In February 1987, then Second Minister for Defence, BG Lee Hsien Loong, was asked why there weren't Malays in some key positions in the SAF. This was his reply:
"If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called upon to defend the homeland, we don’t want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may come in conflict with his emotion for his religion, because these are two very strong fundamentals, and if they are not compatible, then they will be two very strong destructive forces in opposite directions"
Weeks later, during Parliament, Chiam See Tong rose to speak on this issue. Predictably, the subject that was first raised was about Singapore's sovereignty, and how countries like Malaysia should not comment on 'domestic issues' (Lee Jr's remarks caused quite a controversy in Malaysia).
I think Chiam's speech deserve to be reproduced here, in full. Let there be no doubt, once and for all, that the only ones who can credibly speak on behalf of minorities are the Opposition MP's.
Chiam See Tong: There is much talk of the interference of Singapore’s internal affairs by foreign politicians. We have to ask ourselves the question. Why? Unless there is a reason, they do not react that way. The statement made on the 23rd of February by the Second Minister for Defence has the effect that if the Malays were put in key positions on the SAF they would have a conflict of interest. Their emotions would be tested—whether to side the country or to be on the side of their religion. So this is the issue.
This has got strong implications when the Second Minister of Defence said that. This would imply that our enemies are not from Vietnam or China or from some distant countries where they have got no Muslim religion there. This implies that our enemies are of a Muslim religion. I see it as quite an obvious implication of what is said. This is the reason why our neighbours, the Muslim politicians, are so angry.
This is the implication—that we do not want Malays in key positions in the SAF. Why? Because it is a question of religion that is involved. If the question of religion is involved, that means our enemies whom we are fighting are also Muslims. So I think this is one of the reasons why they are so annoyed.
This is a very sensitive issue and for a long time it was never put that way, and now after 26 years it has come out. I do not know what is the reason. Perhaps there might have been some other good reasons for it. Is this true, the question we want to ask, whether or not this conflict of religion comes into play? We look at the war that is raging in Iran and Iraq. Probably they will say they come from different schools of the Muslim religion. Yes, I was anticipating that. But nevertheless they are Muslims.
We have seen in other countries where the people are deeply religious and yet they go to war against another country which has the same religion, like in Europe where many of them are Christians and not only Christians but they are of one particular sect, Catholics. So I do not think this argument holds about the conflict of religion really holds.
We import a lot of foreigners into key positions. We have just heard the other day that we have got a Gurkhas [sic] battalion here taking charge of key positions. We trust all kinds of foreigners but we do not trust our own Malay citizens. This is surely something I think the Malays are going to find hard to stomach. In our Constitution we have got an Article which gives a special position to our Malays. What special position is there as far as the SAF is concerned? They are our step-children. Where is the special position?
Perhaps one of the Malay MP’s here should take this up in our court and challenge what the AF is practicing is unconstitutional. As far as I know, the only special position the Malays enjoy today is only in regard to education, and I believe nothing else.
What we are actually hurting out Malay brethren in Singapore is not material. Material things can be corrected fairly quickly. So when the Second Defence Minister quotes a Malay saying that a grain of sand at a time can build a mountain or something, that is in regard of material things.
But we are talking of emotions. Just like a child, when his emotion is hurt it is going to be there for a long, long time. I do not know whether it can even be healed. In some cases it is not healed and the child grows up into a man who cannot fit in, socially. I hope this is not the case in regard to our Malay community.
Of course, when they join the army they are expected to fight. It is an operational role. They do not join the army and march up and down on National Day Parade. That is quite understandable. So the best way to build a nation is in fact to show trust in everybody. If you show trust to somebody, that trust will be reciprocated.
There is no doubt about that and I am sure many of the Malay MP’s here would want a commitment from the Government as to the time frame In fact, I think this policy of putting Malays into key positions should be corrected and implemented immediately. That is the only way we can have nation building. There is no other way.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Chairman, Sir, may I seek clarification from the member for Potong Pasir. He has made many points. I just want one basic issue resolved before we enter into details. Does he fundamentally agree with our policy of caution and gradual, steady progress? Or is he recommending that we abandon our present cautious policy?
Mr Chiam See Tong: This, Mr Chairman, Sir, certainly depends on how you look at it, whether you are a Malay or a non-Malay. If you are a Malay, of course, you would see it as a discrimination against them, and there is no two-way about it. If course, if you are a Chinese, you look at it as caution.
An. Hon. Member: We are Singaporeans.
Mr Chiam See Tong: We are all Singaporeans. We should not discriminate against the Malays. Put them in key positions immediately.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: May I ask the Minister to confirm that, were he the Minister of Defence, would be abandon our existing policy immediately?
An Hon. Member: If he were in charge.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: Let us assume he were in charge. Perhaps the Minister of Defence does not have this authrotiy; the Prime Minister does. Were you the Prime Minister, would you abandon this policy immediately?
Mr Chiam See Tong: Mr Chairman, I have on my own accord voluntarily gone over to Malaysia to work in the East Coast there for two years amongst the Malays. And I am proud of that. I went there on my own. So I have full trust in the Malays, Singaporean Malays as well.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I am not asking this question to humiliate the Opposition Member. I merely wish to know what a potential Prime Minister of Singapore wants to do.
Mr Chiam See Tong: Mr Chairman, are you saying that I am a potential Prime Minister? Well, I never had that ambition.
An. Hon. member: Your last election speech.
Mr Chiam See Tong: What last election speech? Please tell me what last election speech?
Mr Dhanabalan: Please answer the question put to you.
An Hon. Member: head of a political party and you don’t want to be Prime Minister?
Mr Chiam See Tong: First of all, let me make it clear. I have got no ambitions of being the Prime Minister of Singapore. What we want to see is democracy. What we want to see is nation-building. What we want to see is a Singapore that can prosper. But what we are seeing here is discrimination. I feel very unhappy about it and I would speak out. You were saying, ‘What should I do?’ What is wrong with including the Malays who can qualify for key positions to put them there? What is wrong with that? You just tell me.
BG Lee Hsien Loong: Sir, I am not saying that there is anything wrong. I am merely requesting a clear statement from the Opposition Member that the day after he is elected as Prime Minister of Singapore, should it ever happen, he will issue an instruction to rescind this policy. That is all.
Mr Chiam See Tong: Certainly. I think if our Malay Singapore citizens, our fellow brethren, our fellow countrymen are suited for the job, put them there. You advocate meritocracy. On the one hand, meritocracy is only for certain people. Meritocracy is not for the Malay community, and they are our very substantial minority, and I think it is important for regional cooperation, and for regional harmony we should be seen to allow our Malay community here, if any one of them should qualify for SAF posts, they should be put there, by all means.
I think it is a short-sighted policy, for the sake of regional harmony, not to do that. I am sure all the Malay MP’s here agree with me. Let them say no.
The Minister for the Environment (Dr Ahmad Mattar): Mr Chairman, Sir, I would like to ask the Member for Potong Pasir what authority has he to speak on behalf of the Malays? Is he politicking? We have just been telling the Malaysians to lay off. This is a Singapore problem and I am telling the Member for Potong Pasir that this is a Malay problem. The Malay MP’s will solve them.
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