A 'what if' scenario

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 23-10-2011

A WORLD Bank report has made close comparisons between University of Malaya (UM) and its counterpart in Singapore.

In a chapter subtitled Common Roots and Different Paths, it analyses the differing situations in both cases and cites "political interference" as one of the main reasons why (UM) differs significantly in its "standing" in the context of "a world-class research university".

What if UM had taken the same path as its Singaporean counterpart in developing a "new" middle class through education?

This is not an easy exercise but one is guided by Keiko Tamura's work entitled The Emergence and Political Consciousness of the Middle Class in Singapore (2003). He made several observations on issues that the World Bank report may have overlooked.

For example, on education (pages 190-191), he raised the question "whether all Singaporeans have perceived the educational system as open impartially to all. For example, the Malays living in Singapore make up 14 per cent of the population, but their social status and limited economic strength in no way reflects that percentage. According to the 2000 statistics, only 0.7 per cent of the Malay population were college graduates which was very low compared with the 5.9 per cent for the Chinese population.

"Meanwhile, the average monthly income for the Malay population was only 63 per cent of that for the Chinese (Department of Statistics 2000, pages viii-iv). This gap had its origins in British colonial policy. The British gave priority to the Malays, as the natives of the land, when hiring personnel for the colonial government or as policemen, and at the time of Singapore's independence, one out of five Malay adult males, who made up only 3.8 per cent of Singapore's population, was employed in such work.

"Most of the farmers and fishermen were also Malays (Far Eastern Economic Review, June 28,1984). In a Singapore intent on developing into Southeast Asia's commercial and financial centre, there was no preferential treatment for Malays as there was in Malaysia, and they were gradually marginalised politically and economically. Thus, even at the time of independence, there was already a great difference between the Chinese and Malays, and the impartiality for all when starting in Singapore's educational system worked to exacerbate rather than reduce this difference, which has led to great inequality for the Malays."

This aspect is well elaborated by University of Sydney's Lily Zubaidah Rahim who made an in-depth study of the political and educational marginality of Singapore's Malay community.

On the issue of "political control" in Singapore (page 192), Tamura highlighted that "the rising number of emigrants each year, with a record 5,040 people leaving Singapore in the 1984 election year, could only have increased the government's uneasiness. The flow of emigrants climbed to 11,770 people in 1988. The number one reason given for emigrating was to get children into universities overseas after they had lost out in Singapore's highly competitive educational system. But there were also those who said they emigrated because they were seeking political freedom (Sunday Times, Jan 10, 1989). With so many people leaving this small country, among them being middle-class professionals and technicians who can easily find jobs overseas and who have taken their families with them, this surely has had a negative impact on Singapore's development."

Despite years of economic success, as late as in 2008, the trend seems to result in the then Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew agonising over unabated brain drain of highly educated Singaporeans. Veteran columnist Seah Chiang Nee characterised the rate of emigration as one of the highest in the world on a per capita basis as they abandoned their citizenship for a foreign one, mostly in Australia, the United States and Canada.

Given the two brief accounts, the "what if scenarios may produce another dilemma.

In the case of Singapore, Lily Zubaidah termed it as "The Singapore Dilemma" shaped by "the historical, ideological, and institutional processes of the Singaporean society" which is fast unfolding today.

The writer is vice chancellor of Albukhary International University.