GE2020: "Hello, I am not your model minority."

One last piece before Polling Day!

In this guest issue, Mysara writes about elitism, the model minority myth, and harmful stereotypes that Singapore’s Malay community have had to grapple with for generations.


"Hello, I am not your model minority."

By Mysara Aljaru

As young voters, there are many issues of importance to my peers and me, ranging from bread-and-butter issues to climate change. But there’s one that binds the Malay community of all generations together: how these politicians address our community while campaigning. 

The progress of the Malays has always been a talking point for political and community leaders during state events like the National Day Rally and of course, the elections. This year, we see new faces from the Malay community running for office, but does this necessarily signify better candidates for the minorities and the country? 

“Role models from diverse backgrounds”

The speeches of the Malay candidates — from the content to their delivery — have been scrutinised, debated and even memed by Singaporeans.  

A day before Nomination Day, Lee Hsien Loong said that the new PAP candidates represent a generation of young, successful Malays who now wish to give back. The Straits Times article proceeds to list their achievements and credentials — from a young lawyer to those successful in business, with qualifications from prestigious institutions like Stanford and Harvard.

Such comments might appear, at first glance, to be quite complimentary to the Malay community. But they’re really actually rather condescending. They reinforce harmful model minority stereotypes that signal conformity as a criteria for acceptance: one must fit a certain image, as dictated by the ruling party. Those who don’t, then, need to be helped. This reinforces the harmful narrative that those struggling, or who have fallen through the cracks, are in those situations not because of lapses in the system, but because of who they are and how their community “has been”. The many contributions from members of the Malay community who might not boast of a similar CV are then ignored.

This condescending message also promotes the idea of the “Saviour Malay”, one who’s out to save the community while staying silent on structural issues and barriers that have been present since independence. These individuals might have even internalised racist narratives, believing that their community is indeed problematic and needs to be saved and lifted. 

In short, the model minority sentiment is both racist and elitist.

Chasing chickens and climbing trees

Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zainal, a PAP candidate contesting in Jalan Besar GRC, recently rubbed the Malays the wrong way during the e-rallies. (In fact, even non-Malays took issue.) To quote him: “I spent my years in the kampong. I remember chasing chickens and climbing trees. In the HDB flats I played sports everyday. And perhaps, that may be the reason how I ended up in the Normal stream in secondary school.”

Chasing chickens and climbing trees? Playing sports every day leading him to being the Normal (Academic) stream? And the question on everyone’s mind: what’s wrong with being in the Normal stream, be it Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical)? 

Such sentiments reinforce elitism in a context where the education progress of the Malays has often been compared to those of other races. The establishment tells Malays that they need to “catch up”, even as barriers and socio-economic lived realities are ignored.

The article mentioned earlier also highlights how elitist the ruling party is. It reports Lee Hsien Loong’s introduction of another Malay candidate:

“… there are also some Malay candidates who have risen from difficult beginnings to achieve success. He cited, for instance, the achievements of polytechnic lecturer Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, 42. Dr Wan was a student in the Normal (Academic) stream and got a polytechnic diploma before enrolling in the National Institute of Education, and later, Nanyang Technological University, where he got a degree in physical education at the age of 31.” 

It’s unclear what Dr Wan’s “difficult beginnings” were, unless going to Normal (Academic) and polytechnic are considered difficulties. But this story clearly frames him as a model minority; an individual who had to take a longer route, but eventually fulfilled all the criteria to be deemed a “success” in the ruling party’s eyes.

Addressing issues through a racialised lens

As someone who also took a long and unconventional route, and who might be seen as a young, successful Malay woman, I might be expected to appreciate such personal testimonies. But I don’t.

To understand the problem, we need to understand the narratives that have often plagued the Malay community.

In 2004, Dr Suriani Suratman of the NUS Malay Studies department wrote a paper entitled “‘Problematic Singapore Malays’ — The making of a portrayal”. She studied the continuous reproduction of the portrayal of Malays in the country; her research showed that “the portrayal of Malays ‘lagging behind’ is sustained over the decades despite Malay progress.

Such framing becomes even clearer when it comes to coverage and discussion of specific issues, such as drug abuse and crime.

A Straits Times article from November 2012 states in its headline: “48 per cent of drug offenders held last year were Malay”. As if this wasn’t problematic enough, the article also included a picture of Malay men in traditional baju kurung, complete with the traditional headgear, the songkok. There was no context to the picture, no explanation of how it related to the article apart from the reference to the Malay community.

This is not a new phenomenon. Similar headlines can also be found in past articles. In 1989, a Straits Times headline said: “Malays make up almost half of drug addicts in Singapore”

Outside the media, this framing is also found in public initiatives. One example is the “Dadah itu Haram (Drugs are forbidden)” campaign launched by then-Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin. While the campaign and its messaging might have the right intention in highlighting the need for social support, it frames a socio-economic issue as a religious one, suggesting that the lack of religious knowledge is a reason for drug abuse in the community, and can therefore be a solution for the problem.

A campaign like “Dadah itu Haram” addresses issues through a racialised lens, reproducing a cultural deficit perspective by presenting the problem as something caused by Malay culture instead of issues like underdevelopment, which are tied to socioeconomic and other structural inequalities, as well as historical factors.

A New Paper article even references “kampung spirit” as a potential contributor to drug abuse within the Malay community. Instead of looking at the lack of socio-economic support, the “communal” culture of the Malays is held up as a reason Malays consume drugs:

Mr Mohd Yusof Ismail, chief executive of Ain Society — a group that works with troubled youth and dysfunctional families — said that this is because, unlike the other races in Singapore, the Malays can be more "communal".

"The 'kampung spirit' is very much alive among the Malays who like gathering together. Unfortunately, sometimes, drugs come into the picture and abusers will consume illegal substances together," he said.

In her paper, Dr Suriani states that while education has been the government’s answer to progress, the Malays have been seen as not taking it seriously enough. The community is framed as “old fashioned” and “traditional”, with a need to catch up to modern times. And even if there have been improvements, the Malays are still compared to other races, with the inevitable conclusion that more can be done. Dr Suriani’s paper highlights that, whether it’s in relation to public housing, education, or economic progress, the Malay community is always portrayed as one that can’t integrate with others. 

Over and over again, this narrative about the Malay community sounds like one about a child persistently unable to appease to their parents. 

Breaking away from these narratives

One of the Workers’ Party’s new candidates, Fadli Fawzi, has addressed the need to move away from a culturalist lens. In a series of infographics, he highlights the way obesity has been portrayed as a “Malay issue”, to do with culture rather than socio-economic factors: 

“...culturalist explanations are too simplistic and are often rooted in stereotypes,” Fadli says. “These explanations also block us from properly identifying the complex economic-structural causes behind these so-called ‘Malay issues’.”

While there have been some concerns that moving away from the lens of race might prevent one from addressing experiences unique to the Malay community, I’d argue that highlighting and critiquing the way in which such issues have been, and continue to be, heavily studied through a cultural and racial lens would allow us to address the barriers faced by the Malay community that have never been thoroughly discussed before.

Fadli has also said that, if elected, he would advocate for data transparency. This is important, especially since data can be manipulated to create a certain image towards a marginalised community. More access to data can shed light on the lived realities of different communities and the problems they face, and give us a better understanding of policy-making in Singapore as well.

This issue of framing the Malay/Muslim community is not new, and has been a point of research and writing for many scholars, such as Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim and Dr Tania Li, amongst others.

We have yet to hear from the PAP’s young Malay candidates about how they’d address such an issue, but, from their speeches and silence on this particular subject, one can only expect them to maintain the status quo as their predecessors have.

While we may not be able to directly change things overnight, I urge the Malay community — if you have the resources, and especially if you’re running for office as part of the ruling party — to unlearn the internalised racism we’ve been exposed to from a young age. We want to make change, but will change come from reproducing the same racist stereotypes of our own community? You might have made it, but does that necessarily mean that others are less capable than you?

Sharing one’s personal “humble background” isn’t exclusive to the PAP. But what one chooses to do with it matters. As Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim, another WP candidate, said, “Coming from humble beginnings does not mean you are humble. When you believe that you succeeded purely on individual merits, you may view those who are not successful as having only themselves to blame.”

The Malay community doesn’t need leaders who see themselves as saviours. What the community needs are leaders who want to remove the barriers placed in front of us, that are preventing us from breaking the vicious cycles and stereotypes that have been imposed on us since the colonial era. 

Who you vote for in this election matters. As the Malay saying goes, “Sebuah lesung ada seekor ayam jantannya.” Every community has someone who will protect them from the evils of others. As a Malay voter in her late-20s, I can only hope we vote for the best for not just the community, but the country. That we vote those who are willing to break the cycle and that we don’t “memperlapang kandang musang, mempersempit kandang ayam (giving those who don’t mean well a chance)”. 

Instead, I hope we give a chance to those who are able to put the needs of the community and country first.


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