Community Leadership / Malay-Muslim Community / Meritocracy

A National Approach to the “Malay” Problem

The State has largely defined issues affecting the Malay-Muslim Community (MMC) in Singapore as community issues.


This has largely defined the way we address these problems – by placing the heavy burden on the Community, and in particular Malay-Muslim Organizations (MMOs), to find solutions.  This has, not surprisngly, been an uphill struggle which has yielded limited results. 


I have previously advocated a paradigm shift in the way we look at issues affecting the MMC – i.e. we need to look at these as national, and not as community issues.  This was a systemic defect that needed to be changed. 

I was heartened and welcomed the approach taken by Senior Minister of State Masagos Zulkifli as reported in the Straits Times on 15 Nov 2012. 

That article attracted controversy because some felt it reinforced the drug problem as a “Malay issue”, and was insensitive in the portrayal of a group of Malay boys clad in traditional baju kurung.  Some also felt that the timing of the article on the first day of the Islamic New Year was wrong. 

Putting aside that controversy, what I found significant was the statement by Masagos Zulkifli that the State is taking a national approach in addressing the drug problem.  He mentioned that a steering committee has been formed to implement the recommendations of a task force earlier, that “this will put this effort at the national level”. 

Masagos Zulkifli disagreed with Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap’s suggestion of forming a Malay committee be formed, stating that “what we need is the increase in concerted effort, not another new committee”. 

And rightly so.   The drug issue is a complex problem.  No MMO can address this on its own, and even if they collaborate with other MMOs.


Another significant development was a Facebook updated by MP Zainal Sapari 16 Feb 2012.  He mentioned that Masagos Zulkilfi’s statement reflected this was “in important first step because we want many issues facing the community e.g. educational, social problems etc to be addressed at the national level where more resources will then be given”.

I agree wholeheartedly with this approach. 

We should look at issues of educational under-attainment and social issues as national issues. 


MMOs lack the resources and expertise to fully understand the complexity of problems faced by the Community.   MMOs have limited access to published data.  This impairs their ability to strategize and implement effective programs as state agencies would. No MMO can adequately deal with the enormity of the drug problem.



Let us take the drug problem as an example.  Because this is tackled by the State as a national issue, MHA would be able to work with various other government agencies, eg MSF/MCCY (social support for affected families), Prisons (rehabilitation),  MOE (education), MICA (public education programs) to devise a strategic and comprehensive approach in tackling the drug problem. Of course, MMOs can still play a role as outreach agents, in providing help to families of drug users, or in giving ground feedback to policy makers. 


Turning to education and social issues, I have in my previous blog post, set out the many persistent gaps in these areas that continue to afflict the Community.   These are equally critical issues for the community to address.  Indeed, social ills (e.g. dysfunctional families or juvenile delinquency) or even educational issues (e.g. under attainment leading to disenfranchisement) could have a bearing on the drug issue.


Let us now look at the education problem.  It is intertwined with the issues of socio-economic standing of the family, juvenile delinquency and also broader educational policies.


To be truly effective, a program in addressing educational problems will require support from and engagement with various state and community organizations to address the following: 

  • Support for parents in the form of financial or monetary management, to understand their roles as parents, to provide retraining/re-employment opportunities where needed, to provide them with skills to help their children in education, to motivate the entire family unit.  This involves engaging MCYS and various family service centres.
  • Holistic support for students (quality and affordable pre-school, learning support programs, affective learning/inspirational talks, career planning, internship and attachments, mentorship, creating role models, counseling, scholarships and bursaries, financial support for lower income families to buy books/school uniforms or for pocket money, focused programs to increase the number of graduates within the MMC, sustained campaigns). This involves engaging MOE, schools, educational service providers, family service centres, professional or business leaders, VWOs etc.
  • Policy changes in education (e.g. advocating a more egalitarian and nurturing system such as the Finnish model, rethinking streaming, proposing alternatives to “high-stakes” examinations such as the PSLE, smaller classroom sizes, nurturing quality educators, advocating a culturally sensitive pedagogy, conducting research to support policy changes).  This involves engaging MOE, NIE, education experts, schools etc. 
  • Addressing social issues (e.g. juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, involvement in gangs, bullying etc).  This involves engaging MHA, MCYS, schools, remand centres, family service centres.
  • Addressing the ill effects of meritocracy in perpetuating class and income divide, and exploring ways to create real opportunities for disadvantaged communities and encourage diversity (e.g. a class-based affirmative action).  I will write more about this.

There are many ongoing debates at the national level.  The MMC should participate in these as Singaporeans, as these issues have a direct bearing on the well-being of the MMC (especially as it is over-represented in the lower socio-economic rungs).  For instance: 

  • Debate on strengthening social safety nets (in light of growing social stratification).  The MMC stands to benefit from policies which pursue inclusive growth or more egalitarian measures.
  • Debate on population and immigration issues – especially in relation to the impact of immigration on lower-waged workers. 
  • Debate on cost of living (housing and other basic needs)

These are just some of my initial ideas.  I am sure there are more that can be done to address the educational under-attainment issue. 


I am sure that further ideas will point towards a multi dimensional approach in addressing educational problem.  This will make the case for a national approach for education even more compelling.  


2 thoughts on “A National Approach to the “Malay” Problem

  1. Pingback: 13 things President Tony Tan said to re-open parliament that sounded like they were recycled from past statements | Mothership.SG

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