Why support for Malays must stay

It is important that society and the Government continue to give extra support to the Malay community, and pressure from other communities for equal privileges should be resisted, said Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

In an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Harian, published on Saturday, he expressed his "strong view" that the long-standing approach of giving special treatment to Malays must carry on.

It is the Singaporean community's duty to work towards the ideal of Malay/Muslims having good achievements, he said.

"And for that, the Malay community needs to be helped more."

The minister also pointed to Article 152 of the Constitution, which states that the Government must recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and safeguard their political, economic and educational interests.

When Singapore became independent, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made a "conscious decision" to keep this clause, noted Mr Shanmugam, and this was a good thing.

Mr Shanmugam was elaborating on a speech he had made last month at the scholarship ceremony of the Prophet Muhammad's Birthday Memorial Scholarship Fund Board.

Then, he said that "the Government has a laser-like focus to help the Malay community" and that other races have accepted this.

In the BH interview, he said questions have since been asked about what privileges Malays enjoy. He listed several examples of how the community gets assistance, and said this special support comes not just financially but also through structural ways - through policies and programmes in accordance with the law.

Since the 1970s, land for mosques has been allotted without tender and the land price set at affordable rates, to ensure Muslims have modern mosques as Singapore develops.

The Government also helps Malay tertiary students financially, and the community has its own special courts - syariah courts, whose infrastructure and judges are Government-funded.

Mr Shanmugam stressed that all this is not for political gain, as 85per cent of voters are non-Muslim.

"We are doing this because it is the right thing to do. We are one society. This is the true meaning of a multiracial, multi-religious society," he said.

"We have educated Singaporeans to uphold multiracialism as a fundamental principle, and to enable the minorities to have equal, and even more than equal, chances in Singapore."

The Government can do it because the majority of the population has accepted, and supported, Mr Lee's arguments, Mr Shanmugam said.

After separation from Malaysia, Chinese groups pressured the Government to make Mandarin the main language, he recalled.

Mr Lee resisted, telling them that he would never allow the Chinese majority to lord it over the minorities in Singapore.

These pressures still come up repeatedly, especially during elections, Mr Shanmugam said, as there will always be some among the Chinese majority who would want more recognition and support for their language and culture.

"Others will find it tempting to push this line to outflank the PAP and win votes by appealing to racial sentiments," he said.

But successive People's Action Party governments have upheld the "crucial policy" of according Malays special consideration.

"Fortunately, we have been able to explain it to other communities, and to gain their support during elections.

"We must do our best to ensure that this happy state of affairs continues."

rchang@sph.com.sg

GIVE-AND-TAKE NEEDED FROM EVERY COMMUNITY: SHANMUGAM

There will always be pressure on the Government from every community, and the authorities, being in the middle, have to strike a balance and do what is best for Singaporeans, said Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

This requires give-and-take from every group, he added, picking up on a point Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had touched on at last Sunday's PAP Convention and a forum organised by Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao last month.

"Sometimes what looks like a reasonable request from a community perspective is not so straightforward from an overall Singaporean point of view," Mr Shanmugam said.

Pressure from the majority group will "always be greater", he added in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Harian (BH) published on Saturday.

"In some other countries, what the majority want is also often automatically considered reasonable," he said. "But would we be better off, collectively, if every community gets its way?"

For instance, there is "nothing inherently illogical" about demands for expanding the number of Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, a point recently raised in a Zaobao forum letter.

The writer reasoned that "with China's rise, a population with less than 10 per cent of bilingual talent is not enough".

But to minority communities, more SAP schools could mean two things, Mr Shanmugam said.

Students from these groups will find it difficult to go into these schools. If a significant percentage of top Chinese students are educated in SAP schools, their interactions with those from minority groups would also be less.

The minister also recalled how some in the audience at last month's Zaobao forum had lamented to PM Lee that the standard of Chinese language in Singapore had fallen, and asked what was being done to strengthen Chinese language and culture.

PM Lee explained that a practical approach had to be taken. For instance, public signs are in English as this is Singaporeans' common language.

Some are translated into other official languages where practical and useful, but the Government does not want to set a norm where everything must be translated into four languages, whether or not it serves any real need.

It is logical that 74 per cent of the population want signs in their language, Mr Shanmugam acknowledged in the BH interview. "But if the Chinese community pressed hard to use Chinese instead of English, the minorities would be most unhappy."

Advocates often believe that what they want would have no or little impact on other communities, he noted.

Because of a long period of harmony and peace, many are convinced that "our society has arrived" and that the changes they want would be faced "magnanimously" by others.

But things easily snowball when it involves race, religion and language, said Mr Shanmugam, because "these affect what communities have gotten used to or accepted of another; sudden changes force everyone to face new norms on a daily basis and these inflict a deep and primordial hurt, or sense of injustice".

He pointed to how a scuffle during a procession to celebrate Prophet Muhammad's birthday in 1964 escalated into nationwide racial riots.

While language and culture are sensitive matters, the most sensitive issue is religion, he added.

Singapore must hence be careful about groups which proselytise others.

"Maintaining harmony in a multiracial, multi-religious society requires endless adjustments and is a constant balancing act," the minister said.


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