Has Singapore's education failed the Malay Community?

And so this difficult yet somewhat controversial question was finally raised by a brave soul at Reddit Singapore, where he cited excerpts of a recent conversation with a Malay friend and produced thoughtful perspectives based on his personal experiences:

"Was speaking to a Malay friend last night about how highly educated members of the Malay community in Singapore were and wondered why so many folks ended up in the Normal Technical Stream. He cited the fact that Malay families are too big and a significant number of them get started too early. To me, that doesn't make sense because there are also quite a few Chinese families that are quite big in size and they still do relatively well.

I personally feel that Malay families are more supportive towards their kids chasing their own dreams. Unfortunately for them, their dreams in Singapore just don't pay off financially; ultimately many of them have to endure a long and tedious process before ever achieving the slightest iota of tangible success.

Growing up, I studied in the Normal Academic stream and frankly this does something to your self-esteem. Even though I've caught up with my peers since, I always had a chip on my shoulders owing to the fact I had to work doubly hard to arrive at where I am today. With so many Malay kids being assigned to the Normal Technical stream, something ought to be done to at least minimize the stigma associated with this tier of secondary school education, which is often seen as reserved only for the less academically inclined."

Not unexpectedly many Reddiporeans chimed in with their viewpoints, some exerting that an individual's determination to make something of himself supersedes racial considerations. Others cited cultural differences, one's access to resources and the manner of upbringing as possible influencing factors. Then again, is the comparison between the academic achievements of Malays and Chinese (or any other race for that matter) even a fair one? More importantly, is the Singapore education system really complicit in not doing enough to give the Malay community a proper leg-up like everyone else, and meritocracy just a mere hip buzzword bandied about by the government? Food for thought by netizens showcased below:


"I came from the Normal Technical stream and subsequently got posted to ITE Bishan. After which I completed my diploma, served the nation and went on to finish up a university degree (with Honours). All done locally. Most of my peers in university are working; I myself am starting my own business because of passion and I have no regrets. I am a Malay fyi.

My academic track record: My PSLE results were shitty (of course I deserved it because I played too much). My parents cried and told me straight to the face that I was a failure.

I went to the Normal Technical stream and most of my friends in secondary school were Malays - we often hung out at void decks "lepaking" and smoking. I took my 'N' Levels and I think I did ok. Failed in Maths though (obtained an U grade). That however didn't stop me.

In ITE, I took up Product Design because I felt it's one of the better courses for me, not withstanding the fact it was also one of the easiest to gain entry to. Did my 2 years there and graduated. Most of my lecturers encouraged me to aspire to attend institutions of higher learning because they saw my potential. To this very day, I am grateful that they pushed me beyond my limits. I graduated and was happy.

-------- At this point, most of my friends in secondary schools were either serving NS or have dropped out of ITE. (My parents told me to continue studying despite the negative comments and feedback from relatives)

Next I pursued a diploma for 3 years. Graduated. Parents were now proud of me.

-------- Served National Service.

I continued on my education journey by taking up a 2 year degree (with Honours) course and eventually graduated. Naturally parents felt even prouder now.

In the end, I realised it's not about the race. It's about how determined that person is. I hung out with bad company in secondary school and got into trouble with the law but does that define me as a failure in life? I went to ITE, so does that mean "Its The End"? How do you feel when your very own family members tell you straight to the face "you're disgrace to this family"? I had endured that once before and it wasn't pleasant at all to be honest. I spent the last 8 years trying to prove all of them wrong and what did I get in return? Maybe a little satisfaction but more importantly in the larger scheme of things, I wanted to make a meaningful difference (however tiny that might be) to our society."

By Mikeferdy:

"I ended up with a Polytechnic diploma which I never used in the end, lol. Diploma in Business Administration is really trash. I end up working in the IT industry and still had to attend additional courses relevant to my scope of work instead.

But my luck ran out when my dad got cancer just after NS. Entire family savings gradually wiped out over a span of 2 years until he passed away. Never continued my studies since and spent the past few years paying off tonnes of debt.

I can finally say this year is looking better; I'm going to choose a specialization course in time to come (not sure what it will be yet though) and hope to attain a proper set of certifications.

Just so you know I have two close friends. One lost his father when he was in primary school. He managed to attend a Polytechnic, however financial burden took its toll and he had to drop out of school to support his ailing mother. Another friend grew up in a good family. His father owns a business, lives in a big 5 room flat with 2 other siblings, ended up in maritime engineering with a paycheck of S$7k to S$8k per month. All of us are Malays. Still tight despite our very different situations.

I personally think family finances is the biggest contributor to our success or failure."

By aahfeekiee:

"I think there is room to compare races, just not across a lazy PSLE/'O' Level grade metric as means to prove/disprove overall academic superiority.

Culture goes hand-in-hand with race - they go deep in history, are multifaceted and should not be valued solely based on academic metrics.

Race + culture are very real things and the differences between them will continue for centuries to come. By acknowledging it, it doesn't mean that we are inherently perpetuating racial inequality, being racially intolerant or trying to become any less Singaporean. But I don't want to be known as just Singaporean, I also want to be acknowledged for being Malay and for the culture I grew up in, because they have shaped who I am today just as much as being Singaporean has.

Conversations about race are long overdue in Singapore and we need to stop burying them under layers of glorified and idealistic race-blind meritocracy, hoping that it will make race go away."

By Boorishamoeba1:

"Our education doesn't discriminate based on race, the only thing it discriminates is the final set of scores inked on your results slip. Let's not kid ourselves, even as the government tries to be more inclusive and push for a single Singaporean identity, there are still cultural differences that explains the gap in academic results. Inequity isn't inequality. Whether or not the government wants to pursue an 'affirmative action' like policy or continue with its merit-based system is a separate debate.

As to whether or not you agree with the present streaming system I think its highly subjective, some people may see it as discriminatory, I however see it as a sorting process cultivated to allow every student to learn at an institution which offers a curricula more congruent with his/her academic aptitude. Unfortunately, in a highly competitive country like ours, the elitist view about such things will inevitably arise and I agree with you that more should be done to perhaps change public perception on the Normal Academic (NA) and Normal Technical (NT) streams."

By deadmantizwalking:

"I find this generalisation quite troubling. And simplifying the problems within the Malay community. Many choose steps in their life that ultimately repeat the poverty cycle because quite simply they do not practice what they learn in school.

Having too many kids is a thing of the past, but having kids too early is the current reality. Especially with lack of monetary backup and preparation. There is also a lot of intellectual dishonesty when discussing intra-culture problems, treating poverty issues as cultural issues like the blacks in the US, or lack of a support network versus presuming lazy attitude towards school work and achieving social mobility. Of course, there is also the aspect of religion holding a culture back which is so taboo to dissect in detail."

By madfudz:

"Disclaimer - am Chinese but most of my close friends are Malay. My views are purely anecdotal and not primarily backed by hard statistics.

I was in the NTU Motorcycle club back in University. I'm not stereotyping but there is a disproportionately higher ratio of Malays in the motorcycle compared to any other clubs. They come from different faculties; engineering, arts, business, law and medicine.

The education system doesn't discriminate according to race. If you make the cut, you're in. But it's the journey itself that doesn't deal a nice hand for the Malay community at large.

To make it to University, I believe there are several factors; strong family support, financial support, your circle of friends and most definitely your ability to acquire knowledge and apply it suitably. My friends have discussed these on numerous occasions and many a time levitated towards getting that chance to excel and your luck of the draw as the core considerations.

Firstly, having a stable family background will definitely place you in a better position than one from a broken family. How do you study well when you come home to a broken family, with a drunkard father and a junkie mom? Where do you hide when you've to tell your teachers that your dad can't come to meet the parents session because he's in jail? It takes a psychological toll, no matter how old you are.

We've recounted many instances where our otherwise bright friends didn't progress far as they could have because they had to take on part time jobs to support themselves in school, or to accrue just enough to fulfill daily expenses. How do you study hard for your 'O' Levels when you're being hounded by the school to pay for your examination fees? Or after National Service, do you decide to get further mired in debt by heading to University or start working to support your family and siblings? Yes, there's Mendaki and affiliate associations to help with possibly covering the school fees, then again an opportunity cost has been exacted - the money that could have been earned by working straight after completing National Service. You may be able to do well academically without attending private tuition classes but let's admit it; tuition at times can be a real life-saver. Without tuition I swore I would have flunked A Maths in secondary school.

When majority of your friends (assuming Malays hanging out with Malays, as is often the case in pre-tertiary education) do not have an interest in studying, it does drag you down. Unless you have the resolve to study by yourself and disregard the fun activities your friends engage in, you will almost surely start to fall further back in the academic race. Fast forward a couple of years to young adulthood, some get influenced by friends to engage in drugs and other illegal activities. The vicious cycle just repeats.

I know some Malay friends who have succeeded despite all odds. One of them had a father in jail, mom was an abusive drunk who didn't quite grow out of her teenage mentality. With no financial nor after-school support, he relied on his desire to be a game designer and rallied himself to work his ass off to secure a place in University. Then again with every success story, there were probably many others who failed.

The Malay community itself is very accepting, but this has become a double edged sword is used as a reason to justify its seemingly lackluster academic showing in general .

"Academic success doesn't determine your worth" - yeah it doesn't, but it very well helps.

Some have the mentality that finishing an education at an ITE or Polytechnic is sufficient. Yes, it actually is enough but if you apply this mentality to everything else do not expect to witness astounding progress made by the community at large.

There's also some semblance of bitterness towards those who personally fared better within the community. Friends have recounted to me how they were viewed as "atas" when they've completed their University education, or speak English properly without a thick Malay accent, or drive a nice car, or just because they do not hang around with other Malays. Saw this for myself firsthand when one of my Malay friends got dissed for getting married in a swanky hotel.

However, despite all that has been said, I feel that the tides are changing and more Malays are rising up and succeeding well academically and professionally too. Although...I can also see that there is an increasing divide appearing. A community can only improve when its members are supportive of one other, in this regard there is still much that can be done."

By hannorx:

"I agree that stigmas attached to the Normal Technical students need to change. However, I disagree that the government has failed the Malay community as far as education is concerned.

Many have pointed out that cultural differences is a factor to explain why there aren't many Malays who've achieved the same levels of academic successes as their non-Malay peers. I agree it holds some truth, but I also want to point out how easy and convenient it is to ascribe failures and faults to culture. Like any other cultures, the Malay culture is multi-faceted and complex. I'm of Kedahan, Penang and Minangkabau descent - sub-groups within the Malay ethnic group. In these cultures, education is a highly valued 'cultural trait'. Explaining, why culture should not be the primary (and most convenient) reason for the Malay community's failure, is too lengthy and complex to go into.

My opinion: the two reasons for the lack of Malays who have achieved the same or comparable successes as their non-Malay peers have more to do with socio-economic factors and education pedagogy practices than race or culture. These factors include, but are not limited to family's wealth and connections, social influences, classroom management, distribution of teachers, etc.

Wealth: it's obvious that wealth plays a huge part in one's educational successes. Middle- or high- income families can easily afford to send their children for private tuition. The same cannot be said for low-income families. Unfortunately, many Malay families, at the lower end of the social spectrum, still struggle with acquiring a decent income. The cycle just repeats itself.

Connections: family connections play a huge part in one's successes. Parents who graduated from 'elite' institutions can quite easily enroll their kids into the very same institutions they were previously a part of. These very same institutions are obviously of a whole different calibre compared to non-elite ones: they have better teachers, greater educational resources, higher number of motivated teachers and students, etc.

Classroom management: I cannot agree with the concept of streaming. One could argue that streaming allows for a learning pace that caters to the student’s ability. But that concurrently could also result in societies and individuals forming negative perceptions i.e. “ITE = it’s the end”, “Normal Technical students are hopeless”. When these perceptions are perpetuated long enough, the students will eventually live up to those perceptions.

I’d rather have a classroom with a good mix of high- and low- performing students. Let me recount an incident that happened recently: I’ve been teaching my 4-year old niece how to swim for the last six months. She refuses to swim in the pool without her buoy no matter how hard I try to convince her otherwise. When I finally decided to enrol her in a swimming class, on the first day itself, she decided she didn’t need a buoy. When I asked her why, she said, “So-and-so could swim without his/her buoy.” It’s social influence at work. When you know your peers are motivated to excel, you will want to be as motivated as they are if not more."

Carefully harvested by the Czar (Site Founder)

Dated 21 February 2018


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