Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yaacob's lament and a dare to achieve

Dec 9, 2009

A RECENT rash of wanton child killings in Malay families that drove Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim to despair had some common features. The children came from broken homes of low income. The parents usually had relational problems. In one case, the person convicted of murder was the step- father. Drugs were implicated in the odd case, and there was the whiff of domestic violence. The menfolk did low-paying work. The breakdown, from a sociological standpoint, was complete. Dr Yaacob was so appalled at the social pathology that he said he was 'malu' (ashamed) at what was happening in the underclass segment of the Malay-Muslim community.

Perspective tells us the social profile is not that grim. Malay Singaporeans have risen steadily in income and educational levels on state support and encouragement as well as the community's efforts. It is true, instances of successful Malay businessmen or students still get splashy media treatment because they are not common.

But Dr Yaacob's heartfelt lamentation - 'My God, what's wrong (with us)?' - is at once an indictment and a dare to the community to rise above its shortcomings, real and presumed. His remark was directed at dysfunctional families, but his frustration went deeper. If sections of the community have 'opted out', as he suggested, or got off the competition carousel for lack of the necessary attributes, what should be done?

The inter-generational chain of under-achievement, early marriage and criminal involvement, such as in drugs, has to be broken. This is the critical starting point. It is not known how bad the incidence of inherited poverty is. Possibly, it is not widespread, but the drag on the community is disproportionate. At the national level, programmes to check drug-taking and discourage teen marriage and divorce are making progress. It is at the community level, among families, that the challenge is daunting. This is in developing a culture of learning, a hunger to improve one's lot. It is glib, but true, that Malay Singaporeans will rise as soon as the problem of modest educational attainment is cracked. Besides national programmes to bring improvements, aspirations and role models come to mind. Retired Malay MPs, the stars of business, the professions and the arts, as well as other successful members of the Malay-Muslim community must help with ideas and action. The support network of self-help groups is available. They must be willing to put in the time and not be seen to detach themselves from their own community.

[From an anthropological perspective, the Malay underclass may be systemic discrimination based on cultural values. Perhaps the mainstream value of material success is at odds with the Malay values of family and contentment. And when these values clash and the minority is judged not against his own values but against mainstream values, he is found wanting and that creates stress which in turn leads to opting out of the system through drugs, crime, or more positively, madrasahs and religious studies.

If religion truly is the opiate of the people, then even the positive solution is a checking out of the system.

But this is all very complex thinking and the simple thoughts are, you do not hurt, abuse, or kill children, especially not those that have been placed in your care. So what is wrong with the Malay underclass?

If the solution is education and material attainment, the question is how. Is there something hardwired in Malays that would keep them from such attainment?

And if Malays become as successful as the mainstream (Chinese) then are they still Malay? Would they have lost their Malayness?

Not that I believe they would completely lose their Malayness, but certainly, they may be "less Malay" than Malays in Malaysia. And Singapore would be less multi-cultural.

Perhaps the solution is to have a broader definition of success, so that the mainstream or majority does not have sole ownership of such definitions. That we consider and accept other aspects of success.]

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