Singapore Government Press Release
Media Division, Ministry of Information and The Arts,
MITA Building, 140 Hill Street, 2nd Storey, Singapore 179369
Tel: 837-9666


Loyalty and the SAF

It is more relevant for you to have the confidence and the trust of younger leaders than of me. I am a part of the old guard, one that is passing from the scene. They and the PM decide present and future policies. If they are convinced, that settles it. I have therefore asked them to be present to be part of this interaction between you and me to give them a feel of your true feelings and intentions. I wanted a more representative group than just AMP and Majlis Pusat, so I have invited other Malay social leaders to this dialogue. As the PM said on 5 Nov 00 at the AMP convention, "The government has always and will continue to deal directly with the leaders of all sections of Malay society".

Loyalty is not something that can be measured quantitatively like height or weight. It is in the mind, in the heart. It is a question of our gut feelings. It depends on whether you and I feel we can trust each other. Arguments alone are not productive. The loyalty of an individual is simpler to ascertain. But while we look at individuals, we cannot separate this from how groups of people may react, and different considerations apply. Under severe stress loyalty can change in unpredictable ways. How an individual reacts can be heavily influenced by how the group or community to which he belongs reacts.

Loyalty relationships are not static. They evolve in a dynamic changing environment. The loyalty of Malays to the Singapore government in 1950s to 1963 was changed after the 1964 riots. It was also severely shaken in 1965 by the shock of separation, and once again in 1969 after riots in Malaysia spilled over to Singapore. 30 years later with English medium schools, integrated HDB estates, nation building and economic progress for all races the position of the Malays has evolved, and will continue to change.

We are not changing in isolation. Singapore is the mirror image of the multi-racial divide in Malaysia. We are affected by inter-racial relations in Malaysia (e.g. Suqiu & BBM; Allegations of marginalisation of Malays in Singapore by Malaysian media and PMís response causing hubbub). The Malaysian army is overwhelmingly Malay, with many units which are exclusively Malay. We are affected also by inter-racial and inter-religious clashes in Indonesia (e.g. anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta, Moluccas - Christians and Muslims killing each other, Kalimantan - Muslim Madurese slaughtered by Dayaks.) Globalisation has spread and reinforced Islamic forces throughout the world. It is part of globalisation. (Asiaweek, March 2, 2001, page 24/26). These are realities.

History has many examples of how, when the survival of their people or nation is at stake, governments must take hard decisions and exercise policies of prudence. The Americans interned and transported American-born Japanese from the west coast to the central US during World War II. When they formed the Japanese blue ribbon division, they sent them to fight in Italy, not in the Pacific. The Soviets in World War II moved Koreans from the border with Korea when they were afraid the Japanese, then in control of Korea, would attack them. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union from the west, Stalin moved all Germans in the Volga region where they had been for generations, to Kazakhstan. When I went to Kazakhstan in 1991, I found Koreans, Germans and many different nationalities had been moved to central Soviet Union.

Mistakes can be fatal. Indira Gandhi had full trust in her Sikh officers among her personal guards. Two of them shot her after Indian troops attacked the Sikh sacred temple in Amritsar, as a result of which riots broke out in Delhi and other cities, and thousands of Sikhs died. (In the US, there was a case of a Sikh who insisted on wearing his turban and was rejected from enlistment by the US army. The courts upheld the decision of the US army. The US Secretary of State defended the militaryís right to insist on standard dress requirement and said that allowing variations to uniforms was bound to "operate to the detriment of order and discipline" and reduce combat effectiveness.)

These are realities we have to weigh when deploying anyone to a sensitive appointment in the SAF. We must never put the person in a situation where he may face a conflict of loyalties. I said in answer to a question some nearly two years ago that it is a difficult matter to put a Malay Muslim of deeply religious family background in charge of a machine-gun. We should never have to ask this of anyone. Some of you were disturbed by my frankness. But when I faced crises in the 1960s I could not afford to be wrong. Was this discrimination or was it common sense - a policy of prudence?

Your discussion paper pointed out that the Governmentís declared policy is "equal opportunity irrespective of race, religion, language or culture". This is correct. We uphold meritocracy, which means the most qualified and suitable person for the job. For nearly every job, a personís race and religion are irrelevant. But in the security services, because of our context, we cannot ignore race and religion in deciding suitability.

In the early days, many Malay Singaporeans were not called up for NS. When NS started in 1967, race relations were fragile and tenuous, after the riots of 1964 and separation in 1965. The government could not ignore race tensions, simply recruit all young Malays and Chinese and have them do military training side by side. Israeli instructors would have been involved in the training of Malay/Muslim servicemen at a time of Muslim-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. So we did not recruit every Malay male, unless we were confident his participation in NS would not be a problem. Even then there was no blanket ban against Malays in the SAF. We have progressed as circumstances have changed. By the 1980s, we were confident enough to offer SAF undergraduate awards to Malays.

We now call up all those fit for national service, whatever his race or religion. All NSmen participate in the Total Defence of Singapore, whether they are posted to the SAF, Police or Civil Defence. But in deciding which outfit to post an NSman to, we have to consider the sensitivity of the posts and the racial and religious mix of the units.

For regulars, each officer is assessed individually, and posted and advanced based on his performance and reliability. There are Malay career SAF officers. A good number of them are graduates, some with higher degrees, sponsored for their studies by the SAF like other officers. Whether a Malay regular SAF officer makes it to the top depends solely on merit. Malay officers have risen through the ranks and held senior appointments as lieutenant colonels and colonels. Outside the SAF, there are Malay or Muslim officers deployed in the most sensitive appointments in our security agencies.

Our concerns about conflicting loyalties are real. We know of at least one case where foreign intelligence agencies approached one of our senior officers because he was Malay. Fortunately, he reported the approach to his superiors. We had judged his loyalty correctly. So we are not just dealing with hypothetical situations. Potential adversaries see this as a fault line in our society, and they will exploit it whenever they can.

Some may ask why we do not have a Malay general. It is easy for the government to do the populist thing, and appoint a Malay general even when he is not equal to the others. But tokenism is a hypocrisy; an insult to the community. PM has said he would be happy to see the day when we have a Malay general or Permanent Secretary. When that happens, it must be a true achievement, not a handout, not one achieved at a discount.

The position has changed with the times and circumstances. We have made progress deploying Malay NSmen to more posts. Malay NSmen now serve not only in combat units like the infantry, and service support units like transportation, but also in support arms units like the artillery. Over the last five years, of those eligible for officer cadet course in the SAF, Police and SCDF, the percentage of candidates in the Malay pool who are selected has been comparable to that for the non-Malays.

The Ministers in MINDEF have to be guided by the assessment of the commanders, and the commanders in turn have to assess feelings between Chinese, Indian and Malay/Muslim NS men. If there is closer integration across the board between the communities, NS men will be comfortable with each other, and trust each other. It is not just winning over the leaders; it is more the question of whether inter-communal relations are such that we have trust and confidence between communities in the whole society.

Integration is a two-way process. The Government would like our Malays to be an integral part of our society, but cannot force them. Our Malays will decide the kind of relationship they want with the non-Malays. If Malays in Singapore show that they prefer to be separate, the other communities will pick up these signals and react accordingly. As the majority race, the Chinese have to show a willingness to expand the common ground by including other races. This has happened in education. Chinese Singaporeans send their children to national schools that teach in English, no longer to Chinese medium schools. We are an exceptional country where the language of the majority is not the medium of instruction in schools.

Relations in the SAF reflect those of society as a whole. We have to make everybody comfortable with each other across society. The government wanted to achieve this, therefore we intermingled the races by balloting for the HDB flats, and mixing them in the schools. The result is more socialising between our communities. Chinese parents with Malay neighbours are more comfortable sending their children to schools where there are Malay students, and for their children to play with Malay friends. Gradual integration has increased the level of ease and trust between the communities.

We have avoided separate communalised groups as in Malaysia, where Malay students at universities and schools mix only amongst themselves, and so do Chinese and Indians separately. In Malaysia, a large proportion of Chinese and Indians send their children to Chinese and Tamil medium schools. There is an Islamic University (the International Islamic University) and calls for tertiary institutions to cater to the Chinese. University students do not want to share rooms with students of other races or religions.

In Singapore integration in housing and schools has helped increase competitiveness in the Malay community by example and interaction. It has been one factor in the significant improvement in educational levels of Malay Singaporeans. By concentrating their activities in the mosques and not participating enough in activities in the neighbourhood, CCs, etc where there are greater opportunities for intermingling of the various races, inter-action is diminished.

Recent moves by AMP can undo what we have achieved over the last 35 years of gradual integration. The PM warned that the collective leadership proposal can only lead us away from the principles of multi-racialism and meritocracy that have been the foundation of our progress since independence. It is naive to believe that AMP can create a collective Malay communal leadership without causing other races to mobilise their own counter parts. Then where do we go?

The Malay community has two paths forward: the first, to support the present policy of gradual integration; or the second, to differentiate and distance itself from the larger society. The AMP proposal of a separate collective Malay leadership will end up concentrating on Malay interests. At present, no MP, Chinese, Malay of Indian, can afford to take a communal line because he has to serve a multi-racial constituency. Race based politics will pull apart our society as parties contest to better advance their own community interests. On the other hand multi-racial politics encourages integration. Integration has brought benefits to all. Separate development must lead to a drifting apart of our society into Malay, Chinese, Indians and other separate communal segments. This will be a setback for all, not least for the Malays.

Your discussion paper asked about the prospects of progress in the years ahead. Malay MPs tell me that younger Malays today feel strongly about their loyalty as Singaporeans. That itself is a sign of progress. Will we continue to make progress? I believe, yes. How fast depends on how much more social inter-action we together can achieve. To develop that feeling of mutual trust, we must be moving towards one integrated society. I believe this goal is worth pursuing by all the races in Singapore however long it takes.