SOCIAL COHESION IN SINGAPORE
Challenges confronting the Malay community
By Zainudin Nordin, For The Straits Times
NO NATION can claim to be ethnically homogenous.
Even traditionally monolithic countries such as Japan and South Korea have become more multiracial, through the movement of people seeking economic opportunities. Others, like Singapore, have long been multiracial, though during colonial times the way our multiracialism was managed was to keep the communities separate, with little common space and no shared destiny.
Recent global incidents have once again shown that multiracial societies face different and complex challenges. These cannot be taken lightly. Multiracial societies need to work harder to achieve harmonious relations.
A scathing commentary in The Wall Street Journal on Dec 5 noted that ethnically motivated riots in France were now happening 'once or twice a year', and that the French government tended to give the same ineffective response. Nearer home, in Malaysia, some ethnic Indians have been demonstrating because they claim to be discriminated against.
In my view, news coverage of these incidents is one-dimensional because the position always seems to be that ensuring community cohesion is the sole responsibility of governments. This is a fallacy.
Just like in other aspects of governance, my view is that the state can play the role of the enabler, or the facilitator. But it must be incumbent on the populace to step forward to do its part.
Let's take the example of Singapore, and in particular, of the Malay community.
For many years, the Malay community faced challenges to upgrade and improve itself in education, employment and wealth. This is despite the Government providing a level playing field, with equal educational and employment opportunities for all.
Then, over the years, the Malay community and its leaders began to realise they needed to band together, to draw on its own strengths and make an effort to push itself forward. There is a significant realisation that these challenges can be overcome through collective action. This is so because moving the community forward required not only administrative structures that the Government provided, but also a debate within the community about its goals and values, and gentle persuasion to take action.
I am therefore very proud that the Malay community in Singapore has seen marked improvement, especially in education and employment.
IN EDUCATION, school enrolment is almost 100 per cent. The number of dropouts has steadily fallen and educational performance has improved. In 1980, only 15 per cent of Malays attained five O-level passes. Today, that percentage has quadrupled to 60 per cent.
According to the Trends In International Mathematics And Science Study, a measurement of students' progress in these subjects, on a regular four-year cycle, Malay students surpass the international average.
More than 80 per cent of Malay students have successfully pursued post-secondary education at ITE, polytechnic and pre-university levels. In fact, the community is well poised to achieve its target of 90 per cent entering post-secondary institutions by 2010.
The number of Malays entering tertiary institutions, such as universities and polytechnics, has also gone up. Only 1.3 per cent gained entry in 1980, but in 2005, the figure increased to 34 per cent. More students are in professional and technical courses such as accounting, engineering and the life sciences.
We are witnessing a sustained level of progress and development in the education arena and this bodes well for the Malay community. The outstanding performance of Natasha Nabila Muhamad Nasir at the 2007 PSLE is but one of the many excellent examples of this progress.
A BURGEONING middle- class among the Malays has increased the purchasing power of the community. This is made possible through the efforts of the community to raise the education level. As a result, more Malays are holding better-paying jobs because they have attained higher qualifications and skills.
An increasing number of Malays have bought larger homes. In fact, 93 per cent of Malays are home-owners, and those living in HDB four-room or larger flats and private properties have risen by 60 per cent.
The community is also witnessing a growing number of successful, young professionals. These progressive, outward-looking and confident Singaporeans are making their mark in their fields.
Not only are they able to succeed locally, this new generation of Malay-Singaporeans has global mindsets that make them socially and economically mobile. They are able to arrive at this level of success by competing and working with the best in the industry. This further illustrates the evolution that is taking shape in the community and the new resolve that has emerged over the years.
HOWEVER, the fight is not yet over. While the Malay community has caught up with other communities in education and employment, other issues have surfaced. I am particularly concerned about Malay family life.
Divorce rates are rising. The number of children being raised by single parents is also growing. And most worrisome, the number of teenage girls giving birth is growing.
Clearly, these three issues are inter-related, and form a vicious cycle. Poor parental guidance at home means there is no one to tell teenagers to abstain from irresponsible pre-marital sex. The inevitable pregnancies and the subsequent pressure to marry make for unhappy marriages where neither the father nor mother has the ability, emotional or financial, to look after the children. The strain leads eventually to divorce, and again, single parenting, and insufficient support and guidance.
Without a strong family environment, children do poorly in school. Older children are often asked to forsake education in order to work and supplement the family income. Children, without family or school supervision face becoming delinquents.
This vicious cycle, if left unchecked, will chip away at the advancements that the Malay community has made. But history has shown that the Singapore Malay community has the ability to face up to and overcome these challenges.
SO, WHAT should the community and its leaders do? How do we reach into the family which, for many of us, is a private realm?
Take, for example, the drug problem that plagued the community in the 1980s. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of Malay drug abusers plunged to about a tenth of what it was. Explaining the sharp drop, the Central Narcotics Bureau said the community had gone all out to educate youths against drugs.
Yayasan Mendaki, for instance, worked closely with Malay and Muslim organisations to spread the anti-drug message. The main focus was and is on education to make sure youths attend classes and stay out of trouble.
Similarly, we all need to jointly tackle the issue of dysfunctional families. I feel it has replaced drugs as the social problem of the day. Just as community action solved the drugs problem, community action must once again be the solution to the problem of dysfunctional Malay families.
The first significant step is for the community to recognise that dysfunctional families are a problem, and accept this as a challenge to be dealt with.
Second, these families need the community's help to stand on their own two feet. They require not just financial help but also proper attention and care, such as counselling and empowerment plans. They need to build self-esteem and confidence, and be imbibed with the right values that can help them change and improve their situation.
So, Malay organisations, self-help and community groups must ask some tough questions: Are we allocating our resources to deal with this adequately? Are we making available enough channels to those who are reaching out for help? For those who do not realise they have a family problem, how do we make them see differently?
More directly, do we need in-school counselling for all teenage girls and perhaps have them sign an abstinence pledge to curb teenage pregnancies? Can we get our young, cool Malay men to talk about being sexually responsible, that getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock is the worst thing you can do? Do we need Malay parents to pledge to spend more quality time with their children and share important lessons on morality and family values?
We also need a set of ideas to celebrate, and to set up as role models successful Malays. How can the Malay community show other communities the contributions they are making to Singapore's continued growth and success? In other words, what is the Singapore Malay community's claim to fame?
CLEARLY, there are more questions than answers. This is because this problem is even more complex and challenging than drugs. Dysfunction in the family is not criminal. Nobody goes to jail when their teenage daughters get pregnant. The police do not get involved when children don't do well in school.
It is not about legal sanctions. It is about persuading, hand-holding and taking hard decisions when necessary. It is about changing mindsets, instilling confidence and developing personal capabilities. Let there be no mistake - it is a tall order.
But when a community is faced with undisputed evidence that brings into question its ethics, its value system - its entire way of life - then the one true test of the community's strength is how it responds.
Let us approach this as a community that has no choice. The success story must continue, because the success of the Malay community is inexorably linked with Singapore's success, and it is our responsibility to make sure we do our utmost to contribute to Singapore's growth, its success, and its continued social cohesion.
The writer is the mayor of Central Singapore District and Member of Parliament for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.