By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

On 14 November 2012, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, mentioned in his speech in Parliament that nearly half of all drug offenders in 2011 were Malays. The following day, The Straits Times carried a report with a file photograph of five Malay boys clad in baju kurung under the headline,‘48% of Drug Offenders Held Last Year Were Malay’. The baju kurung is a traditional Malay outfit usually worn on festive occasions such as Hari Raya.

The report drew mixed responses.

Some, like Oversensitive, posted a comment on online news portal, The Real Singapore, saying that there is nothing wrong with the article as it was merely highlighting a fact. She hinted at the overly-sensitive nature of the community and questioned if any reporting on the Malay community should only be restricted to those which are “compulsory positive” at the expense of anything else seen to be “trampling on the Malay”.

Amira Budiyano saw a positive outcome in Mr Masagos’ speech. She wrote to The Straits Times Forum in support of his proposal for the establishment of the Community Rehabilitation Centre, describing it as a “beacon of light, signalling that the society is maturing and becoming more progressive”.

Others, however, found the article and choice of accompanying photograph offensive as it perpetuates stereotypes against the Malay community. On Facebook, Hafiz Zakaria pointed out that the article essentially attributes the illegal use of narcotics to a cultural predisposition of the Malays, an argument that he found troubling.

Ultimately, the article sparked a class-versus-ethnicity debate.

Playwright Alfian Sa’at argued that the real marker of social dysfunctionalism is not race but class. He highlighted the plight of the ‘economic underclass’ – lack of education, poor job prospects, unhappy homes and social alienation – as the real cause of drug abuse.

His views were echoed by Z’ming Cik who, in his article ‘Same Old Script of a Radicalised Singapore’, opined that there is a need to interrogate what lies behind the statistics: whether they correlate with family income, education level or other problems which cut across ethnic groups from a similar social class.

Dr Mohd Shamsuri Juhari, Director of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), expressed that while it is understandable that newspapers need to be creative so as to boost sales of their printed products, they must nevertheless be conscious of the fact that their social responsibility is far more important. Editors must be aware of the effects that such depictions will have in fuelling or sustaining the unfairly negative public perception of the Malays. Studies have shown that once stereotypes are formed, social perceivers will continue to focus on them to sustain impressions of and make judgements about others, especially when these individual’s processing capacity is flawed or available relevant information is scarce. In the case of the Malays in Singapore, the article and its accompanying photograph served only to do injustice to the community by its subliminal portrayal of a Malay person as a typical drug abuser.

The disquiet over the article hinges upon how date on a social problem is presented to the public. In the above case, ethnicity was used as a variable, triggering perceptions among the general public that it is a predictor of drug abuse. Other variables, such as the socioeconomic status, could have shed more light into the characteristics of a typical drug abuser. Perhaps, it is time for a review of how data, particularly those on social and educational issues, are projected into the public sphere so as to provide relatively more accurate insights into an issue.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is an Assistant Manager with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in this article are his own. 

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, Jan – Mar 2013, Issue 17.

Photo Source: CNB