Meritocracy comes under attack
December 19, 2000
By Shamsul Akmar
A question of loyalty: the Malays in Singapore
WHETHER the citizenry likes it or not, the small island republic of Singapore, with a population of less than 20 per cent of Malaysia's, lies at its feet like a sore toe.
When Malaysia decided to expel Singapore from the two-year-old federation, then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman described it as a move to cut off a cancerous element.
Since then, the ties between Malaysia and Singapore have continued, albeit with strains at irregular intervals.
The more recent history had shown ties becoming strained because of unsolicited remarks made by Singapore leaders about Malaysia, especially its Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
In the last decade, there was one statement by Lee which almost jeopardised bilateral ties when he spoke about future unification of the two countries.
It would have been fine if he had left it at that. However, he had to add an extra line to it, that it (the unification) would only be possible when Malaysia practised meritocracy.
His statement was received with much anger among Malaysian leaders, especially the Malays, because meritocracy is deemed as a condescending way of Lee to run down Malaysia's policy of giving special treatment to the Malays.
Much as many a Malaysian was unhappy with Lee's statement, there were others who believed that the Singaporean policy of meritocracy, read as equal opportunity to all, is the ultimate in pursuing social justice.
However, the myth of the highly-proclaimed policy of the PAP-led Singapore government seems to be shattered if one were to read the book Singapore Dilemma (Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community) written by Lily Zubaidah Rahim.
The book with 302 pages was published in 1998 by the Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur. Lily Zubaidah is a lecturer with the Department of Economic History, University of Sydney, Australia, and of an illustrious Singaporean Malay family.
Her father A. Rahim Ishak was once Singapore's Foreign Minister while her uncle Yusof Ishak was the first president of the republic.
The preface of her book is enough to spark a curious mind on what meritocracy is all about. She started off with her own curiosity during her youth as to why there were so few Malay role models for young Malays like her.
Her curiosity also made her question why the Malays persistently remained socio-economically marginalised in the ostensibly meritocratic and multi-racial oasis of Singapore.
She also wanted to know why Malay youths were not called up for "compulsory" national service. It was from these "unanswered whys" that was the spark that led her to writing the book.
In the book, apart from discussing at length why the policy of meritocracy in Singapore is not a fair and just system as portrayed, she also pointed out how the PAP government uses the cultural deficit thesis to justify the marginality of the Malays in the republic.
One of the more pertinent points Lily Zubaidah raised was the fact that the socio-economic and educational position of the Malays in Singapore which, not only showed negligible signs of improvement but had, in fact deteriorated, by the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
"It became increasingly evident that the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) brand of meritocracy and multiracialism had failed the Malays."
She argued that this led the PAP government to increasingly rely on the cultural deficit thesis to explain the intractability of Malay marginality.
The cultural deficit thesis essentially posits that socially disadvantaged ethnic communities have remained economically and educationally marginalised primarily because of their negative values and generally moribund attitudes.
This, in turn, creates the material conditions that produces their social disadvantage. "This approach has served to deflect criticism against the efficacy and judiciousness of PAP's minimalist, multiracial and meritocracy stance.
"Such a discourse absolves the state from the responsibilities of implementing structural reforms and actively assisting the marginalised community with the aim of narrowing the socio-economic and educational disparity between the ethnic communities," wrote Lily Zubaidah.
Having utilised the cultural deficit thesis to absolve itself from the marginality of the Malays, the PAP Government went on to adopt a minimalist approach to the problem.
The Government's 1979 New Education Policy, in essence promoting the elitist and eugenics-oriented education system, had enhanced the importance of material and cultural capital in educational attainment.
Policies such as early streaming, privatisation of premier schools and rising cost of education had made it less effective as a vehicle for social mobility among the lower income Singaporeans.
In short, these led to the fact that meritocracy is rendered a contradiction to democracy and social justice.
The results of such policies led to another discriminatory move which benefited the more intelligent, powerful and wealthy.
Lily Zubaidah also wrote about the manner in which the PAP Government carried out "political engineering" exercises to dilute the electoral clout of the Malay community.
In Part II of her book on the Containment of Malay Politics, the chapter and sub-chapters which discussed the minimising of the Malays' political resources, Lily Zubaidah details the political resources and strategies used by the PAP.
This political engineering had managed to maintain the numerical minority status of Malays apart from diluting their electoral clout through the urban resettlement programmes, ethnic residential quotas and the Group Representative Constituencies (GRC).
Through the urban resettlement programmes and ethnic residential quotas, dominant Malay electorates in constituencies like Pasir Panjang, Kaki Bukit, Geylang Serai and Bedok were diluted.
The policy of ethnic residential quotas for public housing estates, introduced in 1989, ensured that the Malays did not constitute more than 20 per cent of the total population of any constituency and 22 per cent of the total population of any public housing block.
This, in effect, led to a situation in which the Malays will be a minority in all constituencies resulting in a situation whereby no Malay-supported parties could dream of winning.
And as if the "political engineering" is not enough to marginalise the Malays, the PAP government ensured that its liberal immigration and labour policies maintained Chinese dominance in the republic.
When faced with the increasing Malay population, the Singapore government invited the Chinese of Hong Kong to the republic.
Apart from Chinese from Hong Kong, the republic's immigration and labour policies were also liberal towards Chinese from Taiwan and Macau, and migrants from these islands were encouraged to settle in Singapore to ensure the number of Chinese remained high.
These are among other things highlighted by Lily Zubaidah in her book.
Much as these are factors besieging Singapore and her Malay citizenry, it is difficult not to be able to relate to some of it given the historical legacy the two nations share apart from the physical proximity they have.
But after reading the book, there is one thing for sure - meritocracy, the pride of the Singapore government, does not seem that attractive any more.