SAF overly conservative about Malays

I thought it was interesting that TODAY decided to report as their lead story West Point graduate Sean Walsh’s commentary about the SAF (“The Roar of the Lion City”, published in Armed Forces and Society), given the sensitive issues he raised, particularly about the “policy to keep Malays out of sensitive areas”.

His title for the article sounds very similar to the that of the most comprehensive book about the SAF written by British academic Tim Huxley, “Defending the Lion City” (2001). I wonder if this sums up the lack of originality in Walsh’s article. Although I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of the full article, based on what was reported in TODAY, little of what he raised was not already mentioned by Huxley in his book. [Afternote: Thank you to the two readers who shared the original article with me.]

On the issue of Malays and the SAF, I tend to think that the SAF is being overly conservative about the feared “security risk” posed by Malays. Perhaps it is based on an incorrect assumption that all Malays are ideologues who see the world only in terms of “My Race vs the Rest”.

During a forum with students back in 1999, then-SM Lee Kuan Yew said that “If you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine-gun unit, that’s a very tricky business.”

I don’t think anyone is expecting the SAF to put anyone who has close family ties in a foreign state in charge of a front-line combat unit. But is this a reason to keep Malays out of sensitive units? Col Benedict Lim, MINDEF’s public affairs director, pointed out that the SAF has “Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel”. This is certainly news to me. Since I completed my infantry training, I have been deployed to so-called “sensitive units”, and I have yet to see any Malays there — even the drivers are Chinese and Indian. In fact, I once even had a Chinese platoon mate in one of those units who is Malaysian citizen / Singapore PR! (Second generation permanent residents are required to serve NS.)

Given today’s high-tech warfare, it is unlikely that soldiers in the offensive combat units — air force, navy, armour and artillery — will see their enemies’ faces or know which race they belong to before blasting them to smithereens. So the dilemma about “I-won’t-pull-the-trigger-because-my-enemy-is-Malay” will factor in less. If anything, it is in the infantry where face-to-face combat will take place, and ironically, that is where a larger proportion of Malay soldiers are deployed.

By perpetuating the widely-held view in neighbouring countries that Singapore is a Chinese-dominated country, the SAF is making itself (and Singapore) an even easier target for potential adversaries use racial politics to stir up negative sentiments among their populace against Singapore. Already, neighbouring country politicians frequently take gratuitous pot-shots at Singapore because of the SAF’s policies on Malays. While I am certainly not calling on the SAF to change its policies just to please our neighbours, the Government should be aware that policies like these make it harder to win the all-important propaganda war that accompanies any conflict.

In any case, the SAF and the Government would do well to uphold — to the last letter — their commitment to meritocracy. Background checks should be done thoroughly before deploying soldiers in sensitive units, but I hope it is not done in an arbitrary fashion that excludes capable soldiers simply on the basis of their race.

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.

16 thoughts on “SAF overly conservative about Malays”

  1. Hi Gerald,

    I agree with you on this issue.

    The govt should practice what it preaches about meritocracy and racial equality.

    Let us banish the quircky policies such as “No Malays for sensitive Mindef posts” to the bins of history!

    In a sense, our Malay compatriots are more dissimilar from Malaysians and Indonesians than Afro-americans are from Africans!


  2. a couple of years ago, a malay friend was returning from a trip to KL on the train. he ended up having a conversation with a bunch of malaysian chinese blokes. Apparently, these guys were RSAF pilot trainees!

    Gerald, i think this topic about Malays in the SAF will bring about the LEAST amount of discussion or response, esp from the SAF or the govt. The SAF has decided long ago that Malays are not to be trusted with senior appointments and that’s that, no more discussion.

    I remember reading somewhere – where the writer questions whether SAF’s policy towards Malays might have an impact on other govt sectors – such as Home Ministry, Finance Ministry, Foreign ministry, and eventually the private sector.

    Could you send over those articles via my email please?


  3. hi Dr Huang,

    I’m glad to know your enlightened views. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that S’pore Malays “are more dissimilar from Malaysians and Indonesians than Afro-americans are from Africans”. For starters, African Americans don’t speak Swahili, Yoruba, Ibo or any of the thousands of African languages.

    I believe anyone working in sensitive positions should be carefully screened, but it’s ridiculous and racist to assume that all Malays are inherently untrustworthy simply on the basis of their race and religion. This is typical of the thinking of the Singapore elites, esp the older ones.

    aygee – here’s a relevant abstract from Walsh’s article:

    “If the SAF had more high-profile minority senior officers, it potentially could go a long way in dissuading its neighbors from viewing Singapore with such jealousy and anger.

    The presence of high-profile Malaysian senior officers in the SAF certainly would lessen the threat of a neighbouring and potentially hostile state’s characterizing Singapore as an aggressive Chinese-dominated state to divert attention away from domestic problems. It is likely that such officers also could help to diffuse regional tensions by playing an active role in military-to-military contact with Singapore’s neighbours. Such contact could include combined training and officer exchanges.”

    I think if our society truly believes in justice, equality and meritocracy, more people will speak out against blanket policies like this. Alas, our belief in these values may be no deeper than our belief in democracy.

  4. I recall the SAF pledge – we are asked to defend our country with our lives. How do you convince someone to defend his country with his life – when the country doesn’t trust him in the first place and its an open secret?

    ironic, isnt it?

    If Singapore were ever to go to conflict, it will never be about Race or Religion. Its about our sovereign right to exist, its about protecting our territory, and protecting our assets, our family.

    The SAF needs to educate the soldiers about this. I think its up to the SAF to train our soldiers well, physically and mentally.

    If any of our soldiers have doubts in time of conflict, then i think its a failure of their training.

    And do you think the Opposing Force “chooses” who they shoot – that they’ll pick out only non-Malays in a conflict? or that they’ll hold back because they know they’re fighting with fellow Malay soldiers?

    The sad thing is that these assumptions about “Malays being easily swayed” have become POLICY. the burden to disprove this assumption falls on the individual rather than the effectiveness of training, or the SAF as a credible fighting force.

    there’s a lesson for us when we look at the Thai military govt.

    The head of the Thai military is Muslim, and he carried out the coup to remove Taksin. he was seen as carrying out a National Agenda on behalf of the King. And because he’s Muslim, the aggresion with the Southern separatists is seen as a National Issue, rather than a religious issue.


  5. I am happy to see that even the non-malays see the unfairness in this system. Singapore wants racial harmony and since primary school we have been saying the pledge, “…. regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society…”. If even the SAF could be this racially discriminating, what’s the point of the pledge then?

  6. To Anon 9.18pm.

    Yes, its good that Gerald is blogging about it. And we hear support from the non-Malays.

    But this is an issue that’s been talked about over the last few decades.

    I would say that this is an issue that has no room for discussion at all.

    When Taman Bacaan wanted to have a dialogue with LKY after the “malay with machine gun” comment, LKY gave a Jack Nicholson-esque “Are you sure you want the truth? you cant handle the truth” and what happened?

    all the malay bodies backed down and accepted it.

    If a Malay is not trusted in the military, then one should be pragmatic enough to accept that maybe, he’ll be much better off in the private sector then.


  7. LKY has a history of making people and groups back down…the Communists, Barisan, SIA pilots, etc. Taman Bacaan is no exception. That doesn’t mean that there is no room for rational discussion on this important topic, just because the old man says so. Or do we want to wait until it becomes a red hot issue down the road that only needs a Rodney King-type incident to spark off something bad?

    In any case, I think the fact that TODAY editors dared to put this as a headline story means they must have gotten some nod from their political masters that the debate on this issue may be revisited.

    By all means be pragmatic where personal careers are concerned, but this is an important issue of justice, equality and meritocracy that no one should be allowed to sweep under the carpet.

  8. I wonder why many of us Singaporeans just accept what foreigner write of us and our policies.
    What is our own stated perspective on this? Singapore has acknowledged that there are issues regarding this…at least that is a first step. MM Lee and PM Lee have made points on this before. One can agree or disagree but obviously some considerations may be valid.
    But things have also moved on. Malay officers and WOSPECs serve along side in many units today. While I am not sure what units they cannot go to, surely there ought to be some element of respect for those who serve and are contributing and who in their own ways, I am sure, are pushing the boundaries.

    Would it be unreasonable to treat religion vs country as a valid concern or at least to merit consideration? In the name of ‘equality’ should we suspend geo-political realities and possibilities?

    I too wish we could reach a day where race, religion etc does not matter, But history has shown, repeatedly, how deep and profound these sentiments are and it does not take much to provoke it, whether you be Chinese, Malay or Indian. To just champion the cause of ‘equality’ while being blind to these concerns is, unfortunately, naive.

    Perhaps we should focus on the positives and continue to build on greater mutual understanding, and to really forge a common identity as Singaporeans. And I think things would naturally evolve in good time. As it is, compared to the ‘cannot be in charge of machine gun team’ days, there are many Malay officers holding far more important jobs than that today.

    It takes time to forge a common identity and no one is sweeping anything under the carpet I think or taking this for granted.

  9. Justice, Equality, Meritocracy are all nice. But if my name is Ali bin Ahmad, or Tan Ah Kow, it is necessary to state my race on my IC?

    it scares me to see, on TV, a couple of years back, that PRIMARY SCHOOLKIDS had to act out race riots in a school play! While at one point we strive towards a single national identity, we are also still reminded we are DIFFERENT.


  10. Anon 3.01am – unfortunately it has taken a foreigner to write something that we S’poreans are too wont to sweep under the carpet. I think we should be open-minded to listen to criticisms, even if it comes from an ang moh.

    More “Malay officers and WOSPECs serve along side in many units today”? Perhaps, if you been into any units aside from infantry or logistics, it might paint a different picture.

    This ‘geo-political realities’ argument is sound in principle and I’m more than aware of these realities. But we should not, in the name of ‘geo-political realities’, simply exclude people based on their race. I wouldn’t like it if I were barred from a certain position because I am Chinese and therefore a possible Communist sympathizer. I’m sure in the 1970s, there were many more Communist sympathizers among the Chinese population than there are Islamist extremists among our present Malay population. Yet the SAF chose to conscript Chinese en mass into the army’s most sensitive posts.

    We have such a capable ISD. I’m sure they can do thorough background checks on people before
    they take up sensitive posts.

  11. aygee – I agree that there is no good reason to keep emphasising our racial differences on every occasion. As if we have no identity aside from our race. But this will take a fundamental shift in thinking among our elite.

  12. my dear friends ,imagine this,a malay neighbouring country soldier causes harm on our SAF trooper who is a malay fighting.seeing innocent chinese or indians of course malay families being shot at.wat do u tink is likely to happen between these two soldiers?war is race or religion issues wud be shielding anyone a malay in the SAF,i tink that particular soldier wud go all out to bring down any invader regardless of race and reigion.

    situations like this is if i dont shoot u,im good as dead.i shoot his leg they(enemy) shoot my head.its war..not a friendly soccer match.policies of this kind might apply to people of the past era.the new generation of singaporeans now tink otherwise.unlike the old timers.99 percent are ready to defend against any harm to this country.more patriotism can be seen clearly than two decades back..i hav worked with numerous malay soldiers in our amy.very much brave and patriotic..

  13. sadly to say lee kwan yew has bred people like mas selamat. this issues are like the source of food for them. if you know what im saying.

  14. the logic to our nationhood lies in the hand of the strategic planning office, (SPO). SPO as an agency of the government is responsible for developing and disseminating a particular paradign. a dominant worldview or an overall perspective so that singaporean can make sense of the reality out there and act accordingly.

    say our “elites” kinda disconnected to the situation on ground. Gotta get them to wake up their idea man.

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