Troubled families: Malay problem or Singapore problem?

But even as most Singaporean Malays are progressing, filling more places in universities and polytechnics, joining the middle class and living in bigger homes, one small group is falling behind.

And it is this minority — the dysfunctional families — that concerns Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

On the rise: Divorce rates, the number of single-parent households and an “unacceptably high number” of teenage births and early marriages. Calling last night on self-help group Mendaki to mobilise a community-wide effort to address the problem of such families, Mr Lee said this was vital to avert a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

“In the last two years, the community has started to tackle these issues. But you need to muster a major effort focused on this problem, and work out practical and effective solutions.

“In this area, your self-help efforts are critical….”

Excerpts from TODAY, 3 Sep 07

PM Lee, in his speech at Mendaki yesterday, brought up the issue about dysfunctional Malay families yet again. He had already mentioned it during the Malay portion of his National Day Rally speech last month, and I believe he also mentioned it during last year’s speech. Now he says it may result in a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

Obviously this is a very worrisome issue for the government, and the situation hasn’t improved much over the past year, otherwise PM Lee wouldn’t have mentioned it again and again.

But is this a Malay problem for the “Malay community” to solve on their own, or it is a problem that ALL Singaporeans need to collectively tackle? In his speech, PM Lee used the word “you” more than “we” to describe who needs to deal with the problem. I wonder why? Aren’t we all Singaporeans? Why the “it’s-your-problem-go-solve-it” approach? Should we continue on in our “self help” approach to problems, or is an “all of us help” approach more appropriate in today’s Singapore?

PM Lee mentioned that “it is much harder for the Government to intervene, or for other voluntary welfare organisations outside the Malay/Muslim community to take action, without being misunderstood or triggering a defensive reaction”. Is this really the case, or is it a false assumption? If done sensitively, would it be possible for Singapore’s limited social support resources to be redirected to where the need is currently most acute?

This post is not intended to be another smart alec commentary criticizing government policies. I don’t know enough about social problems to comment. I would really like to hear from readers what YOU think is the way forward.


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

21 thoughts on “Troubled families: Malay problem or Singapore problem?”

  1. Hi Gerald,
    Sometimes we need to call a spade a spade.
    Of course every citizen of whatever ethnicity is a Singaporean too and we, the nation as a whole should take ownership of the problems of each ethnic group…
    But.. if a certain social problem is more prevalent ( I am in no position to confirm this) in a certain sub-group of Singapore ( race/gender etc), then it would be easier for that sub-gp ( eg racial community) to solve the problem.

    If others from outside the community try to impose solutions onto this community, they may regard this as intrusion esply if religion/culture/philosophy to life is involved.

    That is not to say, the others can wash their hands off the problem. If there is a will, the whole nation is probably more than willing to chip in resources to help. After all, if there is less problems in any community, there would be less problems for the whole nation.
    Perhaps some may not agree.. let’s discuss this.

  2. When I say the words ‘Malay man’, what comes to your mind?

    Now I shall be very blunt here. When I hear the words, ‘Malay man’, first few words that come to my mind are, ‘Tapered Jeans, Peninsula Plaza, Trucker caps, Indie rock bands’.

    How about you?

    Not too long ago, during one of my many day-dreaming and wikipedia sessions, I stumbled upon the bumiputra policy in place in Malaysia and that led to to think about several issues.

    Issues like, academically-wise, why do the Malays in Singapore fare poorer than the other races, namely Chinese and Indians?

    And not just in Singapore, but over the causeway, where such statistics can be seen in Malaysia too, even though the Malays are in the majoirty race and are aided by the bumiputra policy.

    One question led to another, and soon, I irked myself for thinking so much.

    Why are the Malays so under-represented in the econmical sphere of Singapore, just like Malaysia? For a fact, the Malaysian Chinese control a grossly huge share of the Malaysian economy.

    Why aren’t the Singaporean and Malaysian Malays motivated or driven enough to at least make the economical statistics look more proportionate? The Malaysian Chinese control, like what, 90% of the Malaysian economy? And to think that the Malaysian Chinese account for only 23% of the Malaysian population!

    All these issues I’ve described are real social issues that affect me, Tan Ah Kao, Bee Leng Huat ptd ltd, Ali Baba, the roti prata man, because we live in Singapore, and Malays live here too! Shouldn’t we get a better understanding of the discrepancy among Malays and other races in terms of economics and other areas too?

    I’ve been reading this book entitled, ‘The Malay Dilemma’ by Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad and I highly recommend it to everybody living in Singapore and Malaysia, especially Malays.

    His thoughts and views of the Malays and Chinese are, to say the least, intriguing. For a closer perspective back home on Singaporean Malays and Chinese, I recommend ‘The Singapore Dilemma’ by Lily Zubaidah Rahim.

    I’ll share more when I’ve read more, but till then, thats something for you to think about – Malays in Singapore and Malaysia.

  3. Dr Huang – thanks for your comment. I’m going to withhold my response until I see more comments from others.! – Is “Dilema Singapura” available in English? I searched the Library catalogue and they only have one copy in the Reference library and that is the original Malay version.

  4. Yup it is available in English. Its entitled, ‘The Singapore Dilemma’ by Lily Zubaidah Rahim. I bought the book from Borders at Wheelock. Cheers.

  5. thanks very much, great..

    Gerald was asking for what could possibly be solutions..and what do u do? u highlight even more problems.

    thanks for making Malays sound like a burden to the Chinese. Tapered jeans, indie rock bands, peninsula plaza… if thats your image of malays, maybe you should get out of your house more.

    i can already picture you – coming from a middle to upper class family, Protestant Christian, stay in a landed property probably in Bukit Timah, probably went to a SAP school or ACS, then Hwa Chong, officer in the army and served a non-infantry arm, then either an overseas university or an engineer in NTU.

    i.e. you have very very little contact with a Malay throughout your life, or have a close Malay friend. there was this girl i met once who said that the only malay she ever met in her life was her driver.

    Anyway, i will address Gerald’s question in a separate email.


  6. To first solve this problem, one has to first understand the malay psyche. to understand the psyche, you need to look at the history of our culture.

    we were a simple, feudal society only until very recently. farmers, fishermen working for landlords, nobles or sultans. only royalty and the upper class had access to education, business and trade.

    The “Malay Dilemma” was basically saying that we cannot get out of this royalty-subject mentality. but back to my discussion…

    malays come from a very fertile land where food is plenty. when hungry, we look for food. if not, we sit back and enjoy life. compare malays to other indigenous people – native americans in US, the maoris in NZ,the islanders of Fiji, Tonga, the aboroginis of Aus – and u see some similarity in attitudes towards survival.

    We practice a religion that doesnt emphasise worldly riches, but rather, the afterlife. “your life on earth is like a drop of water into the ocean of eternity”, or somethingalong those lines, the Prophet said.

    this is perpetuated by religious teachers who also come from poor backgrounds. Juxtapose against Karl Marx who said that religion was created by man to console themselves against inequality – the afterlife as a reward for hardship in your current life.

    Now, contrast that with the chinese, who come from a very harsh land where if you dont work hard in summer, you will die in the winter. Being rich and successful is necessary for survival in this life and the afterworld..think about the hellmoney offered to the departed.

    The chiense that left China over the millenia were immigrants looking for a better life – to get away from the hardship. its in the chinese psyche to work hard and be successful, otherwise you will continue to suffer. education was very strongly emphasised as a way out of the poverty vicious circle.

    The chinese that the British brought to Malaya/Singapore, they were initially hard labourers and coolies, where hard work is a way of life. Other than that, they were businessmen and traders. These rich businessmen then helped build schools etc for the chinese community. the richer clan societies also helped their people succeed.

    And the british decided that the malays should be left alone, they only dealt with the royalty and the chiense.

    Thus, with this history, it explains why the Chinese has always been the majority in running the economy and business.

    Also, please bear in mind that Malaysia and Singapore politics have been racially-based. The nation of Singapore was formed based on disagreements about race versus economic development.

    I hope i have given a fair description of the background of which our society was built, and how it impacts the malay psyche.

    I’ll talk about suggested solutions in my next comment.

    The first step to solving the Malay problem is what Dr Huang and Gerald are trying to say – ALL of us should first get rid of this “Malays are a burden” mentality. with this mentality, it raises the “elitist”and chauvinist thinking.

    we should first get rid of “race” in our society- and think of ourselves as SINGAPOREANS. that we all have the same problems.

    Now, with this in mind, lets think about

  7. sorry a bit of a disjoint at the end there.

    I think the first step to solving the Malay problem is what Dr Huang and Gerald are trying to say – ALL of us should first get rid of this “Malays are a burden” mentality. with this mentality, it raises the “elitist”and chauvinist thinking.

    we all need to think of ourselves as Singaporeans. that we all have the same problems and we share in all our successes. we should get rid of “race differentiation” in our society.

    this is what many european countries are trying to do in solving their minority problem – trying to get them into the larger scheme of things, rather than leave them in the periphery. Get them to be Danish or German, rather than turkish or arab immigrants.

    we are still a young nation. this problem will eventually solve itself if we work as one.

    of course, the malays themselves should start trying to help themselves. and indeed, there are organisations out there doing this.

    in the short run, what we need is better funding of these organisations. We malays are not very rich, thus thse organisations dont get a lot of money. they need money to reach out, educate the youths, etc…

    As more and more Malays get out of the poverty cycle, become more educated and more socially aware, these problems will go away.

    So how do we get the malays out of the poverty cycle? bring them more into the mainstream, rather than leaving them in the periphery. Help promote more Malay businesses. promote more cross-cultural business. more cross-cultural understanding. more cross-cultural or acultural help groups.

    for the more blunt cynics out there, they’d probably say that the chinese have always wanted to keep the malays on the periphery. look at the job opportunities – everything requires mandarin. look at the percentage of malays working in banks and GLCs, malays in the government and military.

    this, in my simple analysis, and humble opinion, is the way to solve the malay problem. We have to view ourselves as one people and truly work together as one – rather than just singing about it during National Day.


  8. and to g.reat, many you should first understand what the bumiputra policy was first intended.

    it was not meant as giving the malays a superior position in Malaysia.

    Put out the emotional bit from our hearts and look at it from a pragmatic point-of-view.

    As i’ve explained earlier, it was the Chinese who’ve had the lead start in the economy and the building of Malaysia. When Malaya gained independence, Chinese were running 90% of the economy. 90% of malays were below the poverty line. 80+% of university undergrads were Chinese. Their self-financed schools drove well educated Chiense. percentage-wise, the Indians were also doing better than the Malays.

    Also, the Malays were the majority fighitng for independence against the british, post-war, who were milking the country dry.

    Thus the bumi and the Economic Policy, IN CONCEPT (i emphasise this, in concept), was to help the Malays catch up with the rest of the Malayan population, and help them break away from the poverty cycle.

    Now, in today’s times, whether this bumiputra/economic policy is abused, thats a separate argument altogether.


  9. the malays themselves, on the other hand, should “emancipate themselves from mental slavery”, as Bob Marlet once sang.

    Stop thinking that the world should behave according to their terms.

    For example, just because they’re muslims, they think other people should treat them differently.

    Like its the fasting month now. Look how every non-muslim have to tread carefully and not eat in front of the muslims, so as not to offend them. or how apologetic or careful non-muslims about having pork on the same table as muslim food.

    What i’m saying – we muslims need to realise that the world shouldnt operate according to our benchmarks. If non-muslims want to eat in front of us during ramadan, so be it. Grow up and deal with it, rather than be offended. If pork is on the table, so waht? you’re not eating the pork.

    why must non-muslims get out of their way to please us,while we hardly return the favour?

    So, breaking away from this mentality is, in my opinion, a way to break away from the trap that Malays are in.


  10. Hi aygee! I was waiting for your comments and you didn’t disappoint!

    Hey your stereotype of Great described me almost exactly, except I didn’t go to a SAP school and I’m a sergeant. I think we should not stereotype any one race, religion or socio-economic background. Better to judge people as individuals.

    I appreciate your balanced comments. But I still don’t know if you are for or against ethnic self help groups, particularly for Malays?

  11. gerald,

    forgive me if I sounded like i stereotyped, but i didnt. Just that’s first impressions about Malays tells me he’s either living in the past or he has not mingled or has not had any contact with Malays, and has no idea except with the stereotypes he had experienced a long time ago.

    and the gist i got from his comment is to say “Malays are a problem”, having a very elitist tone to it.

    So, among the people i have met who typically have little contact with other minority Singaporeans and had an elitist mentality, tend to have a similar upper midclass-upper class backgrounds., if you’re reading this, i would love to hear your response.

    To your question, we need both. we need to help each other, and the community needs to help itself. Let us all forget about race – and address this problem as a nation. Lets not just focus on this problem among Malays, but solve this nationwide – as this problem also exists in Chinese and Indian communities.

    This division of race – would exarcebate the “us and them” issue. Discussing the problem/issues during National Day promotes division, in my opinion. If its such a concern for the govt, then they should address it with the Malays only in a separate roundtable. If they want to address it at National Day, then address it as a nation.

    We dont need to be talked down to. We dont need to be told we are screwing up as a race. We need to discuss – what can we do to solve the problem.

    It makes elitist-minded people get their “i’m better than you and you’re indeed a problem for me”.

    Social problems such as single motherhood and high divorce rates tend to be a common social problem among 1. less educated 2. low income groups. You will find this problem also exist in the Chinese and Indian communities too, who are less educated and low income.

    the percentage is higher in Malays because the Malays as a whole, has larger proportions of low education and low income.

    So i said earlier, we need to break away from the poverty cycle.

    orgs like Mendaki was formed to promote education. it has helped somewhat.

    Now to address single motherhood and high divorce rates. We have left this to religious orgs. I think we are failing here because 1. they are not well-funded 2. religious leaders are not social workers. and the social workers who work in this area are not properly trained. they approach it from a religious point-of-view.

    eg.. “You shouldnt have premarital sex because its sinful and you will go to hell.” Clearly, such a line doesnt work.

    If we look at Western countries, their approach is “if you really want to do it, play safe. use a condom.”

    These organisations should be trained well, take examples frm other religious groups, and we should spend a lot more in public education in the community – on top of religious education (which some parents may not take seriously).


  12. Hi all
    sorry I missed all the excitement here!
    I totally disagree with’s stereo-typing of our fellow S’poreans ( who happens to be of a certain ethnic gp).
    In my list of wishes, almost the top would be:
    Abolish the “race” category in our NRIC!
    What the hell is that for?
    We are S’poreans first and last!
    Amongst my other wishes, all S’porean soldiers should be equally eligible for all sectors of military including air force/armour/military intelligence.

    Only when all groups feel trusted and wanted will they really believe they belong.

    This sounds like bravado but it is something all of us S’poreans should insist the govt take heed of!


  13. aygee – good points! I too think we should focus on problems faced by lower income groups, rather than group them by race.

  14. imagine a corporate environment. You’re in an annual company meeting involving your boss and all staff.

    Your boss announces that the company is doing well – profits are up, overseas investments doing well. He also announces some steps to tighten up company spending.

    Then suddenly he turns to a particular team in the company – this department has a serious problem that might become a “serious company-wide problem” and a potential “tragedy”.

    But, this department must go and solve the problem yourselves – please think about effective and practical solutions. please form a self-help group.

    in the corporate world, we would call such managers “seagull managers” – they come in, make a lot of noise, s*it all over the place, and then fly away.

    What if the boss did this instead – he mentions that there are still a few problems that the company needs to solve – we see this problem in ALL departments – although some departments have a larger portion of this problem. We are forming an action team to address this. Those concerned will be informed directly in separate meetings. The line managers in this department will work closely with this action team, receive the necessary funding/resources and any other help from senior management and the Board of Directors. we hope to come up with practical solutions, that can also be applied to other departments with similar issues.

    Now – who sounds more like a leader to you?


  15. Thanks aygee. While I don’t disagree with your analogy, allow me to play devil’s advocate:

    1. A common argument that the Govt makes is that Malay/Muslims tend to be “sensitive”, so they won’t take it kindly if other groups interfere and try to solve their problems, especially if some of the problems are linked to culture/religion (refer your earlier point, “malays come from a very fertile land where food is plenty. when hungry, we look for food. if not, we sit back and enjoy life” and “We practice a religion that doesnt emphasise worldly riches, but rather, the afterlife.”)

    Q1: How much truth do you think there is in the Govt’s argument? (I think Dr Huang also made reference to it in his first comment.)

    Even if you are personally not sensitive, what do the typical Malay heartlanders think of this?

    2. Taking the first argument further, many of the best funded and arguably most effective VWOs are those run by other religous groups (e.g. TOUCH, YMCA, Fei Yue, etc). Currently, I believe their assistance largely excludes Malays, not because they refuse to serve Malays, but because of the religious sensitivity issue.

    Q2: Would you be comfortable having these VWOs assist Malays the same way as they assist Chinese and Indians?

    3. While your argument that “the percentage (of pregnant teens, etc) is higher in Malays because the Malays as a whole, has larger proportions of low education and low income” sounds rational enough, I’m not sure if the hard statistics tell the same story.

    I have only anecdotal evidence: A friend of mine who works in a govt dept that doles out public assistance told me that a disproportionate number of people who are able-bodied, but still come to his dept for assistance are Malay. (Btw, this friend of mine is Malay himself.)

    Q3. Do you think we need to focus more on tackling the cultural impediments to progress instead of just fixing the symptoms? If so, who is best suited to tackle this? Malay groups or other Singaporean groups?

    I know these are sensitive questions. I hope it doesn’t offend any readers. But I think if we are sincerely in search of solutions, we need to tackle the tough issues too.

  16. Hi aygee & Gerald:
    I really enjoy this conversation as we are also so civil and constructive.
    Aygee:I understand your analogy about the manager who sees the big picture and is yet sensitive. I agree that a company-wide action plan with special focus on the “particular team’s” special problems.
    Gerald:Yes I did mention that the govt was perhaps trying to be sensitive and not seen to be imposing ( sorry I know I am directly contradicting what I said about aygee’s analogy- hahaha)

    Gerald & aygee: at the end of the day, the most impt thing is that the problems which seems to prevail more in this sub-group be solved. Whether it is done by the main group or by the sub-group
    (with help & resources from all) is of secondary relevance.

    Anyway, it must be in the PAP’s interest to be sensitive and cultivate the goodwill of the Malays as the Malay vote was a very important block of support in the last GE. So I don’t think the PAP means to appear arrogant or imposing to the Malays. Whether they end up being mis-understood or not is a different matter. Anyway, I am certainly not the PAP and so I don’t care what the Malays think of the PAP! ( almost serious)


  17. Hi Gerald,
    I agree with what some of the people have said above…if a problem is more prevalent in a certain section of the society, the reasons for why they occur are probably better understood by members of their community. Thus if they are able to recognize this within their community, they can take more meaningful steps to rectify the problem.

    The problem within dysfunctional Malay families can be attributed mainly to 2 things – high divorce rates, and teen marriages due to babies born or conceived out of wedlock. (Sometimes the latter leads to the former, sometimes not.)
    The solutions are:
    – More committed efforts by Malay families and their respective social welfare groups to raise awareness about the consequences of pre-marital sex. There needs to be more engagement between troubled youths and the families/counsellors. This, along with other actions that instill conservative values (that can happen in the home, mosque, school, etc.), are preventive measures against this problem, so that fewer births out of marriage, or fewer marriages that are formed because of this (which have a higher tendency to end up in a break-up), occur in the future.

    – As for measures that fall under the cure, MM Lee has stated his own views, which have not gone down well in the Malay community. (Namely, teen marriages that occur because of births outside marriage should not occur.) Personally I think the Malay leaders should have their own ways of dealing with these problems, but they should also address the consequences of such marriages. Namely, the new parents in such a marriage may not be in a condition to support a child, let alone themselves. Also, because these marriages happen at an early age, imcompatibility later on also may be a problem.
    These parents really need all the support they can get; its kind of cultural to stigmatise them, but because it is quite a big problem, engaging their problems should become more of a priority. Again, family counselling, and perhaps social programmes to help the family get better financially and in education, can be instilled.
    (I know, this sounds very vague, but I really believe more committment to help them is required, instead of ostrasising them. That’s the main line of thought I follow here.)
    High divorce rates also can be tackled through more engagement from the welfare groups.

    Well that should cover everything. The bumiputera policy, and more representation of Malays in businesses in Singapore and M’sia are separate issues altogether. This depends on the religous, cultural, social dynamics of the Malay community…

    Peace out

  18. Woah woah chill. Firstly, let me clarify about your sterotype about me, ie coming from a middle to upper class family … …

    I am Christian, but whats the link? I’m staying in a 4 room HDB flat, and I’m staying with just my mum and brother. I don’t have to go into the details, but obviously, I am not a rich kid as you make me sound to be. And I just got enlisted into the army by the way.

    But you got one thing right. I do not have much Malay friends to begin with, as I was brought up in a Chinese based education my whole life( Tao Nan Primary, Chung Cheng High Main and Ngee Ann Poly, not Hwa Chong or so glam Uni).

    Even so, please do not make me sound like I’m some ring-wing racist. My commanders in BMT are mostly Malays and Indians, and I have immense respect for them. Heck, I’ve Malay friends in polytechnic too and I’ve worked with them on projects.

    What exactly is so elitist about my comments? You have read the entire entry in my blog, and I questioned that, “Why are the Malays so under-represented in the economical sphere of Singapore, just like Malaysia?”

    Why did I ask that question? It is because I feel that the proportion of the economy is not right, and Malay-presence should be proportionate in today’s economy, be it in Singapore or Malaysia!

    So much for trying to get people of my age to be more aware of this problem and help solve it, yet I’m getting blasted for being a spoilt brat and elitist.

    As for not being able to offer more solutions, my mistake then, because I am probably not as smart as those Hwa Chong geeks and knowledgeable like you. And thats the reason why I am trying to read more and get a better understanding about my fellow Singaporeans. Heck, I even intend to pick up the Malay Language and even Arabic.

    I have never felt that “Malays are a burden”, and when I recite the pledge, “… regardless of race, language or religion…”, I mean every word I say, because I am a proud Singaporean. Your description of me is totally unnecessary.

    I am certainly not living in the past, I am a realist, and the reality of the situation among people of my age is that, many of them couldn’t care less, so maybe I should just be like them and live in some ‘past’. Enough said.

  19. As for the other part, if only you open your eyes and ears wide enough and you are true to your heart there are many tell tales signs that point to the direction that Malays are discriminated in Singapore economic sphere.

    Sad to say, such a thing exist in Singapore although the politicians says that Singapore does not discriminate.

  20. First thing … to give back the free school to the Malay community. During the 70’s, any Malay students whether in primary, secondary or higher tertiary does not have to pay for any school fees…..this will helps parents especially most Malay families are in the lower socioeconomic situation. Secondly the Malay leaders need to organize self help groups to give free tuition for this Malay kids to progress in their studies……as the only way to get out from this dilemma is by education.

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