December 1999

Large Malay families and Chinese immigration




There are some places where our mainstream media, like angels, fear to tread. These subjects are considered too sensitive. Our political masters wouldn't like to be inconvenienced by the hue and cry that might follow from throwing a spotlight on them. But these issues -- these trends -- do not go unnoticed by any half-observant Singaporean, for they are happening on a large-enough scale to be obvious.

I was hanging from a strap on the train. Seated facing me was a Malay family. Father looked to be about mid-thirties, pony-tailed, working class with dirt under the fingernails. Mother seemed to be in her late-twenties. There were four children, the oldest about nine, the youngest about three, all looking alike, therefore, all siblings. Furthermore, the young mother was pregnant, with what must be her fifth child. This family was having a new baby about once every two years.

This is nothing unusual. Malay families in Singapore seem to favour having many children, often closely spaced. There are exceptions: the more educated or upwardly mobile the parents, the fewer the offspring, like everywhere else in the world. But the majority of Malays remain economically below the Singapore average; they tend to hold low-skill jobs. Yet, they tend to have larger families. How they are going to bring up these children, and provide them with the full measure of (increasingly costly) education, I don't know. I don't think they know either. It just seems to be accepted practice in their community, again excepting those Malays who have broken into the professional ranks.

As a Singaporean, my concern is how they are perpetuating the cycle of underachievement. I know I am not alone in this. Some well-educated Malays whom I have met are also concerned about these trends. They see a community that is gradually sinking into a permanent underclass, even as the few successful ones among them get absorbed as full members of the English-speaking Singaporean mainstream, and who thus get more and more disengaged from the Malay community of their roots.

Despite having smaller families, Chinese as a percentage of Singapore's population have been creeping up. Twenty years ago, it was 75%. Now, it is closer to 77%. How so?

I was in a 7-Eleven one Sunday evening, to buy a loaf of bread. The store clerk was a young, somewhat plumpy Malay woman, and facing her was a young Chinese woman, slim and fair, with her six-year-old son in tow. There was no one else in the store. The store clerk was glad to see me.

"Excuse me, sir, can you help me please?" the clerk said.

"Sure, what's the problem?"

"Can you explain to the lady," the clerk began, "that I have already keyed in the amount, and I cannot cancel it."

It turned out, to cut a long story short, that between the Chinese woman and her son, they had bought more things than they had cash for. The Chinese woman didn't realise she didn't have enough money until the clerk had totalled up the purchases and she looked into her purse. The customer then indicated through hand signals that she would like to put back some items onto the shelf, to keep the total amount down. The store clerk was trying to tell her that the computer system (now, why is that so?) didn't allow her to "put back".

That was about when I came in. The Chinese customer didn't understand English at all, and I was needed to do a bit of translation. When I spoke to her, I knew from her accent that she was from China.

This is the other trend that our mainstream media cannot quite report on, the accelerating immigration from China. This is a process that is silently encouraged by our government. We give out plenty of undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships to candidates from China. It's quite striking especially when seen in relation to how many we give out to students from other large neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam or India. In addition, companies which recruit technical and professional employees from China find it easier to get their employment permits approved.

The official justification is that Singapore being culturally Chinese -- well, sort of -- it's easier for the Chinese nationals to adjust to our society and be more productive. The personal and societal cost of adjustment is lower. Another justification is that as China becomes the next economic power, building these relationships -- of young students studying here, or the next generation of business leaders working a stint here -- will create personal networks that will benefit Singapore in future.

These are quite valid explanations, but I don't think they explain it all.

For low-skill labour, we mostly import from India, Thailand, Bangladesh or the Philippines. Why such a wide mix? Why not predominantly from China, whose labour is equally cheap? The "easier-to-adjust" argument should apply just as much, shouldn't it? One advantage, though, of recruiting from these darker-complexion sources is that these workers are easily identifiable from the locals, meaning they are easier to spot if they overstay, and they are rigourously repatriated when their contracts expire.

With Chinese students or professionals coming here, the opposite happens. Permanent Resident status, even citizenship, are dangled in front of them. Many accept. You'd notice it's very convenient that we don't have many graduate students or professionals from Indonesia or Bangladesh, to whom, to be fair, we ought to dangle the same carrots of citizenship.

Are these two trends -- encouraging Chinese immigration and Malays having large families -- related? One is certainly tempted to think so.

My own take on this is that this is a continuing effect from the trauma of Singapore's 1965 separation from Malaysia. Prior to that political cataclysm, the ideology was of unity and equality of all ethnic groups, and the hope that eventually, there would be a blending, or at least an interweaving of cultures. Unsaid, even then, was the hope that the English language and modern (read 'western') culture -- then seen to be the keys to economic progress -- would form the neutral platforms for the coming together of all local communities. This was what Tay Kheng Soon, a noted architect, now outspoken about culture issues, has described as the "Malayan dream": we would not be Chinese, Malays, Indians, Babas or Eurasians, but Malayans all.

Unfortunately, in the 1963-1965 contest between the Singapore state government and the central government in Kuala Lumpur, the central government used Malay issues and religious agitation as tools to discredit and weaken Lee Kuan Yew's state government. Things got so bad, there were repeated Malay-Chinese riots, and we were a hair's breath from martial law. This kind of experience, no one ever unlearns, and it has made our government wary of Malaysia, and by proxy, rightly or wrongly, of the Malay community ever since.

The relationship between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur soured so badly that we had to leave the Malaysian federation in 1965. Yet separation didn't heal the social wounds, though it did turn the tables around. The Malays felt cast off. From being part of the majority in a larger Malaysia, they were suddenly a marooned minority in independent Singapore. It should surprise no one that in some of the older generation, there remain traces of a siege mentality. Yet this feeling is not completely without foundation, for even until today, some Chinese question the loyalty of the Malay community to Singapore. It's difficult to unravel cause and effect: all we know is that the divide between the communities, widened by the trauma of 1964/65 rioting and subsequent political separation, has proven very hard to bridge, despite being more than three decades ago.

On the other hand, throughout the Singapore - Kuala Lumpur contest 1963-1965, and the rebuilding of Singapore after separation, the government relied primarily on the Chinese for support and economic sacrifice. The Chinese were thereafter perceived as the bulwark of independent Singapore.

Later events reinforced this bias. The economic rise of Taiwan, South Korea and then China, only bolstered our government's belief in the superiority of Confucianist cultures. In fact, Singapore ministers and diplomats have, in the last ten years, been embarrassingly vocal in trumpetting their gospel of "Asian Values". The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, first in the Middle East, then spreading to South East Asia, renewed a sense of threat. The recent electoral gains of the Islamic party in Malaysia, will be seen as confirming this unwelcome trend.

With this kind of history, one would be surprised if the government here would look benignly on a Malay minority growing through a higher birth rate. So while I don't know, for a fact, if the two trends mentioned above are connected as cause and effect, one would almost have to suspend belief to say it's mere coincidence.

Yet, there are implications that leave me saddened, and I shall touch on two.

I personally do not want to see the Malay community here become a permanent underclass, yet I see a whole host of problems they face, for which little is being done, least of all, by themselves. The trend of having more children than they can afford is just one of them, though it's one of the bigger problems, for it recycles the trap of under-education and under-investment in human potential well into another generation.

I'm not out to champion Malay culture or Malay language or Islam. My concern for Malays in Singapore is not a concern for the community, but for individual human beings, who are also fellow Singaporeans. I don't want to see fellow Singaporeans continuing to be marginalised, partly shut out from their own country and society.

It's impossible to assign blame; I'm not about to try. There is a lot of rhetoric from their own community (and from Malaysia) that is unhealthy. There are anti-modernist, almost luddite, strands, for example, in reactionary Islam. Does anyone, I wonder, talk about birth control within the community? On the other hand, there is also a lot of rhetoric from the government that is equally unhelpful. For example, why can't Malay children have the option of taking Chinese as a second language [1]? Not only will it better integrate them as Singaporeans, it will also open opportunities for them in adult life when they want to relate to the future economic giant that is China.

Recourse to Chinese immigration in order to spur economic growth and maintain social stability shelves the need to think longer and harder about what to do about the Malay community's trends. It's almost as if we just want to contain the problems they pose by keeping them a small minority, than solving them. But this disturbs the conscience. For the individual boys and girls growing up in large families, sharing four children to a room, not enough parental attention, because both parents must work overtime to earn barely enough to feed them all, and even then, no money for extra tuition and music lessons that their Chinese schoolmates get, let alone home computers and internet connectivity, the disservice we do them is not theoretical, but real.

Another implication from Chinese immigration is that the "Chinese conundrum" is renewed for another generation: whether to be Chinese or Singaporean, and what on earth it means to be "Chinese" or to be "Singaporean". On one plane, it is an absorbing intellectual question, but on another level, it has serious social consequences.

The undercurrent which I call "Chinese culturalism" is one of the most divisive in Singapore society. It is first and foremost, exclusionary of minority communities, but it's also exclusionary of the English-speaking, westernised Chinese-Singaporeans. Ultimately, it works against forging a common Singapore identity that isn't racially hobbled. Chinese culturalism takes as its central mission the promotion of Chinese culture. But implied in that is the demand that if one is Chinese by race, then one should be obliged to be culturally Chinese and fluent in the language. Worse, there is the unspoken tenet that if one is not Chinese by race, one can never gain entry into Chinese culture, or be accepted into the Chinese cultural world. This is racism pure and simple. And this kind of thinking perpetuates the fault-lines of Singapore society.

It is also patently wrong. If Kazuo Ishiguro, who is Japanese by race, can write a Booker-prize-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, in English, about an English butler; if Lee Ang, originally from Taiwan, can make a film of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, to worldwide acclaim; then the ability of individuals to cross linguistic and cultural worlds is proven beyond doubt.

The blinkered view that is Chinese culturalism arises from Chinese who are steeped in Chinese culture and language, including its belief in inherent Chinese superiority, and who don't have familiarity with other cultures. It was supported by a government that needed a Chinese bulwark against external threats. But it will inevitably fade as a new generation of English- or Singlish-speaking Singaporeans predominate. As it fades, there may be hope that thirty years of racial rancour and the marginalisation of the minorities here, may gradually heal.

Recall now the woman I met in the 7-Eleven. She spoke not a word of English. Yet migrants like her are invited to be Singaporeans. And other Singaporeans, born and bred here -- the store clerk, for example -- using English/Singlish as a common glue among ourselves, cannot communicate with her. On her part, without English, she is unable to form connections with other Singaporeans. So, the emerging Singaporean identity -- a hopeful one because it is more inclusive -- is held back again for at least another generation, as a monolingual Chinese section that looks more to China than the rest of the world, is replenished through immigration.

I am not against immigration. I do believe it adds vitality to Singapore. But I am disappointed that more is not done in the interest of those who are already Singaporeans. For a start, new migrants should be required to do a basic course in English, pass a test roughly of The New Paper standard (here at last is a little usefulness for that trashy tabloid!), and take a civics course to raise their awareness of the social realities of their adopted country.

If we don't do something as basic as this, all the while opening the doors wide to Chinese immigration, then don't be surprised if the faultlines of race remain painfully with us for decades more to come.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Actually, everyone here knows why official policy is that Malays cannot take Chinese as a second language. The government wants everyone to stay connected to one's ethnic roots, especially the Chinese -- in order to keep the Chinese Chinese, and as a bulwark against "threats" to Singapore. So Chinese pupils must take Chinese language. In order to support this requirement and yet keep the appearance of evenhandedness, Malays must likewise take Malay as their second language. Indian Singaporeans must take an Indian language. Individual wishes, parents' wishes do not count. Race counts.
    Return to where you left off




  1. Yawning Bread received this comment in the mail on 27 Dec 1999, from a reader, "Tissot". With his permission, I have added it here as it provides an important perspective: 

    I have been reading your articles faithfully and find all of them thoughtful. I would like to comment on your recent article.

    As a Malay-Singaporean, I think you are right in pointing out that many Malay families are just too big and concurrently, unfortunately, too large a proportion of Malays are in the lower income class. We never really had a go-getting, business-minded culture. However, Melaka once did become a great trade centre and I am sure there was a lot of Malay input in that. Anyway, yes, there are many issues that the Malay community need to resolve. However, I do not agree with you that Islam causes the Malay community to be backward or economically weak. I think if the Singapore-Malay (or even Malaysian-Malay) communities were NOT Muslim, we would probably be just as weak or worse. I come to that conclusion because if we were to look at the non-Muslim but indigenous population of South East Asia, we would find that regardless of religious affiliation, none would be considered economically vibrant communities. In fact, the wealthy people in S.E.A are mostly of Chinese stock. Take Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar and the Indochinese nations for example. The indigenous people there are not exactly economically powerful. In fact, in all these nations, it is the Chinese who hold economic power. Yet these nations are mainly Buddhist or Catholic. Similarly, in Indonesia, the Christian (or Catholic) Batak, Irian, Ambonese, Flores peoples are not economically powerful either. And in Malaysia, the Christian bumiputras in Sabah and Sarawak are at a lower economic ladder than Muslim Malays. So the issue I am bringing up here is that the reason why the Malays in Singapore are not economically dynamic is not because of Islam but may be due to an even deeper cultural thread which we may share with other indigenous SEAsian cultures. I guess more research need to be done on that.

    I know that at the present time, Islam is going through a backlash from the media and portrayed rightly or wrongly as being anti-modern, anti-wealth or anti-technology. Yes, it is true that many Muslim nations are backward and the few which are not, are not exactly very generous. I suppose every civilisation would have its highs and lows. The last 400 years may be Islam's low point. But looking at the larger picture of human civilisation, many once great cultures have come and gone and cultures that were unknown, have also risen. Take the Chinese civilization for instance, it was the GREATEST once but now although there are many wealthy Chinese and intellectuals, the driving force of world commerce/thought/research/innovation seem to come from USA and with a lesser extent, Japan and Europe. Similarly, the two Catholic nations of Europe , Spain and Portugal were once the mightiest empires but are now the poor cousins in the EU. So what I am trying to get at here is that maybe there will come a time when USA or the West will not be the most powerful civilizations but some other culture or religion will instead spearhead technological innovations and control most of the wealth in the world.

    At the same time that China was the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world, the other great power was the Islamic nations of the Middle East. So if Islam could have become a great economic and technological force for several centuries in human civilization, there must have been something going for it. If we Singaporeans or Asians for that matter, allow ourselves to learn of our own history from western-slanted points of view, we would be forever learning of the glories of the West and never recognise the greatness of Asian /Islamic civilizations that existed before. We need to learn from unbiased accounts of all human history. In that way, then, the great contributions of Islam/Asian civilizations would not be forgotten, ignored or made to look insignificant. As for Islam's backwardness at the present moment, I think it is due to NOT being good enough Muslims as our predecessors in the golden-age of Islam had been. The Muslims during the golden-age had been very religious but also courageous and curious about the world. Their practice of Islam was much more enlightened. They also had very strong rulers who know how to balance the secular and the religious. But of course, you would not read much about Islam's greatness if you depend on material from the West.

    Moving on to the next topic in your article about Chinese immigration. I do know for a fact that there is a covert policy about attracting Chinese people into Singapore. I have Australian friends who had worked here for several years and are technologically skilled but whose PR applications had been rejected while their workmates from HK who were earning less and had less qualifications, had their PR status approved. I also have Malaysian-Chinese friends who have only SPM certificates in education who had been given PR status 6 months upon application. And one of them is a hair-dresser!!!

    I agree with you that the issue behind this immigration thing is the fear/distrust/hatred of Malays and/or Malaysia. Having spent 4 years in university, I have seen hundreds of China-Chinese students being given a chance to study here but never any large scale exchange programmes with any ASEAN nation.

    I feel that the race issue will be something that would not be solved in the near future. If the Malay communities in Singapore and Malaysia were ever to be as dynamic as the Chinese community (as a Malay I pray that one day we would be but maybe not in my lifetime) would this paranoia against Malays be resolved or would it be more intense? If the Malays can stand up against the Chinese in term of economics, education, technology, would we be trusted more or mistrusted? Would the Singapore government still allow easy immigration for overseas Chinese or would this stop?

    I have attended a seminar for civil servants and an explanation why Singapore has to keep to that 75% Chinese, 14% Malay, 7% Indian and the remainder others, is because this seem to be the optimal proportion that has guided Singapore. What this means is another long article. So my query is, if Malays are not dynamic enough to rocket Singapore to the next century, why is the proportion of Indians still kept so low? Instead of allowing not-so-skilled overseas Chinese, why not allow middle class Indians/Pakistanis to come and work here and give them PR status. The government wants foreigners who can give value-added contributions to Singapore's economy. So its reason for maintaining that policy for the racial quotas ring hollow in light of the only small number of brilliant Indians who are given a chance to make their contributions to Singapore. It is in my opinion that having many Indians in Singapore might jeopardise Chinese dominance in the field of finance, education and technology. Thus the number of Indians here is kept small. I think even if the Indians can successfully compete against the Chinese, if everyone thinks of himself as Singaporeans, does it really matter?

    I am sure it is the government's policy to always somehow send a message to Malaysia that Chinese-dominated Singapore is "better". To have a Singapore with an equally powerful Indian community would seem to be at odds with the historical baggage the government is always nursing.

    One last issue I have with the immigration policy is that these young Chinese men are not required to do National Service. The only thing I have discovered that favours Singapore citizens over PRs is that we can buy new flats from HDB! The PRs must get them on the open market. I wonder what is the use of trying to instill a love for the nation in our students when so many BLUE NRICs are given out to people who can make an economic contribution to Singapore but beyond that have no feelings of patriotism. I recall the HK actor Steven Chou being given PR when all he did was buy a S$4 million condo and he does not even stay here longer than a week or two! This was reported in the New Paper.