Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reflections on the 'Malay Gap'

As I re-read the previous article written at the end of 2009, one semester away from graduating, I thought about how I've changed in the way I think about things, and also how I have so many more questions about the issues surrounding activities I worked on back home.

As a student about to graduate, I clearly thought I knew everything and I think it was quite audacious for me to propose a solution (education) for all the problems of the Malays, who face persistent disadvantage in multiple arenas, including education. So somehow trying to single-handedly bring better education when it should be the duty of the state seems like an uphill task.

Now that I learnt about intersectionality, I could further specify this disadvantaged group that disproportionately forms a percentage of Singapore's poor; it is the working class Malay single- or elderly-headed households. Whether they are functional or dysfunctional does not seem relevant nor is it within my capability to find out.

What has really changed in how I think about this problem is the importance of institutions bigger than the family or the community. Due to the politics of race which characterises our politics, each ethnic group is somehow made responsible for their own problems. In fact, now I see no sense in such a system because why bother with a nationalistic, one-Singapore rhetoric if one Singapore cannot help its own population? May I remind you, regardless of race, language, or religion?*

The fact that APEX has been going on for four years is evidence of how small-scale initiatives cannot affect institutional change, at least in Singapore. APEX receives lots of help and funding from MUIS, but what needs to happen to help these primary school kids are changes at two levels: the curriculum, structure, and fundamental mindset of some of these madrasah, or Islamic schools, and also a consistent effort to get all children into school and keep them there.

There appears to be a ridiculous sort of attitude in one of these Islamic schools - they mistakenly envy and fear the other schools. Maybe it's because the Compulsory Education Act created competition between them (who will meet the PSLE benchmark and by when?), but maybe they see the Act as an evil plot to close them down (although honestly I think some just bring about their own demise).

I see the dubious quality of some of the teachers as part of the problem. So for example, if academic subjects are going to be taught in a way that does not incorporate any Islamic lessons (biology is taught according to the 'O' Level syllabus, and does not add any Islamic value like pointing out and studying phenomena in the Qur'an), why doesn't any madrasah hire non-Muslim teachers? They would most likely be MOE-trained, which would be better for the students.

Instead of highlighting certain stellar students, what's stopping a madrasah from making everyone high-achieving and stellar, well-taught in academic subjects and Islamic ones?

*A line from our national pledge.

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