Singapore's Malay community has long held an expansive view of race, a stand that reflects its confidence
The coming presidential election is the first to be reserved for candidates from the Malay community, following changes to the Constitution to ensure the highest office of the land reflects Singapore's multiracial society.
Yet there has been some contention on social media over the "Malayness" of would-be candidates, with some asking whether any of the aspirants who have stepped up or are mulling over a bid is "truly Malay".
It is as if the very nature of this year's contest has misdirected energies towards securing the "most authentic" candidate instead of a Malay candidate who would make the best head of state.
Ironically, all three hopefuls - businessmen Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob - have been acknowledged by the community, peers and the media as prominent Malay individuals.
They speak Malay, follow Malay customs and are, to some extent, role models for the community in business and public service. Why, then, has the question of whether they are "pure Malays" or "Malay enough" cropped up when it comes to the presidential election?
Media attention on them may have played a part. Businessman Mohamed Salleh Marican, whose father is Indian, has been criticised for not being fluent in Malay, after his fumbling during a Facebook Live interview conducted outside the Elections Department where he had gone to collect the forms for the elected presidency contest.
Marine company chief Farid Khan has been panned for stating openly his Pakistani ethnicity, while declaring that he has always seen himself as a member of the Malay community as he speaks the language, practises the customs and gives back to it.
Madam Halimah too has been pressed on the issue - past media reports noted her father was Indian - but she considers herself as very much a member of the Malay community, and has contested four general elections as a Malay candidate in a GRC or Group Representation Constituency.
A number of community leaders and observers say the critics' obsession with authenticity and purity flies in the face of tradition - it neglects the open, inclusive view of race that many Malays have adopted in welcoming new members to the community, which includes a wide range of admixtures and ethnicities.
What is a Malay?
Official records since 1824 have classified inhabitants of Singapore into four broad races - Malays, Chinese, Indians and Others. While Chinese and Indians have generally been understood to refer to people with forebears from China and India and migrants from the archipelago who trace their roots to these countries, Malay has included a variety of ethnicities regarded as indigenous to this region: Acehnese, Baweanese, Bugis and Javanese, among others.
Yet the sense of affinity to a Malay identity was not strong up till the 1930s, when the burgeoning Malay-language press helped promote a nationalism that sought to improve the lot of the Malay community.
The formation of the United Malays National Organisation in 1946 in Johor Baru - just across the Causeway - focused the minds of many Malays on issues of identity at a time of rapid change. For the first time, Malay would be clearly defined. Because the vast majority of Malays were Muslims and Islam had become closely associated with the Malay identity, the official definition of Malay in the Federation linked race with religion.
Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution thus defined "Malay" as a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom - and was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore, or one of whose parents was born in the Federation or in Singapore or living in both places; or is the issue of such a person.
Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution also made clear the Government's responsibility to constantly care for the interests of minorities, and referred to the special position of the Malays, "who are the indigenous people of Singapore", and whose interests and language it had a duty to safeguard and support.
After Separation, a Constitutional Commission headed by Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin discussed the issue of safeguards for minorities as well as, among others, the definition of Malay. It rejected calls to expand the definition to non-Malay Muslims and have Islam as a marker of Malayness. Instead, it chose not to explicitly define the races, languages or religious minorities in Singapore, in the hopes of a "united, multiracial multicultural society".
However, concern over ensuring enough Malays will be represented in key institutions - Parliament, and more recently, the Presidency - meant there was a need to define who is a Malay in Singapore's context.
Thus when the concept of Team MPs - later GRCs - was discussed in the late 1980s, it was inevitable that the debate on what is a Malay should resurface.
The Government said the idea behind GRCs was to ensure Parliament remained multiracial and to prevent the spectre of a House that might one day be without minorities.
A Select Committee held hearings involving a wide range of representatives in 1987 and 1988, and many Malay leaders felt strongly about having Islam included in the definition of a Malay.
The committee took the view that as Singapore is a secular state, it would not be appropriate for the state to spell out that a Malay must also be Muslim to contest in a GRC.
There was one other issue: a good number of Malays had Indian, Arab or Other on their ICs due to their ethnicity or parentage, even though they had long associated with the Malay community.
The Select Committee recognised this point. It also accepted a submission that sociologically, self-definition is the only valid way to define an ethnic group. "A person belonging to the Malay community must think of himself as Malay, and must be acceptable to the Malay community," it said. "Therefore the legislation should not lay down prescriptive criteria as to who does or does not belong to the Malay community, but should define a mechanism to let the community decide for itself."
This mechanism has taken the form of a community committee, which the Select Committee report said would be "a safeguard against an unacceptable candidate being wrongly certified as a member of the Malay community".
At the same time, the Parliamentary Elections Act - and the latest amendments to Article 19B of the Constitution - define a person belonging to the Malay community as "any person, whether of the Malay race or otherwise, who considers himself to be a member of the Malay community and who is generally accepted as a member of the Malay community by that community".
A similar approach has been adopted for aspiring candidates for the presidential election in the latest round of changes to the law.
Associate Professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University School of Law notes the criteria for running as a minority in a GRC is the same as that for a presidential election.
And during the debate on changes to the Presidential Elections Act on how race is defined earlier this year, MPs called for a broad, inclusive approach to be adopted.
Singapore's Malay community has long held an expansive view of race - and been open to newcomers and others keen to identify with it.
It is a signal of confidence and courage - and nothing could be further from that than questioning whether someone who identifies as Malay and is accepted as Malay is "pure Malay" or "Malay enough".
So long as a person identifies as Malay and is generally accepted as such by the community, his Malayness should not be questioned.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'Doubts about presidential hopefuls not being Malay enough are off track'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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