Monday 25 November 2013

Maliki Osman: Malay men 'need to be more proactive'

Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman was promoted to Minister of State for National Development and Defence in September and is seen as a rising star. The former social work don, who is 48 years old and entered politics in 2001, is reluctant to be drawn into commenting on an ongoing controversy over the hijab, and whether women in uniformed service should be able to wear the Muslim headscarf. But he has much to say to Goh Chin Lian about the role of men in the Malay community.
The Straits Times, 23 Nov 2013

The hijab issue has been in the news.What's your take on women in uniformed service wearing the hijab?

This issue has been discussed quite extensively. What I want to say is that we understand that it is about meeting the aspirations of the community to fulfil their religious obligation. That's something that we all recognise and feel for. We want to try to work with the Government so that (it) can appreciate this aspiration. The Prime Minister has said he understands the position and he'll work with the Malay leadership. We'll continue to work with the Government as we continue to reflect the sentiments of the Malay community and I hope we can make progress going forward.

You were a social work professor before you took up political office. How would you say the Malay poor are different from the non-Malay?

(In) our rental flats, the Malay community is younger. They have more children. Possibly single-parent, post-divorce families. Many need a lot of hand-holding.

In a divorce, usually the woman gets custody of the kids. She has to settle housing (and) find income. If she hasn't been working, her skill-set may not be relevant. When she goes for upgrading, you need childcare. You need to help the kids go through not having a father, making sure they receive the support to do well in school.

She also struggles to get maintenance. Many ex-husbands have difficulty paying because they remarry. If one family faces that kind of challenge, can you imagine how we need to help these families? If we don't support their children, their chances in the future are a lot more compromised.

My greatest preoccupation is (that) men need to play a more proactive role. One in three marriages involves one who's been married before. Divorce among divorcees is high. (To) a friend who wants to remarry, do you say "Congratulations" or "Have you been able to pay maintenance? If not, please think carefully, because your children are still dependent on you."

We need a lot more support from the community. If they take (remarriage) lightly and the significant others don't become (their) conscience before decisions are made, you'll end up having such behaviour. I've seen families where you've got her children, his children and their children. If he remarries, she deals with two sets of children from different parents.

If you study these low-income families, what appears is, I call it, the intergenerational transfer of dysfunctionality. She's a mother at 18, her mother was a mother when she was 18. We need to break that transfer. The Inspirasi hub, run by three organisations, focuses on early marriages. We bring in young couples and handhold them for the first five years. Our divorce rates among early marriages are coming down.

Why do you have this conviction about the men's role?

In my social work training, I saw many families, and the one unifying factor is always the man - the man is absent! Even if he's there, he's laid-back. He doesn't want to go to work. Even if he works, he doesn't work regularly.

Men are doted upon by their mothers in the Malay community. Parents are very lax. The responsibility they are supposed to take up as heads of household, there's little preparation.

The community needs to face the way we manage divorce. In the Malay community, you don't have to have the obligatory three-year separation (required by state law for non-Muslims). The Islamic law allows divorce to be quite instantaneous. Strengthening their ability to manage marriage is important. We're trying to get role models - successful fathers, husbands, who go through different challenges, how they're able to overcome.

Why do you say more Malay social workers are needed?

For a Malay man to face a non-Malay woman social worker to discuss his issues is not easy. The Malay social worker will understand that the positioning of men and women in a Malay family is different. You give due respect to the man even if the woman is the first to seek help. You need to defer to the man, making him make the decision for the family.

Non-Malay social workers can be trained. But when you talk about affiliation, it's only natural you feel more comfortable (with a Malay social worker). We help by linking Malay organisations to family service centres so that they have Malay-speaking support.

A recent survey on racial ties found that in a crisis, the Chinese have less trust in other races compared to the Malays. Your take?

Trust is built upon engagement and interaction. If I were to interpret that finding as a social scientist, it would be that as a majority, exposure to other ethnic groups needs to be enhanced.

By proportion and number, the likelihood of a group of majority Chinese connecting with minorities will be less than the probability of minorities connecting with majority.

Why are mass events not as effective for community bonding?

In Siglap, I developed the kepala (Malay for head) concept, where every block has one person responsible for connecting.

It's not just about a mass of people who come together, have fun and then go home. It's about knowing every neighbour, and for every neighbour to know each other. You organise an activity at the block level. Inter-neighbour relations translate into inter-ethnic relations because you've an ethnic quota in every block. If we can develop that, we may be able to enhance inter-ethnic relations.

I introduced to my grassroots leaders the phrase "small is big". When you do micro-engagement, you get big outcomes. People have (more) intense relationships.

You are the Minister of State for Defence. Would you say Malays should have more recognition in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF)?

The proportion of full-time national servicemen (NSFs) selected for command positions has increased. They're in vocations that they didn't use to be deployed. We had Brigadier-General Ishak (Ismail), who's retired. We've a full colonel and several lieutenant-colonels. Significant progress has been made. The SAF takes more (Malay NSFs) than the police or Singapore Civil Defence Force in actual numbers. It's not whether you should have more Malays in one or the other. It depends on the requirements of the different services at that time.

Is there a question of loyalty?

You have Malays in senior appointments in the military. Is that an indicator of distrust? I hope the Malay community feels proud that the Malay military officers have been able to stand tall based on their own merits.

There's talk that you may become Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. Are you up to the challenge?

I've never entertained the thought. The most important thing is that whoever is in a leadership position, you work as a team. The team needs to understand that our primary role is to lift up the community, so that the community can succeed and contribute effectively to the development of the nation.

What's for supper

Changi Village Hawker Centre, 2 Changi Village Road
- Nasi lemak from International Muslim Food Stall (two plates): $7
- Mineral water (two bottles): $2
- Total: $9


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