Yaacob Ibrahim warns of potential class divide in Malay community

Professor Yaacob Ibrahim speaking at a dialogue on Yayasan Mendaki's latest book titled Navigating Educational Development: Mendaki And The Malays.
Professor Yaacob Ibrahim speaking at a dialogue on Yayasan Mendaki's latest book titled Navigating Educational Development: Mendaki And The Malays.ST PHOTO: JEREMY KWAN

SINGAPORE - There is a risk of a class divide emerging in the Malay community, said Professor Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday evening (Oct 9), stressing that those in the middle class can do more to help the rest succeed.

"We can't afford for the middle class to peel apart from the entire Malay/Muslim community," said Prof Yaacob, who is an MP for Jalan Besar GRC and a former Cabinet minister who was also minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs.

"I'm not saying it's happening; I'm not saying it's already happened. But I think we have to watch the dangers of that happening and see how we can try and ward them off as much as possible."

He was speaking at a dialogue on self-help group Yayasan Mendaki's latest book, which chronicles the Malay community's journey through education from Singapore's pre-independence days to the present.

The 200-page book, titled Navigating Educational Development: Mendaki And The Malays, took nearly two years to put together. It was published by The Straits Times Press and launched by President Halimah Yacob last Saturday.

"We did not want it to be just a coffee-table or picture book," said Mendaki's chief executive Rahayu Buang.

The aim was to publish a "book of substance", she added. "We wanted the book to have depth in its narrative and capture the spirit and strength of our community in overcoming challenges and striving towards success."

Mendaki was set up in 1982 to improve the educational performance of Malay/Muslim students. Its programmes target the bottom 30 per cent, and include schemes to prepare pre-school children for formal education.

Now, 94 per cent of each year's cohort of Malay students progress to post-secondary education. The number of Malay graduates with first class honours degrees has also grown tenfold in the last decade.

During the dialogue, Associate Professor Mukhlis Abu Bakar from the National Institute of Education noted that children from middle-class families are typically able to tap resources to help solve problems they face.


"But when a child of a low socio-economic status has a problem, the problem will always persist, and so that spiral of failure will always be there," he said.

Prof Yaacob added: "If the Malay middle class... move in different social circles, feel no need to go back to the community and bring back whatever they have heard, I think we have lost something."

There is also an "overly-skewed representation" of Malay youths as delinquents and the community as problematic, added research associate Siti Hazirah Mohamad, who was also on the panel.

The result is that young middle-class Malays may not want to be associated with their community, she said. "If you feel that you got here on your own... that you are not like the rest of your community, you turn around and say: 'Why do I need to help my community then?'"

More professionals, however, are coming forward to give back to the community, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education and Social and Family Development Faishal Ibrahim, who was guest of honour at the event.

"These will dilute the haves and have-nots, and will also bring together the spirit of contributing to the community," he added.

Prof Yaacob also spoke of his desire to see "peaks of excellence" within the Malay community. "When I go around and ask people: 'Who is the top Malay doctor? Who is the top Malay lawyer?' People are hard-pressed to find them," he said.

"I'm not saying that we've not done well. I'm saying that to push to the next level, we need to do a lot more."

But Ms Hazirah pointed out that there are many different measures of success. "Why do we need to benchmark ourselves according to traditionally ascribed notions of what success is?" she asked. "I think it's time for us to redefine the boundaries of what success means."