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.