Friday, 21 August 2015

When it comes to role models, race is irrelevant

By Muhammad Syakir Bin Kamal, Published TODAY, 21 Aug 2015

Earlier this month, there was a media article on how a toy-plane lover and former television child star was now a high-flying colonel in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

The article began by saying that Col Zakir Hamid, 46, had become the RSAF’s first Malay pilot in 1992 and was now the highest-ranked Malay officer there.

I wondered why there was an emphasis on Colonel Zakir’s race, alongside his achievements. This emphasis seems to occur in instances when Malays rise to high positions in society.

In April, when Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Masagos Zulkifli was promoted to a full minister, all news reports said this was the first time that Singapore had two Malay full ministers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his Facebook post announcing the appointment, said this reflected the progress of the Malay community.

I agree that stories of success serve to motivate and inspire younger Singaporeans. In the case of Malays who have done well, the Malay community celebrates their achievements, and younger Malays see these figures as good role models.

Their success stories exemplify the meritocratic system in Singapore. They also help to convince the Malays that, even though we are a minority — the community forms 13.4 per cent of the citizen population — we can, like anyone else, and with effort and determination, succeed.

However, in mentioning race when highlighting the achievements of Malays, might it not create a sense of inferiority, that we are not as capable and so any success attained by a Malay needs to be tied back to their race?

It does not reflect Singapore’s meritocratic value of seeing ourselves as a united people regardless of race, language or religion.

Academic Hussin Mutalib, in his book Singapore Malays — Being Ethnic Minority And Muslim In A Global City-State, wrote about the Malay “marginality” that some Malays felt as Singapore progressed. Could such mentions of race-based achievements be an attempt to remove those perceptions?

It is a fact that the Malay community falls behind the Chinese and Indian communities in terms of educational qualifications and other socioeconomic attributes. But the gap is narrowing.

The Malay community is moving forward and we want to continue doing so. According to the Education Statistics Digest published by the Ministry of Education, close to eight in 10 of Malay students in the 2003 cohort received admission to post-secondary education institutions.

In 2012, almost nine in 10 achieved this — the biggest improvement seen among the races.

Another positive trend by the Ministry of Social and Family Development data also showed that the home ownership rate among Malay residents is highest among the other races at 93.2 per cent.


I believe that members of the Malay community want to be seen as being as capable as other Singaporeans, and able to achieve similar success to their friends in school and at work.

It will be even more encouraging if Malays who have benefited from the system in Singapore are willing to guide and mentor young Malays. Self-help groups such as Mendaki have programmes that require volunteers and mentors to lead them, and this will be a great opportunity to engage and empower future generations of the community.

This will go a long way in dispelling perceptions of inferiority or discrimination that these young Malays may have internalised.

The media can also play a part. They are instrumental in telling the stories of Singaporeans and also in moulding perceptions of the different communities and groups.

While it is perfectly fine to showcase celebrations of racial cultures or cultural events, I believe there is no need to emphasise race, especially when articles are accompanied by photos of the people mentioned.

This special mention for Malays in stories of success may unintentionally cause Singaporeans of other races to see Malays as less capable. This can affect how they relate to and communicate with their Malay friends.

As we progress, I hope to see less emphasis put on a person’s race when highlighting his or her achievements.

In my opinion, Singapore will never be a race-blind country because race, for good reasons, will continue to be a huge part of a person’s identity.

Based on a survey by the Institute of Policy Studies on race, religion and language, 70.7 per cent of the respondents indicated that race is important to their overall sense of identity.

Race should be less of a social marker and more of a cultural marker. We can be proud of our individual ethnicities and share our unique cultures, while still having a strong national identity. But we should not let race shape our interactions or perceptions of others.

Stories of success should be read as they are — the achievements of fellow Singaporeans. I, for one, am sure that members of the Malay community can find any successful Singaporean, regardless of race, a worthy role model.

Muhammad Syakir Bin Kamal is a second-year student at Imperial College London, where he is reading aeronautical engineering. He is currently interning at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

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