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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

So much for democracy in Singapore

Extracted from Singapore Straits Times on 10 Aug 2008.

By Nur Dianah Suhaimi (ndianah@sph.com.sg)


As a Malay, I've always been told that I have to work twice as hard to prove my worth. 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 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 eduation,' 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 t 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 labeled 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 feels like a better-loved child of Singapore.

5 comments:

pah nur said...

You know what just struck me? If you change the name of this writer to that of a non Malay's living in Malaysia, the sentiments would probably fit..especially the part where they have to work twice harder to proof self worth in education system.

It also fits the scene in most offices in Malay setting in Malaysia, should the writer do not wear tudung.

Bottom line is, discrimination and racism exists....we've been bitching about it sejak azali lagi...problem is...not much is being done to prevent it. Education system would be a great place to start....

Taxy Driver said...

This was extracted from a Singapore newspaper? Can you imagine it ever making it to our national newspapers if the reverse was ever written by a non-Malay?

Yes, democracy in Singapore is pretty dead. But subtle racism is alive and well in both nations.

panda_head_curry said...

Singapore belongs to Malaysia!

pah nur said...

Well, PHC, unfortunately, we've past the BCE (before common era) and Alas!! singapore is gawn babe gawwwn...

pah nur said...

taxy driver...you've just summarized my comment..thank you...my problem in English class have always been "precise"