A Nation Awakes: Frontline Reflections


My chapter contribution for the book A Nation Awakes: Frontline Reflections (Published in 2011 after the Singapore General Election in May and Presidential Election in August)

Let’s Run the Race Together

by Fahmi Rais

I do not speak for the Malay community but 23 years of involvement and leadership in various self-help and grassroot organisations provide me with a good understanding of the pulse of the near 15% Malay/Muslim community in Singapore .

“The Sultan is always right”

Traditionally the Malays see themselves as loyalists, following the sacred concept of ‘kesetiaan pada Raja dan Negara’ (unquestionable loyalty to king and country) inherited from the good old ‘Sultan is always right’ days. That being the case, it is not rocket science to understand why the Malays easily accept authority without question, and even blindly at times.

The mainstream Malays have, since independence, threw their lot with the ruling party. This is despite the fact that certain government policies have been contentious and unfavourable to the community. But the absence of an alternative leadership compels the community to accept its fate. The Malay MPs have all along been giving the assurances to the community that the government is doing their best to ensure that no community is left behind. But the grim reality is the community is behind all others in almost every sphere – economic, business, leadership in the public sector and administrative service, education, etc. It is one thing not to be at the forefront of progress, it is another to take the lion’s share of some of the social ills that perennially afflict the nation, such as drug addiction, divorce rates and lower income woes. Without a doubt the Malays have come some way since separation from Malaysia, and there have been notable achievements in tested and new areas. But it seems that for every step taken forward, the other races have made two quicker steps in the same direction.

Today we have over two dozen community organisations trying hard to resolve these issues, but the headway made is like what you get when fighting wildfires or the haze. The problems keep coming back and, sometimes, more profoundly each time. Much of the community has now realised that only strong political will can bring its position to be on par with the rest. This was somewhat manifested in the last general election (GE), and I was glad that I played a part in the change that has gained momentum, albeit in a small role at it.

A weary and tired community

Sensing that the Malay community has grown weary and frustrated, I took the decision to revisit the political scene, this time by being on the other side of the fence. It was not an easy decision as it takes double the courage to be in the opposition. It was also about coming to terms with my past. Twenty-one years ago, I joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) and was appointed chairman for Young PAP Kebun Baru Branch by Mr George Yeo who was the wing’s leader then. I was also made a legislative assistant, an experience I found to be invaluable. Together with other youth leadership appointments entrusted to me, I took the opportunity to engage the government through numerous forums and channels, frequently raising the issue of the need to seriously help the community by first placing trust in the community. I left the party after four years – with the conclusion that truly effective voices can only be made, firstly, by those who are in parliament and, secondly, by parliamentarians who dare.

A month before the last GE, I started to make my intentions known to several opposition parties. I was not volunteering to be a candidate. I was offering my time to help with campaigning and to create greater awareness that Malays who are confident of their capability to bring about political change must step forward. Personally, I find it rather frustrating that no one from the elite Malay leadership circle has taken the decision to do what they can do better through the political channel. It is as if the community is void of heavyweights that other communities are generously bestowed with. In short, there was not enough firepower that could make waves and headlines. The critical challenges were all mounted by brave Singaporeans of other races. Considering that the Malays have a pool of community leaders and professionals enough to fill a thousand-strong ballroom dinner function, the absence of star-material candidates as opposition party members speaks volumes of the community’s deafening silence.

Making a stand

My beliefs and stance struck a chord with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and a new chapter begun for me. I was immediately persuaded to be a candidate even though I had categorically indicated my stand to merely help as a campaign volunteer. I eventually agreed to change my status from party helper to party candidate after I was introduced to my potential Group Representation Constituency (GRC) teammates. I counted that I have less risks to bear, more of my good years to give and, most importantly, my country was in need of more able people to come forward to strengthen the number of alternative voices and choices. I simply could not turn my back. I just needed the reassurance that the compatibility between me, the party and the constituents was there.

Regrettably, I had to withdraw my candidacy on the day I was to be introduced to the media. There was a shift in the party’s nomination strategy. Understandably so. However, I remained committed to the party throughout the campaign period and resigned from the party after the election.

Through that brief chapter in my new history, I made new friends, among them Tan Jee Say, who boosted my confidence to stand for what I believe in. In fact, he was the factor that almost made me decide to be a running candidate. His resolve to change Singapore for the better made me question my own perspective of what being a responsible citizen is all about. This is a man who can enjoy a quiet life with all that he has achieved, yet he risked everything to champion the cause of the people. Looking at what he and the rest of my new friends were prepared to do, I knew that I could not be a bystander when my community has much at stake in the process of change.

As it turned out, the last GE was a turning point with the first GRC loss for the PAP and the largest number of opposition members voted into parliament. Although the results still came up short of what I expected, it was nonetheless a battle won for Singaporeans who want to see greater accountability and more compassion from the ruling party. The ground has spoken, cautiously but surely.

In the process, I felt Jee Say has awakened many sleeping giants. The kind of quality candidates that voters have always hoped for are no longer far and few in between. They are coming out, on their own, in droves. The show of able men and women is unprecedented. It was like a new beginning and those who were part of the last GE, standing on opposition tickets against a waning but still formidable PAP, have earned the right to stand proud and tall.

The Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat Divide

The GE 2011 climate was different for the Malays. Reeling from emotional injuries sustained from hurtful comments made by the ruling party leadership, the community was forced to review its Hang Tuah* stand in favour of, perhaps, the more relevant Hang Jebat** stance. Many of the problems that beset the community remain. Old issues about trust and loyalty were still on the back burner as unfinished business. Other religion-related issues were brought to a standstill. The faith in the ability of Malay PAP MPs to become effective agents of change became a hot-button issue on the ground, met with skepticism. There were calls for the government to engage the Malay community directly without using the Malay MPs as a go-between, for fear that they would only hear and convey to party leaders the ‘good stuff’. Government-linked institutions like Mendaki and MUIS regularly came under fire from the online community who felt that both had been rendered ineffective by being too quick to support any government policy and too slow to respond to the growing frustration from the ground.

In May 2011, the community was offered the best choices in the history of the Singapore elections. The Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat divide became more pronounced as areas with greater Malay representation gave their vote for change. More members of the community openly declared their support for the opposition since the problems they faced have remained largely status quo.

Now, for the first time, there is a Malay opposition MP from the pool of Malay candidates standing in GE 2011. Whether the MP from the Workers’ Party can represent the country while shouldering the added responsibility as the community’s beacon of hope is yet to be seen. But expectations are high. I suspect that GE 2016 will see even more credible Malays joining the opposition. The extent, of course, will depend on the showing of the opposition parties both in parliament and those who are still working the ground.

It will take more time before any real progress can be seen. What is good is that the community has come to terms with the fact they cannot continue to be on the receiving end in the political realm. The problems and inequalities they face can only be materially reduced if there is enough political muscle to ensure that the desired effects are swift and strong. If the PAP Malay MPs could do it, the problems would have been long resolved or substantially contained. If the pressure can only be mounted by opposition Malay MPs, then certainly, one is not enough.

But that will be in four to five years’ time and until then, who knows what new problems will arise while the old ones persist? So the necessary changes will have to wait. The other alternative is a shift in position by the ruling party from hearing the community to actually listening to them.

Presidential Divide

The sentiments shown during the GE were subsequently reinforced during the Presidential Elections in which Tan Jee Say ran as the lesser-known candidate to the Malays compared to the more familiar Dr Tan Cheng Bock and Dr Tony Tan.

The Malays were further divided. The dilemma became more apparent. To support Dr Tony Tan was to accept the continuity of their fate, unless changes really did take place. To bank on Dr Tan Cheng Bock, they would need a higher level of surety that he was truly no longer part of the system he was associated with for decades. The Malays had limited interaction with Tan Kin Lian and came to recognise Jee Say only through the GE several months before. Given the qualifying criteria for the presidency, the Malays were resigned to the fact that their first, Yusof Ishak, was also their last. The critical issue was voting for the presidential candidate they could place their hopes on.

The Hang Jebat Spirit

So when Dr Wong Wee Nam asked me if I could speak in Malay at Jee Say’s rally at Toa Payoh Stadium, I said yes without hesitation. It wasn’t just a matter of who the Malay guest speaker was, it was also about convincing the Malays who they should put their trust in. So before a near 30,000 crowd, I spoke on why the second opportunity for change should not be missed and why I believed Jee Say was the best Tan among the four. Based on the positive feedback after the speech, I was pleased that I had played a part in the first hotly-contested PE. Naturally I was disappointed with the results. I personally think that the Malays need not wait for the next election to have their issues highlighted. Jee Say, with all his energy and determination to break through a seemingly unjust system, reminds me of the Hang Jebat spirit that the community is direly in need of.

If Jee Say had made it as Singapore’s seventh President, would things be better for the country as a whole and, specifically, would the Malays benefit from his win? One thing is for sure – we need to accelerate the rate of change. From the competition at the onset and the close fight between the two Dr Tans at the final hour, I can only surmise that the divide among the Malays got wider. There was not any major consensus among the Malays as to which candidate would be the president to help bring them out of the quagmire. Even the pro-establishment Malay supporters were divided.

The ‘want to change’ sentiments must be backed by action based on ‘the need to do what is necessary for that change to happen’. It cannot be a prayer, a dream or a hope. It must consist of real actions, not just words, will and not just intention, perseverance and not just willingness, and lastly courage and not just simply standing up to be counted.

Catching the New Dawn Alongside Other Communities

I am sure 2011 marked the beginning of a new era. Jee Say played a pivotal role with many other heroes. I simply want my community to be catching the new dawn alongside our fellow countrymen and women, and not be two steps behind, either unable to cross the finishing line or only making it when others have already won completed the race.



* Hang Tuah is a legendary warrior who lived during the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah of the Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th century. The issue of his total devotion to the sultan even in questionable times became a debate for centuries.

** Hang Jebat, another great warrior was Hang Tuah’s closest companion. He went against the Sultan for what he believed was a wrongful order to have Hang Tuah executed. Sing

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