By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

Earlier in March this year, the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) organised its annual Community-in-Review seminar. Themed Education Strategies in the New Era: Sustaining Progress, the seminar sought to discuss the strategies that can be pursued to sustain the progress that the Malay/Muslim community has been making in education.

During the question and answer session, a participant drew attention towards the term “progress” featured in the seminar theme. In his view, while there has been progress in absolute terms (the community’s educational attainments benchmarked against its own starting points, not against the progress of other communities), in relative terms, it is far less convincing as to whether actual progress has been made. This, he argued, is due to the Malays being overrepresented where “they don’t want to be”, and underrepresented where “they want to be”. In terms of educational attainment per se, this can be interpreted to mean overrepresentation in the ‘lower’ streams in secondary schools; and, at post-secondary levels, overrepresentation in ITE and private education institutions and underrepresentation at university levels.

Back in 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, during his speech at the Third National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals attempted to address the absolute progress versus relative progress conundrum.

I think there are some areas where you are closing, some areas where the gap is still there. I think we cannot ignore them but we should not just focus on the difference between the Malay community and the other communities because first of all it is a moving target. So, if you are measuring how well you are doing, I think you have to see how well you are able to do from where your starting point is because if the target moves it may not be because you did not make progress or you did not do work, but because the circumstances have changed and the other communities may have done better, may have done worse. Those are things which are not within the Malay/Muslim community’s control. So, it is better to concentrate on doing your best, the best possible you can do for yourself and aim for steady progress. Make it step-by-step, year-by-year and gradually from one year to the next do better bit by bit. But from one decade to another, you will do better dramatically. And I think if you look at the trend, if you look at the charts, you will see that. From one year to the next small improvements, sometimes down sometimes up. But if you look at it on a ten-year basis, I think we can in good conscience say over ten years each decade has been better than the previous one.”

The concern with not comparing the educational performance of the Malays with other communities is that the competitive mentality, the urgency and intense commitment which can be elicited by the process of catching up with leading communities are absent. It is hard to make the case that seeing how well one is doing from one’s own starting point would help to inculcate the values that would help boost performance. Malay leaders, like the late former President of MUIS and CEO of MENDAKI, Mr Ridzwan Dzafir, had asked the Malays to relish competition. In an interview with The Straits Times as reported in March 2010, while acknowledging the progress made by the community, he noted wistfully that the Malays can do much more to narrow the gap with other races in areas like education and skills.

He said:

We must be more ambitious, more competitive, just like our forefathers who were migrants.

How It Should Be Done

In other areas, for instance the economic one, catch up occurs when following nations learn and adopt models or policies that led to the success of the leading nations, and the process ceases when the knowledge discrepancy between the leading and following nations becomes very small and eventually exhausted.

Singapore, as one of the East Asian Tigers, achieved developed economy status – along with the likes of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – despite emerging from a region comprising predominantly of countries that to date remain developing economies.  What probably helped was the standards used to benchmark its economic progress: those of developed economies or leading cities, which mainly are the more distant Western ones. Alluding to Mr Lee’s speech, these too are a sort of “moving target”. It is worth noting that, in the economics literature, there is scarce evidence that catch up occurred with developing economies using their own starting points as benchmarks.

The economic analogy has some degree of relevance to education because, as with uplifting educational attainments, it too has to deal with the human and social attitudes and the contemporary challenges in the catch up process.

It can be argued that benchmarking educational progress against that of other communities that are leading remains relevant if the historical, sociological and policy factors are factored into consideration. For example, in PSLE Standard Mathematics, while there has been progress over the 30-year period as shown in Chart 1, the widening gap between the Malays and other communities does provide some information which would be perilous to ignore.

graph 1a

Another example is the stark contrast between the performances of Malay pupils in PSLE Standard Science and that of other communities. Not only is there an overall decline over the 30-year period but also a jarring gap between the attainments of the Malays and other communities, which tended to widen post-2000.

graph 2a

Neglecting the widening disparities between the Malays and other communities, as are observable in both charts (particularly from 2000 onwards), can have implications on the resolve to arrest the slides.

Inculcating the catch up mentality requires a certain level of anxiety to be created, as the two charts above are capable of. The same effect cannot be produced if a chart depicting only the community’s progress is shown. The comparison with leading communities also helps the lagging community to visualise where it ought to be.

Taking A Micro View of the Catch Up Process

The challenge in catching up stems mainly from oversimplifying the possible causes of the lag. Leaders often speak of the need for mindset change, which can be problematic because it tends to downplay the significance that structural factors constitute in impeding progress in the education and social spheres.  A student from a dysfunctional family may need time to level up with her peers. Before she could catch up, streaming in school, which occurs at an early age, gets in her way, lumping her in the lower stream together with other students ranging from underperformers to late-bloomers to the hands-on oriented. It further strains her coping mechanism: the stigma, a longer pathway and the lack of networks with better performing students in higher streams. In such an instance, catch up can be better facilitated if the complexity of her situation and her strengths are recognised: she may be a bright student who is underperforming because of the less-than-favourable conditions which deprive her of time, networks and a conducive space for her schoolwork. As the participant pointed out, educational performance should not be seen as a “standalone” issue but in relation with other social realities with which it is closely intertwined.

At the community level, a more nuanced approach to facilitating catch-up is needed. The lagging community’s self-help organisations should seek to differentiate its programmes and schemes from those offered by schools and government agencies so that they address unmet needs. This is probably best achieved if the self-help groups work in partnerships with the public and even private sectors to deliver their services. For example, if they offer tuition programmes, rather than provide those that replicate the school classroom or its learning support programmes or private tuition centres, they may wish to collaborate with schools and private tuition centres so that their resources can be channelled towards identifying and bridging the gaps, thus fulfilling unmet needs. Alternatively, they can focus on improving their outreach strategies as many students from low-income families tend to miss out on available education schemes or are plagued by absenteeism problems.

Challenges in Catching Up

The path to catching up is riddled with challenges. When comparing with leading communities, it is worth acknowledging the factors that contribute to the leading community’s socioeconomic position. Taking another minority community as an example – namely, the Indian community – one can argue that figures on the performance of the Indian community in education are enhanced to a noteworthy extent by immigrants from India, many of whom in recent times are better educated professionals and entrepreneurs. In the span of 20 years between 1997 and 2017, the share of Indians in the resident population rose from 7.6% to 9.0% (while that for Malays declined from 13.9% to 13.4%). In contrast, such immigration has barely taken place in the Malay community.

PM Lee said in his Malay speech of National Day Rally 2010 that it is not easy to attract Malay or pribumi talent from Southeast Asia but the government will continue to try. The inflow of talent and wealth that the Indian community enjoys, and similar advantages enjoyed by other communities, is hard for the Malay community to reproduce, thus putting a damper on the catch-up process. Nor can this issue be addressed simply by harping on mindset change. While government policies cannot favour any ethnic group, the Malay community can flag the class-based issues within it. The ongoing national concern with social class divide, as The Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) study on social capital found, and which has also been discussed by academics, most notably in the book by Nanyang Technological University (NTU) academic Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like, presents an opportunity for rigorous discussion that hopefully would lead to policies aimed at further levelling the playing field, thus accelerating the catch up process.

The future is likely to see radical shifts in the social and economic realities in Singapore. There are some developments that a lagging community can capitalise on: the lesser emphasis on grades and more on skills and talent development, the broadening of the definition of success, the challenge mounted against elitism, and the disruption that will permeate job markets as technology advances, which may be scary but may also be the panacea for job woes as it offers a whole new range of possibilities. Whatever the circumstances may turn out to be, the lagging community should not lose sight of its goal of catching up and continue to build on the efforts made over the last three decades.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, July 2018, Volume 13, Issue 3

Photo Source: The Karyawan