One dis-united people?

This is like totally a copyright violation but I think its so important that all Singaporeans, especially Chinese Singaporeans, read this heartfelt piece by Straits Times journalist Nur Dianah Suhaimi.

It makes me feel ashamed that I myself have harboured some of the prejudiced and stereotyping attitudes described. Yet, I find I’m still in a minority in Singapore who cares to admit that the prejudice of the majority race is a problem.

Until we tackle this problem of prejudice at its roots, all the official exhortations of practicing “tolerance” and organizing “racial harmony days” will only be window dressing for the real problem that’s preventing us from being that “one united people”.


The Straits Times, Aug 10, 2008

Feeling like the least favourite child

By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

When 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.



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.

9 thoughts on “One dis-united people?”

  1. Dear Gerald,

    I had read the article. Personally, it has put shame in me. I am given to in-build biasness towards race. While I could understand the security fears in the early days of NS, I do understand the frustration by our Malay bros and sis.

    I must applaud the journalist for a no-holds-bar, direct and honest story.

    It is a real wake up call for us all as Singaporeans.


  2. Hi Gerald,
    Stereo-typing occurs throughout Sg.
    It starts from the political leadership who so loudly proclaimed that Singaporeans will not accept a non-Chinese PM to man-on-the-street who spreads racist jokes to many netizens who tolerate racist remarks in blogs in the name of freedom of speech.
    Me? By keeping silent- I am just as culpable.
    Mea culpa (all of us.)

  3. gerald, did you also blog about this on theonlinecitizen? I like to post my comments there too, as i’m sure Dr Syed Alwi will have something to say ;-)

    Here are my thoughts, coming as a Malay/Muslim, and this just for discussion sake.

    i share with much of the angst Nur Dianah wrote about, but I’d rather flip this article around and respond to it by saying:

    By being Muslim, do we expect sometimes even demand, that others understand and respect our practices? regardless if they dont know anything about our religion?

    While i fully agree with Nur Dianah’s comment that she shouldnt be treated differently because she wears a tudung – a tudung IS a statement. it states that she should be treated differently because she’s a muslim.

    I have noticed that my non-muslim friends/colleagues often have to tiptoe around us and be extra sensitive to my needs.

    eg during fasting, when others eat in front of me, they feel uncomfortable and always end up apologising.

    why do we muslims insist on leaving the office or schools at 5pm during fasting month? its much appreciated, of course, but why give us special treatment?

    A non-muslim will feel awkward and apologise when they share a table with me if they are eating pork. I’m not the one eating the pork – why should i be offended?

    I remember a muslim lady writing to ST Forum, saying that taxis should ban taking dogs. It led to some bloggers writing some nasty stuff and they were jailed for inciting racial bigotry.

    Instead, the lady could have refused to take any Chinese/Indian driver and wait for Malay taxi drivers (and i’m sure there are plenty of malay drivers out there). Why the need to complain?

    why do muslims prefer doing volunteer work or communal work in mosques or islamic-affiliated orgs, and much less in community centres, residents clubs, non-religious affiliated NGOs or societies?

    the truth is many Malay-Muslims still want to be different and treated differently. yet we complain when we are marginalised. go figure.

    Will the day come when we reach enough maturity to not having to tiptoe around each other?

    I think once we give up the notion that we’re Malay/Muslims and thus need to be treated differently, only then i think things will change.

    The big problem – we’re too close to Malaysia still, and as long as Malaysia continues with its racially-based politics, we’ll remain as we are.

    But what we CAN control and start changing – is firstly, to remove “Race” from our IDs, from all public and private sector forms.


  4. and about the NS..if MINDEF doesnt trust us, then i say, why try to change things?

    i’ll just keng and be as bo chap as i can whenever i go for in-camp.

    it doesnt help that in a post on theonlinecitizen about melayus some time back, there are still some of us who say that if a Malay or Muslim soldier was attacking us, they’d be hard-pressed to kill them.

    My only answer to these so-called unsure people – when someone is shooting my non-muslim buddy next to me, i will shoot back.

    and if he believes that a war was to break out and he doesnt want to fight because of religion, he’s pretty f**king naive… its all just politics.

    Even the Crusades was about geopolitics, using religion as a rallying point.


  5. Hi Aygee,

    No I haven’t written on this topic for TOC yet. I’ll find an opportune time to do so in future.

    Yes I agree that no one group should expect special treatment. But I’m sure you know that even if ALL the special treatment (if any) for Malays were removed, the majority race will still have these bigoted views about them. It is hard to undo what we have been brought up with by our parents since we were kids.

    Since its hard to change the mindsets of the older generation, we should start with our young, in schools.

    Schools should teach not just tolerance and harmony, but point out all the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of prejudice practiced in society, and utterly condemn these practices to our young minds. It won’t eliminate bigotry, but it will create a more critical mass of people who are willing to stand up and speak out against racism.

    But perhaps our govt schools won’t want to do that, because it will surface questions about its own discrimination, like in the SAF.

  6. Agree with you Aygee! There are no such thing as ‘religious wars’. Only political wars.

  7. agreed about the schools. Sit in any National Education programme in primary schools and you will squirm. i have many malay friends who are teachers and they cant bear sitting through these programmes.

    i remember watching it on tv a long time ago – they get kids to come to school in their different traditional costumes, and then get them to act out the RACIAL RIOTS of the 60s!!!! and then they say – we all must live in harmony, even though we are different.

    it doesnt take a child psychologist to tell you this approach is all warped.

    my takeaway from that newsclip was that singaporeans need the govt to keep things in check – so taht we will continue living in peace and harmony.

    it was terribly sickening.

    i hope the National Education programme has been changed.

    But this brings up a different talking point – our education system. What exactly are they teaching our children? Should there be a check and balance? Do parents have a say or able to comment on teaching topics outside of the standard curriculum?


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