By andrea ong
A former chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) yesterday critiqued the "myth of meritocracy" at the core of the Singapore system.
Mr Nizam Ismail, 45, also took issue with Minister of State Halimah Yacob's National Day Rally speech, saying it suggested that the reason the Malay-Muslim community has not succeeded "as much as we can is because we did not work hard".
Her statement took a "very broad-brush approach" that ignored real problems, he said, adding that meritocracy glosses over social inequality.
Mr Nizam was speaking at an AMP dialogue on the National Day Rally.
He pointed to "stubborn gaps" that the Malay-Muslim community faces in education and issues like juvenile delinquency and high divorce rates. Without addressing inequality, these gaps will widen, he said.
In his view, meritocracy also breeds elitism when those who succeed think they deserve it and look down on those who fail.
"I fear that perception is already ingrained in the minds of our policymakers," he said.
He suggested it was time to look at some forms of affirmative action.
Three other speakers spoke at the forum, including Economic Society vice-president Yeoh Lam Keong, who said the Malay-Muslim community's economic vulnerability at the bottom of the income ladder is its Achilles' heel. It threatens to undermine its main strength - strong social cohesion.
He called for the Government to move back to its old stance of "thoughtful government intervention" in public service areas where the market does not do a good job. He named six key social policy areas which need rethinking and restructuring: the social security system and safety net, public housing, education, health care, public infrastructure and transportation, and population and immigration policies.
Mr Yeoh said public housing used to be affordable, with flats priced at two to three times annual income. Now, as a result of public housing being pegged to market prices, it has become markedly more unaffordable and threatens to become even more so.
He referred to former senior parliamentary secretary Mohamad Maidin Packer's open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Mr Maidin had touched on housing and immigration to warn of the eroding social compact and trust between Government and people.
Agreeing strongly, Mr Yeoh said if wide-ranging social reforms in these areas are not put in place, "unfortunately, one of the most relatively negatively affected are likely to be members of the Malay-Muslim community".
Dr Faizal Yahya of the Institute of Policy Studies warned that with many Malays working in the manufacturing sector, there will be implications as Singapore moves to a service and knowledge-based economy.
Also discussed yesterday was Our Singapore Conversation. Mr Nizam and lawyer and Aware activist Halijah Mohamad said the conversation should include alternative views and the voices of civil society.
Separately, the Singapore Democratic Party also held a forum yesterday to discuss issues faced by the Malay-Muslim community and the role it plays in Singapore's future.