The Singapore Dilemma: Book review
Book fuels mistrust of meritocracy
The Singapore Dilemma The Singapore Dilemma is by Lily Zubaidah Rahim. It's published by Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1998. ISBN 983 56 00325, 320 pp
The Singapore Dilemma's conspicuous absence in the book shelves of major Singaporean bookstores and the failure of the mainstream Singaporean papers to review this important study may be indicative of the establishment's uneasy response to Rahim's critical interrogation of the practice of multiracialism and meritocracy in Singapore.
The study has attempted to demonstrate the salience of historical, ideological, and institutional factors in contributing towards the socio-economic marginality of the Malay community and other marginal Singaporeans. It posits that the education system, particularly since the implementation of the 1979 New Education Policy (NEP) and post-NEP policies such as early streaming, the establishment of independent, autonomous and monoethnic schools and the rising costs of education, has enhanced the importance of material and cultural capital in educational attainment. Put simply, the education system has become a more tenuous vehicle for social mobility.
While multiracialism at the cultural level is encouraged in Singapore, the empirical evidence presented in the study does suggest that multiracialism and equal opportunity, particularly at the institutional level, are far from satisfactory. Government policies such as the ethnic residential quotas, population policies based on 'maintaining the racial balance', educational programmes such as the Special Assistance Programme (SAP) and the exclusion of Malays from 'sensitive' units in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are some of the more obvious illustrations of the dereliction of the multiracial and equal opportunity ideals in Singapore.
Rahim cogently argues that the persistence of the Malay community on the socio-economic and educational fringes of society constitutes an unhealthy obstacle towards improving relations between Malays and non-Malays and with Singapore's Malay neighbours. Significantly, the Singaporean Malay insecurity stemming from their socio-economic and political marginality and the Chinese insecurity as a result of their numerical minority status in a Malay region have reinforced and augmented one another. If relations with neighbouring Malay nations are to qualitatively improve the narrowing of the socio-economic gap between the Malay and Chinese community in Singapore is imperative.
The Malay marginality, which is inextricably linked to the fundamental questions of multiracialism and social justice, exposes the institutional and structural bases of social disadvantage in Singapore. Rahim's proposition that the Singapore Malay marginality is a national dilemma that cannot be satisfactorily resolved without seriously addressing the myriad interlocking dilemmas extant in contemporary Singapore is timely, thought provoking and essential reading for those appreciative of critical scholarly studies on Singapore.
Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim is a lecturer with the Department of Economic History, University of Sydney, Australia.