September 1999

Education and the Malay community




As foreshadowed by the article One in thirteen can't read, the  problem of the Madrasahs is being uncovered. Madrasahs are private Islamic schools, to which an increasing number of Malay-Muslim families are sending their children.

The Prime Minister mentioned the problem in his National Day speech last month. He pointed out that on average, 65% of each age cohort who started school in Madrasahs, at around age six or seven, dropped out before completing ten years of education. This was based on data collected over the last three years, 1996-1998.

In contrast, about six in ten Malay children who were enrolled in mainstream schools stayed the full 10-year course.

This disparity was further reflected in the GCE O-level results [1]. From the Madrasahs, only 9% of each age cohort obtained a pass grade in five or more subjects, ten years after starting school. The comparative figure for the mainstream Malay pupils was 28%.

The point the government wanted to make was that the quality of education offered by Madrasahs and the standard of the school facilities, are rather poor, at least when assessed in secular terms, such as science, mathematics or computer skills. The Madrasahs focus on Religious studies, Arabic grammar and Islamic law, which unfortunately, do not quite equip the children for careers in a knowledge- and technology-driven society.

A committee has been formed to look into ways of rectifying this problem. At the same time, to raise awareness of the issue, the government is releasing more data. On 5 September 1999, the following table was published in the Straits Times:

  Madrasahs Mainstream
  '96 '97 '98 Avg '96 '97 '98 Avg
% with at least 5 O-level passes * 9 12 6 9 27 28 29 28
% passed English 4 7 8 6 34 36 37 36
% passed at least one mathematics subject 8 9 6 8 35 36 37 36
% passed at least one science subject 3 3 2 3 32 35 36 34

 * in subjects including Arabic and Islamic Knowledge


The aim of the above table was to show how poorly Madrasah pupils were performing relative to Malay-Muslim pupils in state-sponsored mainstream schools. But my first thought on looking at the numbers was how awful the mainstream results were! About two-thirds (64 to 66%), of each mainstream cohort either didn't attempt, or failed the key subjects English, Mathematics and Science.

If you consider that there are far more Malay-Muslim pupils in mainstream schools [2] than in Madrasahs, then the absolute numbers of drop-outs or failures coming out of mainstream schools must be much larger than from Madrasahs, even allowing for the slightly better percentages.

(It would be interesting to know what the comparative percentages are for Chinese and Indian pupils, but so far, we haven't seen the data)

This casts the problem in a different light. It isn't just a Madrasah problem. It's a problem of educational attainment in the Malay community generally. We can see now, as many people have suspected all along, that large numbers of young Malay adults are coming into the workforce, inadequately prepared, whether they came from Madrasahs or mainstream schools. For at least a generation more, almost certainly longer, there will remain an obvious socio-economic gap between Malays and other Singaporeans. For the sake of social harmony and economic progress, for the country as a whole, this is not healthy.

Discussing the reasons why we have such an undesirable trend is perilous. Race is an emotive issue. But I think it does no one any good to sweep the problem under the carpet. We have to find a way to air and brainstorm the problem. We just cannot afford to continue with two thirds of every generation without O-levels in English or Mathematics or Science. It's not a question of Malays compared to other communities. It's a question of the individual boys and girls being handicapped for the rest of their lives. Look beyond race. To the individuals.

In the hope of spurring thought on this matter, I would like to raise three speculative angles:


There is a body of opinion that one of the root causes of poor educational performance can be found in the medium of instruction. Most Malay families speak Malay at home. Even today, many young mothers and fathers cannot handle English. Yet, their children are taught in English when they attend school, for English is, across-the-board, the medium of instruction.

For many Malay children, therefore, it is an uphill task to master a language that they do not use outside the classroom, yet their ability to absorb other subjects, such as geography, or mathematics, hangs on their command of English.

This body of opinion then splits into two opposing camps. On one side are those who feel that the most obvious solution is to teach in Malay. Revert to Malay as the medium of instruction, a language more natural to the children.

The other side argue that English is itself a key subject. Without English, one will be shut out from an increasingly integrated world. This is especially as Singapore's industry and commerce is very outward-looking. It is a false solution, therefore, to abandon English as one of the fundamental subjects in school. And it goes against the aim of social cohesion if our different races do not share a common language.

By this token, rather than retreat into Malay, there is no alternative to pressing on, and getting Malay families to be more cognizant of the importance of English. The children must use English more, do better in that subject, in order to do better in the rest.

This line of argument brings one up against the barricade of government policy. For more than thirty years, the government has never quite decided what their language policy is; there has been a lot of chopping and changing. The only constant is that whatever the current policy is, they are absolutely right and will brook no criticism -- that's the barricade in question.

This government is schizophrenic on the subject of language. Some years ago, they were alarmed that Singaporeans were getting too westernised, so they stressed "Asian Values" and mother tongues, in order to "inoculate" future generations of Singaporeans from Western decadence. Lately (as was the case 30 years earlier), they hailed the importance of English, as the key to economic growth. The net result of these policy flip-flops has been regular churning of the school curriculum, and a generation of befuddlement. Most Singaporeans ended up speaking neither English nor Chinese nor Malay well, with the all-too-predictable effect on the learning capabilities of their young, torn between a pidgin at home and an alien language in school.

Yet, the government is always right. If you call for a reversal to Malay as a medium of instruction, the government may squint at you, for playing the race card, promoting Malay chauvinism. If you call for more English to be used within Malay homes, to accord with English in schools, the government may say you're undermining "Asian Values", secretly promoting a more westernised (read: more liberal, anti-PAP) Singapore.

Culture and Expectations

I think it is undeniable that there is a difference between the Chinese and the Malays in their expectations they convey to their children, with regard to educational attainment. Generally speaking, of course. There are differences among individual families within each community. Some Malay families are as focussed on their children's schooling, as Chinese families are lackadaisical. But I think, uncomfortable as the thought may be, it would be head-in-the-sand to deny that cultural differences exist.

Chinese culture is worldly. The emphasis is on doing well in this world materially, and doing right in terms of familial obligations. Education is the key to success, at least materially. Generations have been brought up to insist that children do their homework, and many adults will recall that they were caned by their parents if they brought home poor grades.

Malay society has a thicker layer of religion, and has traditionally put more emphasis on social harmony. I think they place more emphasis on piety, sharing, and not sticking out. (Despite the current political packaging of Confucianist Asian Values, Chinese society is, in my opinion, more competitive than communitarian).

Malay values are without doubt communicated to their young, and -- generally speaking again -- Malay children are probably under less pressure to do well in school.

Yet culture is never immutable. What has evolved as suitable for a placid agrarian society, dependent on the cycles of sun and rain, can change, within a generation or two, to something else more attuned, for better or worse, to the global, digital rat-race. Change, however, requires catalysts, and role models and community leaders are almost essential, to articulate the needs and directions.


This is where I think the political landscape of Singapore may even be an impediment to getting any cultural change in the necessary direction. The government insists on such a monopoly of attention to itself that it allows very little room for leadership within the Malay community to emerge spontaneously. For a simple reason: the government sees any spontaneous leadership, not blessed by them, as a threat.

This doesn't mean that the government is able to fill the void. The whole government apparatus is seen as heavily Chinese-majority. The Malay "leaders" in this set-up are appointed from the top, much like how colonial governors are appointed by the Crown to rule over brown-skinned subjects. Not having been thrown up through a participatory process, the Malay "leaders" do not command a lot of credibility, much less respect. (It's worth pointing out too that the same is also true of the Chinese cabinet ministers and parliamentarians in relation to the Chinese community).

Without effective secular leaders, there is an understandable tendency to look to the religious leaders for guidance. Thus the increasing stress on religious education and Madrasahs, and the call for more attention to Mathematics, Science, English and good grades generally, faces a greater hurdle. Furthermore, any debate about the needed direction for the community becomes a debate between the secular government and religion-based leaders, as opposed to being a debate between the government and other secular Malay leaders about a secular issue -- education. So even a straightforward thing, such as how better to educate our young, risks being perceived as a contest between secularism and faith, with the stridency this may entail.

* * * * * * * * * *

Like all social problems, there is no simple answer, and I will concede it is very debatable how much a factor each of my three speculative reasons is. But with two thirds of every cohort failing one or more key subjects; with only 28% truly completing secondary education (i.e. scoring 5 or more passes at 0-levels), at the very least it is time to recognise that Singapore has a big problem!

Yawning Bread 





  1. GCE O-level = General Certificate of Education, O-level, a nation-wide examination taken after 10 years of schooling.
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  2. The government has revealed that there are 4,000 students enrolled fulltime in the six Madrasahs here. It hasn't said how many Malay-Muslim pupils there are altogether in Singapore, so it is not possible to calculate what percentage of Malay-Muslim pupils are in Madrasahs and what percentage in mainstream schools. My rough estimate is that Madrasah pupils do not make up more than 10% of all Malay-Muslim pupils.
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  3. See also the article Muslims should stop navel-gazing