malay marginality issue when compared to Dr Mahathir. Its important to note that she strongly advocates the idea that the marginality of Malay community is due to the institutional and structural factors in the political and educational system, rather than the cultural deficit thesis championed by the dominant ethnic community and the Malay community themselves.
In the first few chapters of her book, I was immediately drawn in by her cleverly well-crafted argumentations and astute terminology like the cultural deficit thesis and biological determinist beliefs in explaining the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue. Its very rare that I am able to associate myself so closely to the issues discussed in a book, especially on the social alienation of the rising middle class Malays by their own community and the society at large (I’ll touch on this later). After a few days of infatuation and shameless flirtation of such clearly controverisal and anti-government ideas in my mind, I was immediately brought back to reality by my mother who sagaciously noted that its not possible that the Malays can absolve all blame for their dilemma, simply because the government did not want to help them.
Its also humourous to note that in the process of spelling out her complex line of argumentation, she also had condemned previous works by UMNO and PAP Malay members on the issue of Malay marginality (including Dr Mahathir of course) because of its emphasis on self vilification and self condemnation. And I quote:
“In echoing and perpetuating the ideology of Malay inferiority, they revealed their acute inferiority complex.”
I thought this statement was particulary hilarious, simply because she implied that Dr Mahathir was suffering from a type of low cultural self-esteem. It seemed plausible at that point that Dr Mahathir could be mistaken, and that there must be some evidence of institutional and structural reasons behind the marginality of the Malay community. Other moments when I had a quiet laugh reading the book (there were many instances when my bunk mates thought I was crazy laughing at the book by myself) were her sarcastic statements peppered throughout her paragraphs, in describing the reasons behind time-based community educational progress reports rather than inter-community juxtaposition.
“Malays are thus expected to be content with their marginality and grateful about the absolute gains achieved… Malays are therefore expected to tolerate thier socio-economic and educational marginality as a permanent fixture with stoic resignation.”
I find her chapter on Malay perceptions of Malay marginality so revealing because it reflects my own views of my own community. She describes how the professional middle class Malays, being socially and economically distant from the general Malay community and being ethnically different from the non-Malay community, suffers from a social phenomenon of double alienation. And I quote:
“The profound level of alienation has rendered the Malay middle class socially vulnerable and susceptible towards uncritically accepting the cultural deficit thesis which gratifies their ego for having extricated themselves from the negative cultural attributes afflicting the Malay community.”
This is linked to her contention of the failure of meritocracy as a doctrine to further the interests of the Malay community. I was pleasantly shocked by what she wrote simply because it reflected my very mindset on the Malay marginality issue (after all, I have been through the whole meritocratic system from nursery all the way to junior college). It was particularly humbling to say the least, seeing that my ego has been inflated to a large extent whenever i see members of my community in void decks and unknown alleys in various housing estates.
However, notwithstanding the empirical evidence and extensive research being done by Ms Lily Zubaidah on this issue, I find her arguments (after having an intellectual argument with my mum on the phone on last Wednesday night about her thoughts) not entirely reflective of the reality of the situation in Singapore. Using some of the ideas brought up by my mother, firstly: Even though she lived in Singapore for the early years of her life and had especially came back from Australia (where she current works at University of Sydney in the Department of Economic history) to do research for the book, she did not live here all her life and had not gone through the various changes undergone by the Malay community since independence. While she strongly argues for the invalidity of the cultural deficit thesis, it seems as if that the Malay community is absolved from all blame for their socio-economic inertia. That given the potential, we can rise up exponentially and defeat the dominant Chinese community at their money-hungry opportunistic game. IF we were not suppressed by the government of course.
But what about Malaysia? What about the efforts by the Malaysian government, purposely legislated for the sole purpose (don’t even think of trying to put us in the lead) of trying to create a level playing ground which has been previously lost to the entreprenuerial spirit of the Chinese community? What about years and years of bumiputera policy? Has the Malay community proven itself to capable of progress? Even though I accept her view that the government has not done enough to further the Malay cause (do you know that under Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution, the government has a constitutional responsibility to protect and ensure the survival of the indigenous Malay community?), that does not mean that the Malay community themselves are not to blame; that something in the Malay culture is in need of a revolution so as to make our beliefs and traditions symbiotic with the flow of modernisation and progress. A balance must be struck between the lack of political resources and the cultural deficit thesis proposed by Ms Lily Zubaidah and Dr Mahathir to really reflect the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue both in Malaysia and Singapore. I might even suggest that we learn from each other so that both communities united, under the banner of the nusantara, can actually be a cultural force to be reckoned with, like the Chinese and the Indians in the world today.
On a slightly different note, I just received a letter by Mendaki. As some of my closer Malay friends know, I have always expressed anti-Mendaki tendencies, simply because of its elitist standpoint (which Ms Lily Zubaidah argues is in line with PAP’s meritocratic zeal for the intellectual elite). And also because of the fact that they forgot about me after the O-levels, even though I got eight A1s and 2B3s. And irony of all ironies, “We are pleased to inform you that you have been identified to receive for the above award (Anugerah Mendaki). The reward is a one off cash of $*** and a Certificate of Merit.” My first reaction was that of shock simply because my results weren’t particularly fantastic (3As, 1C, 1Merit for History S and A2 for GP). Were the results for the Malay batch this year that bad?
I’ll leave it at that.