Comment: By Kahlil Stultz.
For decades Singapore’s Ministry of Defence has maintained a subtle but pervasive policy of barring ethnic Malays Muslims entry into critical military formations, citing geopolitical considerations. In the twenty-first century is this policy useful?
An economic and military powerhouse in Southeast Asia, Singapore enjoys a rare reputation – a multiracial society with limited racial disharmony, a professional and well-respected military despite relatively recent establishment, small size, and a reliance on conscription as well as a large and powerful economy.
Despite these superficially enticing facts, Singapore is far from a utopia – and when it comes to the core ideas and identities which mould it – there are clear pathologies particularly in the means by which it identifies its geopolitical adversaries and how it mobilizes its limited manpower to meet security challenges.
Nowhere is this pathology better seen than in the highly sectarian approach the Singaporean Government takes in respect to Malay Muslim minorities. It has long been assumed among Singaporean leaders that in a potential conflict with Malaysia or Indonesia, or in counter-terrorism operations against Islamic extremist groups such as local Islamic State affiliate cells and Jemaah Islamiyah, Malay Muslims are a liability. Scholar Chua Beng-Huat, in analyzing the approach of the Singaporean government to Malay Muslims and national security, judges it as one always to be “subjected to geopolitical considerations, putting their [Malay Muslims] nationalism into question.”
While no colour bar is legally enshrined, Malays Muslims are underrepresented if not absent from key units of Singapore’s robust military and security forces, despite making up 13.3% of the population. The Republic of Singapore Air Force only admitted its first Malay pilot 1992 and the only Malay to step inside a Singaporean Air Force fighter jet has been F-16 pilot Lt. Yusri Abu-Bakr in 2015. As for the Republic of Singapore Navy, an even bleaker image is presented as it was not until 2015 that the Ministry of Defence permitted Malay sailors to be deployed on sea vessels. The Singaporean Army only had its first Malay general officer in 2009 and Malays were not even called up as a whole for national service in the Singaporean armed forces until 1984. When they were, they were by and large diverted to the Police Force, with sensitive positions such as guarding the Presidential palace being handed to non-citizen Nepalese mercenaries.
Today, despite some positive developments in signals and artillery, Malay youths beginning their national service often face de facto discrimination if they desire to enter combat arms, intelligence or special forces. As a result – a disproportionate number of Malays spend their national service in the Police Force and the Civil Defence arm, where they cannot achieve a long term career as senior posts are manned by military national servicemen.
Far from being merely popular prejudice, this is a stated policy of “pragmatism” by the PAP government which has ruled Singapore since independence and engineered the Malay bar in Singapore’s culture of national security. Much of it stems from Lee Kuan-Yew, the first Prime Minister commonly called the founding father of Singapore. Aside from personal beliefs that Malays were genetically inferior to Chinese in terms of intelligence, work ethic and health, Lee, prime minister from 1959 to 1990, established a precedent that Malay Muslims could not be trusted to play a role in spearheading Singapore’s national security and foreign policy initiatives. During his tenure military officials believed that the role of Islam in Malay communities was particularly dangerous.
As Lee said in an interview with the Straits Times in 1999: “You put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business…we could have a tragedy.” Lee’s son – Hsien Loong – the current prime minister of Singapore whose emphatic defence of his father’s security policy in 1987 included a blunt identification of Malaysia as a potential source of war. More recently the Minister of Defence Ng Eng-Han made a comment that argued allowing Malay Muslims into seafaring roles with the Navy would be difficult due to a lack of halal kitchens.
For scholar and Former Army Ranger Sean Walsh, the discrimination against Malays in the SAF was so bad that it weakened Singapore’s long-term security policies: limiting a demographic more culturally prone to military service, and feeding into an already budding feeling of second-class citizenship. As he said in his 2007 article The Roar of the Lion City: the perception of discrimination “is a fact which terrorist recruiters have taken advantage of before, and they may do so again”.
Certainly a handful of episodes of Malay Muslims being co-opted into Terrorist organizations, as well as the unique challenge of being within a country where they are the racial and religious minority is a signal that some care must be taken in military assignments, yet it makes little sense to tar an entire group according to a few bad apples. Muslim minorities – particularly those in the security services of the United States and the U.K. have fought and died often in majority Muslim countries – proving and not impugning their loyalty to their country. The sensitive assignment in intelligence of the late British Army Lance Corporal Jabron Hashimi shows that one can be Muslim and can serve in a sensitive position even if fighting against other Muslims. The American cases of the frontline infantrymen – late Captain Humayun Khan and Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan prove the same argument – that being Muslim and a racial minority and fighting an enemy who shares one’s religion and race is not enough to deny that opportunity of service because of the shaky concept of a “tragedy”.
The point is not to say that the Singaporean government is operating Jim Crow in its Armed Forces, nor is it to say that it oppresses its Malay Muslim minority, rather it is to argue vigorously that the current policy is not conducive to Singapore’s long-term geopolitical safety, robs itself of unique and skilled talent from prospective Malay intakes and alienates Malays, feeding into a sense of societal isolation. Malay Muslims are critical to national security operations in a time of transnational terrorism. The symbolic and cultural value of having Malays play a frontline role in countering violent extremism plunges a spear in the propaganda of Islamic radicals, but also fosters greater cohesion in a multiracial state were civic nationalism is crucial to avoiding sectarian conflict.
Most importantly, recent events in Sino-Singaporean relations should cast a pall on the traditional approach of viewing Malaysians and Indonesians as prime candidates for a possible armed conflict. The People’s Republic of China started a war of words with Singapore in Novemeber – one which for two months cost the Singaporean Armed Forces (SAF) nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles (ICVs) and only saw them returned in late January. Moreover increased Chinese presence in the South China Sea and the impact its dominance will have on Singapore’s precious maritime sea lanes increasingly means that it will not be Malay Muslim governments in either Indonesia or Malaysia who pose a security threat but China– the country from which 74.2% of the Singaporean population (including all Singaporean Prime Ministers, all ministers of defence, all SAF Chief of Defence Force and the overwhelming majority of armed forces officers) claim descent.