Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are more than 600,000 Malays in Singapore (Statistics Singapore, 2006), or 13.6 percent of the population, and they have inhabited the Malay Peninsula for millennia. Their presence in Singapore predates the much more recent arrival of Chinese and Indian migrants during British colonial rule. They speak an Austronesian language which is widespread throughout the peninsula, as well as parts of Sumatra, Borneo, and southern Thailand. Malay culture is closely intertwined with Islam, as the vast majority of Malays are Sunni Muslims.
The Malays have inhabited the region for millennia, though the size of their population in what is now Singapore by 1819 is a matter of some controversy. Before the arrival of the British, most Malays had converted from Hinduism, Buddhism and animism to Islam by about the early 15th century. It is widely thought that from the mid-19th century to just after the Second World War, the Malay population of Singapore received an influx of migrants from parts of nearby Indonesia, including many from Java, Sumatra and other nearby islands, as well as from the Malay Peninsula.
Partially because they were deemed to be reliable and loyal, British authorities in Singapore actively favoured the Malay minority for employment in areas such as the police, the armed forces, and lower levels of the public service. Thus, in 1961, more than half of Singapore’s Malays depended on employment in the public sector. Independence was to signal the death throes of this preferential treatment for Malays and a gradual slide in terms of their relative economic and social position in Singaporean society, as they were to be replaced by Chinese in the police, armed forces and the public service in general to a much lower level considered less disproportionate.
Malays benefited like many others as Singapore moved towards successful modernising as one of Asia’s tiger economies of the 1970s. But the general trend after independence has also been one where this minority seemed to be destined to occupy the bottom rungs of society, a situation sometimes attributed to the obstacle created by the level of English required for high-paying professional and technical jobs when relatively few Malays knew that language well. Only 1.5 percent of university graduates were Malay in 1980, and by the late 1980s their average earnings were about 70 percent of those of the Chinese majority. A number of public policies – though not affirmative action programmes – in the 1990s sought to improve the Malays’ economic status, and have had limited success. By mid-1990, 38 percent of Malay families earned $3000 or more per month, while in 1990 there were only 23% in 1990. Overall, few Malays occupy high-level political or civil service positions, and they remain underrepresented in categories of employment such as the armed forces and the police.
While Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution recognises the special position of Malays as the indigenous people of Singapore, as well as the government’s responsibility ‘to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language’, resentment at their relative weakness in employment and political terms as well as the perceived favoritism towards ethnic Chinese continue to create tensions which appear to have increased since 2001. The ban on headscarves (tudung) in public schools led to three school girls being removed from school in 2002 and to some criticism of the government’s policies towards the Malay, as well as to the fining of an opposition political figure who criticised this policy in the same year. Members of the Malay minority also point out that Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans in public schools, and that the banning of headscarves is arguably discriminatory.
There are continuing policies which seem to disadvantage and even discriminate against Malays: the ban of newspapers printed in Malaysia and the state-funded ‘State Assistance Plan’, where specially designated and funded schools – all of which teach in Mandarin and English – provide an enriched teaching and learning environment for academically gifted students. None of them teach in Malay, and almost all students attending these schools are Chinese. Some in the Malay minority see this as a government-led effort to create a Chinese political and economic elite from which they are excluded, since the State Assistance Plan in effect offers special promotion and support for the Chinese language and culture only. Malays sees in this support as a double-standard as compared to the government’s growing restrictions on private Malay religious-based primary schools which saw from 2002 an entry quota of only 400 students on new admissions being imposed. According to local press reports, in response to concern from the Malay / Muslim community regarding the fate of madrassahs (Islamic religious schools), the Government temporarily exempted madrassah students from compulsory school attendance. This means that if a madrassah does not meet minimum academic standards by 2008, its students would have to transfer either to a madrassah that does or to a national school.
There is additionally resentment that the Malay language is not as protected or promoted as is Mandarin, which benefits from a government-sponsored ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’. This again is perceived by Malays in particular as leading to requirements of fluency in Mandarin which could be used to discriminate against them. Despite English being Singapore’s lingua franca, many businesses in the private sector appear to require some knowledge of Mandarin, with the result of excluding many non-Chinese, and Malays in particular.
The 2006 parliamentary elections saw the election of 12 Malay MPs under the governing PAP banner, a number which corresponds to the minority’s share of the population, though only one Malay sits in the Cabinet of 19 ministers. Overall, Malays remain largely underrepresented in areas such as the judiciary, where for example there are no Malays sitting on the Supreme Court.
Malays continue to be excluded Malays from certain military professions and sections, including Intelligence, the Navy, and Air Force.
Updated June 2015