Singapore, Ethnic Chauvinism and the Malay-Muslim Population

Singapore, Ethnic Chauvinism and the Malay-Muslim Population

Islamic Human Rights Commission

26 September 2003

Briefing: Singapore, ethnic chauvinism and the Malay-Muslim population

Background to People’s Action Party Singapore

Since its independence in 1959, Singapore has been governed exclusively by the People’s Action Party (PAP). Due to PAP’s effective restrictions on oppositional political activity, this can be described as an “elective” dictatorship. For the most part, post-independence Singapore has seen Lee Kuan Yew at the helm of the PAP-state.

Yew, Singapore’s “elder statesman”, throughout his reign tolerated virtually no viable political opposition, consolidating the formative years of his political rule through the jailing of political allies from the independence movement era. Yew quickly transformed Singapore into an effective one-party state. Yew capitalised on the racial polarisation which characterised 1950s/60s Singapore, a legacy which has shaped present-day Singaporean society and seen the Malay-Muslim population experience state-driven discrimination. This has not only been a violation of minority rights but has been much to the detriment of its socio-economic and political development.

In 1990 Yew handed over the office of prime minister to his protégé Goh Chok Tong. Nevertheless, Yew remains Singapore’s de facto senior politician, given to publicly expounding his political views, notably on Singaporean Muslims.

Singapore’s tentative freedom

With strong authoritarian tendencies, the interests and laws of the state are paramount. Dissent is not tolerated, as exemplified in the government’s decision to de-register the country’s Jehovah’s Witnesses for amongst other things refusal to perform military service and to salute the flag.

The PAP-government uses the judicial process, especially (state) defamation suits, to pursue political opponents and other critics of the government. The general perception in Singapore is that the PAP uses the judicial process for political purposes and exists, for the most part, under the scrutiny of the executive.

The state restricts freedom of speech, assembly, association and of the media. Generally civil and political rights are restricted in an attempt to limit citizens’ rights and the political opposition.

Although Singapore’s Constitution provides for freedom of religion (as long as no laws covering public order, public health or morality are contravened) the Government has a tendency to restrict freedom of religion. More so, the PAP-state bans the public discussion on any religious and/or racial issue that remotely borders on the sensitive or controversial (see ‘PAP prohibition on ethnic and religious discussion’ and ‘Education: Flashpoint between Malay-Muslims and PAP’). The 1992 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act is aimed at creating ‘religious harmony’, criminalising the “mixing of religion and politics” and “exciting disaffection against” the government. No judicial review is permitted over the act’s enforcement or any resultant denial of rights.

Ethnicity and Religion in Singapore

Muslims form 15% of Singapore’s estimated 4 million strong population. In terms of Singapore’s ethnic composition, 77% are ethnic Chinese, 14% are ethnic Malay and 8% Indian. The majority ethnic Chinese either profess atheism, agnosticism, Christianity, Buddhism or Confucianism. Singapore’s Muslims are overwhelmingly ethnic Malay

For Singaporean society ethnicity and religion are synonymous. Non-Muslims in Singapore effectively views Islam as a Malay affair. Views towards Muslims are indistinguishable from those held about ethnic Malays and “Muslim” and “Malay” are interchangeable terms.

Status of Singapore’s Malay-Muslims

Whilst Singapore’s Constitution recognises Malay-Muslims as an indigenous people of Singapore and commits the government to support and advance their interests and rights, praxis demonstrates this is not the case.

Detractors of the PAP government within Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community accuse it of Islamophobia and disrespecting minority cultures. This criticism is part of the wider concern held by Singapore’s substantial minority groups as to ethnic Chinese hegemony over public and private institutions.

Many critics point to the PAP-state funded “special assisted programme” (SAP) as evidence of its Sino-centricism. SAP promotes Chinese culture and language as official government policy, whilst the government simultaneously denies the Malay-Muslim population the preservation of their culture and language let alone the opportunity to share Islam with wider Singaporean society

Singaporean-Malay émigré Lily Zubaideh Rahim, senior lecturer with the Department of Economic History, University of Sydney (Australia) unequivocally states: “There has been a systematic program of Sinification and cultural favouritism, manifested most clearly in the state’s promotion of Mandarin and Confucianism”.

Decades of state-driven racial discrimination and pro-Chinese preference have left Singaporeon Malay (-Muslim) an underclass, suffering from the double helix of low education and low pay. Singapore’s political and economic classes are disproportionately Chinese. The government has taken gerrymandering measures to reduce the political effectiveness of Malay-Muslims through ensuring parliamentary consistencies have no more than a 25% Malay population. Discrimination is rife in the Chinese-dominated private sector, especially against Muslim women with headscarves.

PAP prohibition on ethnic and religious discussion

Whilst the PAP-government regularly violates constitutional guarantees of the right to freedom of religion, as exemplified in the 2002 “tudung” (hijab or headscarf) school ban, the PAP-government has imposed an array of laws on Singaporean society that prohibit any public discussion of “sensitive” ethnic and or religious issues which are considered likely to strain inter-communal harmony (In February 2002 an opposition leader was fined $1,700 and faces a potential ban from running for political office for publicly criticising the government’s ban on headscarves in schools – see ‘Education: Flashpoint between Malay-Muslims and PAP’). These very laws have the effect of restricting, if not completely prohibiting any criticism of the very policies and attitudes of the PAP-government which has often been the source of religious and racial tension in modern Singapore.

The government’s hyper-sensitivity to any issue that mildly resembles racial and or religious controversy is conditioned by the racial strife and riots between the country’s ethnic Chinese and Malay populations in the 1950s and 1960s, which threaten to tear Singapore’s very social fabric apart. Lee Kuan Yew and PAP have long been considered to have been at the centre of the 1960s racial troubles, accused of making political capital out of the then civil strife and thus effecting the marginalisation of Singapore’s Malay-Muslims. The riots permitted Yew to consolidate his powerbase by blaming Communists and Kuala Lampur-based Malay groups. The ethnic Chinese population moved to dominate politics and state government.

Prime Minister Tong and “elder statesman” Yew reveal Islamophobia

Tong’s and Yew’s public statements on Singapore’s Muslims reveal a fundamental intolerance of difference and in particular Islamophobia.

In February 2000 Tong warned Singapore’s Muslims not to publicly confirm their religious identity, posited as a threat to societal cohesion. Commenting on the tudung, Tong stated: “And for them [Muslims] now to try to push the wearing of the tudung in schools will only cause greater concern to the non-Muslims, so I would advise them to be quite cautious in this . . . But in school leave things alone. Don’t change the present order of things”.

Tong, in his capacity as prime minister, has qualified such statements on several high profile occasions. On Singapore’s 2002 National Rally Day Tong asserted: “My concern is whether our Muslim will increasingly choose to interpret and practise their religion narrowly and rigidly. This will stifle the community’s economic development”.

Notably in August 2002, following the arrest of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) suspects, Tong raised the same theme, rounding on aspects of Muslim etiquette: “If you don’t shake hands with employers or potential employers, and you are not recruited you can’t blame the employer. I mean saying ‘good morning, how are you?’, shaking hands is the common thing, and if you refuse to shake hands with interviewers, it’s harder to get the job. So make it easier for us to get along”. Tong further proclaims: “I have heard that now some students in the university are also wearing veil. Now, well I think the Muslim community have to address this. If more and more women start wearing the veil, only eyes can be seen, how can you tell who is sitting for the exams? I think the university and the Education Ministry will be concerned as to who is sitting in the exams. I think this is coming”.

Yew’s outbursts go further. In May 2001 Yew went on the record as stating: “We have the growing divide … between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam is going through a renaissance and globalising. Its disciples are using modern technology to reassert themselves and spread the Muslim message. Throughout 150 years of British rule and 36 years of independence, dress was never an issue. But now the Muslims have made it a major one. I’m sure you’ve seen the covered heads of women around town. It’s part of this worldwide movement. And we have a problem”. Yew’s comments have extended to scaremongering which has earned him international rebuke. By June 2002, Yew announced: “The immediate threats to security in the region … come from non-state Islamic groups”. This built on other May 2001 comments in which he claimed: “The Muslim nuclear bomb – which already exists in Pakistan – will travel to other Muslim countries in the years to come . . . Rational people don’t worry me. China is rational, so is India, America, Europe and the rest of the world. But not the Islamic fundamentalist elements. I am very worried because this fanaticism is growing in Indonesia, which is next door to us”. Building on the Indonesian claim Yew went on to claim in December 2002 that 100 unidentified Muslim groups “want to create a Muslim state or Daulah Islamuyah, a caliphate that comprises Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern Philippines and Singapore”. These comments were condemned by Indonesian politicians and Muslim leaders as mythical and pure exaggeration.

Yew’s other comments on Singapore’s Muslims condemned their attendance at mosques, with Tong rebuking Muslims for seeking halal-certified outlets. Statements by a prominent government minister on Eid in 2001 were interpreted as a call upon the Muslim community to exercise self-censorship and tone down the more proactive aspects of Muslim life.

Education: Flashpoint between Malay-Muslims and PAP

Education has become a tense issue between the Malay-Muslim population and the Chinese-dominated PAP-government. As in many other societies, the donning of the headscarf by Muslim women, especially by school students, is an emotive issue often perceived by majority non-Muslim societies as a threat to collective notions of uniformity. Singapore is no different, as is evidenced by the statements of Tong and Yew.

In early 2002, three female Muslim school students were suspended for sporting the headscarf, claimed as a violation of the school uniform. A fourth Muslim girl was withdrawn from the school by her parents. The Education Ministry refused to rescind the suspension and Tong came out in support of the headscarf ban.

The PAP-government was accused of attempting to frustrate attempts at a legal challenge to the ban and suspension through the refusal to grant a Malaysia-based lawyer, representing the above female school students, an employment permit to operate in Singapore. Again, many within Singapore’s Muslim community saw the Tudung affair as an attempt to ensure harmony through suppression. February 2002 saw an opposition leader accused of violating laws which ban the public discussion of sensitive religious and racial issues and fined $1,700 for publicly criticising the government’s ban on headscarves in schools.

The PAP sees Islamically-based schools as a threat to social integration. In 1999 the government attempted to close down Singapore’s only six primary madrasah (Islamically-based schools), but was forced to shelf such plans. In 2002 the government restricted the entry quota to such schools to just 400 pupils, reducing the number of pupils who could be admitted to Singapore’s primary madrash.

Muslim teachers and pupils complained of being banned form performing their prayers during school breaks. Further complaints have been raised as to the system of racial quotas which affect Muslim entry into university faculties e.g., the medical profession are restricted to admitting only 10% ethnic Malays and Muslims as part of their overall intake, despite these groups constituting 14% and 15% of the overall population respectively. Foreign universities with franchise agreements in Singapore have been told to abide by the racial quotas.

Other incidences of Islamophobia

In July 2002, Muslim rights activist, Zulfikar Mohammad Shariff, sought political asylum in Australia after criticising government policies and discrimination towards Muslims.

In December 2001, under the controversial Internal Security Act, Singaporean authorities arrested 15 Muslims on suspicion of Al-Qaeda affiliation. Subsequently, 13 were released, with the remainder sentenced to two year detentions or travel and contact restrictions. In August 2002 several Muslims were arrested on suspicion of membership of JI. Muslims reported workplace discrimination and general hostility in the aftermath of both arrests.

Singapore: Case study in ethnic chauvinism

Islamophobia practised in Singapore by the ethnic Chinese dominated PAP-state and wider Chinese society is a reflection of cultural racism. The racism and Islamophobia practicised against the Malay-Muslim is particularly insidious.

The PAP-government has historically been suspicious of Singapore’s Muslims, with its race policies promoting effective non-integration within Singaporean society. Tong’s and Yew’s comments seem to precipitate future strained relations between the Chinese majority PAP-government and the Malay-Muslim community. They reveal the PAP-state view that Muslims are in themselves an active barrier to integration and greater societal cohesion within Singaporean society, albeit on majority Chinese terms.

IHRC feels that Yew is clearly unfit for any public office and an active barrier to minority progress in Singapore. In light of this, IHRC calls for his immediate removal from political office. It is incumbent upon Tong to radically alter his stance on Singaporean Muslims and to distance himself from the Yew legacy.

IHRC calls for a more inclusive Singapore, in which diversity and opportunity of equality is afforded to all of citizens, irrespective of ethnicity and religion. IHRC further calls upon the current Singaporean government to acknowledge the existence of institutionalised racism within its own structures and throughout wider Singaporean society. This has to be accompanied by an end to Sinocentric policies and programmes, and parity in the allocation of state resources towards the Malay-Muslim and Indian populations.

For more information please contact:

Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8904 4222
Fax (+44) 20 8904 5183

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