SINGAPORE - At a Hari Raya gathering in late August last year, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim announced the formation of a committee to collect feedback on the needs, concerns and aspirations of Malays and submit a report within the year.
After listening to more than 500 community members at 35 focus group discussions held over six months, the Suara Musyawarah report was made public last month.
The minister will respond to these "conversations with the community" this week.
While Malays have made strides in education - more are passing and getting better grades in the PSLE, O and A levels, for instance - there are many areas where the community has lagged behind.
Referring to the latest 2010 census, the report points out that only 5.1 per cent of the resident non-student Malay population aged 15 and above had university degrees - compared to 23 per cent nationally.
The median income of Malay households in 2010, meanwhile, was $3,844 excluding employer's Central Provident Fund contributions, compared to a national median of $5,000.
And less than 3 per cent of Malay households lived in private property, compared to nearly 20 per cent of the overall resident households.
Melding fact with feeling, the 70-page report is an unvarnished, straight-from-the-heart narrative of what concerns the community, committee chairman Sallim Abdul Kadir, 57, and vice-chairs Alwi Abdul Hafiz, 51, and Saleemah Ismail, 44, told The Sunday Times, ahead of Dr Yaacob's response to the report.
Mr Sallim, who runs his own training and development consultancy, said he took the job because no boundaries were set on what could be discussed.
"We were just told to find out sentiments on the ground. Nothing was considered too sensitive to put in the report."
There was no single top concern that emerged from the exercise, but several interlinked ones, grouped into three broad themes.
The first is the "sense of belonging". The report states that while Malays have a strong sense of cultural, religious and national identity, they feel they are not fully accepted as part of the country they call their own.
Key examples raised: the perception of limited Malay participation in the Singapore Armed Forces and discrimination at the workplace, including how some jobs do not allow women to wear headscarves.
The second theme dwells on how more members of the community are aspiring towards "breaking the cycle". There is a strong desire for education. This section also summarises concerns over widening income gaps, eroding social mobility and rising costs of living.
The third, on "social consciousness", lauds the Malay community and turns the spotlight inwards to discuss ways it can help itself.
Sense of belonging
With regard to the first theme, the issue of Malays in the SAF generated much discussion. Some felt Malays were deliberately left out of certain "elite or sensitive" parts of the SAF such as the commandos, armour and air defence. They were also excluded from naval ships.
While such sentiments are not new, Mr Alwi, who is an engineer by training, pointed out that two or more decades ago, some members of the community may have felt a sense of loyalty to the Malay archipelago.
"But now there is a strong sense of nationhood, of belonging to Singapore, especially among the younger generation. The key thing is we feel that our loyalty is being questioned and that we cannot be completely trusted." he said.
Several who took part in focus group discussions cited personal anecdotes of being denied "sensitive" postings as full-time national servicemen or SAF regulars.
Participants also said they were not satisfied with one or two "poster boys" who show that Malays can thrive in the SAF.
The committee acknowledged that these are anecdotes and reflect the feeling within the community. "We don't have statistics," said Mr Sallim. "But if the Government believes that these are just perceptions and not true, it must act to dispel them."
This feeling of being slighted extends to the workplace as well. Two lawyers who applied for jobs - one at a Government-linked company and the other at a well- known bank which has its headquarters here - claimed their applications were rejected because of their race.
One said he was mistakenly forwarded an e-mail from the company to the headhunter asking specifically for Chinese Singaporeans.
As far as he knew, the job did not require a knowledge of Mandarin. The other said he was told by a headhunter that the company was not hiring Malays.
In another case, a delivery man said he spent six months looking for a job and the companies he applied to said he needed to know Mandarin.
Ms Saleemah said: "He said you don't really need to have conversations when you deliver something. You come with a box, you deliver, ask the recipient to sign and you leave... So why is Mandarin required for the job?"
Mr Sallim pointed out that the problem may have more to do with personal prejudice than professed policy.
For instance, if a human resource officer hears a senior manager say 'Let's not hire Malays' - or any other group for that matter - he may not hire them.
"But if you speak to policymakers, they'll say of course there is no such policy. Sometimes it's the application or assumption of what the policy means that's important," he said.
The committee also heard from health-care professionals in restructured hospitals who were not allowed to wear tudungs at work.
Some were uniformed staff, like nurses, who are not allowed to wear headscarves. Others were seeking posts as counsellors and nursing lecturers.
One participant said she was not allowed to wear the tudung even as a part-time nursing lecturer, although she wore her own clothes.
She quit after her initial 10-day contract was over. The committee pointed out that there are scores of girls coming out of madrasahs who would gladly work as nurses, but would want to wear headscarves.
Asked Mr Sallim: "Why do you have to hold on to the uniform, when a small change can lead lots to come into a sector short on local manpower? Their answer really seems like an excuse, not a reason."
Committee members pointed out that the question of "special rights" for Malays - as guaranteed by Article 152 of Singapore's Constitution - was hardly raised. "All they want is to be treated equally with the other races," said Mr Alwi.
Breaking the cycle
Widening income gaps and the relative lack of social mobility in the community also generated many passionate discussions, said Ms Saleemah, a social activist and former head of UN Women Singapore.
Not only are Malays poorer, but also their plight is made worse by the fact that they tend to have larger families.
Participants described facing tough competition from lower-income foreign workers, particularly in the service and hospitality industries.
A cleaner talked about how he had come across a foreign worker willing to accept a $450 monthly salary for working 18 hours a day - something Singaporeans raising families simply could not afford to do.
Education was another key concern. Many parents said they were too busy making ends meet to tend to their children's education.
A part-time cleaner, who together with her husband earns only $1,200 a month, said each time one of her four latch-key children falls ill, the eldest child has to skip school to look after her younger sibling. The mother needs to work to survive.
"It's not that the mother does not want her daughter to go to school, but there are other needs she must address," said Ms Saleemah.
The committee is advocating more help for children, right from the time they are two years old.
"There are some children who can't speak, read or write English when they reach Primary 1," said Ms Saleemah." And there are others from elite schools who are being asked to spell words like 'bouquet' in Primary 1. This gap must be addressed."
A slow start in Primary 1 has ripple effects throughout a child's school life and may lead to him or her dropping out, she added.
Although there are dozens of schemes available to help the poor cope and get training and better jobs, many remain unaware that these exist. "When you are too busy making ends meet, you may not have the time to look for help," said Mr Sallim.
In its final section, the report notes that Malays have a strong sense of "social consciousness" - they want to help others improve their lives.
However, some participants wanted a more bottom-up, consultative style of leadership, said Mr Sallim.
While the Government has made available abundant resources, there is a concern that Malay Muslim organisations sometimes duplicate programmes.
"There is not enough coordination and that is something which needs to be addressed," said Mr Sallim.
The community found the exercise useful and would like these conversations to continue, he added. "We hope this will accelerate progress and we can catch up with the rest of our country."
SOME OF THE SUGGESTIONS
Malays from a wide spectrum were represented in the Suara Musyawarah focus group discussions on issues concerning the community.
They included those living in rental blocks, professionals, parents, religious and community leaders, youths at risk of dropping out, health-care professionals, union members and corporate chieftains.
Heartfelt and sometimes heated, these discussions lasted an average of three hours each. "The feelings came from the heart. Some of them cried," said Mr Sallim Abdul Kadir, who chairs the committee.
Based on the feedback, the committee has drafted a set of recommendations to help put the community firmly on the path to progress and prosperity. Here are some recommendations:
On perceptions of discrimination:
Policies with regard to security and the armed forces could be reviewed, so that Malays have no reason to feel that their loyalty is being questioned.
There is a need for in-depth studies on the extent and impact of discriminatory practices in Singapore.
State and larger companies in the private sector need to reaffirm that their employment practices are non-discriminatory.
On helping vulnerable families:
The committee recommends more support for early childhood education programmes targeting poor and vulnerable Malay families with children aged five and below.
Citing the crucial need to build English language skills early, the committee suggests setting up home-based reading-aloud programmes for children as young as two.
There are many programmes by the Government, Malay Muslim groups and other voluntary organisations to help vulnerable families.
But some programmes are hindered by a shortage of staff such as counsellors and social workers.
The committee recommends training housewives and retirees as para-counsellors and para-social workers to help meet this staff shortage.
Many programmes to prevent children from dropping out of school focus on secondary school children. More needs to be done at primary school and possibly even pre-school levels.
On social consciousness:
There is an urgent need for an exercise to identify and plug gaps in support services by Malay Muslim organisations.
To read the report and full set of recommendations, go to http://suaramusyawarah.com
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