Contrary to popular perception, Singapore does actually have a working Parliament, in which ministers are occasionally asked questions, some of which are not plants or attempts to crawl up the arse of a minister.
In Parliament yesterday, one such incident occurred, when Zaqy Mohamed, vice-chairman of the ruling People’s Action Party’s youth wing and an ethnic Malay MP, asked the education minister what was being done about the persistent educational under-performance of Malay students compared to Singaporeans of other ethnic backgrounds.
The problem is a serious and persistent one. Figures from the Education Ministry show that while Singaporean exam results have increased across the board over the last decade, the stark disparities between the city-state’s main three ethnic groups remain.
In 2008, just 59.3% of Malay students achieved 5 passes at O-level, the exams taken by 15 and 16-year-olds, compared to 86.2% of Chinese and 73% of Indians.
The disparity, which appears to be particularly sharp when it comes to Maths and Science, seems embedded from a young age. While 89.6% of Chinese and 72.9% of Indian kids taking the Primary School Leaving Examination achieved A*-C grades in Maths, only 56.3% of Malay kids managed the same feat.
The only area where Malay students seem to come out on top, according to the government figures, is in terms of mother-tongue ability. 98.6% of Malay students taking the PSLE achieve an A*-C in their mother-tongue exam compared to 98.4% of Chinese and 96.7% of Indians.
But despite the clear message of this data, the government, which tiptoes around racial issues because of fears of ethnic disharmony, does not appear willing to confront the problem.
In response to Zaqy’s question, the education minister Ng Eng Hen said only that the performance by Malay students had been “stable” over the last decade, with some improvements in Malay and English.
While Zaqy wanted to know “what more can be done to help Malay students progress at the same rate, if not better, compared to their peers from the other race groups”, Ng offered only vague platitudes, as he side-stepped the issue.
“Parents and families, of all races, can support students by ensuring that they attend school regularly, motivating them to work hard, and adopting good habits like reading widely,” the minister said. “Community and self-help groups can also help families deal with problem issues related to finances, jobs and relationships, in order to create a more supportive home environment.”
In other words: nothing to do with me, mate.
It’s not surprising to see the government dodging this intractable and controversial issue again. The question is whether the PAP’s seeming indifference is motivated more by its over-arching self-help philosophy or by the fact that a Chinese-dominated party in a Chinese-dominated nation is not too bothered by the underperformance of the Malay minority.