Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Malay problem is sociological; Chinese problem is statistical

I cannot remember when it was reported and who the exact Minister was, but an ethnic Malay politician (MP or Minister?) recently expressed his concern regarding the Primary School Leaving Examination pass rates of Malay students. (By the way can someone enlighten me who's the Malay Minister? Really bad memory)

I recall him mentioning that this problem must be looked at sociologically. I agree. A sociological understanding of the plights and challenges faced by Malay Singaporeans in a cosmopolitan Singapore inhabited by a majority of ethnic Chinese, will provide some pointers on how we can best accommodate/integrate our Malay children, and make sure they do not "lose out".

But the sociological perspective (to understanding the challenges Malays face) may not provide the solution. You may be able to identify the problem of Malay kids growing up in an education modelled after the "Chinese"/Confucian brand of education, and schools being moulded in a way to equip students with the proper English-speaking ethnic Chinese middle-class values, the kind of cultural capital that will empower them to be successful in Singapore.

Imagine the scenario:

Researcher: The Malay problem has a sociological side to it. Malay kids grow up in a predominant ethnic Chinese system, in a school whose educational values and pedagogy are modelled after Chinese Confucian scholarship, in will struggle to live in a society that is largely ruled by Chinese elite ideology... etc... Ethnic minorities will not have the same cultural headstart as their ethnic Chinese counterparts in the education system.

(Presumably ethnic Chinese) Politician: But aren't all values the same? Aren't all values universal? Singapore is a meritocracy. (Obviously reeks of ignorance given his/her privileged Chinese position)

Researcher: ARGHHHH. It's a cultural thing. There are subtle cultural differences and differences in values, and the school system and pedagogy just benefits the Chinese more, as they are in a better position to adjust to the system.

Politician: I don't see your point. We are all Singaporeans. We a multi-cultural. Every child has the same opportunity to excel. We are a meritocracy. School are all the same.

Researcher: ARGHHHH. That's the problem. Every child is different, and comes from different cultural backgrounds with different values. And our school system just happens to allow children from a certain cultural background to excel more. The playing field is not level, even if we gave everyone the same opportunity.

Politician: The schools are all impartial, so the playing field for children of all races is level. What are you talking about?

It's just a frustrating thing, because even if you look at the so-called Malay problem sociologically, you will have the Chinese political elite looking at it non-sociologically, because they probably have no sociological imagination, let alone the ability to self-interrogate. For the ethnic Chinese, it's all about statistics and numbers. We want our 2.1 children, don't we?

If our education policy is entirely informed by sociological research, it will spill over to other sectors and policies and there will more be criticisms of Chinese, something a privileged majority would not like to endure.

The newspapers will probably not have the guts to publish a sociological finding concerning the struggles of ethnic minorities in the primary schools. There will be far too many suggestions, insinuations or explicit critiques of how middle-class Chinese ideology rules the roost. Imagine you're a stiff-limbed Mando-pop band joining a music competition comprising all the veteran Mat rocker bands, and the judges are all from the underground scene. Same competition, equal opportunity to win. Everyone plays their music competently, but your Mando-pop band won't go very far. Bad analogy, say you're a tight English thrash-metal band joining a band competition consisting of contestants who sing Mando-pop and English worship music, and the judges are from the pop industry. How to win?

There are many things the ethnic Chinese often take for granted. For example, when we think of equal opportunity, we believe that everyone starts off from the same line and run the same race. When we think of equal treatment, we think it is a fair system and only ability will differentiate people.

Think about this. An employer wants to hire a bilingual worker. In Singapore, bilingualism is a euphemism for the ability to speak English and Mandarin. All Singaporeans have the same opportunity to vie for this job, true. But not all Singaporeans are in the same (cultural) position to ace the interview.

As for equal treatment, we often give attention only to who are being treated, and forgot to notice who is the person dishing out this equal treatment. For me, in Singapore, equal treatment is on the terms of the (values of the) ethnic Chinese. By convenience of being the majority, the ethnic Chinese can (inadvertently) make the rules in-sync with Chinese values, aspects of which might be at odds or contradictory to Malay values. That is cultural difference.

And what is worse that our Ministers and policy-makers mostly come from top schools, which are almost void of ethnic Malays. It is a vicious cycle that continues to spin and reproduce itself. So how can a system created and run by the Chinese elite ever be understanding of ethnic minorities? Worse, this system also runs on ethnic stereotypes too.

I think the education for ethnic Malays is a legitimate issue and should be addressed and engaged by everyone. But it is the Chinese leaders who must first look at themselves sociologically, and stop making policies based on statistics alone. The reason why we have Malay politicians to listen and represent the Malay population is not only because they have cultural similarities, but also reflects the extent to which they are alienated by the Chinese elite who carry on uncritically judging/assessing Malays with ethnic Chinese benchmarks passed off as universal. I really hope our Chinese leaders will work with an open mind and some degree of introspection to help our Malay children, and use some sociological imagination in deriving solutions to these social problems.

-add- I recall in my days as undergraduate student. We would have question and answer sessions at the end of the student presentations. We would ask the presenters, after they have presented their findings, observations and criticisms, "So what is the solution?" or "So what do you recommend?" and as a continuing in-joke the nature of which we are all aware of (HA! tautology sial!), the presenter will reply, "I'm just a social science student, I offer no solutions!" and the whole class will burst into laughter.

Now as a graduate student, I am more focused on providing solutions, but fear it might not be "academic" enough.

As for the Malay education problem, I wonder if the Chinese elite/politicians, upon reading the sociological research and findings, will go, "Oh, it's like that. That's too bad" and no change will take place. Sad.

For me, as an ethnic Chinese, I am more concerned with working-class kids struggling in an education system moulded by English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporean middle-class values (and aspirations). There is some incongruity there, and it will create some dissonance that will result in what we middle-class folks will identify as social problems. The problems of race intersect with the problems of class, and in the case of working class ethnic minorities, the problem is just compounded for them.

-add again- So sad, I never talked about Indians. Whenever there's a race issue, Chinese and Malays are the protagonists; Indians are just tokens. When we talk about progress, camera pans to Chinese. When we talk about multiculturalism, camera pans to Malays, then zooms out to reveal the Indian guy beating the drums. Guess what, the camera man is Chinese!

I hope more ethnic Chinese people will be interested in issues of race and ethnicity, because Singapore vomits out too much rhetoric on multiculturalism, but we know so little and do so little about it. Ethnic Chinese Singaporeans must make use of their privilege to help ethnic minorities be part of the gang. We can still share a racist joke with one another along the way.


Nabil said...

Greetings Sam, I m a new reader to your blog. Stumbled upon it for the need of intellectual stimulation.

Anyway, I think you that you are spot on that the majority Chinese in our country are ignorant about issues on multiculturalism.

Confucianism is very effective in using education to develop one's character. I reckon that you are referring to meritocracy which is also part of Confucianism that is not effective when educating children from other cultures.

It is always good to have healthy competition and meritocracy promotes that but too much of that leaves a soulless nation and breeds elitism if you ask me.

I am fortunate enough to come form a mixed racial background and I strongly feel that the Malay society problems stems from the mindset. Its becoming a big issue and concerns are raised by Dr Yaacob Ibrahim's recent outcry of a wake up call to the Malays in Singapore. A mindset change I believe is not through formal education, but from the home.

The Singapore Government is constantly tweaking its education system to model and emulate what's effective from various parts of the world, thus I believe opportunities to learn and excel is abundant.

Placing racial issues aside, a child who has strong fundamental teachings from home will succeed in any education system.


Sam Ho said...

thank you. very flattering. there are many blogs out there too that can provide that stimulation you need. check out the local content aggregators such as singaporedaily and TOC.

thanks too for the minister's name. dr yaacob! i think it's him now.

malay social problems comes from mindset? you mean malay mindset or other people's mindset? i think it's a both too.

it's very difficult to have a multicultural governance.

i disagree on the part of children with strong fundamental teachings at home will succeed. i think some "teachings" at home at culturally specific, which may or may not be in-sync with the culture of the school system and pedagogy.

nevertheless, i welcome dr yaacob's call for a sociological perspective on this problem. and hopefully, we are able to use sociology to help solve other social problems.

superduper said...

Very enlightening post. It has always concerned me that ethnic chinese singaporeans are way ignorant about issues facing other ethnic minorities and carry a false impression that the playing field is level for all. I think it is important to let youths see that this is not the case, and the system should be improved to ensure fairness (truly regardless of race).

Illumination said...

Your post is very interesting. I personally feel you are being too light on the Malays.

As a Malay myself, I feel that the negative mindsets of certain malays which they develop from their families and peers are something that can be overidden easily but these people are too stuck up in their own little worlds.

Terms like "Relax one corner" are reflective of the malay mindset.

I am a novice when it comes Confusincism (i have no idea how to spell it) but the education system in Singapore does seem to de-confusianise in recent times.

A fair playing field is a dream. With clever anticipation, one can mould a child to cruise through the education system.

I agree with Nabil's comments.

"It is always good to have healthy competition and meritocracy promotes that but too much of that leaves a soulless nation and breeds elitism if you ask me."

The solution of the problem is not only to tweak the "Chinese" system but also to wake the Malays up.

One would think that Indians (smaller minority) would be the ones lagging but that's not the case.

Sam Ho said...

i guess there are many ways of looking at the problem here.

it's not very (politically correct) acceptable for a chinese singaporean to say what you said - malays need to wake up.

the malay problem, for me, is not intrinsic and isolated to the malays, because malays are situated as a minority in chinese-majority singapore.

"relax one corner" mentality may strive in certain economies and certain societies, but clearly doesn't put you in a good position in an economy and society like singapore.

it's two sides to the story i think. on the one hand, the stereotypical malay mentality alienates the malays from the system; but on the other hand, the system is built and developed, and consists of specific values, in a way that alienates the malays.

a society run by chinese elite has its own definitions of success, development, wealth, and ambition, and these definitions are sometimes inconsistent with certain malay values.

i know nuts about indian singaporeans hahah and that shows what a chinese singaporean is capable of, sadly. but they appear to excel fairly well compared to the malays.

while i look at it from the perspective of society - i.e. how malays are situated in our society, i agree with you that certain malay mentalities have to be addressed too.

Illumination said...

I was just wondering if you have any examples on how the education system alienates the non-Chinese?

I have been in a debate with my girlfriend about this very topic (yeah I know, its not a good conversation topic for a relationship).

I just turned 17 and have been really interested in politics, religion, philosophy and all the stuff. P.S. your blog is great!

Sam Ho said...

if we looked at it sociologically, the school system first espouses middle class values - study hard, ascend, get higher education, get a good job, save up, have a nice family, etc.

these values resonate more with chinese values (to use them stereotypically) - wealth accumulation, upward mobility, striking while the iron is hot, prosperity.

haha, prosperity is so much more intimate to the chinese. moreover, it is a value that appeals to chinese christians too. which explains how chinese-ness dovetails relatively easily with christianity in singapore.

the education system is a function of how singapore is governed and is a function of chinese elite governance. why do we have "prosperity" in our pledge?

the social, familial and economic values of malays on the other hand do not fit comfortably into such a system. wealth accumulation is not a traditional malay-muslim value, malays have traditionally different emphases on how to live one's life.

the relevance of mainstream education is different for different ethnicities and cultures. that's all i can say, although attitudes are changing now. for a working class family, bread and butter is a more important issue, so why waste time and youth in the classroom when you can be making money? that is why working class kids slip between the cracks of the education system. and they feel even more dissonant when they realise they cannot reconcile their working class values with a system that espouses middle class values.

as for the socio-economic gap, malay families are over-represented in the lower strata, although that is changing now. the dynamics of the traditional malay family too are becoming dated and less adaptable (to strive) in a system that demands a certain outlook and approach, one that coincidentally, the chinese can manage.

this is where majority/minority politics come in. the chinese, who happen to be a numerical majority, also exert a strong political influence on how singapore is run.

there are too many things to consider actually.

class values
cultural values
majority/minority politics
chinese elite culture
malay-ness in changing times
colonial history

for starters i advise you to read "the myth of the lazy native"


written by dr alatas

Illumination said...

yeah you're right. Most wealth accumulation being done by practiticng Malay-Muslim families are either done for the Hajj journey or just to make sure ends meet.

This means, we should also look into the parents. All I can say is that it's not a common thing to see a Malay-Muslim in a high-position ranking job. Basically, its a vicious cycle.

I'm reminded of a phrase - "What you are born into, should not decide what you become"

Btw, thanks for the recommendation of the book. Hey, I'd suggest you pitch your ideas to someone in the government or in Singaporean politics. The ideas are very sound.

Then again, the vice grip the government has on any challengers is scary.