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A question of loyalty: the Malays in Singapore

NEARLY 13 years ago, then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew triggered a debate about Malay loyalty with televised comments he made before a university audience (December 1986). Lee stated that the government had taken two opinion polls prior to and following the visit of Israeli President Chiam Herzog (November 1986) to the republic.

The poll found that the number of Malay respondents who were not against the visit fell sharply from one poll to the next, while the proportion of non-Malays who did not oppose the visit rose marginally.

Lee interpreted this to mean that "in certain circumstances, the Malay Singaporeans react with the emphasis on Malay/Muslim rather than Singaporean.

An article in the Far Eastern Economic Review Asia 1998 Yearbook (pg 222f) says, "To Lee this came down to a question of loyalty : "Are we sure that in a moment of crisis, when the heat is on, we are all together heart to heart? I hope so. But we ought to have a fallback position and quickly fill up all the missing hearts if some go missing."

The same article says, "In February 1987, Lee's son commented further on the status of the Malays in an open forum on why Malays do not hold sensitive positions in the armed forces. Explaining that there are no Malay fighter pilots, for example, because their religion might conflict with their duty to Singapore, he provoked a backlash of criticism from the Muslim community in addition to Singapore's Muslim neighbours."

The article goes on to say, "these statements represented some of the most frank public commentaries ever made by Singapore's political leaders on the role of the Malays, which continues to stir emotions among the Malay community."

As recently as September 18, Mr Lee, speaking at a Singapore 21 forum said, the reality is that while Singapore has made progress in integrating the different races, certain emotional bonds are instinctive and cannot be removed overnight. (Straits Times September 19, 1999)

Asked by a polytechnic student if Singapore could overcome this and become a nation, Mr Lee said: "Yes, I think so, over a long period of time and selectively. We must not make an error.

"If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that's a very tricky business.

"We've got to know his background. I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I didn't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy."

"So, these are problems which, as poly students, you're colour-blind to, but when you face life in reality, it's a different proposition."

Reports in the Singapore media this year refuting Indonesian Presidents Habibie's remarks in February that Singapore was racist because Malays could not become military officers only stated that there are Malay officers in the armed forces.

The reports made no reference to the documented remarks (above) of the two Lees regarding Malay loyalty.

The reports also did not state:

While meritocracy is still maintained in the island and the Singapore armed forces appoints and promotes Malays, there is no evidence that Malay Singaporeans hold sensitive positions in the Singapore armed forces.

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