Wednesday 10 July 2013

'Probe unfair practices at workplaces'

Malay-Muslim panel's report also makes other suggestions
By Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 9 Jul 2013

AN INDEPENDENT Malay-Muslim panel has recommended that an in-depth study be done on discriminatory practices at workplaces in Singapore.

It has also called for resources in the community to be streamlined to make it easier for people to get help.

For instance, a website with information on national and community-level aid schemes can be set up, said the group in a report on ways to uplift the community.

The report, released to the media yesterday, also recommended programmes for needy families, especially in pre-school education as "it is critical... (that children) have the necessary foundation when they start Primary 1".

These are among the key recommendations made by the 13-member panel, Suara Musyawarah, formed last October to gather feedback on the thoughts, concerns and aspirations of the Malay-Muslim community.

The report, however, is to be a "conversation starter", not a prescriptive guide to resolving all issues facing the community, said Suara Musyawarah's chairman Sallim Abdul Kadir.

About 500 people of various ages and income groups gave their views and ideas during 35 focus group sessions held over six months, until May this year.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, who was given the report on Sunday, said it found the community has the desire to move forward.

Dr Yaacob will give his response (*see story below) to the report at a Hari Raya Aidilfitri gathering with MPs and community leaders on Aug 23.

Yesterday, Mr Sallim said the discussions show the Malay-Muslim community has a strong sense of belonging to Singapore, and a desire among the needy to get a job, improve their skills and give their children a better life.

"They are not looking for handouts," said the panel's vice-chair Saleemah Ismail.

The report noted that some issues, like discrimination or perceived discrimination, are not unique to the Malay-Muslim community.

It said some gave accounts of discrimination when applying for jobs. For instance, some employers said they preferred non-Malays and there were accounts of women workers being told they could not wear the tudung (headscarf).

Such cases should be reviewed, and if justified, investigated further and acted on, said the report.

"Maybe there are valid reasons. So let's be open in public as far as we can so that people can move on," Mr Sallim said.

It also suggested a more in-depth study to find the best way to weed out discrimination at work.

The report also suggested that the Community Leaders Forum pool data resources of its partners and provide linkages to national agencies and other groups for information exchange and to help needy Malay-Muslim families.

The forum, set up in 2003, brings together more than 100 partners including Malay-Muslim organisations and family service centres.

As for pre-school education, it found that the home environment of many poor families did not encourage studying and that the parents, with little education, were unable to coach their children.

"There is a lot of willingness to help and a willingness to be helped. Perhaps what we need to focus on is the level of outreach so that those who need the help get it," said the committee's vice-chairman Alwi Abdul Hafiz.

The report is online at:

Malay/Muslim community aspires to do better: Yaacob
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2013

AN INDEPENDENT study of the concerns and aspirations of a broad cross-section of the Malay/Muslim community has found that they all want to move forward, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

Those interviewed - including residents of rental flats and parents of school dropouts - wanted their children to do better, he added, noting that this was an aspiration shared by other Singaporeans.

"That's a very important signal to us that even the people at the bottom have a sense of hope that they can do better than the previous generation," he said, after being presented with a copy of the Suara Musyawarah report.

Dr Yaacob, who is also the Communications and Information Minister, praised the 13-member study panel chaired by Mr Sallim Abdul Kadir, head of human capital at a telecommunications firm, for seeking out views from a broad cross-section of the community, including "people whose voices we have never heard before".

The panel was formed last October and the report will be made public only tomorrow.

Over 35 focus group sessions, the group tapped more than 500 people for their views, including professionals, the working class, taxi drivers and single mothers.

Dr Yaacob, speaking at the Malay Heritage Centre, said he would study the findings to see what could be done.

He will give his response on Aug 23 at a Hari Raya Aidilfitri gathering with MPs and community leaders.

But, he stressed, the study was a "starting point" for engagement.

The panel made the news in April when lawyer and civil society activist Nizam Ismail quit it as "a matter of principle", after also leaving the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) due to alleged government pressure.

He had spoken at the Population White Paper protest in February, and a Workers' Party youth wing forum in March.

Mr Nizam, after leaving the AMP and Suara Musyawarah committee, questioned whether the Government welcomed a diversity of opinions.

Yesterday, Mr Sallim, responding to accusations that his panel was biased, countered that members had been "objective and impartial".

Meanwhile, at another event yesterday, Dr Yaacob launched several initiatives for Ramadan, including an inter-faith home makeover programme to benefit 50 needy Muslim and non-Muslim families.

The Muslim fasting month is scheduled to start on Wednesday.

Address job discrimination concerns
Editorial, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2013

DISCRIMINATORY employment practices have long been articulated by different groups here from time to time. In this light, the call for an in-depth study, voiced by Suara Musyawarah, an independent Malay-Muslim panel, should be given serious consideration. The panel couches its observations carefully in its just-released report, observing that "certain stereotypes, generalisations and negative perceptions of the community lead to what is perceived as discrimination".

In particular, it draws attention to discriminatory practices at workplaces based on personal accounts which suggest that some employers prefer non-Malay employees. The report acknowledges that the issue is a complex one and that discrimination can be perceptual as well as real. Thus, what is seen as discrimination in employment could arise from "a genuine need for a particular profile of employee" or even an applicant's refusal to acknowledge personal shortcomings for a workplace role.

However, the guiding principle is that there is no place in Singapore for discrimination on racial and religious grounds, among others. Meritocracy - indeed, natural justice - demands that workplace policies and regulations do not exclude or disadvantage a person because of religious or racial identity when it has no bearing on job performance. Concerns on this front need to be addressed within the larger framework of practices that seek to prevent employment discrimination.

For example, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (Tafep) has a section on its Web page that invites feedback from those who have experienced workplace discrimination in relation to age, gender, race, religion, language, family status or disability. Practical advice and assistance is available to complainants from Tafep.

Such encouragement is helpful because if those who feel they have been wronged are deterred from bringing their cases to light, for various reasons, no concrete evidence can be compiled systematically to fight discrimination. The task is doubly difficult when overt discrimination morphs into unconscious bias, which has been shown to exist elsewhere by much social science research. This occurs when "individuals tend to process incoming information by relying on cognitive short cuts - in essence, stereotypes", as a Harvard researcher put it.

While researchers may rely on classic methods for probing discrimination - like situation testing or matched pair experiments that have been adopted by studies in Britain and Europe for many years - what will make a crucial difference is the active participation of workers and employers here. They will have to shape their workplaces and cultures to bring alive the ideal of equality.

How Malays feel: Panel takes the pulse of the community
Community leaders' year-long effort produces a report and suggestions for action
By Radha Basu, The Sunday Times, 18 Aug 2013

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."

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.

* Two new steps to help Malay-Muslim community
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 24 Aug 2013

TWO new measures were announced by the Government yesterday to help the Malay-Muslim community shrink the income gap and increase its social mobility.

One will give tuition subsidies to Malay students at another four tertiary institutions: Lasalle College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), Yale-NUS College and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University.

The other will hand the Malay/ Muslim Community Development Fund a higher grant of up to $2.6 million a year to help more low-income families in their community. Currently, it is $1 million.

These measures, announced by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim last night, form the Government's first response to a landmark report on the community's concerns and aspirations, submitted last month.

He asked for more time for him and other Malay-Muslim MPs to reflect on job discrimination.

Dr Yaacob, also the Minister for Communications and Information, was speaking at the community's Hari Raya Aidilfitri dinner at Sheraton Hotel, in an annual speech taking stock of its progress and charting its future direction.

The Suara Musyawarah report, done by an independent panel, distils views gathered in focus group talks over six months, involving more than 500 people. Their concerns ranged from not feeling fully accepted in Singapore to breaking the poverty cycle and ways for the community to help itself.

Reading the report, Dr Yaacob said he sensed the community's hope and desire to do better, especially among vulnerable families.

"This group wants tools and opportunities to become self-reliant and achieve social mobility. They want their kids to do better in school than they did.

"In other words, they too share the Singapore dream of a better life," he added.

On the Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy scheme for Malay students, he said it will be for those studying for full-time diploma and selected undergraduate degrees at Lasalle and Nafa, and undergraduate degrees at Yale- NUS College and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine. They are immediately eligible for the scheme, which has 11 existing institutions.

With a higher matching grant from the next financial year, the Malay/Muslim Community Development Fund will expand beyond social projects to help strengthen organisations, said Dr Yaacob.

Meanwhile, he noted the rise in income, donations and volunteerism among his people, reflecting a more confident community.

Suara Musyawarah chairman Sallim Abdul Kadir praised the move on tuition subsidy, for recognising that Malay-Muslims can excel in diverse fields. "We're seeing the winds of change."

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