Malay-Muslim Community / Meritocracy

Minding the (Stubborn) Gaps – Courage for Change?

Member of Parliament Mr Zainudin Nordin remarked wrote in his letter to Sunday Times:

“Mr Nizam’s refusal to see the improvements made but to instead lean on phrases like ‘stubborn gaps’ and ‘social inequality among the races’ is puzzling”.

Mr Zainudin instead paints a glossy picture of the achievements of the Malay-Muslim Community (MMC), stating that the Malays have “risen in education, family togetherness, employability and quality of life over the years through consistent effort.”

Mr Zainudin appears to be puzzled by my statement that there are gaps between the MMC and other Singapore communities. 

Mr Zainudin’s misgivings, however, goes against the grain of data.  The hard reality is that there are gaps in many important metrics between the MMC and other communities. 

Some of these gaps are stubborn.  It is puzzling to conclude otherwise. 

Absolute and Relative Performance

The Establishment’s favoured narrative is that the MMC has improved its lot compared to where it was 10 or 20 years ago (absolute performance).   We will examine this point shortly.

But the reality is that there are significant gaps in achievement between the MMC and other communities in Singapore (relative performance). 

Should we worry about relative performance

In a fiercely competitive Singapore, it IS relative performance that is the more relevant metric.  The MMC has to compete with others for admission to the best schools and tertiary institutions, scholarships, and for the best jobs.   When it comes to the crunch, it makes little difference if a Malay student has a bag of grades of Bs and Cs, when others have As and Bs.

PM Lee Hsien Loong has described Singapore (in his speech during the Opening of Parliament in 2011) as a society where income inequality is now ‘starker than before’, and the accompanying social stratification in which, as he noted, ‘the children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well’. 

In other words, social mobility gets harder in a competitive Singapore.  With the influx of “foreign talent”, the level of competition for Singaporeans will increase. 

And relative performance becomes more critical.

The MMC now has to benchmark itself against the best global talents.  Where the MMC was 10 paces behind in the race, it now risks being 15 paces behind.

The effects of these gaps, some of which persistent, become more significant. 

Gaps in Education

Education is said to be a social leveler (though PM Lee acknowledged that it is harder for disadvantaged communities to excel in education in the current Singapore on their own). 

Education metrics is therefore key.   Let us look at the educational performance of the Malay-Muslim community in absolute terms.   Have there really been gains in absolute terms in the recent years?

The chart shows a general improvement trend across PSLE and GCE O level metrics from 1985 onwards.  However, when one studies the data more closely, especially in the more recent years, we observe the following:  

  • There has been a decline in PSLE English examination results from 1995;
  • PSLE Maths Results have largely plateaued and slightly dipped from 1995; and
  • GCE O Level results have actually declined from 2005.

Hence, even in absolute terms, the key educational metrics is far from a rosy picture. 

The stagnation of some key PSLE metrics for Malay children over the last 17 years is a cause for worry.

Relative Metrics

The metrics look worse in relative terms. 

When looking at educational charts across ethnic groups, the picture is predictably discouraging – the Malay line typically props up the other Chinese and the Indian lines.  This has been the frustrating trend historically, and persists till to-date.  

For more than 27 years, despite many social programs, the MMC has not caught up with other communities.

Let us look at some key metrics, first GCE O Level results:

In relation to GCE O Level Examinations (whether based on 3 or 5 subject passes), there is a clear gap between the performance of Malay and other students.  The familiar story of the Malay line propping the Indian and Chinese line is clearly told here. 

Remember, we are looking at relative metrics.  This determines which of the students stand a chance of making it to better Junior Colleges and Polytechnics. Malay students are clearly disadvantaged.

What is worrying is that the gaps appear to widen in the more recent years (since 2005).  In fact, there is a considerable gap (> 20 % points) between Malay and Chinese lines.

We now turn to Mathematics, a key subject in a knowledge-based economy and an area of focus by the state-sponsored self-help group Mendaki.  Here,  the gaps are significant and still persist across PSLE and GCE “O” Level examinations. 

The Maths gap appears to be widening in recent years, and remains a large one (around 20% points compared with Chinese students). 

Additionally, Malay students are over-represented in the Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) streams, in Learning Support Programs and in Foundation Programs.

Based on published data, more than a quarter of each cohort of Malay students are in the Learning Support Program.  A significant percentage of Malay students are therefore already lagging and trying to play catch-up even at Primary School level. In truth, many will never catch up. Early educational streaming has a further negative impact in terms of perpetuating a low self-esteem.

The other metric of concern relates to admission to universities. Here, we see that the number of university qualified Malays has not improved significantly since 2005, hovering at around the 5% level.  This contrasts with that of 22.8 % nationally.  This is a significant gap.  With fewer university graduates, this impacts on the community’s ability to represent itself in higher value added jobs.  This difference is amplified in a highly stratified and competitive Singapore. 

The education metrics therefore show some persistent and significant gaps.    

In my view, we have not made sufficient progress, especially in relative terms.  In some ways, the MMC has regressed.

Income Gaps

There is hard data showing a direct correlation between socio-economic standing and educational performance.  Unfortunately, the data is not published.  There is unpublished data showing that Malay children in 4-room HDB flats generally fare better than those in 3-room flats.  This is a similar trend for Chinese and Indian students. 

The income metrics discussed below must be seen in this light. Lower income families are less able to afford quality pre-school education, enrichment and tuition classes and other resources for their children.   As PM Lee himself mentioned in his speech during the Opening of Parliament in 2011, ‘the children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well‘. 

In terms of income, Malays continue to earn less than the other community.  Their lower socio-economic standing, when coupled with existing the gaps in education, act as a “double whammy”.

In absolute terms, based on the median household income (median metrics are a better gauge, as there is less distortion from extremes) there has been an increase in the Malay median monthly income between 2000 and 2010 (from $2,709 to $3,844).  Of course, this metric means less when one considers the increasing costs of living in Singapore.

More importantly, the relative metrics tell a different story. The gap between Malays and that of other communities has actually widened, as shown below.

When looking at personal income ratio (Malay median personal income compared to national median personal income), the trend shows a widening gap.

Turning to income ratio (Malay Median Income when compared against National Median Income as a percentage), Malays actually had better income ratio in 1975-80 (> 100%). However, the trend took a turn from the 1980s.  Other communities earned more, through higher education and skills.  Also, foreign skilled workers pulled average incomes to higher levels, leaving lower skilled workers behind.

In short, in relative terms, Malays have considerably less median personal income compared to the national levels. 

We have become relatively poorer.

Worse, a 2005 report from the Department of Statistics, Singapore showed that the community’s monthly household net income drew a small negative (income of $2,830 against an expenditure of $2,844). The negative net income balance means that the community is barely making ends meet.

Turning to employment metrics, the MMC finds itself in a disadvantaged position, being over-represented in the lower-income level jobs.  The easy availability of cheaper foreign labour further depresses the wages of the Malay worker. 

The following chart shows that while Malays have more representation now (2010) in Group 1 jobs (Administrative/Managerial, Professional/Technical, Technicians/Associates), we are still over-represented (34.5%) in Group III jobs (Production, related, other)

Another metric worth noting is that there is increasing unemployment among Malays aged 40 years and above (5.7% compared to the national average of 4.2%), primarily due to skills mismatch and lower educational profile.

 When one juxtaposes these metrics– lower median income, over-representation in lower income jobs, negative household balance, relatively higher unemployment rates, it is clear that there is a worrying gap. 

When one juxtaposes these income metrics against the education metrics, the prognosis looks more than doubly bleak.

Social Gaps

 The story, however, does not end here.

 There are metrics where the Malays are ahead of the other communities.  The Malays are over-represented in the negative social metrics: 

  • High divorce rates of 39% in 2010 compared to 30.4% nationally (though this was an improvement from 47% in 2005 and 40% in 2000). 
  • High abortion rates (more than a third of all abortions annually) and teenage birth rates
  • Higher rates of single-parent families (which is an increasing trend)
  • Re-emergence of the drug problem (forming 48% of persons arrested in 2010 for drugs)

 These charts tell the story.

How did We Land Up Here?

There are well documented historical and structural factors factors that have contributed to the current malaise of the Malays.  I cannot do justice to these discussion in this blog post.

In brief, studies point roots of the educational problem since the feudal days of Malay sultans, pre-colonialization.  Malay rulers and elites ignored the educational and intellectual needs of the Malay commoners. 

When the British colonialists arrived, they too ignored the growth needs of the native Malays, preferring to promote the educational needs of the ruling class. 

There were 2 classes of education – a privileged, western type education for the ruling class, and a very rudimentary, restricted form of education for the masses, meant to block any form of upward mobility but to accustom the “Asiatic to regular habits of subordination”.   The colonial elites had wanted to preserve the top positions in political, economical and social hierarchies for themselves and their children.

Malay vernacular schools were set up, but really meant to prepare Malays for living as fishermen and farmers.  Religious schools also grew in popularity as a revolt to the arrival of colonialists, but were inadequately resourced.

Malays thus become handicapped in English and intellectual development, leading them to occupy junior or low-income jobs during the colonial rule.  This only reinforces and perpetuates poverty. 

These long-standing educational under attainment has perpetuated when Singapore became independent and pursued the ideals of Meritocracy, along with its attendant issues of perpetuating differences between the haves and the have nots.

Early streaming in education had the effect of further polarizing Malay students.

The approach by the State was to effectively characterize the problem as a community problem, forming Mendaki 30 years ago to champion community self-help in education. Notably, Mr S Rajaratnam was opposed to these community-centric approaches to education, as these ran counter to the vision of establishing a common Singapore identity “where race, religion and language does [sic] not matter”.  

Initial efforts spearheaded by Mendaki  in addressing the Malay educational gaps focused on tuition classes.  These, however, do not address the multifaceted nature of the educational problem – often linked to other equally important socio-economic factors. 

Do We Have Courage for Real Change?

I hope I have demystified any puzzled views on whether there are gaps between the MMC and other communities.  

These gaps are real.  They are significant.  They are persistent.

I think it will not be responsible for anyone to accept these gaps as acceptable and lull ourselves into a sense of self-delusion.  Let us not create an excuse for not pursuing real change, even if it means relooking fundamental issues.

It’s not an issue of my not having confidence in the MMC, as Mr Zainudin characterized.  

It’s an issue of recognizing the inherent handicap that the MMC has, and the need to level up the playing field.

The risk of not addressing these persistent gaps is obvious – the MMC risks further marginalization.   Low self-esteem leads to an erosion of confidence.  Hopelessness sets in.  Social mobility stutters.  An underclass (which is already emerging) becomes more visible.  

I have had separate conversations with two Ministers (one of whom was an ethnic minority).  I asked them if they think the MMC would catch up with other communities in the next 20 to 30 years.  Both replied in the negative.  This is worrying because (1) there is a tacit acceptance that the gaps will persist; and  (2) we seem to be resigned to the current paradigm and cannot even visualize the possibility that the gaps will be removed in the next 20 to 30 years.

I say this – the MMC simply cannot afford to be laggards in Singapore for one more generation and lose itself out to the many opportunities that should be availed to them. 

Indeed, Singapore cannot afford to have any community marginalized.  There are particular risks where class lines coincide with racial lines.

The MMC has had many self-help programs, primarily community-based, over the last 30 years. While we acknowledge the high level of self-help within the MMC, the current approach has simply not yielded enough results.  This is the hard reality.

We need to have the courage to look at structural reform.  I suggest the following: 

  • Looking at issues of under-attainment as national and not community issues.   The reality is that the issues of educational under-attainment are complex and are multifaceted.  They also cut across different communities.  The state should play a more strategic leadership role.  They can still partner with Voluntary Welfare Organizations to reach out to specific communities.  It is in the State’s interest that every child is developed to his fullest potential.
  • Taking a holistic approach for any social intervention programme.  Tuition classes by itself would not work.  Educational attainment is linked to a family’s financial stability.  Issues of financial management and other issues (e.g. delinquency) must be addressed holistically.
  • A greater state commitment to social safety nets. This has been subject to great debate in Singapore.  Quoting former GIC Chief Economist, Mr Yeoh Lam Keong, our social safety nets are not “future ready”.  Singapore’s spending of around 17 % GDP is among the lowest in the developed world compared to 35-40 % of GDP in most OECD countries or 25-30 % of GDP in other advanced Asian economies.  Singapore’s current levels of spending are low even by historical standards of up to 25 % of GDP seen in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Singapore can afford to return to these previous levels of public spending while maintaining competitiveness and long-term fiscal sustainability.
  • Finally, revising Meritocracy and debunking its Myth.  There must be real diversity, which does not happen by chance.  Real opportunities must be given to minorities and disadvantaged communities (not just MMC).  There must be a shift in thinking – affirmative action is not a bad word.  Affirmative action policies have been described as seeking to realign the balance of power and opportunity by doing what is, at heart, quite simple: affirmatively including the formerly excluded – which is the case for the MMC.

Finally, we must effect real change and walk the talk of creating a truly inclusive and Singapore – a land of real hope and real opportunities, as it should be. 

The charts and data used above are derived mostly from Government sources. Please contact myself if you require any further details. 

Thank you, dearest Oniatta Effendi, for proofreading this on a stormy Thursday night.


3 thoughts on “Minding the (Stubborn) Gaps – Courage for Change?

  1. Do you have any suggestions as to what affirmative action policies can be crafted, whilst preserving meritocracy?

    I think it is important to have specific policy proposals given that you are going against the orthodoxy of this government and the perception of championing minority interests over the majority (which is obviously unnecessary if issues of marginality are treated ethnic-blind and are elevated to the national level – S. Rajaratnam was right).

    Unfortunately I am rather pessimistic that structural reform will occur given how ossified the thinking of this government is, and also the risk that any such reform will be a failure.

    • Dear H.S. Ahmad,

      Thank you for question.

      There are many models of affirmative action and diversity practices (which are actually different).

      I am actually planning to write another piece on this. Actually, the GRC system in Singapore is already an affirmative action practice in Singapore (even from Govt narratives) – the intent is to give a minority a seat in Parliament which he otherwise would not get (putting aside the other issues relating to the GRC system). So the Government has already embraced affirmative action – so why not extend it to other areas?

      In truth, I think the Govt does try to have some minority representation (e.g. in the boards of statutory boards). So they are not as orthodox about meritocracy as they say they are. Let’s be honest and upfront about this – the government does know the value of minority representation. Let’s openly accept the merits of this, and employ this in a systematic manner in education, employment and other areas. Also, if meritocracy is sacrosanct, then why not apply meritocracy in sensitive positions in the SAF? The state should not be cherry picking where it wants to implement meritocracy. It is not as hard wired as they say it is.

      One model of affirmative proposed by then MP K Shanmugam was one which he thought was consistent with the principles of meritocracy – i.e. you set a set of standards or requirements. Suppose 10 candidates all meet that, then pick the minorities.

      I am doing some reading and reflection and will think of some workable models for Singapore.


  2. Thank you bro Nizam, for the very well researched and thoughtful analysis of the Malays’ persistent gap problem. Me thinks the Hon MP who was “puzzled” by this gap problem was either in denial or delusional …or both. I feel depressed reading your article..more so knowing that NOTHING much had been done to resolve the myriad problems facing us Malays…after 30 years or so of Mendaki …what have we achieved ????..Sure we can make a big song and dance of the some successes that come along…BUT ..the statistics show that you say…a persistent and increasing gap between the Malays and others…Very sorry..I don’t even pretend that I can offer any solutions..I am an ordinary Mat ..I look to our highly paid political leaders to provide the solutions and leadership to galvanise the Malays out of this rut…I say is time for them to earn their huge gaji..and deliver the goods…or else boot them out….

    On a related matter…we Malays too,as a whole…must play our part to pull ourselves up..every little bit helps..for example..if you had done your haj, don’t go again lah..give others who are first-timers a chance..donate that spare money not used for the 2nd/3rd haj to Mendaki/AMP/Jamiyah what ever, for the betterment of all Malays/Muslims ..of course ..rather than go for umpteen umrahs..donate that money…in my humble opinion that would be as good an ibadah as going for umrahs..if not better… as you will be helping the Malays/ Muslims as a whole…. Wassallam, Mas Mike.

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