By Dr Mohamad Shamsuri Juhari

A fortnight ago, the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) conducted a cursory review of data released by the Ministry of Education on educational performance by ethnic group from 2002 to 2011.

Though the statistics were lauded by Malay-Muslim organisations (MMOs) as indication of their success in charting paths leading to the educational progress of Malay students, a closer look at the trends and figures nevertheless tells us that things could and should be rosier.

Past discourse tells us that optimists will support the claim that the Malay community started from a low base and, thus, the 10-year upward progression – albeit showing only a small rise – should nevertheless be hailed and commended.

Pre-empting comparisons with the greater progress made by the Indian community for the same period, the Malays will also be reminded that they should not see themselves in contrast to the other ethnic groups in the nation, which would also have been raising their performance over the years.

Nonetheless, in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, psychology and behavioural economics professor Daniel Ariely points out that humans are afflicted with not only the need “to compare things with one another but also to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable”.

And such simplistic thinking often gives rise to “arbitrary coherence” – the idea that a phenomenon which was once “arbitrary”, if recurring and sustained will end up being accepted as “coherent”.

It implies that to those outside the community, the consistent show of educational underachievement and the regularity with which this status is highlighted, serves to reinforce biases and stereotypes.

To those within the community, it serves to consolidate negative self-perceptions brought about by feelings of inadequacy, stigmatisation and fatalism.

The released data has provided the MMOs with the opportunity to take collective credit for what they see as successes due to their hard work. Yet, they should also reflect on why is it they have been unable to further close the gap.

In his 2012 National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong implied, through his anecdote of a father whose children grew up to do much better than him, that with the amount of government resources made available, a family unit can improve its place in the world within the span of a single generation.

So one might argue it should take just as long for the Malay community to get to an equal footing with the rest of Singapore. This is the default benchmark the MMOs should be striving for.

The rule of thumb is that a single generation spans roughly 30 years; Mendaki this month celebrates its 30th anniversary. And still, the statistics point to areas where the slack in the community’s performance has stubbornly remained.

One: The PSLE and O-Level results for both English and Mother Tongue have not been as positive as could be expected over the 10-year period. While the various gradients representing the achievements of Malay students for these language subjects depict an upward trend, they are still below the lines representing the other ethnic groups. The gap is especially discernible at the primary-school level and remains throughout secondary school.

Two: The figures also show that the Malays are lagging behind in science and mathematics. Weak performance in maths is especially distinguishable by the whopping 20 percentage point difference between Malay students and the national average. These figures unfortunately tell us that over the last 10 years, MMO-devised tuition classes and various educational programmes relating to subject mastery and study skills have not translated successfully into academically-performing Malay students.

Three: As widely extolled by the media, Malay passes for A-Levels showed the most improvement with a jump of 11.6 percentage points over the last 10 years. While this is good news, Malay students still lag behind the Indians, Chinese and Others. Why are our “best of the best” still far from being among the best in the nation?


These latest figures demand that the Malay community embark on a more radical mode of thinking in our quest for a solution to the problem of educational under-attainment.

In June, key proposals relating to the issue were discussed and agreed upon during the 3rd National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals. Based on an overarching strategy of creating a community of inspired learners, these proposals include providing the most opportunities for there to be graduates in every family; the establishment of an education research centre; and finding the most effective ways to develop our students into motivated learners.

There is now a need for the community to quickly follow up in making these proposals a reality.

For instance, RIMA is embarking on several research projects to introduce what it sees as pedagogy catering to the cognitive and affective needs of Malay-Muslim students. Such educational approaches leverage on the culture and background of students from the community.

However, acting to resolve one aspect of the problem while failing to act on other issues is like patching up one of four punctured tyres of a car; the vehicle may be able to move eventually but it will never be able to catch up with the rest of the traffic.

There is a dire need for greater collaboration among the MMOs, and for more MMOs to come forward and take ownership of the other proposals covering many other aspects of Malay-Muslim life.

As it is, the community’s inability to adopt more effective turnaround strategies has led to disillusionment among activists, among whom the refrain of “We Malays are just like that” is becoming all too familiar.

The MMOs must lead, cooperate and synergise their functions and resources to fulfil their battle cry of raising the educational achievements of our students.

This article was published in the Commentary & Analysis Section of TODAY, 16th November 2012.