Sunday, July 05, 2009

Feeling like the least favourite child by Nur Dianah Suhaimi

Nur Dianah Suhaimi: Feeling like the least favourite child
August 17, 2008 (The Straits Times)

As a Malay, I’ve always been told that I have to work twice as hard to prove my worthWhen I was younger, I always thought of myself as the quintessential Singaporean.

Of my four late grandparents, two were Malay, one was Chinese and one was Indian. This, I concluded, makes me a mix of all the main races in the country. But I later realised that it was not what goes into my blood that matters, but what my identity card says under ‘Race’.

Because my paternal grandfather was of Bugis origin, my IC says I’m Malay. I speak the language at home, learnt it in school, eat the food and practise the culture. And because of my being Malay, I’ve always felt like a lesser Singaporean than those from other racial groups.

I grew up clueless about the concept of national service because my father was never enlisted.He is Singaporean all right, born and bred here like the rest of the boys born in 1955. He is not handicapped in any way. He did well in school and participated in sports.

Unlike the rest, however, he entered university immediately after his A levels. He often told me that his schoolmates said he was ‘lucky’ because he was not called up for national service.

‘What lucky?’ he would tell them. ‘Would you feel lucky if your country doesn’t trust you?’So I learnt about the rigours of national service from my male cousins. They would describe in vivid detail their training regimes, the terrible food they were served and the torture inflicted upon them - most of which, I would later realise, were exaggerations.

But one thing these stories had in common was that they all revolved around the Police Academy in Thomson. As I got older, it puzzled me why my Chinese friends constantly referred to NS as ‘army’. In my family and among my Malay friends, being enlisted in the army was like hitting the jackpot. The majority served in the police force because, as is known, the Government was not comfortable with Malay Muslims serving in the army. But there are more of them now.

Throughout my life, my father has always told me that as a Malay, I need to work twice as hard to prove my worth. He said people have the misconception that all Malays are inherently lazy.I was later to get the exact same advice from a Malay minister in office who is a family friend.When I started work, I realised that the advice rang true, especially because I wear my religion on my head. My professionalism suddenly became an issue. One question I was asked at a job interview was whether I would be willing to enter a nightclub to chase a story. I answered: ‘If it’s part of the job, why not? And you can rest assured I won’t be tempted to have fun.’

When I attend media events, before I can introduce myself, people assume I write for the Malay daily Berita Harian. A male Malay colleague in The Straits Times has the same problem, too.This makes me wonder if people also assume that all Chinese reporters are from Lianhe Zaobao and Indian reporters from Tamil Murasu.

People also question if I can do stories which require stake-outs in the sleazy lanes of Geylang. They say because of my tudung I will stick out like a sore thumb. So I changed into a baseball cap and a men’s sports jacket - all borrowed from my husband - when I covered Geylang.

I do not want to be seen as different from the rest just because I dress differently. I want the same opportunities and the same job challenges.

Beneath the tudung, I, too, have hair and a functioning brain. And if anything, I feel that my tudung has actually helped me secure some difficult interviews.

Newsmakers - of all races - tend to trust me more because I look guai (Hokkien for well-behaved) and thus, they feel, less likely to write critical stuff about them.

Recently, I had a conversation with several colleagues about this essay. I told them I never thought of myself as being particularly patriotic. One Chinese colleague thought this was unfair. ‘But you got to enjoy free education,’ she said.
Sure, for the entire 365 days I spent in Primary 1 in 1989. But my parents paid for my school and university fees for the next 15 years I was studying.

It seems that many Singaporeans do not know that Malays have stopped getting free education since 1990. If I remember clearly, the news made front-page news at that time.We went on to talk about the Singapore Government’s belief that Malays here would never point a missile at their fellow Muslim neighbours in a war.

I said if not for family ties, I would have no qualms about leaving the country. Someone then remarked that this is why Malays like myself are not trusted. But I answered that this lack of patriotism on my part comes from not being trusted, and for being treated like a potential traitor.

It is not just the NS issue. It is the frustration of explaining to non-Malays that I don’t get special privileges from the Government. It is having to deal with those who question my professionalism because of my religion. It is having people assume, day after day, that you are lowly educated, lazy and poor. It is like being the least favourite child in a family. This child will try to win his parents’ love only for so long. After a while, he will just be engulfed by disappointment and bitterness.

I also believe that it is this ‘least favourite child’ mentality which makes most Malays defensive and protective of their own kind.

Why do you think Malay families spent hundreds of dollars voting for two Malay boys in the Singapore Idol singing contest? And do you know that Malays who voted for other competitors were frowned upon by the community?

The same happens to me at work. When I write stories which put Malays in a bad light, I am labelled a traitor. A Malay reader once wrote to me to say: ‘I thought a Malay journalist would have more empathy for these unfortunate people than a non-Malay journalist.’

But such is the case when you are a Malay Singaporean. Your life is not just about you, as much as you want it to be. You are made to feel responsible for the rest of the pack and your actions affect them as well. If you trip, the entire community falls with you. But if you triumph, it is considered everyone’s success.

When 12-year-old Natasha Nabila hit the headlines last year for her record PSLE aggregate of 294, I was among the thousands of Malays here who celebrated the news. I sent instant messages to my friends on Gmail and chatted excitedly with my Malay colleagues at work.

Suddenly a 12-year-old has become the symbol of hope for the community and a message to the rest that Malays can do it too - and not just in singing competitions.

And just like that, the ‘least favourite child’ in me feels a lot happier.

Each year, come Aug 9, my father, who never had the opportunity to do national service, dutifully hangs two flags at home - one on the front gate and the other by the side gate.I wonder if putting up two flags is his way of making himself feel like a better-loved child of Singapore.

My comments:

Hi Friends,

The Sunday Times Forum Page published a truncated version of my letter about Malays and SAF.

The editor chose to keep some salient points about how ST journalist Nur Dianah Suhaimi's father felt when he was not enlisted into the SAF on account of his race but left out my point that yes, things have improved, but there is strong evidence that there are still places in the SAF where certain races are kept out as a matter of policy.

I believe that if we want to change, we should go the whole hog; we should go the full 9 yards! No half-measures; no tokenisms.

We are all Singaporeans-all the races. Chinese, Malays,Indians,Eurasians,ex-Malaysians,ex-AngMo's,Ex-filipinos etc. Faham? Comprehende (pidgin Spanish) You get the idea now?

Security vetting for sensitive posts should be on a case-by-case basis;personnel should be vetted based by race-blind basis. I do not think I can make it any clearer than this.

I have chosen to republish Nur Dianah's letter at the top of my post as I have realised, naively, that the average attention span of netizens is about one paragraph long. Many would have just glanced over her letter the last time and all my effort of trying to bring about change by highlighting how hurtful SAF policies have been to Malays would have come to nought!

Since the Straits Times/Sunday Times has so kindly quoted Nur Dianah's article by its proper title, and by publishing it has imlicitly endorsed it ( Yes-I think so), I sincerely hope that "gahmen leaders"; policy makers and community leaders can read her very signficant and poignant letter.

I recall that when Nur Dianah's letter was published last August (2008), Professor Tommy Koh ( whom I admire much for still trying to change things from within) made an online comment supporting her viewpoint.

I still hope that Prof. Tommy Koh would become our next President!


Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan
PS: I'm going cycling after this ( to ventilate my brain)!


Fox said...

Dr Huang,

I doubt that the discriminatory policies by the SAF has any significant socioeconomic effect on Malay Singaporeans who are still economically disadvantaged.

Let's say that we promote 10 Malay generals and have Malay participation in all SAF units. What would we have accomplished for the average Malay Singaporean? It's just all symbolism.

On the other hand, if we have proper social safety nets for the poor, anti-discriminatory workplace laws and effective sex education in neigborhood schools, wouldn't that help Malay Singaporeans more? To the Malay technician who has been just laid off and is over 40, like his Chinese colleague, what to you think is of greater concern?

nofearSingapore said...

Hi Fox,
Why should having Malays in all units ( like everyone else) and receiving socio-economic help ( like everyone else) be mutually exclusive?
Fox, it is the right and duty of every citizen to serve NS. The nation should accord all of us the right to serve in all arms of the military force ( according to race-blind criteria).
I am prepared to let the past remain in the past.
We must start on fresh slate.
Citizens before PR before non-residents.
If not, why should any Singaporean esply Malay Singaporean feel that he/she owes anything to this little red dot?

Damien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FA said...


While “having Malays in all units” and socio-economic development are not mutually exclusive, tokenisms and real fundamental progress are. The real issues of development of minorities are obscured by tokenisms of the PAP that you yourself highlighted. This overblown issue of Malay promotion in the military says more about the bread crumbs that the eugenicists in the PAP are prepared to give than anything remotely to do with the real development of the Malay minorities.

When 1 in 3 Malays are either labourers, cleaners or factory workers, when Malay girls are 7-8 times more likely to end up as unwedded mothers, when Malay girls make up the majority of public hospital teenage abortions, when a mere 5% of the Malay cohort have a university degree (compared to 20-30% in other groups), etc., there is some serious rethinking needed regarding parity and development in this nation.

I was, like Nur Dianah’s father and countless many other peers of mine, once young, eager to defend our country. One day, right after my A-Levels, I got my NS letter telling me to report to the Police Academy. My heart sank and I eventually ended up with over 100 other Malay boys in the same company. Never before had I seen so many young Malay boys hanging out under one roof, not even in a mosque!

I am now living overseas. As a young adult, would I defend Singapore? I love my parents and family, I honour my teachers and mentors back home, and I miss my childhood friends of all races. I would defend them, but not the system and definitely not for the benefit of the men in the PAP some of whom worked for the Japanese when their other countrymen were slaughtered. Alas, mine is wishful thinking for I have been deemed not good enough to be a soldier, so I should be grateful of my peasant status.

A question to you Dr. Are you willing to go the “full 9 yards”? Are you willing to vote out racism, discrimination and tokenism? Are you willing to vote out the PAP on this issue that you’ve been putting “all (your) effort”? If yes, would you work with others including me to persuade our countrymen to do the same? If not, are we not the tokenism we seem to like to criticize?

nofearSingapore said...

Hi FA,

Thanks for your heart-felt and sincere comments.

I cannot solve the problems of “ 1 in 3 Malays are either labourers, cleaners or factory workers, when Malay girls are 7-8 times more likely to end up as unwedded mothers, when Malay girls make up the majority of public hospital teenage abortions, when a mere 5% of the Malay cohort have a university degree (compared to 20-30% in other groups)” etc.

Access to education for every child where any child with a will to succeed is encouraged to go as far as he/she can; positive mindsets where great emphasis is given to getting marketable skills and higher education etc are generally accepted as the escape routes from the poverty traps.

The obstacles are family environment not conducive to education; lack of positive adult role models;poverty which forces a child out of school and prematurely into the job market and of course racial discrimination where minorities find it hard to get jobs as HR personnel weed them out before even getting the interviews .

The only thing I can do now is to highlight the discriminatory policies that are still present in the SAF. Altho some have mentioned that most people ( including Malays) are more interested in the next meal rather than lofty ideals like racial equality in the military,I still think that racial equality everywhere- education/job market/SAF are important if we still aspire to be a civilised nation.

Whilst I cannot do much about education etc, I can highlight what’s not right in the military setup.

FA, the Malay community itself also has to do its part in levelling up to the national average. I know it is easier said than done, but educated Malays like yourself are in a position to play a role in this ( I certainly can’t). What the majority race can do is to be fair to minorities when in a position to do so ( eg as employer).

I am afraid to disappoint you by saying that I do not believe that we can solve all problems under the sun by just kicking out the PAP. We may just be replacing despots with tyrants.

I believe in trying to identify areas where problems lay and trying to persuade, arm-twist or even shaming the authorities into taking action. I believe that not all men-in-white are bad ( or good) but that they are Singaporeans just like me ( and maybe you- if you are still Singaporean) and that it is just the philosophy that drive us that is different.

I may be more liberal-minded with penchant to take small risks with hope that new ideas will be better than the old, theirs may be governed by risk-averseness and that there are many very stubborn and narrow-minded senior people in their party who for whatever reasons are not interested in any new ideas. Perhaps it is “face” or “control-freakiness” .
Dr Huang

FA said...

“I am afraid to disappoint you by saying that I do not believe that we can solve all problems under the sun by just kicking out the PAP. We may just be replacing despots with tyrants. I believe in trying to identify areas where problems lay and trying to persuade, arm-twist or even shaming the authorities into taking action.”

Then our end up fighting the symptoms our whole lives and not the cause, Dr. I am sure it sounds familiar in your field.

Yes, much of the problems of the minority communities in Singapore have origins in the mindsets of the community members themselves. I have also tried to help reform those mindsets in my community in my own little ways. I hope to do more and find like-minded others. But just as the majority group have their problems with an unimaginative, uncritical populace, so too do the Malays, doubly-compounding the problem of underdevelopment and lack of forward-thinking, doubling the efforts needed.

Personally, I have just one advice for my minority friends. Treasure Singapore growing up, but search and build your own dreams elsewhere. In the words of Alfian Sa’at, “if you care too much about Singapore, first it’ll break your spirit, finally it’ll break your heart”.