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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Malays in Singapore

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Singapore Facts
Area:    693 sq. km.
Capital:    Singapore
Total Population:    4,609,000 (source: CIA World Factbook, 2003, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References



Risk Assessment

The Malays have two of the four factors that increase the chances of future protest: significant political and cultural restrictions and the transitional nature of Singapore's political system. Whether the Chinese-dominated People's Action Party is willing to allow for greater Malay political participation along with helping to further the group's economic status will likely influence the future course of Malay activism.

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Analytic Summary

The Malays are widely dispersed across the small island state of Singapore. Most group members immigrated to the country after 1945, mainly from Indonesia but also from Malaysia. In the north, Singapore is separated from southern Malaysia by a narrow strait of water and in the south it is in close proximity to Indonesia.

Group members speak Malay and/or English in contrast to Mandarin Chinese, the language spoken by the majority Chinese who constitute about 77 percent of Singapore's population (LANG = 1). In addition, the Malays are Sunni Muslims while the Chinese are either Buddhists or Christians (BELIEF = 3). The two communities have different social customs; and although both are Asiatic, Malays are physically distinguishable (CUSTOM = 1; RACE = 2). Singapore also has minority Indian and European populations.

In 1819, the British East India Company occupied the island, and by 1867 Singapore became a British colony which was soon to become a major commercial port. Its economic potential attracted Chinese migrants who eventually became the majority population. After the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Singapore returned to British control. While neighboring Malaysia became independent in 1957, British rule on the island did not end until 1963. In that year, concerns about the potential influence of the Communist Party of Malaya in Singapore likely led it to join the anticommunist federation of Malaysia. The political experiment did not last long. Increasing ethnic tensions between the Malays and the Chinese led Singapore to leave the union just two years later. Along with Bangladesh, Singapore was the only other successful secession during the Cold War.

Political power in Singapore from independence the present has been dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP). During this time period, sustained, high-level, economic growth made Singapore one of the most prosperous countries in Southeast Asia. PAP won 84 of 86 elected seats in the Singaporean parliament in the 2006 elections.

The Malays face restrictions on the practice of their religion and the celebration of group holidays. For example, the government has banned Malay girls' wearing a headscarf (tudung) in the public school system. They also remain disadvantaged in the economic arena in comparison to Singapore's other ethnic groups, although the government has instituted policies -- especially in education -- to improve their economic conditions (ECDIS06 = 1). Group members are disproportionately represented as urban laborers and low-level service workers and they are the least likely to achieve higher education. Compounding these problems are significant drug usage by community members and their involvement in criminal activity. Public policies to improve Malays' economic status have achieved some success. In the mid-1990s, it was reported that 38 percent of Malay families earned $3000 or more monthly in comparison to 23 percent in 1990. There are few Malays in high-level political or civil service positions and they are underrepresented in the armed forces, although there has been recent improvement in the latter. This political discrimination is the result of social exclusion by the politically and economically dominant Chinese (POLDIS06 = 3).

Group members seek broader political participation (POLGR06 = 1) along with economic rights such as a greater share of public funds and economic opportunities. The ability to freely practice their religious and cultural beliefs is also a primary concern, including maintaining control over their system of Islamic schools (madrasahs) (CULGR06 = 1). Government policy has promoted multiculturalism but the politicization of the identities of the Malay, Chinese, Indian and European communities is not allowed.

Conventional organizations represent group interests. They include the Singapore Malay National Organization, the Association of Muslim Professionals and the ruling People's Action Party (GOJPA06 = 2). The vast majority of Malays support these organizations but their loyalties are divided among these groups which has likely limited their political influence.

Malay political activism in the form of symbolic protest actions dates back to the early 1980s (PROT80X-98X = 2). In more recent years, protest has been limited to verbal opposition (PROT00-03 = 1), with no reports of protest from 2004 through 2006.. There has been no rebellion against state authorities.

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References

Barr, Michael D., and Jevon Low. 2005. "Assimilation as Multiracialism: The Case of Singapore's Malays." Asian Ethnicity. 6:3.

Ismail, Rahil, and Brian J. Shaw. 2006. "Singapore's Malay-Muslim Minority: Social Identification in a Post-'9/11' World." Asian Ethnicity 7:1.

Lexis-Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Li, Tania. 1989. Malays in Singapore: Culture, Economy, and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Library of Congress. 2006. "Country Profile: Singapore." http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Singapore.pdf

Mutalib, Hussin. 2005. "Singapore Muslims: The Quest for Identity in a Modern City-State." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 25:1.

Nasir, Kamaludeen Bin Mohamed. 2007. "Rethinking the 'Malay Problem' in Singapore: Image, Rhetoric and Social Realities." Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 27:2.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Singapore. 2001-2006.

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Information current as of December 31, 2006