Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Singapore that we aspire to build

Jufrie Mahmood, Singapore Democrats

My youngest son, Khairul Azrie, is in Secondary 3. Like his brother Khairul Anwar he too represents his school in basketball. It is a known fact that most Malay boys their age either play soccer or sepak takraw.

When time permits my wife and I would make it a point to watch them play in the numerous inter school and inter district tournaments, especially if the games are played at the Aljunied Basketball Centre, which is a stone’s throw away from where we live. And we are proud to say that when they are on the court they play their hearts out, making meaningful contributions to their teams.

My sons’ choice of sport has given them an exposure that is somewhat different from what we normally see. The friends that they go around with are almost entirely non-Malay. Come Hari Raya their friends would converge on our house to savour the ketupat and rendang prepared by my wife. The dessert has always been the traditional kueh normally served during Hari Raya. To many of them the food was so finger-licking good that they would tease my wife to let them come for makan more often than just once a year.

What my children are going through reminds me of my childhood days at the government quarters in Haig Road where I grew up. It was a multiracial setting in every sense of the word where everyone was oblivious of their racial background. We were completely colour blind. Whether you are Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian it made no difference at all. We had Ali as well as Ah Lee, the Kanagasabai children and the Pereiras.

Even the hawkers in their tricycles and pushcarts were multiracial. The ‘chi chong fan’ lady and uncle Karupayah, the kacang putih man would take turns making their rounds. Soon after came Ah Heng, with his ice kacang ball, to be followed by Wak Karto plying his mee rebus and tahu goreng. Not to be left out was Mama Maideen with his famous mee.

All of them could speak bahasa Melayu, our so-called Bahasa Kebangsaan. Once a week we were treated to a movie at the open field in Kulim Place where the GSWO (Government Servants Welfare Organisation) club house was also situated. Those were the wonderful days, gone forever.

Though the environment we find ourselves in today is vastly different from the one that I grew up in I am nonetheless happy to see my children coping well with their circle of friends. Last weekend however, when we were just about to finish our dinner Azrie suddenly asked me whether it is true that as a Malay he would not be allowed to join his friends should they opt to serve in the air force. What about the army or navy? He further said, without being asked, that he learned this from his friends in school.

On hearing what his brother said, Khairul Anwar chipped in and said that he too had heard about this. His teacher had told the students in a class discussion that since he is a Malay he would not be called upon to serve his nation in the services mentioned above because "Singapore is surrounded by Malay countries."

"What’s wrong with that, papa? Are they not countries friendly to us?" They are also our major trading partners and members of the ASEAN family, he continued.

I took a deep breath, told him and his two siblings (my eldest child, a girl, studies at Temasek Polytechnic) to finish their dinner, help their mama to clear the table and move to the living room.

I had planned to discuss this issue with my children sometime in the future when they are more mature. I did not want to disrupt their growing up years. But when this very subject of racial discrimination was brought up by my children themselves I had no choice but to bring forward the process of politically educating them.

I related to them some of the more pertinent points of disagreement serious-minded opposition personalities are having with the PAP Government. As for me I have said all my life that I had stood for multiracialism.

The PAP also claims to adhere to the concept of multiracialism. When Singapore was a part of Malaysia its leaders pushed for a "Malaysian Malaysia" so aggressively that the Malays got very irritated. They feared that the concept pushed by the PAP would deny them their special rights, as enshrined in the constitution. Its actions infuriated the Malaysians to such an extent the Tunku, Malaysia’s Prime Minister at that time, was left with no other choice but to expel Singapore from the federation.

Not long after attaining independence the PAP put into practice discriminatory policies which they were so dead against when Singapore was in Malaysia. And make no mistake about it, such policies cannot be justified no matter how the Government tries to rationalize them.

One explanation put forward by the PAP is that they did not want the Malays to face a dilemma should a war break out between Singapore and its neighbours. So, to "save" them from this so-called dilemma it is best that they did not be put in such a situation. To do this they must not be allowed to serve in the armed forces, especially in the air and naval forces.

I related to them an article entitled The Ghosts That Walk With Us written by the late Mr S Rajaratnam in which he concluded that the chances of Singapore going to war with its immediate neighbours were real. Under such circumstances the Malays in Singapore would not want to fight, thus justifying the discriminatory policies.

This perhaps explains the absence of Malays in the air force and the navy and their preponderance in the civil defence and to a lesser extent, the police force. How wrong can the PAP be? This is certainly not the way to build a united nation. Perhaps Singaporeans need to be reminded that during Indonesia’s konfrontasi when then President Sukarno sent his commandoes to infiltrate our country, our soldiers in the 1st and 2nd SIR Battalion, almost entirely Malay, proudly defended their country against the Indonesian intruders. Quite a number of them got killed in the process.

Unlike the colour-blind environment in which I grew up, every turn we make nowadays we are reminded of our racial origin. We can’t, for instance, move into any housing estate of our choice due to the racial quota and you inevitably are reminded of your racial origin.

We cannot enroll in SAP schools unless we take Chinese as a second language; we go to CDAC or SINDA they tell us to go to MENDAKI.

We cannot serve in many fields in the armed forces although many foreigners-turned-Singaporeans can. For that matter, as a contractor, we are not allowed into military compounds even to cut grass or do pest control work.

We are not allowed to wear something as basic as the tudung (head scarf) when our young women reach puberty in secondary school even though religious freedom is guaranteed in the Constitution.

We cannot have more than one full minister as the quota has always been only one and that too is almost always a ministry in charge of clearing garbage. If we choose to stand for elections we have to prove our racial origin and first be issued with a certificate even though our NRIC clearly identifies us by race.

The funniest thing about this requirement is that for repeat candidates you still have to do it at every election as though in the short span of time between GEs our race undergoes a change.

This is the kind of discrimination and humiliation that the ethnic minority groups in Singapore have to live with. On one occasion a member of the approving panel was an Arab and it took an Arab to tell a Malay that he was a Malay and therefore qualified him to stand in the GRC. There are, of course, many other instances that keep reminding Singaporeans of their racial origins.

But I continue to have faith that there are enough Singaporeans of all races who oppose such discriminatory policies. Sooner, if not later, such policies will be dismantled and Singapore will be a truly multiracial society, a society that we aspire to.

I have gone into politics to oppose PAP’s hegemony, and to strive to give Singaporeans an alternative voice. I do not subscribe to the thinking that the PAP has a monopoly of ideas that are good for the nation. I believe in the establishment of a multiracial, democratic Singapore in the true sense of the word. PAP’s discriminatory policies have no place in a truly democratic Singapore.

To the PAP, any group that poses a serious challenge to its rule is labeled either a communist, a communalist or a religious extremist. And it never fails to play the racial card whenever it suits its purpose. That was how they robbed the Workers' Party team in 1991, of which I was a member, in the Eunos GRC of victory by accusing me of mixing religion with politics. The "sin" was my usage of two very common Islamic expressions of "insya Allah" and "Alhamdullah" (God willing). That, in short, is how the PAP operates and with the media under its absolute control it gets away with everything.

Apart from racial discrimination, I told my children there is a long list of other issues and policies which my comrades in the SDP and I oppose and strive to change. I intend to register in their minds the unfair tactics employed by the PAP in order to stay in power. I told them I shall be going through with them the issues in small doses so as not to overload their minds.

We in the opposition staunchly believe that it is in Singapore’s long term interest to have at least an alternative group of dedicated Singaporeans which can challenge the PAP and be ready to take on a leadership role should the PAP falter further, lose control and quickly degenerate into an unworthy outfit. I do not believe in putting all our eggs into the PAP basket. It is suicidal.

This after dinner session marked the beginning of my children’s political education.

Jufrie Mahmood is a veteran oppositionist. He stood as a candidate in the 1988, 1991, and 1997 general elections.

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