One social issue that has gained much attention from the Singapore government is national integration. The problem of non-integration has been re-produced to be “the Malay problem”. Malays are perceived to be exclusive as they only socialise among their own community members. I will show how this perception is flawed through the perpetuation of stereotypes and the lack of focus given to other groups in examining the extent of integration in Singapore.
My argument is that integration is a two-way process. Focus should not only be given on the minority groups but it should also be directed at the reactions of dominant group in facing changes and accepting the presence of minority groups amongst them. Furthermore, the issue of non-integration re-produced as “the Malay problem” arises due to structural factors such as language that hamper Malays’ participation in activities organised by non-Malays, not due to the perceived weakness in Malay culture.
Under multiracialism concept in Singapore, equal status is accorded to the ethnic identities and cultures of the various “races” in Singapore and its ethnic make-up is crystallised into the CMIO model. This is unlike the past when more fluid ethnic labels were used to group people. One of the ways that the separation of the official races is enhanced is through the perpetuation of stereotypes. The perpetuation of stereotypes has an effect of analysing issues through racialised lens. The Malays are viewed to be “backward” and “unchanging” due to them still practising their culture or adat. The idea of Malay culture being a source of weakness is embedded so deeply within society such that it has become an ideology.
Ideology refers to a system of ideas or beliefs that inform social and political actions. It also justifies political, social and economic order thus power relation is inherent in instituting ideology. Consequently, ideology can distort social reality. The notion of Malays and adat as “unchanging” and “backward” is flawed due to its underlying assumption that culture is static. In actual fact culture is a way of life that evolves to respond and adapt to the changing surroundings.
The portrayal of Malays as “backward” and “unchanging” shapes the inaccurate picture of them being “outside of mainstream Singapore”. This can be understood in the context of resettlement for the Singapore population from village settings to high-rise flats. Major resettlement took place from the 1960s to 1980s. There are two ways in looking at public housing: as a government’s provision of basic necessity to Singapore population and as a project of nation-building. Public housing is open to regulation by the state but some aspects of it such as the proximity of flats to public facilities and the cost of flats are not equally accessible to certain groups in society thus public housing is not a neutral ground.
In 1989, the ethnic integration policy was instituted as a response to the perceived lack of social cohesion. There was a representation of a trend in rising proportion of residents from similar ethnic groups in some towns and estates which then led to “ethnic enclaves”. However, the trend should be understood in the context of HDB’s allocation of resources. Multi-tier and multi-generational schemes in the distribution of flats helped to alleviate the repercussions of the rising number of women in the labour force and Singapore’s ageing population. Parents and relatives who were allowed to live in close proximity could help with household matters such as child care and housekeeping. Hence the presence of “ethnic enclaves” cannot simply be attributed to the desires of residents, in this case the Malays, to be situated within their own communities.
The policy assumes that a proportion of races in housing estates similar to that of the national mix can result in an integrated Singapore society. It fails to take into account other factors such as age, employment and marital status regardless of whether there is ‘good’ proportion of racial groups.
Moreover, close proximity between different races does not necessarily connote better integration. Even if they are considered to be ‘integrated’, it does not rule out the idea that they can still harbour ill-feelings towards other groups. This goes against the basic meaning of being integrated which is to embody trust, tolerance and acceptance among different members of society. A study has shown that Malays need a minimum ethnic concentration for a sense of well-being within the larger Chinese majority environment. “Ethnic enclaves” can actually be conducive for national integration by diffusing Malays’ feeling of alienation.
There is an emergence of portrayals of “unchanging Malays” and “inadaptability of Malays” when expressing lifestyle adjustments due to resettlement. Malays were portrayed to be the most seriously disrupted. They could no longer rely on subsistence economies and social exchanges. They also faced a breakdown of inter-generational bonds as families were separated into smaller units. However, the racialised lens in looking at this issue is evident when it has been shown that the lifestyles of Malays and other ethnic groups had undergone major changes. It should not be seen as “the Malay problem” as non-Malays too lived in villages and had a sense of attachment to village dwellings. They also faced the uncertainties and insecurities that Malays experienced. Moreover, a study done had found the Malays to form a higher percentage of voluntary relocatees and that more Malay relocatees compared to other groups adjusted better to the changes in the physical environment.
The question of whether ethnic spaces affect integration then arises. Ethnic places are physical spaces which the communities identity with. These spaces become the platform for the communities to display their cultural identities thus they have a symbolic value of being territorial centres for ethnic identities to be preserved.
As each ethnic group is given equal recognition under Singapore’s multiracialism, preservation of each ethnic space is important. There cannot be a Malay heritage centre without Chinese or Indian heritage centres. As such, each community has to fight for resources to guard their histories and identities from being eroded. The allocation of Geylang Serai as a Malay ethnic space is not a new act on the part of Singapore government as it was already established as a Malay settlement in 1927. Although it is dominated by Malays, it also sees the presence of non-Malays in the area. Furthermore, not all Malays attach symbolic meanings to Geylang Serai as Malays are not homogeneous. I would then argue that the government’s concern about social instability due to the presence of “ethnic enclaves” which then connotes Malays’ non-integration is unjustified.
National integration is said to be hampered due to lack of Malays’ participation in activities with the mainstream society but this argument shows an imbalance of focus. Community centres are having problems in drawing more youths and professionals. They were able to attract 2.8 million participants in 2011 but more than half were senior citizens aged 50 years and above. There is a perception that community centres cater to the lower income HDB brackets, retirees and students with little financial means. Hence, the problem of non-integration must be looked not through racialised lens but at the structural factors that determine people’s participation in social activities.
One of the structural factors is language. When there are a higher percentage of participants from a certain group in an activity, there is a higher tendency to use mother tongue as the language of instruction. Activities in the mosques are scrutinised as they are conducted in Malay language which excludes participation from non-Malays. Despite the Malays’ efforts in trying to conduct some mosque activities in English, non-Malays’ participation is still low. Mosque participation is perceived as not national participation but I would argue otherwise because mosque activities are not confined to Malays and religious worship.
There are different ethnic mosques in Singapore. The Malabar mosque and Al-Abrar mosque cater to Indian-Muslims thus identifying mosques as “Malay spaces” needs to be problematised. Secondly, the activities offered in “new generation” mosques are multi-functional. For example, there are entrepreneurial activities and political leadership courses. These activities impart social skills and knowledge which encourage integration into wider society. These “new generation” mosques are platforms for Malays to express their sense of collective ownership.
By supporting the mosques through participation in their activities, the Malays are displaying their identity. This is in line with the multiracial policy which promotes Singaporeans to differentiate themselves based on racial (and religious) identities. Malays’ participation in mosques also shows that they are responsible in taking care of the symbol of their identity. The Malays are ‘gate-keepers’ of their culture, religious identity and symbols. This gate-keeping is applicable to the non-Malays too. For instance, the Chinese Christians attend church activities such as camps and motivational talks on most weekends.
The use of mother tongue can also be observed with non-Malays. Chinese language is used as a medium of instruction in activities such as Taichi and lantern-making classes as these are affiliated to the Chinese culture. Whereas Malays are perceived to be exclusive and not integrating into the mainstream society due to lack of non-Malays’ participation in their programmes, Chinese are not perceived to be so although Malays are inhibited from joining Chinese-oriented activities. In response, schools in Singapore have introduced language courses to be taught as post-examination activities. There is an assumption that people who are fluent in different languages will be interested to learn about the different cultures and participate in activities organised by those from other groups.
However, this may not be necessarily true because a Malay can speak Chinese but he may not be knowledgeable about the Chinese culture. As such, he is seen as “not Chinese enough” thus he will go back to his comfort zone by speaking Malay. The issue of language does not only apply to the Malays as the social problem of non-integration is not only about whether Malays’ efforts are accepted but also whether the non-Malays are making efforts to include the Malays in their activities.
In conclusion, the social problem of non-integration has been re-produced to be “the Malay problem”. Malays are perceived to be exclusive as they only socialise among their own community members. I have shown how this perception is flawed through the perpetuation of stereotypes and the imbalance of focus in analysing the lack of efforts from other groups. Based on the argument that integration is a two-way process, I have argued that the re-production of the problem of non-integration into “the Malay problem” is inappropriate.