The Special Assistance Plan: Singapore’s own bumiputera policy

Posted on December 7, 2017


by Tee Zhuo

“…regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality…”

-Extract from Singapore’s National Pledge[1]

All citizens are equal…

“This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion.”

-Lee Kuan Yew, August 9, 1965[2]

Singaporeans often mock the backward bumiputera policies of Malaysia, which we associate with corruption, incompetence, and racism.[3] Informed by ketuanan Melayu or “Malay supremacy”, Malaysia reserves some leadership positions in government for Malays.[4] Unlike our neighbours across the Causeway, we take pride in having a multiracial democracy that selects its leaders by merit and virtue. But is this true?

Our Cabinet and Parliament seem ethnically diverse.[5] This may be due to the group representation constituency (GRC) system, which requires each electoral constituency to field at least one non-Chinese candidate.[6] However, if we peel back this veneer, a remarkably racially homogenous elite emerges. Singapore’s prime ministers since independence have all been Chinese. All of the current Permanent Secretaries are Chinese.[7] All Chiefs of Defence since 1990 (when the post was created) have been Chinese. Of the statutory boards, 60 of 64 (94%) currently have a Chinese chairperson or president.[8]

Even taking into account the fact that the Chinese are the majority ethnicity (about three-quarters of the population), the numbers are ridiculously disproportionate. If we were a truly meritocratic democracy, how do we have such unequal outcomes? Part of the problem is a nearly four-decade-old state policy with an innocuous name: The Special Assistance Plan. 

…but some are more equal than others

“All men should be given equal chances in life, but we should not expect equal outcomes.”

Lee Kuan Yew, Hard Truths (2011)[9]

The Special Assistance Plan (SAP) was started in 1979 to identify historic Chinese schools[10] for the promotion of Chinese language, values, and culture, in response to their perceived decline.[11] Students are required to take Chinese both at the national Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), and to continue taking it after admission to a SAP secondary school.[12] More schools have been added to the SAP every few years.[13]

Already, something’s not quite right. The language requirement and a racially homogenous environment excludes non-Chinese students. A recent Straits Times article noted that 99% of Hwa Chong Institution’s (a pilot SAP school) cohort was Chinese.[14] Minority students interviewed said they were often their SAP schoolmates’ first Malay or Indian friend, and that they sometimes feel alienated and excluded.[15] There have also been calls to reconsider or even scrap the SAP due to concerns over multiracial integration.[16]

Segregation is problematic enough, but to add to that, SAP schools are also sites where several forms of privilege and elitism are compounded. What’s truly “Special” about these schools are the advantages that guarantee their continuing supremacy. SAP schools are among the most selective in the country. The SAP itself already requires students to be in the top 30% of their PSLE cohort.[17] But many SAP schools impose additional admission requirements (e.g. Hwa Chong admits only the top 3%).[18] Although part of this is doubtlessly due to historical prestige, government policies are complicit in propping up their elite status.

For example, when the government introduced educational streaming in 1981, only the nine SAP schools at the time were placed in the top educational caste of “Special”.[19] When the Integrated Programme (IP) was started in 2002 (this allows the top 10% of students to skip ‘O’ Level exams) SAP schools were among the first to pilot it.[20] Today, of the 18 IP schools, 7 (about 40%) are SAP although they only make up 7% of all secondary schools.[21]

SAP schools also have disproportionate programming. Some would say that these are mostly funded by donations from foundations, firms, and individuals. What’s wrong with private entities or citizens funding private institutions? It would certainly be far less controversial if SAP schools did not also benefit greatly and sometimes exclusively from targeted government resources that are not direct funds.

An example is the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP), introduced in 2005 to capitalise on the rise of China. It includes expensive immersion trips to China and a SAP Scholarship.[22] Only SAP schools have been selected for it (one of them even boasts a campus in Beijing).[23] In 2007, the government started a taskforce which implemented “flagship programmes” to further enrich Chinese language learning and values in SAP schools (e.g. Chung Cheng High started classes on Chinese media, filmmaking and drama).[24]

Many of these resources, selection processes and programmes would be less problematic if they were not available to only Chinese students, and did not promote Chinese cultural supremacy. But the problems don’t just stop at unequal access to educational resources.


A Mandarinate by the mandarins, for the mandarins

The adage “knowledge is power” is true in a highly specific and direct way for Singapore. In his book The China Model, Daniel Bell advocates for “democracy” at local levels of government (i.e. representatives elected through citizen voting) and meritocratic selection at the top.[25] This combination is supposed to solve problems caused by irrational and ill-informed voters in Western democracies.[26] In theory, it would reap the legitimising benefits of popular support while checking its ills through enlightened leaders who can plan for the long term and solve complex problems.[27]

Singapore’s system resembles this “vertical model” of democratic meritocracy. We have elections every five years for local GRCs. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has not lost power since independence and wins by comfortable margins, which, while perhaps not the periodic regime-affirming referenda Bell envisions, may be taken as de facto popular endorsement.[28] On reflection, the similarities aren’t that surprising; Bell speaks admiringly about Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, noting that his “greatest legacy” was a meritocracy to “select and promote political leaders of superior ability and virtue”.[29]

As Lee once argued, in a small state talent needs to go the public sector where the “best brains” are needed.[30] Overachievers from top schools compete for the prestigious government scholarships offered by the Public Service Commission (PSC), which manages the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS) and the President’s Scholarship.[31] The application process is stringent and highly selective.[32] These scholarships pay completely for undergraduate studies at elite universities and include generous stipends and airfare.[33]

The scholarships also guarantee a straightforward vocational ascension after university. Like in Bell’s model, scholars are tested by rotation through different departments and ministries where they occupy smaller leadership roles. This track record forms the basis for their promotion to the highest echelons of government. Critics like Michael Barr have called this a “mandarinate”, alluding to imperial China’s Confucian scholar-official system.[34]


Singapore’s ketuanan Cina[35]

When SAP schools are also elite schools in our mandarinate system, those that become our nation’s leaders are mandarins in more than one sense of the term; the SAP effectively guarantees a certain amount of Chinese representation at the top. Bell clarifies at the start of China Model that his book deals with political but not “economic” meritocracy.[36] But often equal opportunity can’t be separated from its political outcomes.

To illustrate: more than 90% of the PSC and uniformed scholars in 2016 were Chinese; 30% came from SAP schools.[37] All President’s Scholars and uniformed services scholars were Chinese. Despite its extreme selectivity, SAP school students have clinched the scholarship almost every single year without fail since 1978.[38] Perhaps consequently, from 1981 to 2005, only four out of 106 (3.8%) President’s Scholars were non-Chinese.[39]

This is no accident. Hwa Chong aims to “develop leaders for the nation”.[40] Activities such as the “Political Leaders Attachment Programme” select students to shadow and build rapport with politicians.[41] Special resources effectively prepare students for government scholarships, including advisors, a web portal, talks by alumni scholars, and even a “Scholarship Day” where nearly 40 government ministries, agencies and government-linked companies set up booths on campus to provide information and assistance.[42]

When such informal and formal advantages including special consideration and resources for government scholarships are excluded from other races, the ethnic makeup of our top leadership is hardly surprising. No one doubts, of course, that the Chinese leaders selected by this system do not tick every box on a checklist of credentials. But as the elder Lee once said to his political opponents: there is no level playing field.[43] What about equally capable minorities who were denied access to such opportunities? Where is the meritocracy?


Where are our bumiputera?

Discussing African-Americans and women in the United States, political scientist Jane Mansbridge argued that descriptive representation or affirmative action is justified in cases where communities have suffered historic injustice and socioeconomic marginalisation, especially where such histories have implied their inability to hold power.[44] While imperfect as an analogy, parallels can be drawn with Malays in Singapore, who are politically and socioeconomically marginalised. As political scientist Lily Zubaidah Rahim notes, colonial stereotypes of the “lazy native” were regurgitated by Chinese and Europeans up to the thirties.[45] Rahim also argues that the PAP reproduced this “cultural deficit thesis” in various ways while simultaneously justifying Chinese cultural and political dominance, part of the reason for entrenched wealth and class differences between different races today: the median household income for Malays was $3,844 in 2010. The national median was $5,000.[46]

The bitter irony of calling the SAP a Singapore-style bumiputera policy is that the plan perpetuates Chinese racial hegemony against the true bumiputera – the Malays. Between 1968 to 2012 (44 years), no Malay was awarded the President’s Scholarship.[47] Barr also shows that 98% of SAFOS recipients up to 2005 were Chinese, and none were Malay.[48] Compared to SAP schools, madrasahs (Islamic primary school-equivalents) remain underfunded, although their students have to sit for standard national exams.[49] Unsurprisingly then, few Malays ever make it to top-tier positions. Until the recent appointment of Halimah Yacob through a presidential election reserved for Malays, we have not had a Malay president since the first president.[50] Currently, no Malays are Permanent Secretaries, and of the 64 statutory boards, only the chair of the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) is Malay, for obvious reasons. Singapore has never had a Malay Chief of Defence, Army, Navy or Air Force.

Perhaps now the idea of a reserved presidency seems less heretical to our average Singaporean.[51] But what can a largely symbolic figurehead do for the Malay community, in a system that continues to ensure money and real power remains mainly in Chinese hands?


Abolish the Special Assistance Plan

Halimah Yacob’s election was fraught with controversy.[52] But if the concern is that picking people based on race is unfair and debases meritocracy, the SAP has done far worse. On the one hand, it enshrines Chinese cultural supremacy in a country where the Chinese already enjoy the privileges of being the majority. On the other, it erodes meritocratic values by excluding other races, ensuring the promotion of a Chinese elite.

In response to calls to change the SAP, Minister Janil Puthucheary downplayed the problem by saying that the SAP is only a small proportion of the system.[53] But that’s precisely the point. That a mere 7% of secondary schools guarantee at least a third of each generation of leaders is Chinese, is exactly why we should worry. The minister also fears the loss of Chinese heritage and culture without the SAP.[54] Given that the Chinese are likely to stay in the majority for much of the foreseeable future, this claim seems rather weak; in fact, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seemed optimistic, saying earlier this year that “the Chinese Singaporean is proud of his Chinese culture”.[55]

Even if there truly was cause for worry, there are definitely ways to promote Chinese culture without excluding others. The current SAP schools are also unlikely to become less Chinese-focused with or without the SAP, given their heritage (and alumni and donor pressure). In fact, since minorities will still feel alienated from such schools even with Chinese language requirements removed, the option and resources to take Tamil and Malay language classes should also be mandated at the current SAP schools.

Of course, to ascribe all the tensions between multiracialism and meritocracy to SAP schools would be fallacious. Other systemic and cultural issues have made our society less fair, equal, and democratic. But effectively providing affirmative action for an already privileged racial majority, and guaranteeing the ascension of members of that majority to power, definitely doesn’t help. Removing these vestiges that make a mockery of our democracy will allows us to truly build a multicultural society, based on justice and equality.



About the author

Tee Zhuo is a Singaporean Chinese, went to an SAP school, and is a recipient of a scholarship from a government-linked company.


The author thanks Professor Sandra Field (Yale-NUS College) for her guidance, Feroz Khan and Timothy Goh for their valuable feedback, and Aishani Sen and Nyang Bing Lin for their insights on the October 26, 2017 dialogue with Janil Puthucheary.


All opinions and mistakes made in this piece are to be attributed to the author alone.



Notes and References

[1] “National Pledge”, National Heritage Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 16, 2017:

[2] Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minister, delivered this speech on the day Singapore separated from Malaysia and became independent. From “Transcript Of A Press Conference Given By The Prime Minister Of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, At Broadcasting House, Singapore, At 1200 Hours On Monday 9th August, 1965”, National Archives of Singapore, Retrieved November 30, 2017:

[3] In Malay, bumiputera means “sons of the soil”.

[4] They were ostensibly introduced to correct colonial favouritism of Chinese over Malays and to safeguard indigenous rights. Other privileges include reducing requirements for Malays to enter university, and mandating minimum Malay corporate equity and property ownership. See “The Costs of Malay Supremacy”, James Chin, The New York Times, August 27, 2015. Link:

[5] Representation by gender is dismal, with only two women in a Cabinet of 21 people. “The Cabinet”, Prime Minister’s Office Singapore, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[6] “A group representation constituency (GRC) is a type of electoral division or constituency in Singapore that is represented by a team of multiracial candidates. At least one of these candidates has to belong to a minority racial community, which is defined as either the Malay community or the Indian and other minority communities (such as the Eurasians).” From “Group representation constituencies”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[7] These are the highest-ranking civil service officers. Often each Permanent Secretary is in charge of administrating an entire ministry, although the larger ministries (such as Defence) may have two such positions. Singapore Government Directory, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

In addition, these Permanent Secretaries also often rotate amongst themselves, leading different ministries, statutory boards, government-linked companies and military positions. A recent press release about changes in Permanent Secretary appointments showcases this “revolving door” system. See “Head of Civil Service and Permanent Secretary Appointments”, July 18, 2017, Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[8] Statutory boards are the major government agencies under the different ministries. Singapore Government Directory, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

Of the four headed by minorities, the most important is the Monetary Authority of Singapore (the central bank), which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the first non-Chinese to do so since the bank was created in 1971. See “About MAS”, Monetary Authority of Singapore, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[9] Han Fook Kwang, Zuraidah Ibrahim, Chua Mui Hoong, Lydia Lim, Ignatius Low, Rachel Lin, Robin Chan. (2011). Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Singapore: Straits Times Press. p. 51.

[10] Those which traditionally conducted classes in Mandarin and admitted Chinese students, and promoted Chinese culture and values in their teaching, school values and mission, and co-curricular activities.

[11] Chinese-medium high schools, for example, saw declining enrolment in the seventies. Ironically the Government itself was partially to blame, with aggressive promotion of English as the common language post-independence in the sixties. Earlier that same year the government asked Nanyang University or “Nantah” (abbreviation of its Chinese name Nányáng Dàxué, 南洋大学, to become Nán Dà, 南大; Wade-Giles “Nantah”), at the time the only Chinese-medium university, to switch to English as its language of instruction within five years. The government would eventually shut down Nantah and merge it with the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore). Today’s Nanyang Technological University attempts to revive some of Nantah’s history for marketing purposes but in reality it is a development from the separate Nanyang Technological Institute set up in 1981. From “Nanyang University”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[12] “SAP schools nurture students to be proficient in both English Language (EL) and Chinese Language (CL), and to have a good understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture. Students who have taken both EL and CL at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) may opt for SAP schools during the S1 Posting Exercise. Students posted to SAP secondary schools should take up Higher Chinese Language (HCL) (or CL, if available) so that they can participate meaningfully in SAP school programmes.” From “Considerations When Choosing Schools and Making S1 Options”, Ministry of Education, Singapore. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[13] Since inception, the SAP has only been scaled up. In 1989, 10 primary schools were also designated SAP (this increased to 15 by 1992). By 2011 three more secondary schools had been added. From “Special Assistance Plan schools”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[14] “Mr Tinesh – an Asean scholarship holder from Malaysia who attended Bukit Panjang Government High School before HCI – said the small number of non-Chinese students in his cohort showed that stereotypes continue to deter students from other races from joining schools like HCI, which are perceived as predominantly Chinese. In his cohort of around 1,000 students, fewer than 10 were non-Chinese.” From “An ‘oddity’, but he didn’t feel alienated”, Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, February 20, 2017. Link:

[15] “When Mr Shaik first went to Nan Chiau, he had a culture shock at just how much Mandarin was used in school. Though the school was designated a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school only nine years later, in 2012, it already had a strong Chinese culture before that. ‘The school song was in Mandarin, we took the pledge in Mandarin… I felt very alienated when I found out,’ said Mr Shaik. There were fewer than 10 non-Chinese students in his cohort, Mr Shaik said. Five were in his Malay-language mother tongue class, and there were another two who took Tamil classes at another school…‘Of course, there were some upper secondary kids who would pick on the non-Chinese kids. I was a short boy, and an easy target… but I learnt how to mingle and not be around non-Chinese kids all the time.’” From “He learnt to mingle and picked up Mandarin”, Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, February 20, 2017. Link:

[16] “The inherent nature of the two languages in focus precludes most non-Chinese from enrolling in these schools, resulting in a lack of diversity among the students…I fear the perspective on interracial issues these students will bring into their working lives and when they assume leadership positions in various sectors…let us do away with the SAP school system.” From “Time to end SAP school system”, Teo Tze Wei, The Straits Times, January 25, 2016. Link:

“Though this allows for Chinese values and culture to be reinforced, the homogeneous environment also contributes to greater ethnic segregation and a lack of awareness of other races.” From “Teach SAP students racial sensitivity”, Tan Ming Shiuan, The Straits Times, July 19, 2017. Link:

[17] The SAP used to require students to be in the top 10% of their PSLE cohort. From “Special Assistance Plan schools”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[18] “About us – History”, Hwa Chong Institution, Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[19] The other streams are “Express” and, condescendingly, “Normal”. The “Special” stream was only expanded to non-SAP schools in 1986. It has since been merged into the Express stream. From “Special Assistance Plan schools”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[20] IP schools allow students a “through-train” to affiliated junior colleges. “Integrated Programme (IP) Is Announced – 30th Dec 2002”, HistorySG, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[21] “While the GCE ‘O’ Levels serve as a valuable intermediate benchmark for the majority of our pupils, those who are academically strong can benefit from engaging in broader learning experiences during their Secondary and JC years. The Integrated Programmes (IP) will provide an integrated secondary and JC education where secondary school pupils can proceed to JC without taking the GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Schools offering IP will optimise the time freed up from preparing for the GCE ‘O’ Levels to stretch pupils and provide greater breadth in the academic and non-academic curriculum. However, these schools will continue to have school-based assessments to measure pupils’ progress. The IP leads to the ‘A’ Level examinations or other Diplomas.” From “Integrated Programmes (IP)”, Ministry of Education, Singapore. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

See also Education Statistics Digest 2016, Ministry of Education, Singapore. Link:

[22] “The Bicultural Studies Programme (Chinese) [BSP(C)] is a four-year programme offered in four schools starting from Secondary Three. These schools are Hwa Chong Institution, Dunman High School, Nanyang Girls’ High School and River Valley High School.” From “Language Programmes in Secondary School”, Ministry of Education, Singapore. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[23] “About us – History”, Hwa Chong Institution, Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[24] From “Special Assistance Plan schools”, Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[25] Bell mentions a multi-stage assessment with criteria including performance at past positions, intellect and ability, leadership, virtue and integrity, performing well in examinations and interviews etc. From Daniel A. Bell. (2015) The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Chapter 4, “Three Models of Democratic Meritocracy” pp. 151-178.

[26] Bell, China Model, 153-4.

[27] Bell, China Model, 170-4.

[28] Bell, China Model, 176-7.

[29] “Singapore-Style Meritocracy: Lessons for China”, Daniel A. Bell, The Huffington Post, Undated. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[30] Han et al., Hard Truths, 145.

[31] The President’s Scholarship is the most prestigious in the country, named for Singapore’s Head of State. Current prime minister Lee Hsien Loon, his deputy Teo Chee Hean, Lee’s spouse Ho Ching (CEO of the state-owned Temasek Holdings), Lee’s brother Lee Hsien Yang (former CEO of SingTel, owned by Temasek), are all former President’s Scholars. See the Public Service Commission website:

[32] Students need to excel not just academically, but also in their extra-curricular activities, community service, and leadership. They also need to sit for psychometric tests and interviews by top brass at different ministries. See the Public Service Commission website:

[33] For example, the 2016 PSC scholars went to schools such as Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, LSE, Warwick, Georgetown, Yale, Duke, NUS, Yale-NUS College, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Scholarship bonds can sometimes be extended by funding Masters or other post-graduate programmes. From Singapore Public Service Commission Annual Report 2016, Public Service Commission. Retrieved November 28, 2017:—2016.pdf

[34] Daniel A. Bell (2005), “Beyond Technocracy: The culture of elite governance in Lee Hsien Loong’s Singapore”, Regional Outlook Paper No. 6. Griffith’s Asia Institute.

[35] “Cina” is Malay for “Chinese”.

[36] Citing John Rawls, Bell notes that seemingly fair opportunity could lead to “a callous meritocratic society”, and that one’s outcomes in life often have less to do with merit but more to do with the opportunities, resources, support from one’s community, and pure genetic luck. From Bell, China Model, 4-6.

[37] From Singapore Public Service Commission Annual Report 2016, Public Service Commission. Retrieved November 28, 2017:—2016.pdf.

[38] In 2015, for example, three out of four President’s Scholars were from SAP schools. Around five are selected for the President’s Scholarship per few thousand applicants per year, based on past annual reports of the PSC. From Singapore Public Service Commission Annual Report 2016, Public Service Commission. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[39] “The Charade of Meritocracy”, Michael D. Barr, Far Eastern Economic Review, October 2006.

[40] “About us – History”, Hwa Chong Institution, Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[41] I was a participant in 2011. I was attached to Major-General Chan Chun Sing, then Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (he is now Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office) and MP for Tanjong Pagar. I observed the minister’s Meet-the-People sessions, followed him on walkabouts to interact with residents in his Buona Vista ward, and participated in community events he attended.

[42] “A total of 38 organizations participated in the 2011 Scholarship Day held on 13 July 2011, with 30 scholarship / career talks and 37 exhibition booths set up. The scholarship organizations gave talks in two concurrent sessions during C2 CT session and the scholarship organizations set up exhibition booths in the Hall. Some of the organizations are A*STAR, AVA, BCA, BrightSparks, CAAS, Changi Airport Group, DOS, DSTA, EDB, GIC, HDB, IDA, IE Singapore, IRAS, JTC, LTA, MAS, MCYS, MFA, MHA, MINDEF/SAF, MND, MOE, MOH, MPA, Natsteel Holdings, NParks, NTU, NUS, PSC, PUB & NEA, SMU, SNCF, SPH, SPRING Singapore, SUTD, URA, USP-NUS.” From “The HCI Advantage – Life after HCI”, Hwa Chong Institution, Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[43] “Late Singapore Leader Lee Kuan Yew Had Opinions on Everything”, Time, March 22, 2015. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[44] Jane Mansbridge, (1999), “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes’, The Journal of Politics, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Aug.), pp. 628-657.

[45] “Ethnic stereotyping was fostered by the greater participation of the non-Malays in the colonial economy which in turn engendered a sense of superiority towards Malays…in the 1930s there was ‘a common European and Chinese complaint that Malays are a lazy and shiftless people’ who refused to exploit the bountiful economic opportunities under colonial rule… The cultural deficit thesis… racialises poverty and social inequality…allows socially marginal ethnic communities to be projected as being undeserving of assistance, lazy, dull, and suffering from an identity crisis…by locating the source of the ‘problem’ firmly within the marginal ethnic community, the racial discourse disentangles the significance of structural, institutional, and historical factors in contributing to their poverty…the onus is thus firmly on them [minority ethnic community] to reform their ‘deviant’ and deficient ways. This logic absolves the state from actively assisting socially disadvantaged communities on the rationale that it would only create a welfare or crutch mentality…”. From Rahim, L. (2001). The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community. United States: Oxford University Press. p. 51-7.

[46] The Chinese and Indian medians were at $5,100 and $5,370 respectively. 2010 was the most recent year a breakdown of household income by ethnicity was available. From Singapore Census of Population 2010 – Statistical Release 2: Households and Housing, Department of Statistics Singapore, Government of Singapore 2017. Retrieved November 28, 2017:

[47] Adil Hakeem Mohamad Rafee was the first Malay to be awarded the President’s Scholarship in 2012 since 1968. From “Government will continue to help Malay community in Singapore”, Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, November 24, 2013. Link:

[48] Barr, Charade.

[49] “The issue of funding has been one of the most severe problems plaguing madrasah education since the 1970s. Increased student enrolment, inadequate facilities such as laboratories and information technology equipment, curriculum expansion, increased religious teacher employment, and religious teachers’ professional development, are just some of the reasons that require more funding to be given to the madrasahs. Although MUIS had already provided some financial aid to the madrasahs, and the Muslim community had been strongly urged to donate to the madrasahs through the Dana Madrasah (Madrasah Fund), there was still a shortage of money. This was also exacerbated by the fact that the government did not provide any financial assistance, such as the Edusave scheme, school fees subsidies and school development grants, which mainstream schools enjoy…” Intan Azura Mokhtar (2010) Madrasahs in Singapore: Bridging between their Roles, Relevance and Resources, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 30:1, 111-125.

[50] Yusof Ishak, our first president, served from 1965 – 70.

[51] “Some have expressed concern that the rule may erode meritocracy, since it seems to choose a president on factors other than merit. The Government’s response can be thus summarised: On principle, Singaporeans should decide on merit alone. But the evidence shows that many do consider race when voting. Meritorious minority candidates are hence less easily elected. To ignore this reality could cause more damage to the system, because Singapore would be forgoing multiracial representation, which is as important a value as meritocracy.” From “Three uncertainties in the presidential election”, Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, August 29, 2017. Link:

[52] ib.

[53] “SAP schools shouldn’t be tweaked for sake of tokenism: Janil”, Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, August 6, 2016. Link:

[54] ib.; Janil Puthucheary also spoke at a dialogue with Yale-NUS students on an invitation from Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong on October 26, 2017, where he defended the SAP. I thank Nyang Bing Lin and Aishani Sen for allowing me to use their accounts of the event.

[55] In fact, in May this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opened and became the patron of the new Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. It has 11 floors, a 200-person gallery, a 530-seat auditorium, a recital studio, and a rooftop garden. From “Singaporeans have evolved a distinctive identity: PM Lee Hsien Loong”, Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, May 20, 2017. Link: