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Singapore’s Malay dilemma

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 2 July 2020

There has always been a feeling among Singapore's ethnic Malays that they are second-class citizens within their own land. The government's endless pursuit of building a strong sense of a Singaporean national identity has come up short within the 750,000-odd Malays who make up 13.5 percent of the population.

A paradox of communal introspection exists, a cognitive dissonance between being a Malay and being a Singaporean. However, this remains largely unspoken about today, particularly among the younger generation.

The Singaporean constitution recognizes the special position of the Malays, who are officially defined as the indigenous people of Singapore. This section also gives the government the responsibility to protect, safeguard, support, foster, and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests, and their language.


Although Malays have progressed with the growing affluence of Singapore, Malays still earn 25 percent less than the national average, lagging far behind ethnic Chinese and Indians. Malays are still participating in higher-education below par with the rest of the Singaporean population, leading to a great under-representation within the professional classes, elite government positions, armed forces and police. Malays have a much higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions and other fatal diseases, than the rest of the population.

What's more, Malays have been blamed for this in the public media as having a cultural deficit, being stereotyped as undertaking unhealthy cultural practices.

They suffer discrimination in hiring, are the first group laid off due to business shutdowns from Covid-19 restrictions, are over-represented in crime, drug abuse and the prison population. Even with their status protected by the constitution place, Malays are seriously hindered by regulations restricting the operation of traditional small-scale business enterprises (Niaga kecil/gerai) from home. Consequently, the incidence of social and economic poverty in Singapore falls primarily on ethnic Malays, with a prevailing sense of anguish within the community.

The constitution states that there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation, or employment.

However, the government's ethnic integration program (EIP) and Housing Development Board (HDB) policy of allocating apartments within estates to reflect the multiracial composition of Singapore society has totally ignored the cultural context of the Malay kampong. This sense of community, a pillar of Malay culture, has been totally destroyed.

Racial marking within HDB estates has institutionalized ethnic identity, leading to discrimination. This has brought restrictions upon Malays buying and selling apartments in HDB estates, effectively marginalizing them within the housing market.


Within the Singapore Armed Forces discrimination is blatant. In 1987 Lee Hsien Loong, then second minister of defense, said "if there is a conflict, if the SAF is called upon to defend our homeland, we don't want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where the emotions for the nation may come into conflict with his emotions for religion, because these two very strong fundamentals, and if they are not compatible, then they will be two very destructive forces in opposite directions."

In 1999, Lee Kwan Yew himself echoed the same sentiments about the conflict of interest Malays might have if Singapore was in conflict with Malaysia. However, Singapore's Malays had a long tradition of service in the armed forces under British colonial command. Removing them from combat positions into logistics and administration has been very difficult to accept. Subtle methods like using Mandarin at higher ranks act as steep barriers to entry for Malays. This feeling of mistrust erodes any sense of national unity and true Singaporean identity. Malays are deeply dissuaded from pursuing any career within the armed forces. This is a stark contradiction to claims of meritocracy in government.

It's not just within the armed forces. Many Malays feel discriminated against within the general workforce according to repeated workplace surveys that have found around three-quarters of them feel ignored when applying for jobs. Many say that education, language proficiency and race are negative attributes in job interviews. The organization One has argued that not enough has been done through employers to address the issue, a major area the government needs to focus upon.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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