Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Can we shrink the Malay gap?

The Malay gap

My father once told me about his friends who studied overseas and when they returned for vacations, would gather groups of students within their kampong for free and tutor them for free. My lack of social consciousness then prevented any personal takeaway, but in university I began reflecting on solutions to the problems of the Malay community.

The main discussion today seems to be on social problems and the efficacy of efforts by Malay/Muslim voluntary welfare organizations. There aren’t many who talk about the growing gap between rich and poor Malays. More and more Malays are gaining social, academic and economic success but there remains a group held up by various dysfunctional social problems.

Even though this polarisation reflects the broader state of Singapore’s society, poor Malays are disproportionately larger compared to other communities. It thus seems that social problems would be an obvious cause, but because solving this requires a different, complex approach, here I focus on functional families who are trapped in a poverty cycle – an almost-forgotten group.

The poverty cycle

This group remains under the radar of popular discussion because successful Malays are lauded on the basis of individual merit (in line with the national rhetoric of meritocracy). This approach unfortunately places the poor Malay as the cause of his own failure. In her book The Singapore Dilemma, Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim posits this ‘culture deficit theory’ as a crippling cause of marginalization through the internalisation of negative traits.

This is unfortunate because there are many Malays who work hard but despite their efforts, are trapped in poverty. They do not further their education because their parents cannot afford it or they have to start working early to contribute to household income. In turn, their low education levels prevent them from earning high incomes in good jobs. Even though they are not involved in crime, premarital sex or drugs, transmitted cultural attitudes and stereotypes of being ‘lazy’ prevent higher attainment.

The cycle of poverty that this group faces is an unhappy consequence of low incomes and low education. Poverty affects the performance of students and their availability to attend school. Low levels of education lead to low incomes, perpetuating poverty. There are also other mediating factors such as parental attitudes towards education, type of residence and surrounding peer influence.

One way to break the poverty cycle is through education. Early childhood interventions have been found to be the most effective, but in general, the earlier the involvement, the better. A better-educated workforce is more likely to enjoy higher earnings. Identifying education as an antipoverty tool is an acknowledgement of the structural cause of poverty. Simply put, some Malays are not poor because they are lazy, but because they are not getting enough education.

Breaking the cycle of poverty

A letter by Zuraidah Abdullah from Yayasan Mendaki to The Straits Times forum on 19 December 2009 affirms that the “community’s role (is) key” in helping the needy. It also asserts that the community needs to take ownership and support grassroots efforts instead of waiting for solutions from the top or relying on national agencies. Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim also invites “young professionals to come forward to share their ideas” and “take up projects” because effective solutions come from contextualising problems on the ground. Custom-fit solutions are more likely to succeed, and many successful small initiatives provide evidence and clout for policy change.

The importance of education in breaking the poverty cycle and the collective effort in assessing problems and finding solutions are brought together and illustrated by two recent initiatives by local tertiary students. The first initiative, Ace PSLE Exams (APEX), provides personal coaching and mentoring to Primary 6 students in various madrasahs. It started in 2008 with 26 tertiary student volunteers at Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah, and quickly swelled to around 90 volunteers at Madrasah Al-Irsyad, Al-Arabiah and Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah in 2009. It will enter its fourth year of operation in 2011.

The second initiative, Aspire and Achieve through Mentorship (AAM) provides academic coaching with the aim of giving madrasah students more options for higher education. It also organises activities similar to those in government schools to create inclusiveness and develop character. It was started by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society in January 2009, who will continue to run it next year.

Both APEX and AAM are managed by and mostly supported by tertiary students. Although APEX’s efforts were boosted with support from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), both programmes now need community-wide support to ensure their continuity.

What to do now?

There is no magical, one-size-fits-all solution. What these two initiatives have in common is that they were started by people who saw the Malay gap, understood the specific needs of a group, and sought to meet those needs. The problems of Malay students in primary vs. secondary schools, government vs. private schools, Express vs. Normal Technical streams, all differ. What they all need though, is a dedicated group of people to implement a tailor-made solution.

You don’t need a lot of time and resources to help. Here are some things you could do:

1. Join APEX or AAM as a mentor or contribute resources.

2. Give free tuition to a needy student.

3. Tell a friend about this article.

Then, like my father, you can tell your children about your friends who studied in local universities and tutored students for free.


This is an updated version of an article written on 22 Dec 2009.

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