The Karyawan — Volume 13 Issue 2

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Is It Time to Equalise Conditions Across Schools?






Is It Time to Equalise Conditions Across Schools? by Dr Nadira Talib



BUDGET 2018 02

Budget 2018: Tackling Concerns about the Future by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim


GST: Is it an unnecessary evil? by Azhar Khalid


Professionalising Services: Entrenching the Creative and Innovative Culture by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim


Unlocking the Potential of Our Community’s MicroSMEs for Economic Upliftment by Harasha Bafana


A Walk in the Red Light District: Women in An Unconventional Trade by Nabilah Mohammad FINANCE


Managing Wealth from the Islamic Perspective by Mohd Kamal Mokhtar

The Brutal Reign of Homework: Critical Reflection of A Parent by Muhammed Shahril Shaik Abdullah ARTS & LITERATURE


50 Shades of Malaysian Dramas by Nur Hamidah Abdul Rahim


In Defence of Reading by Dr Nuraliah Norasid PERSONALITY



A Minority within a Minority: Being a ‘Sushi’ Muslim by Imad Alatas

Opportunities Beyond Home: Launching Business Abroad with Khalid Abdat by Nabilah Mohammad

EDITOR Mohd Anuar Yusop EDITORIAL TEAM Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim Nabilah Mohammad Nuraliah Norasid Nur Diyana Jalil Winda Guntor

We welcome letters, comments and suggestions on the issues that appear in the magazine. Please address your correspondence to: Editor, The Karyawan Association of Muslim Professionals 1 Pasir Ris Drive 4 #05-11 Singapore 519457 T +65 6416 3966 | F +65 6583 8028 E


This is What Inequality Looks Like by Diana Rahim

The Karyawan is a publication of the Association of Muslim Professionals. The views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Association and its subsidiaries nor its directors and the Karyawan editorial board. © Association of Muslim Professionals. 2018. All rights reserved. Permission is required for reproduction.


Education is a cause that is close to the community’s heart and is a subject that often invites intense debate and discussion. In March this year, AMP and our research subsidiary, RIMA, had organised the Community in Review 2018 seminar to discuss education strategies for the new era, during which our panelists had weighed in on how we can prepare our children for the future. An important point that came out of the discussion was the importance of equality. One of the speakers shared findings from his ethnographic study of a group of Malay students 12 years ago where each child had different levels of access to resources to build their literacy skills. He shared that one of the children who had access to fewer resources faced challenges when she entered primary school. Although the child did not have access to Montessori classes like some of the other students did, she showed ability to comprehend stories and even engaged her mother on plot twists in stories. Nevertheless, these strengths were not adequately capitalised in her school because much of these strengths were not apparent to her teachers. Another speaker shared that we would do well to understand the challenges faced by different students from low-income families in terms of their family life and system of reward, among others, in order to understand why they may not be performing well in school. These highlight the need for our education system to ensure equal opportunities are given to all students and not reserved for just those deemed to have ‘talent’. Dr Nadira Talib, in her article on Page 8, makes some suggestions on how this can be done. I hope that this will be an impetus for the community to have more discussions on what we can do to help our Malay students to do well in school and prepare them for the new era.



Budget 2018: Tackling Concerns about the Future BY ABDUL SHARIFF ABOO KASSIM

THE GOOD NEWS The Budget 2018 that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat unveiled on 19 February 2018 started off on a positive note. At 3.6%, Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fared better than the 1% to 3% that the government forecasted. Productivity received a boost with a solid performance – 4.5%, as measured by real value-added per actual hour worked; and 3.8% as measured by real value-added per worker – the highest since 2010. This would mean firms could afford to pay workers higher wages without compromising on competitiveness. Overall, the real median income of Singaporeans rose by 5.3%, according to Minister Heng. The key concern, however, has often been on how households from the lower socioeconomic backgrounds are faring. Based on data from Key Household Income Trends 2017, the bottom three deciles chalked up a real income growth of 2.1% to 2.8% in 2017. Over the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, their growth was 23.3% and 25.2%, higher than that for the top 50% (11.5% to 23.1%). COPING WITH A TOUGHER FUTURE Mr Heng’s speech can best be summed up as a forward-looking one as some potentially impactful phenomena looms over the horizon. The emergence of new technologies – in particular digital technologies and rapid rise of e-commerce – will affect the job market and businesses substantially. The Minister reiterated the notion that merely doing well in school will no longer be assurance of job security. On the contrary, lifelong learning – keeping one’s knowledge and skills relevant in what is projected to be a disruptive future economy – better guarantees employability and a decent wage. An issue close to the Malay/Muslim community is social mobility. Growing inequality would make it harder for those in


the lower strata to scale the socioeconomic ladder. The greater the inequality, the wider the rungs. Budget 2018, however, reinforced the government’s commitment to uplift all Singaporeans and deepen Singapore’s social compact. It pledged to strengthen social safety nets even as an ageing population bodes unprecedented strain on social spending.

However, the impending challenges that businesses face go beyond costs. New technologies, the Finance Minister argued, will profoundly change the way companies create value for stakeholders. This would include going digital and helping workers to remain relevant as the nature of jobs change.

To sustain competitiveness in the emerging In an uncertain future economy that is business climate, it is imperative that threatening to mar the employment market businesses differentiate themselves and with redundancy and reemployment internationalise. A survey conducted by challenges, the government is moving to International Enterprise (IE) Singapore hedge against the prospects of long-term found that overseas revenue (OR) drives unemployment by beefing up initiatives growth for Singapore companies. For under the Adapt and Grow scheme. The SMEs, OR formed 53% of total revenue, new Career Trial scheme is an improvement a 3%-point increase from the previous year. over the existing Work Trial scheme and will be introduced to provide funding The Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), support for lower- to middle-income launched last year, is an initiative to workers to try out new careers. build overseas networks and for young Singaporeans to gain exposure through BUSINESSES overseas internships. Universities have now The focus on businesses stems from the expanded their overseas programmes to economy’s increasing reliance on local eight new locations, including ASEAN SMEs to play a larger role in sustaining countries, in addition to the government Singapore’s long-term economic growth. setting up BLOCK71 – an entrepreneurial Thus, making them more competitive and ecosystem – in Suzhou and Jakarta. helping to regionalise or even globalise is of vital importance. Nearly all developed The government aims to foster a culture of economies have at least a few home-grown innovativeness so that businesses and firms that are household names in the workers are receptive and able to adapt to global arena. new technologies. This would require building deep capabilities in both the firms The path for most local businesses is and workers. The government will nurture expected to be a rocky one. The economy innovation by streamlining existing grants picking up last year has not done much in to a single one, the Productivity Solutions alleviating a perennial concern among Grant (PSG), to help companies purchase businesses – operating costs. They face an and use new solutions. uphill task in recruiting workers with the right skills and sustaining wage growth. Minister Heng also announced that the Budget 2018 responded by extending wage government will be piloting the Open increases through the Wage Credit Scheme Innovation Platform, which allows (WCS), a scheme which co-funds wage companies to list specific problems they increases for Singaporeans up to a gross face which can be addressed by digital monthly income of $4,000. solutions. This platform will bring together prospective partners, local and overseas, to co-create solutions.

The merger between IE Singapore and SPRING marks a milestone in institutional support for local businesses in the quest to advance the capabilities of SMEs as the significance of their role in the long-term viability of Singapore’s economy becomes more pronounced. Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs), according to Mr Heng, play an important leadership role in forging partnerships and driving industry-level advancements. The Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) could step up efforts to harness the potential of Malay/Muslim entrepreneurship by reviewing its current goals and initiatives. EMPLOYABILITY The government is also moving to institutionalise the development of human capital – in the form of deep skills for workers of all ages, from the young to mid-career professionals to older workers. Mr Heng stressed that a company’s overall growth strategy should involve not only developing enterprise capabilities but also human capital, citing the case of an elderly worker with Infineon, a semiconductor company, who went from working in an assembly line to using new machines. Such stories may bring a measure of confidence to workers who, apart from having to bear with the anxiety-triggering outlook of the employment situation in the future economy, are sceptical about whether skills upgrading will actually result in better employment outcomes for them. CARING AND COHESIVE SOCIETY: WHAT NEXT? Minister Heng upped financial support for education, increasing the annual Edusave contributions made by the government. In addition, the government will update the income eligibility criteria for Edusave Merit Bursary and Independent School Bursary, a measure aimed at benefiting the lower- to middle-income families.

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Students from low-income families can look forward to increased support with the announcement that the annual bursary quantum for the Ministry of Education (MOE) Financial Assistance Scheme (MOE FAS) for pre-university students will be raised. The eligibility criteria will also be revised. The School Meals Programme will likewise be expanded to cover more meals.

The effectiveness of matching donors and volunteers with charities will be boosted with the announcement of enhancements to the one-stop platform, GST: A THORNY ISSUE IN A BUDGET OF HOPE Budget 2018 spells hope for many quarters: the seniors, the workers, the low- to middle-income and businesses. Arguably, of the list of measures announced by the Finance Minister, the one that hogged ensuing debates on the Budget is the plan to raise the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from 7% to 9% during the period between 2021 and 2025. No specific time was given. Mr Heng said it will depend on the state of the economy during the period – how government’s expenditure will grow during this period and how much revenue is generated from taxes. However, Mr Heng hinted that it is likely to be during the earlier part of the five years.

Amid the announcements of increased financial support, the government will also be giving youths a good foundation in financial literacy. A new financial education curriculum will be piloted at polytechnics and ITE to realise this objective. It is unclear from the Budget Statement what led to this initiative but a survey commissioned by NTUC Income in 2014 – which polled more than 1,000 final-year polytechnic students, university undergraduates and young workers aged between 18 and 29 – found that, while the majority of young Singaporeans had prudent attitudes towards financial Mr Heng argued that, various options planning, despite knowing the importance have been explored to manage future of financial planning, only 18% of government expenditures through respondents had created a financial plan “prudent spending, saving and borrowing” for themselves, while only 7% had but “a gap” still remained. He did not detail reviewed their financial situation. what the “various options” he alluded to were. One major contention with raising On the social service front, Mr Heng said GST is the 50% cap on the Net Investment that the government aims to better Returns Contribution (NIRC). Economists coordinate the efforts of government have argued against the limit, citing current agencies, voluntary welfare organisations needs, such as spending on problem-ridden (VWOs) and community partners in transport infrastructure. Others have also providing a more holistic and citizenexpressed doubts over whether such centred support for the needy. This prudence in the name of meeting the needs includes, among other things, sharing of of the future generations is too excessive, information between organisations for citing International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s better coordination. The goal is to expedite view that a good enough amount of assistance to citizens so as to accelerate the reserves would be 27% of our GDP or process of self-sufficiency and self-reliance S$113 billion. and to eventually take them off the assistance schemes when certain Key The disquiet notwithstanding, the GST will Performance Indicators (KPIs) are met. be raised progressively, said Mr Heng, and will continue to adopt measures such as The Budget also sought to promote the absorbing GST on publicly subsidised spirit of giving back and volunteerism, education and cushioning of its impact extending tax deductions for donations with the permanent GST voucher (GSTV) made to Institutions of Public Character scheme. Moreover, the scheme will be (IPCs) until 2021. enhanced when the GST is increased to 04 T H E K A R Y A W A N © ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS. PERMISSION IF REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION.

provide more help to lower-income households. The government will also implement an offset package for a period to help Singaporeans adjust to the GST increase. Lower- and middle-income households can expect to receive more support. THE FUTURE Budget 2018 and, for that matter, subsequent government budgets are not a panacea for addressing the complexities that sustaining the growth of an advanced economy will bring about. However, Singaporeans can take some measure of comfort in Budget 2018 in that there are initiatives to tackle the more foreseeable challenges in the realms of employment, education, business and social safety nets. It also reveals that the government’s resolve to build an inclusive society remains steadfast with the announcements of goodies for the low- to middle-income despite the strain on social spending contributed by an ageing population.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher/P rojects Coordin ator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the re search subsidiary of the Associatio n of Muslim Professionals (AMP).


Is it an Unnecessary Evil? BY AZHAR KHALID

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One of the most hotly debated topics following the announcement of Budget 2018 is none other than the proposed two percentage point increase in Goods and Services Tax (GST) between 2021 and 2025. Speeches and exchanges in Parliament during the budget and Committee of Supply debates on the GST issue were heated and passionate. Comments from opposition party Members of Parliament (MPs) also drew some rebuke from PAP Ministers and MPs. Among them were Finance Minister Mr Heng Swee Keat and Home Affairs Minister Mr K Shanmugam as well as Leader of the House Ms Grace Fu taking on Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim for her comments about the government sending out “test balloons” on the GST issue and asking her to retract her comments and make an apology.

be the first time in more than a decade. For now GST will remain at 7 percent until the government announces when the increase will take effect. THE NEED FOR AN INCREASE The government has argued that raising the GST, which is a broad-based tax, is necessary to fund Singapore’s broad-based spending needs, such as healthcare, security and education. The additional revenue is also needed to fund the future infrastructure needs of the country. Raising the tax also reflects the balance of staying competitive and staying inclusive. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said at a forum in Jakarta in February “that balance of staying competitive, ensuring that we can grow at a sustainable pace, but at the same time staying inclusive, and in particular, being able to afford the quality healthcare that an ageing population needs – that’s foremost on our minds.1”

Although Ms Lim eventually admitted that her “suspicion” about the government was incorrect, she refused to make an Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has apology. weighed in on the timing of the announcement of the GST hike, an issue Sentiment on the ground was equally that has come up in Parliament in recent contentious. Social banter at coffee shops weeks, and reiterated that announcing it and online are overwhelmed with mixed now is the responsible and honest thing views, criticisms and outright retort on the for the Government to do. government’s proposal to raise GST. Understandably, the thought of having to “We do not need the money yet, but we pay more for goods and services consumed can see the trends clearly and we know we in Singapore does not go down well with will need the money by the next decade. the public. The timing of the announcement We have to plan ahead, work out how which coincides with the government’s we will get what we need to spend and disclosure that it had posted the country’s announce it early now so that people will biggest budget surplus in monetary terms know. This way, people can plan ahead of S$9.6 billion for financial year 2017 and understand why the tax increase is makes it even more difficult for the public necessary and justified,2” said Mr Lee. to swallow their reasoning for a GST The government has also assured the increase. public that it is mindful of the impact of tax changes on households and has vowed Still, the proposed GST increase will only to help the lower- and middle-income happen in three to seven years’ time, families as well as the elderly to adjust between 2021 and 2025. The proposed with a transitional offset package. increase from 7 percent to 9 percent will


Raising the tax also reflects the balance of staying competitive and staying inclusive. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said at a forum in Jakarta in February “that balance of staying competitive, ensuring that we can grow at a sustainable pace, but at the same time staying inclusive, and in particular, being able to afford the quality healthcare that an ageing population needs – that’s foremost on our minds.


Mr Heng Swee Keat said the permanent GST Voucher Scheme will be enhanced when the GST goes up. The scheme currently offers annual utility rebates of up to $390 to HDB flat dwellers, cash of up to $300 for low-income adults and Medisave top-ups of up to $450 for the elderly poor.

TOO COMFORTABLE? Logic will tell us that not doing anything is definitely not an option. Our community is seeing an ageing population and so there is a real need to ensure that our senior citizens will be well taken care of and this includes our parents or ourselves.

Funding our growth has been through the revenues and profits derived from our enterprise in trade, manufacturing, financial services, petrochemical and other sectors that remain pillars to our economic growth. Taxes is also one of the key sources of revenue to keep revving our economic engine. The government Being Singaporeans, we are so used to constantly looks for the right balance to conveniences and smooth delivery of Despite the assurances and explanations, ensure that our tax regime will not be services. Every Singaporean expects water burdensome or cause a disincentive to most Singaporeans still find it hard to to flow when we turn the tap on. Similarly, work while ensuring that we have enough accept the move. Some are beginning to we take it for granted that there will be think that perhaps suggestions that the revenue for future growth. electricity when we turn the switch on. government should extend its land sales Delays in train services and the consequent As an ordinary citizen, it’s never pleasant programme to raise more revenue for chaos at MRT stations are met with future development is a feasible idea. Of to continuously feel the pinch from higher disapproval. Congestions on our roads are taxes but at the same time, we need to course, there’s the school of thought that consistently frowned upon. We are so used instill that confidence and trust on our the government should continue to dip to such lifestyles that we forget these don’t stewards to ensure that every single cent into the nation’s reserves whenever it come for free. In other countries, such needs to spend. raised from our hard earned money conveniences cannot be taken for granted. through taxes are well spent and put to While these are possibilities and measures Clean water may not be available all the good use be it in our lifetime or for our that the government can and may resort to time and access to electricity may still be a future generation. when times get tough, there’s a real risk of luxury to some. drying up our resources and leaving the Despite our demands and expectations, we future generation with unsustainable Azhar Khal must be reminded that Singapore remains options. id is Senior Editor, Sing Desk at Ch apore annel NewsA a country without the fortunes derived sia. His area specialisatio of n is in busine from natural resources. Our spectacular Perhaps the other option is to just forgo ss news co the econom vering y, markets, co economic growth to be a first world nation all future development plans and be mpanies an finance. He d is also an ac tive commun activist serv has been through the use of our bare contented with what we have now. No ity ing in severa l Malay/Mus organisatio lim ns in various plans for future expenditure would mean hands and intellect to make it what it is capacities. today. So to ensure that we continue to no need to raise revenues and hence, no need for tax increases. But are these viable enjoy the quality of life that we are used to, we need to make that sacrifice now and options at all? give up some of our comforts for a more sustainable future.

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Is It Time to

Equalise Conditions Across Schools? BY DR NADIRA TALIB


In his 2018 Budget speech, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the Government will provide more financial support for students, particularly lower-income students, with increased annual Edusave contributions and an updated income eligibility criteria for bursaries. But will this move help to ameliorate academic underachievement within the existing parameters of current structural policies? This article highlights the need to examine the assumptions upon which structural reforms are built on and suggests that equalising conditions across schools could help to address underachievement. THE NEED TO EXAMINE UNDERLYING ASSUMPTIONS IN POLICIES While the education system claims to implement meritocratic ideals, official statistics generated by the Ministry of Education, Singapore, reveal that a large segment of the Malay population has sustained the lowest academic achievement from 2001 to 20101. This statistical representation not only serves as an indicator that an entire ethnic group is less educable than other ethnic groups but more importantly, raises the possibility of a politically-induced, systemic inequality as a point of investigation. Fundamentally, it raises the question of whether being more or less educable is arbitrarily inbuilt into the education system to legitimise unequal access to knowledge. If this is the case, then a certain segment of the student population will continue to be disadvantaged, despite official claims of ‘equal opportunities’. In a fair and just society, it is the public’s prerogative and responsibility to actively and continuously identify and question assumptions underlying the truths of policy proposals and propositions. Doing so can contribute to the progressive development of social policy for the future. Policies determine budgets and how resources are allocated. 1

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Unfortunately, the field of Singapore’s education policy analysis has been dominated by commentary and critique rather than empirical research. The lack of research using critical qualitative approaches that have the potential to challenge the ‘ideological’ premises of government policies is a concern given the political constraints on academic research in Singapore2. Within these factors, the rhetoric of meritocracy seems to be holding back the education system: 1) it allows a certain group to be systematically disadvantaged; 2) it does not allow incisive critique within the system by which to improve it because of the belief in the system as being perfect on the basis that it is meritocratic. WHAT IS THE MORAL PURPOSE OF EDUCATION? The assumption here is that schools function as the basic institutional structure of a society that unless the framework for equity and the moral imperative to maximise each child’s potential is fair, the society cannot be just. To ameliorate possible tensions and yield a patently just solution, what the situation here then demands is a respect for attainment equality of structural conditions, with priority given to the disadvantaged. This justice of arrangement that takes note of a person’s difficulties – naturally or socially generated – could potentially enable everyone to have the same opportunity to be educated and to openly compete3. Can the Singapore’s SkillsFuture policy initiative work to reduce income inequality and help social mobility when streaming is an instrument for determining one’s precise place in a school hierarchy, ostensibly in return for greater economic successes? The assumptions underlying policy proposals and propositions are not self-justifying and should not be taken as

self-evident. Their legitimacy has to be demonstrated4. Through examining assumptions that underpin education policy discourse and demonstrating how they might possibly undermine and contradict meritocratic principles, we will then be able to examine the source of structural disadvantages. If we want the best for all our population, then we need to have a flexible, critically examined education system to make progressive improvements. If ‘inequality’ serves the purpose of high international evaluation assessments5, then there needs to be professed transparency in communicating that the ideology of meritocracy fosters structural reforms that disadvantage a certain segment of the population. On 2 October 2003, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then Acting Minister for Education, argued in his speech6: Only if we nurture Singaporeans who are exceptional in their own way, can we be the natural hub for talent and enterprise from all over the world, and become one of the leading cities in Asia. This is the way in which we can hold our own against other major cities and grow opportunities for all Singaporeans. Through the contractual-conditional discourse of “Only if”, talent investment is projected as not only desirable but necessary: because it is probably an indispensable part of how Singapore develops economically7. The acquisition of differentiated skills as the basis of ethical practice that drive national and individual interests merits a consideration of whether, as proposed by Mr Shanmugaratnam, it was in the interest of the Singaporean people that ‘talents’ should get privileged access to knowledge in order that more opportunities for the rest of the population can be created. How has this assumption


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The fact that Singapore schools are structured such that students routinely receive dramatically unequal learning conditions is simply not widely acknowledged. If the low academic outcomes for children are to change, structural reforms must alter the calibre of learning conditions they encounter. These efforts must include equalisation of financial resources across schools, and a major reconsideration of curriculum and testing policies for students in the ‘less academically demanding’ streams. been substantiated? If we accept the operational objective of the system that everyone is not going to succeed in the same way, should that disproportionately affect a certain group of people?

quo remains unchanged in more significant ways, re-conceptualising these interventions and its organising principles can enable us to conceive how we rationalise intervention, as it relates to institutional context. How are interventions made necessary as IT IS NOT ONLY ABOUT HOW MUCH an institutional practice? BUT HOW MONEY IS SPENT The assumption here is that recurrent Without discrediting their benefits, interventions are necessary to improve support from self-help groups and pedagogical practices and address boosting financial assistance schemes for academic underachievement. But are students would never be effective at they sustainable within current systemic remedying underachievement as long as conditions? If they are sustainable, these services or schemes are layered on a why do they have to be recurrent? If system that provides differential access to interventions are not sustainable because knowledge. Current initiatives to create they cannot be supported by current special labels and programmes for ‘at-risk’ systemic conditions, then is it time to start children and youth are unlikely to succeed examining the assumptions upon which if they do not attend to the structural the system is built? conditions of schools that place children at risk. Students can be placed ‘at risk’ when RESOURCE EQUALISATION: fundamental institutional conditions fail WHY NOT EQUALITY OF OUTCOME? to satisfy their needs8. In the pursuit of The common presumption about academic underachievement is that it equity, our goal should be to develop resides primarily in those students with strategies that improve the core systemic practices of schooling rather than layering inadequate capacities to benefit from what the education system has to offer. There additional programmes on systemic conditions that may be incompatible with has been a heavy reliance on the cultural deficit thesis9 to explain the educational the needs and aspirations of students. marginality of Malays10. However, Since special programmes, with exploring the historical, ethnic, and separate budgets, and fragmented, class-related factors to explain and address pull-out remedial programmes may be the Malay educational malaise relegate counterproductive as long as the status and deflect attention from the central


On 27 January 2016, MP Denise Phua told Parliament that Singapore should “re-dream and slay the sacred cow of physically separating people who learn differently”. She called on the government to “rethink the concept of Arts School, Sports School, Normal Tech School, SAP Schools, Special Schools”. She suggested that “programmes including those for the gifted should be made available across more schools so that students of different abilities and talents can grow together”11. It can be deemed that it is a huge waste of society’s reserves if only those who are identified as ‘talents’ early in life are given the opportunity to fully develop. Attempts to invest in a small minority of talents identified through the streaming system can lead to severe curtailment of the capabilities that people can altogether have within the context of contending claims of economic efficiency12.



concern in examining how structural inequality is inbuilt into the system. Within this focus, there is the opportunity to offer debates on fair access and redistribution of educational resources for social mobility and as a priority for human welfare, making significant changes to the conditions of the poor, and a commitment to the full range of human capacity as an ethical form of educational practice.

The fact that Singapore schools are structured such that students routinely receive dramatically unequal learning conditions is simply not widely acknowledged. If the low academic outcomes for children are to change, structural reforms must alter the calibre of learning conditions they encounter. These efforts must include equalisation of financial resources across schools, and a major reconsideration of curriculum and testing policies for students in the ‘less academically demanding’ streams. Is it time to realise the possibility of making programmes for the gifted and the conditions of specialised schools available across schools so that students of different abilities and talents can grow together?

Dr Nadira Ta lib is Honor ary at The Unive rsity of Quee Research Fellow nsland. Her research an d publicatio ns are on m policy analys ethods of is.

REVIEWING EDUCATION STRATEGIES IN THE NEW ERA AMP and its research subsidiary, Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA) held the annual Community in Review (CIR) seminar with the theme, Education Strategies in the New Era: Sustaining Progress on 24 March 2018. The seminar focused on re-examining the concept of having a ‘graduate in every family’ and whether the goal of attaining university qualifications will continue to be relevant in the changing economic landscape where a diversity of talents and skillsets are valued. The CIR also addressed the question of whether the new flexible and diversified education system, along with the shift away from grades as a primary determinant of performance, could be a more equitable system in which children from low-income families have an array of pathways leading them to better socioeconomic outcomes in the future. It is acknowledged that coming from a low socioeconomic background poses a number of challenges to a student’s education performance. The CIR further examined the entities within present structures that have great bearing on the student’s academic performance and future financial security. These include parents’ knowledge on the developments in the education landscape, developing better literacy in the educational ecosystem, on academic and skill-setting approaches, as well as the complex challenges that those in the lower-income groups face. To augment the panel discussion with a visual and thought-provoking component, the CIR featured an exhibition of 15 photographs showcasing the different study spaces of students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Through a series of interviews with the students and their families, the exhibition included narratives of the circumstances that placed them in those spaces – be it in public or the private space of the home. The photo exhibition also moved away from the often gratuitous and problematic approaches of mainstream media, particularly the oft-favoured choice of featuring the profiles of the poor and their families. While one can argue that portraiture puts a face to poverty, one cannot deny the position of the privileged viewer and the negatively profiled subject. As such, the project features no human subject; just the human stories. In the process of capturing the photographs, it was discovered that the subject of class featured strongly in the access to the study spaces as well as their conditions. Cafés or fast food restaurants may not be financially accessible to some students. Even access to the libraries was found to be dependent on factors such as school and family schedules, as well as transport expenses. In the home, where the dining table is a common choice of study space for students across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, those in the lower deciles often have to share the space with a multitude of household items and bear with constant human traffic. A conducive environment has been pinned as one of the factors with a bearing on a student’s academic performance. As such, it warrants the consideration of key stakeholders and organisations to make the act of studying to be one imbued with equal opportunities of access.

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Over the past decade, there have been efforts, both implicit and explicit ones, to change mindsets about education and jobs. Deep skills and innovation are the buzzwords as the old order – merely attaining tertiary qualification and higher; and going for jobs that promise prestige and security – is increasingly being recognised as not being nuanced enough for the dynamic city that Singapore must strive to be in order to emulate the economic power of leading global cities like London, New York, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Professionalising Services: Entrenching the Creative and Innovative Culture BY ABDUL SHARIFF ABOO KASSIM

There are added reasons why Singapore should aim for changes in the education and economic realms. For a long time, paper qualifications have been valued over actual ability. The incentives for obtaining straight ‘A’s in national examinations were lucrative: effectiveness as a signalling tool for scholarships and to prospective employers who often use the Grade Point Average (GPA) as a convenient cut-off point to streamline job applications from fresh graduates. As a consequence, a notable skill being developed in school is identifying strategies for obtaining good grades, such as “spotting” questions likely to appear during exams and going through drills to master them. In a competitive educational environment, even co-curricular activities (CCA) are often pursued to enhance one’s educational portfolio rather than being pursued out of interest. This has often come at the cost of motivating the learner to acquire deep knowledge and excelling in the field of learning inside and outside of school. However, in more recent times, the education sector has introduced a slew of measures to advance to a “talent meritocracy” from an “exam meritocracy”, terms famously coined by then-Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam during an interview with Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. Current Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng


announced, in April 2016, the replacement of the aggregate score for Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) with wider scoring bands, stressing the need for a paradigm shift towards holistic education. Employers are changing their human resource practices to accord greater recognition to job performance as a determinant of career progression. In January last year, the civil service took the lead by ceasing its longstanding practice of grouping officers according to their education levels and began referring to them by their existing grades, which reflect their job scope and salary range. This is a move that will not only reward commitment to learning on the job and upgrading of skills to take on higher level responsibilities but also help organisations that adopt such conventions to plug the skills gap.

Persuading society that talent or deep knowledge, and lifelong learning are a better assurance of career progression in the future than mere paper qualifications may not get much traction if only certain skills in certain fields are valued, such as those pertaining to growth industries like healthcare, finance (fintech) and IT (data analytics, cyber security). It would fuel suspicion that leaders and policymakers are brandishing portrayals of the future scenario to serve ‘narrow’ economic interests – which often are subject to revision according to economic cycles or when circumstances change – not the diversity of interests of the larger society.

It would be more cogent for skills or talents across occupational types and across disciplines to be accorded due recognition, even if career prospects are deemed not bright or if their immediate contribution to economic growth is unappreciable. The pervasiveness of The more progressive assessments of aptitude in education and human resource talents or skills across the board being practices, however, are but just two aspects valued would lend credence to the of the multidimensional approach needed declared mission of forging a culture of creativity and innovation. to facilitate the shift towards valuing the attributes that will lead to economic dynamism. Convincing the various other As soon as one talks about excellence or stakeholders – parents, students, employers, mastery in a particular field, one needs to take into account one’s aptitude, educators and community leaders – that which may not necessarily be in a focusing on building one’s capabilities in one’s chosen field or acquiring deep skills discipline related to sunrise industries. The education pathways that are through balancing academic learning established on the basis of where future with praxis will take more than merely jobs are likely to be created may turn out educating them about an emerging economic landscape that are forecasted to to be structures that impede the flourishing of a creative, innovative, passionate be fraught with disruption, among other and motivated lot as they still bear the phenomena. elements of a top-down thinking on serving the ‘greater good’. Empirical evidence remains the most effective means of coaxing a society The pathways will be pursued because of that has been conditioned to embrace the lure of promising careers, as is the case pragmatism to adapt. To the man on the with an “exam meritocracy”, as opposed to street, a future scenario in which deep being pursued by virtue of one’s talent or skills will count more for career progression than university degrees, as argued by interest, which characterises a “talent Education Minister (Higher Education and meritocracy”. The latter is more likely to facilitate the shift from a narrow focus on Skills) Ong Ye Kung, remains a theory. results to acquisition of deep knowledge and skills.

Loosening up the system and allowing talents to crop up naturally across fields instead of the approach of channelling the ‘bright ones’ and the “less-academicallyinclined ones” to certain pathways respectively may well support the cultivating of a love for learning, especially lifelong learning, necessary for deepening knowledge and skills. It is worth studying environments that are bustling with talented individuals or organisations who are at the forefront in their respective fields – from science to arts – about the conditions that make them tick. Perhaps, the speech by Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) Managing Director Ravi Menon during the Singapore Perspectives 2018 conference offers a good start to appreciating talents across occupation types, job categories and fields, thus firmly entrenching creative and innovative tendencies in the national culture. Reflecting on ways to sustain economic dynamism, in addition to increasing the total fertility rate (TFR) and resident labour force participation rate (LFPR), for which efforts are already underway, Mr Menon spoke about professionalising domestic services. Policy-wise, helping creativity and innovation trickle down to the so-called ‘rank-and-file’ jobs is not at odds with the national goal of achieving economic dynamism. Mr Menon argued that professionalising such jobs will aid Singapore in making up for what the TFR cannot achieve in the shorter run. While the TFR offers what he described as “the best and most lasting solution”, its positive effects on labour force and GDP will only be felt around 2040 as it will take time for the extra babies born in the next 15 years to start entering the labour force.

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Raising the LFPR, in Singapore’s case, is compounded by the problem of women not returning to the workforce after their prime childbearing years. While there is scope for improvement – Singapore could aim for a female LFPR of about 11% observed in countries like Germany and the Netherlands – it will only translate into a cumulative labour force increase of about 2 per cent in 2035. Efforts to raise female LFPR should nevertheless be undertaken together with professionalising domestic services to boost economic dynamism in the more immediate term. Moreover, professionalising domestic services, Mr Menon argued, will strengthen and broaden the middle class, and make for a more equitable society. This augurs well for a country staring at social problems contributed by inequality and class divide. It will also help instill pride in those who supposedly hold “lower end” jobs, thus facilitating the raising of productivity levels. In addition to its potentially positive impact on society, professionalising domestic services will provide the empirical data that there is a commitment to promoting a culture of creativity and innovativeness because these are services that Singaporeans from all walks of life engage such as those provided by a bus driver, hairdresser, baker, childcare teacher, security guard and bank teller. In fact, Mr Menon pointed out that there are already jobs that are historically perceived as being “less skilled” but perceptions towards them changed over time as they were upgraded, such as bank tellers, vehicle mechanics, hairdressers and bus drivers. The wages of bus drivers are just below the median in Singapore (96% of national median wage), comparable with their counterparts in Australia, the US and the UK (107% , 94% and 101% respectively). Mr Menon said the introduction of the bus contracting model and the entry of foreign 14 T H E K A R Y A W A N © ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS. PERMISSION IF REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION.

transport companies incentivised raising driving standards and efficiency, making bus driving more professional. Hairdressers are doing even more spectacularly, earning much closer to the median wage (82%) compared to their counterparts in Australia, the US and the UK (32%, 68% and 44% respectively). While it could be attributed to the outliers, as one participant opined during the conference – that is, celebrity hairdressers who are able to charge high fees to their rich clientele – Mr Menon suggested the emergence of outlets such as QB House, EC House, and kcuts 10 as a reason why the median wages of hairdressers have risen. QB House, for instance, explains in its website why it can complete a stylish haircut in just 10 minutes: it helps customers maintain their hairstyle by trimming the grown hair only; it leverages on technology such as “Air Washer” to help its hairdressers achieve efficiency in their work. Going forward, taking the cue from jobs such as bus driving and hairdressing, other jobs such as plastering, childcare, baking and security services can raise its standards and achieve greater professionalism. Skills can be deepened through upgrading knowledge; and technology can be leveraged, as QB House has done. With time, perceptions towards such jobs will change. The larger Singaporean society will come to appreciate that creativity and innovation are not jargons that apply only to “higher level” jobs but also domestic service providers, people they meet on a day-to-day basis.

archer / Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Rese for re Cent the with or Projects Coordinat rs (RIMA), Research on Islamic and Malay Affai ciation of the research subsidiary of the Asso Muslim Professionals (AMP).

Unlocking the Potential of our Community’s MicroSMEs for Economic Upliftment BY HARASHA BAFANA

n a l p r e t Mas t e s d n i M ing t e k r a M Money t n e m e g Mana

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In my work as a business advisor, I have the privilege of meeting inspiring examples of ordinary people from our community who have become ‘accidental entrepreneurs’. Take for example Rahmah (not her real name), a baking expert. A decade ago, she was working as an administrative staff. However, she is passionate about baking and took baking orders on the side from friends and family. What was a side-line eventually grew into a full-time, homebased baking and training enterprise. When I met her three years ago, she was already enjoying $10,000 in monthly sales. She has since hit $20,000 in monthly average sales and decided recently that it was time to set up her own shop in a commercial space. Her husband recently joined her business as a partner. Our community can do with more inspiring examples like her. Consider the following statistics: • A Malay family’s average monthly household income is under $4,000. Although it has been improving over the years, it is still the lowest among other communities. • 2 in 3 of our Malay workforce are non-PMETs, the segment whose employability is expected to be hardest hit in our disruptive economy. • 1 in 2 Malay mothers are economically inactive. • Malays have the highest Total Dependency Ratio compared to other communities. In other words, we support the highest number of dependants: those below 14 and above 65 years old. • Only 6% of Malays are employers or own account workers. It is the lowest compared to other communities and less than half of the national average of 14%. There are about 134,000 Malay households in Singapore as at 2015. Imagine the impact a Rahmah (or Rahmat) in more Malay families will have. Even an additional modest income of $2,000 a month can be significant. This is why I believe that in

today’s world, entrepreneurship presents an GAP IN SUPPORT FOR mSMEs exciting opportunity for us to economically The Singapore government has been active in rolling out SME assistance programmes – uplift our community’s performance. there are more than 200 at last count. However, it lacks a targeted approach and IT’S A LARGE ‘SMALL’ SEGMENT In Singapore, 99% of registered businesses may not be as helpful to mSMEs. Indeed, it has been observed that the larger SMEs tend are Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), to benefit more from such assistance defined as earning less than $100 million schemes than mSMEs2. annual sales or with fewer than 200 employees. However, 70% of these SMEs are in fact micro Small Medium Enterprises This is not surprising as the challenges and needs of mSMEs are different from the (mSMEs), defined as businesses that earn larger SMEs. For instance, rising costs, less than $1 million in annual sales. manpower constraints and low productivity The population of micro-entrepreneurs will may be the main concerns for larger SMEs be even larger if we are to include informal, and certain industries, but this is not usually the case for mSMEs. unregistered businesses. These comprise home-based businesses, freelancers in a In fact, in a disruptive and technologygrowing gig economy and the driven economy, a smart mSME can self-employed. While there are no official leverage on Lean Enterprise business figures on the number of unregistered home-based businesses, we can reasonably practices – such as working from a home, shared or virtual office, tapping on free assume that it is a 6-figure number. Gig technology tools, using social media workers already form 170,000 or 10% of and Software as a Service (SaaS) – to Singapore’s resident workforce and this dramatically reduce business costs. There looks set to grow, while self-employment are more opportunities than ever before numbers have remained steady at 8-10%1. for a small business to thrive. Seen from this perspective, there is It is a fact that a majority of mSMEs fail therefore a large group of people involved within the first few years. SPRING, for in some form of micro business and example, found that 50% of mSMEs in the entrepreneurial work. Coupled with employability challenges that non-PMETs F&B industry fail in less than 5 years. This is because mSMEs have little room for error – face, efforts to develop the growth of mSMEs offer much potential and interesting poor planning, cashflow or sales and unwise decisions can kill a business. possibilities for real economic growth.

I have found that if mSMEs pay close attention to the following five areas well, they will find surer footing and stand a good chance to eventually grow their business. Briefly, these areas are Masterplan, Mindset, Marketing, Money and Management. 2



Instead, there are two needs mSMEs have. Firstly, mSMEs need to continuously arm themselves with the right knowledge. In our post-industrial Knowledge Economy, those with the right knowledge can punch above their weight. It is truly amazing how easily we can get information online to help us solve any business headache we have if we are curious and patient enough. Here is a quick illustration: BUSINESS NEEDS



Be online - Social Media and E-Mail Marketing are effective and virtually free. WhatsApp Business works well too – and is free.


DIY tools such as and are superb – and free.


You no longer need to spend thousands – you can build your website quickly with or for free.


WaveApps or Xero are cloud-based, convenient and free or at minimal cost.


Hire a freelancer from global online marketplaces such as or to do anything from video production to social media management to virtual assistance services and more.


Crowdfunding can help.

I have found that if mSMEs pay close attention to the following five areas well, they will find surer footing and stand a good chance to eventually grow their business. Briefly, these areas are Masterplan, Mindset, Marketing, Money and Management. No government assistance scheme, however well-intended, can help if these basics are not managed well. This was why the generous Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC) grants did little to help mSMEs perform better despite a high take-up rate. Our aim should be to support the growth of entrepreneurs, not ‘grantrepeneurs’. At the other end of the spectrum, while SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) offers generous subsidies for wide-ranging training programmes, it is mainly catered to serve employee-types. A number of SSG training programmes can help mSMEs run their business better – but there are no practical business programmes tailored to meet the specific needs of mSMEs. We are blessed to have a range of caring Malay/Muslim Organisations (MMOs) focused on the progress of our community. MMOs such as AMP, PPIS and the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SMCCI) have rolled out limited programmes over the years to guide mSMEs. MENDAKI, with its ample resources, have tended to focus on children, families and employability training with limited attention given to support mSMEs. However, given the major disruptions happening in these times, there is an urgent need to do so much more to nurture an enterprising spirit among our people.

Secondly, mSMEs need the right guidance to help them shorten the learning curve. It is not unusual for me to have a consultation session with mSMEs and have them leaving with knowledge that immediately stops them from making expensive mistakes. A strong business mentoring culture can also help – this is where successful business people lend their wisdom and experience to guide and encourage mSMEs. We are sorely lacking this in In short, given that government assistance Singapore. schemes are less useful to mSMEs and that SSG training is more suited for employees, I In general, mSMEs simply have limited resources of time and money that they can afford would argue that there is a gap in providing to waste. They need useful, timely, practical and affordable support to help them survive effective support for mSMEs. In addition, and eventually thrive. our MMOs can go further to nurture the development of our Malay/Muslim mSMEs.

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DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS FOR DIFFERENT SEGMENTS In a recent speech at the 2018 Committee To offer effective support, we should recognise that different mSME profiles face different of Supply debate3, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, challenges, and therefore require different solutions. Based on my observations of our Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs said: Malay/Muslim mSMEs, and as a starting point, we could map the situation as follows: We cannot truly say that we have arrived, until we have paved the way for all those mSME PROFILE CHALLENGES around us to succeed. Only then will our entire community succeed. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that 1. HOME-BASED BUSINESS • Lack of basic business knowledge no one gets left behind. • Lack of confidence 2. TRADITIONAL BUSINESS

• Lack of vision • Lack of modern business knowledge & practices


• Lack of practical business knowledge & experience • Lack of moral support


• Lack of industry mentors & social capital • Lack of funding


• Lack of practical business knowledge & experience • Lack of social capital

Seen from this perspective, it becomes clearer that a separate set of solutions should be tailored for the needs of each segment. In our current economy, the best support we can give to encourage mSME growth in a world of disruption is to provide a powerful combination of the right knowledge, guidance and moral support. It is exciting to witness what happens to our community’s mSMEs when they gain knowledge to fix their business challenges, get sincere guidance that works and moral support to encourage them along their journey. They feel empowered, gradually grow in their understanding of business and enjoy better results. Most importantly, they feel good that their family is proud of them.

I cannot agree more. Supporting the development of our micro Small Medium Enterprises can bring significant economic upliftment to our Malay/Muslim community – and should therefore be on our collective community agenda. Let us come together and work on truly effective solutions. The wins of our Malay/ Muslim mSMEs is our community’s win, and ultimately, Singapore’s win. Let us begin the dialogue.

Harasha Bafa na runs the Ad am & Hawa Network, wher e she helps SM Es get the right knowledg e to grow their business without makin g expensive m istakes. She was Centre Di rector of SME Centre @ SMCCI and is a Bo Agri-Food & Ve ard Member with the terinary Author ity.

A NEW WAY TO COLLABORATE I would like to conclude by offering this suggestion to our MMOs and community leaders: set up a quadripartite alliance of MENDAKI, SMCCI, other MMOs and private sector practitioners to coordinate our efforts to help develop our Malay/Muslim mSMEs. We need to come up with simple, innovative solutions by taking advantage of existing resources such as the Malay/Muslim Community Development Fund (MMCDF) and government assistance schemes to come up with targeted help to address the specific needs of each mSME profile outlined earlier.





A Walk in the Red Light District:

Women in An Unconventional Trade BY NABILAH MOHAMMAD



When it comes to careers, there are the dream jobs and there are those that only serve to pay the bills and put food on the table. Then, there are ones that go against what may be considered respectable or acceptable by society. One profession in particular often sees its practitioners facing discrimination, violence and abuse. A highly stigmatised, taboo job that people would rather not hear details about: sex work. There is an acute lack of accurate statistics on sex workers around the world, and the numbers will remain vague because the work is largely illegal and often underground. Sex workers are also less keen to be studied due to the nature of the job so it will always be a challenge to compile their numbers as compared to other occupations.

Our research finds that these women are often single mothers making ends meet for their children, victims of desperate husbands or partners in debt, and manipulated homeless teenagers. Poverty, lack of skills and low educational qualification are some of the key factors propelling many from the low-income to this trade, with hopes of a better life. Growing consumerism, the desire to acquire branded items, and the attitude that it’s okay to do whatever it takes to get money, also fuel its attraction for young girls to become escorts.

Whilst public solicitation, living on the earnings of a prostitute and maintaining a brothel are illegal, it is a known fact that prostitution in Singapore still exists but restricted to what has been coined as red-light areas, such as certain parts in When asked why she chose this route, she While Nina made a choice to be in the the Geylang and Desker Road areas and claimed that she needed a flexible job that trade, another lady that Karyawan got in the ‘four floors’ of a mall along Orchard pays immediately and daily, and earns her touch with, was forced into the sex trade Road. However, sex work outside these enough cash for her and her kids. by her ex-husband to pay off his debt areas is also extensive and growing. Sex incurred due to his addiction to drugs. workers also utilise methods such as “We cannot work at 7-11 anymore. The Ruby (not her real name) was sold off to street solicitation, call-girl system, the trade when she was 34 years old. massage parlours and lounges, and online pay there cannot support us. My target per day is to have at least 4 customers and “I was given a choice, it was either me or advertisements. Those in this sub-sector I charge $50 for every half an hour on top my daughter, who was then only six years are the ones that are harder to monitor of another $10 for the room. While there old,” Ruby said. and control due to its ‘invisibility’. are days that I reach my target, there are also days that I just get one customer and Ruby was pinned to the trade for nearly six The Karyawan team is fortunate enough to get in touch with a few ladies who were some days, none. Nowadays, the market is years and was forced to serve a minimum very bad due to the alcohol regulation. of five clients per day. All the earnings willing to share their stories. Before this, customers are usually drunk went to a particular ‘Mummy Rose’ who controlled the vice back then. One of them goes by the name of Nina (not or prefer to drink before they meet us,” she explained. her real name), currently an active sex “When I became too sickly and my skin worker who has been in the industry for over ten years and who first started in 2007 The bad job market coupled with her lack full of lesions, I was told to leave the ‘organisation’. By then, I had nowhere to when she was in her early 20s. Nina is now of academic qualifications led Nina to conclude that sex work is the only option go, my home was seized by the bank due a 38-year-old divorcee with two children, for her. to non-payment,” she explained. and receiving no financial support.


When asked if she ever went to seek help, Ruby answered, “Yes, I did. I went to friends and family. I even approached a mosque but I was turned away as I wasn’t dressed ‘appropriately’ because I had no scarf on, and my dress was dirty. In desperation, I went to a church to seek help. I was welcomed by a pastor who gave me some money for food. I was invited to come again, but I never went back.” According to the ladies, there is actually a large number of Malay women who are in the sex trade industry, as well as those who are social escorts and hostesses in lounges. While not a formal job scope, Nina believes that the hostesses and social escorts’ job fall under the same sex-work umbrella since it also involves entertaining customers who pay for companionship, including sex services. Indeed, there are young Malay women who have turned to this trade, however, evidence of this is hard to come by, usually only as a coincidence, like the article by The Straits Times last October which had reported about a scuffle between two Malay hostesses in a KTV club in Jalan Sultan. While the report had been about the crime and the aftermath (one of the women was blinded in one eye after she was kicked with a stiletto), it had shown the existence of Malays in the trade. There are also websites that advertise Malay hostesses offering their services in lounges and pubs in Singapore. The issue of sex workers among the Malay/Muslim community is a paradox that we often overlook. As prostitution is condemned and impermissible in Islam, and these women, to an extent, are marginalised and invisible in our community, many of us are not cognizant of the magnitude and realities of this issue. Most of us do not consider them as a cause worth battling for as we do for the betterment of the poverty-stricken. To make matters worse, misinformation is widespread and the voices of sex workers are systematically silenced.

A majority of us may have the idea that prostitution is a choice and the women enjoy what they do. What has informed these scripts and where has this message come from? Have we drawn conclusions from real lives and have we listened to them? Or have we allowed stereotypes to become our authority? Instead of simply criminalising or victimising the people who walk this unconventional track, a deeper look should be taken to understand their situation. Indeed, some do in fact choose sex work, but this is not to say that their decisions were easy or without challenges. While there are stories that paint the picture of the well-informed woman choosing sex work to supplement their comfortable income, the reality is quite the contrary for a vast majority of them. In fact, on many occasions, vulnerability, trauma and economic insecurity often drive them into the sex trade. Our research finds that these women are often single mothers making ends meet for their children, victims of desperate husbands or partners in debt, and manipulated homeless teenagers. Poverty, lack of skills and low educational qualification are some of the key factors propelling many from the low-income to this trade, with hopes of a better life. Growing consumerism, the desire to acquire branded items, and the attitude that it’s okay to do whatever it takes to get money, also fuel its attraction for young girls to become escorts. While some may ostracise them for destroying families, living in adultery, and spreading diseases, we fail to see the other spectrum of the consequences of prostitution. The ramifications are not only severe to the society, but also to the sex worker herself as a person.

For instance, according to Project X, which is a sex workers’ rights group, women in the sex trade report high rates of abuse. They are at risk of being exploited by ‘pimps’ and sustaining injuries from repeated violence. In addition, street-based sex workers often find themselves targeted by the police because various prostitution-related activities such as public soliciting are prohibited. This makes it difficult for the ‘streetwalkers’ to report any violence they experience on the job. Sex workers are also at risk of developing mental and physical health problems and/or experiencing emotional and psychological consequences related to being stigmatised or feeling forced to keep their involvement in sex work a secret. It reduces the options for them to turn to any source of support, including healthcare and protection from violence. They are vulnerable to many health problems especially sexually transmitted diseases, not to mention the risk of unwanted pregnancies, which often leads to a lack of prenatal care or unsafe abortions. With all these problems, sex workers are also prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and may resort to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. According to the ladies we spoke to, drug use is intrinsically linked to prostitution. While there are a number who turn to sex work to finance their existing drug addiction, there are also sex workers who use drugs to numb themselves into a life which they resent and to withstand the emotional and physical stress that comes with it. When they get arrested, and released later, most sex workers usually find themselves lurking down the same route again because to them, they have nowhere else to go. Ostracised by family and society, and with no Malay/Muslim welfare shelters that can house them, these women usually have no other option but to stay at hotels. And what other way to pay for their hotel stay? Sex work.

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‘Sex workers stigma’ is the biggest barrier for sex workers to leave the industry. According to the ladies we interviewed, there are cases of ex-sex workers who encountered degrading treatment when they attempted to leave sex work for new occupations or find alternative ways to earn. The stigma of prostitution remains firmly on the women, not the men who engage their services. No matter the realities of their experiences, sex workers are often considered a danger to society, unfit for serious public service, and worst of all, the stigma of: “once a sex worker, always a sex worker”. It is about time the community provide the necessary welfare for these women. Intervention strategies could be including them in income-generating programmes which would decrease the chances of them going back to prostitution. In addition, they should be able to access a holistic healthcare programme that encompasses individual counselling and other supportive measures. Funds could also be raised to help enable their children to attend and stay in school because education plays a vital role in breaking free from the poverty trap and prevent them from entering prostitution. In areas where prostitution remains legal, it may be easier to reach out to them because they are identifiable. But what happens to the rest who suffer silently because of how society treats them? Lucky for Ruby, she remarried and is out of the trade. Together with her supportive husband, they now run a shelter in Johor Bahru to help women like her. The shelter does not receive any funding from the government so they are open to any form of help from the society.


We are not here to condone or condemn the occupation, or the women who are in the profession, be it by choice or force. What we should do is to keep an open mind and help those who want to be out of prostitution. These women need to be assured that the community has not neglected them. As Ruby puts it, “If we don’t do anything to break the cycle, it will just go on and on for years. Stop judging them and reach out to them. Each of them has their own story to tell.

Nabilah Moham mad is a Rese arch Analyst at the Centre for Re search on Islamic and M alay Affairs (R IMA). She holds a Bachel or of Science in Psychology an d a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.


Managing Wealth from the Islamic Perspective BY MOHD KAMAL MOKHTAR

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Wealth in Islam is something that can be owned, has commercial value – whether in physical matter or benefit – and most importantly, the object itself must be permissible in the Shariah. If the object does not meet these specified criteria, it will not be regarded as wealth in Islam.

Protection; and 4 – Wealth Distribution. However, Islamic wealth management takes into consideration other factors that contribute to the achievement of these goals. Among the key elements is adherence to the Shariah and this is the main differentiator between conventional and Islamic wealth management. With this Islam acknowledges the need for ownership in place, the whole dynamics of the wealth and this is evident from the legislation of management process changes, as there is various contracts and in the numerous integration of the spiritual, moral and social juristic verses that encourage seeking of dimensions to the existing material ones. sustenance. However, humans are only vicegerents of the bounty that the Almighty Shariah compliance is a requirement that has created and thus, it is our responsibility needs to be fulfilled in every component to manage what has been entrusted upon of wealth management. There are no us in the best possible manner. restrictions for one to acquire as much wealth as he wishes as long as the method Wealth is not regarded as an end for people of earning, investing or even disposing it to pursue but is deemed as a means to attain does not contravene the Shariah. Among success in this life and in the Hereafter. the parameters imposed is ensuring This is reiterated in Surah al-Kahf verse 46, that the wealth is acquired in a permitted “Wealth and children are (but) adornment manner, meaning it is free of usury of the worldly life. But the enduring good (riba), deception (gharar), and excessive deeds are better to your Lord for reward speculation (maysir). Due to the ethical and better for (one’s) hope.” dimension that Islam accentuates in the process of creating wealth via the Islam strongly advocates comprehensive prohibition of riba, gharar, maysir and wealth management including ensuring other prohibited elements, the social that one’s wealth can continuously assist well-being of the community can be further those who are living even after one’s demise. strengthened. In fact, managing one’s wealth in the most efficient manner is regarded as WEALTH CREATION – NOT SOLELY a necessity due to the many benefits such ABOUT JOB CREATION management will bring about to various With regard to wealth creation at the macro parties; be it at the micro or macro level. level, the development of a country is dependent on the level of employment and ENSURING THE PERMISSIBILITY income of its citizens. With limited STATUS IN THE WEALTH MANAGEMENT resources, a country needs to maximise the PROCESS utilisation of its resources to produce The process of wealth management maximum return and benefits. Only then between the conventional and Islamic way can it grow and improve the livelihood of share the same steps: 1 – Wealth Creation; its citizens. 2 – Wealth Accumulation; 3 – Wealth 24 T H E K A R Y A W A N © ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS. PERMISSION IF REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION.

Most developing countries struggle with high unemployment or underemployment. Thus, apart from creating jobs, wealth creation can also be in the form of improving income and working conditions for existing jobs which will then contribute to the growth of the economy. In other words, wealth creation should be the main focus and not just job creation. This is because economic growth also depends on the purchasing power of the society. Resources can be created through wealth in order to help others spread human prosperity which will then assist in empowering the individuals to grow and thrive, and subsequently strengthen communities. Besides the effort that individuals have undertaken in creating wealth, the state too plays a complementing role in ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place to provide a favourable environment for all the vital components of wealth creation to work harmoniously. Together with the ethical dimension that Islam promotes through upholding the Shariah principles that must be applied in the process of creating wealth, the positive values such as honesty, integrity and others can be nurtured and preserved. ASSUMING RISK AS THE BASIS IN JUSTIFYING RETURN Accumulation is a gradual and continual increase over time that can be done via savings or investments. One can grow one’s wealth by saving but the funds are not channelled back to the community for its development. In order to facilitate contributions made with the purpose of assisting the progress of the society and economy, investments are encouraged in Islam as long as it is within the parameters

for those who are in need, hibah which is given out of love and the recipient does not have to be someone poor, or even waqf which is an endowment for the benefit of others. Wealth distribution in Islam also does not stop upon the demise of an In Islamic wealth management, instruments individual as the execution of will for wealth protection come in various (wasiyyah) – if applicable – and inheritance forms such as takaful, retirement plans and (faraidh) will take place. others. Takaful differs from how conventional insurance works because the Essentially, it can be observed that the individual first contributes to a pool of stages of wealth management in Islam are funds for collective risk sharing and mutual all about having money – as a result of assistance to members who might share the economic growth – for it to flow to those same circumstances and misfortune. The who are in need. This subsequently will same individual can also benefit from result in the narrowing of the income charitable donations and assistance in the disparity gap, reducing inequality and On top of that, ensuring the halal status is event where he suffers a covered loss. The promoting equity. All of these are essential in every aspect of a Muslim’s life. pool of funds is also invested in accordance important macroeconomic objectives of The areas of investment should be in line to the Shariah principles as opposed to the which micro and macro measures can be with the Shariah principles such that the mechanism used in conventional insurance undertaken by all. The mentioned investments are not detrimental to Islam which relies solely on interest income. objectives are the very same objectives and mankind as a whole i.e. producing Hence, apart from adherence to the Shariah, that Islamic wealth management strives weapons that harm societies, manufacturing with the avoidance of the prohibited to achieve, apart from the spiritual of alcohol and such. In other words, ethical elements such as riba, gharar and maysir, objective that is also required to be standards are the guiding principle in one can be assured that his contributions attained as well. assisting Muslims who intend to invest will be invested in an ethical manner. their money as this will ensure that what they invest in is good and wholesome. WEALTH DISTRIBUTION – BEYOND THE It is for this reason that Islamic investing OBLIGATORY AND ONE’S LIFESPAN tly htar curren includes serious consideration of the The welfare of the society holds a Kamal Mok iah ar Sh Ustaz Mohd e th of member had. business to be invested in, their policies, the significant position in Islam. As such, serves as a Islamic Ber of Maybank e th of products and services, and the impact that wealth distribution is considered as part of r Committee be board mem r the He is also a heme unde all of these would have on society and the wealth circulation and is categorised into cognition Sc Re us ah io iz lig at As ic Re environment. the obligatory and voluntary. Obligatory of the Islam supervision ore (MUIS). ap ng Si of contribution can be made purely on a l Counci HELPING OTHERS WHILE PROTECTING religious basis or due to moral and legal ONE’S WEALTH obligation. Examples of obligatory Apart from increasing one’s wealth, wealth contribution tools are zakat, necessary protection is also integral in ensuring sustenance for one’s dependants, tax effective wealth management. This is payments and many others. As for because all of the accumulated wealth are voluntary contribution, it can be made subject to uncertainty and risk of loss or based on one’s goodwill via the instruments damage. Thus, in order to mitigate the risks of sadaqah which is given out of benevolence

prescribed by the Shariah. Contracts like profit-sharing (mudarabah), profit and loss sharing (musharakah) and even hybrid contracts such as agency for investment (wakalah bi istithmar) can be regarded as tools for investment where risks are undertaken in order for the gains to be justified. In Islamic financial transactions, it is stipulated that entitlement to the return on an asset must be linked to the risk of ownership. This concept is firmly established in the following legal maxims, ‘al-kharaj bi ad-dhoman’, which means benefit comes with risk and ‘al-ghurmu bi al-ghunmi’ which means risk accompanies gain.

of financial instability due to unforeseen events or circumstances in one’s life such as premature death, disability or employment disruption, appropriate measures should be taken.

APRIL 2018




A Minority within a Minority:

Being a


It should be stated from the outset that Islam as a religion cannot be seen as one that is uniform in terms of the beliefs of its followers. The terms ‘Sunni’, ‘Shia’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Ibadi’, denote the three main sects according to which Islam can be divided. In Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, Shias form the minority of Muslims in Singapore, with Sunnis forming the majority. Within Shia Islam in Singapore, there would be a further minority of Muslims, namely Malay Shias. Then there are the ‘Sushis’, an endearing and affectionate term invented after combining the terms ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’ in reference to Muslims who have both Sunni and Shia parents. It is this group of Muslims that I would like to focus on, a group caught in an ascribed theological limbo.

dichotomy, that we can be easily be categorised according to one group or another. Also, it is easier to make sense of someone if they are either ‘this’ or ‘that’.

The way Sunnis and Shias approach the concept of Sushi would be markedly different. A Sunni would approach the concept against the backdrop of the demographic situation in Muslim Southeast Asia where most Muslims are Sunnis. Sushis, from their point of view, would complicate the Sunni/Shia dichotomy because a Muslim now has Sunni and Shia blood. Shiism or the Shia parent would then be seen as an outside sect compromising the fine line between being a Sunni and being a Shia. This is not to say that Shias in Singapore don’t have an ideology of dominance at all A google search for ‘Sushi Muslim’ where a Sushi child is seen as an anomaly conjures up contrasting results. A reader is greeted with a definition of this unique because of the Sunni parent. However, in this part of the world at least, it is less Muslim in the Urban Dictionary: likely that the phenomenon of a Sushi “A Muslim with both Sunni and Shi'a parents, or for whom the Sunni-Shi'a marriage or Sushi child would raise questions and curiosity among Shia divide means very little. A Hanafi who does matam for Ashura could be considered Muslims as Shias do not, or cannot, rather, a Sushi Muslim”. As I’ll explain, the divide monopolise Islamic discourse here. It would be interesting to see how Sushis does not mean little to me. are viewed in a Shia-majority society like Sushis constitute an interesting group Bahrain for example. of Muslims. I know this because I happen to be one. I was born in Malaysia, bred in In this context however, the questions posed by other Muslims when I tell them Singapore, and raised by both Sunni and Shia parents. While I consider myself I have both Sunni and Shia parents mean a Sunni Muslim, it is not because of more than just labelling; the questions an intellectual wrestling match that take on a religious nature, or even a I indulged in to figure out which sect was political one. At an Arabic class a few better. I just simply grew up as a Sunni months ago, a classmate, noticing I looked different form the rest, asked me where Muslim. I can naively say that it is convenient to do so since majority of I was from. A part of me already felt a bit Muslims in Singapore or Southeast Asia uncomfortable; I was an Arab taking are Sunnis, but that would discredit Arabic classes! This classmate’s interest Muslims in Southeast Asia who have was piqued when I told him my mother parents of both sects but are Shias. From was Iranian; I told him she was Shia. the outsider’s point of view however, Muslims I have met are often intrigued by being a Sushi sets of a flurry of questions, my ‘Sushiness’. The immediate response, a flurry that I am still beginning to to generalise, is “Oh, so how, is there understand and appreciate. It is possible to conflict?” On another occasion, I have attribute this flurry to the false notion of been asked, with much persuasion, which

sect I belong to: “If you had to pick one, which would it be”? Questions such as these can be exasperating, to put it mildly, because what underlies questions such as these is a particular discomfort with not being able to slot a Muslim in one category. It’s almost as if it would be better if I practiced taqiyyah (precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution) so that I can save myself the trouble of explaining how it’s perfectly fine if both parents come from different sects. Sushi jokes are common for me. I end up continuing the joke by adding terms such as ‘wasabi’. Jokes however only tell half a story. Jokes hide an awkwardness, an awkwardness centred around not belonging to a single sect. After all, it would be much easier to make sense of someone with a single identity rather than a dual one. Concerns such as having both Sunni and Shia parents did not even exist a few decades ago, or at least not on the scale as it does today. It is true that anti-Shia rhetoric then was not as prevalent as it is now. Sushis have existed before, but it is only now that they are a phenomenon that raises questions and even concerns. These concerns are undoubtedly anchored in the dominant narrative that Sunnis and Shias today are destined to engage in an endless theological war, one that of course results in bloodshed as is unfortunately the case in Iraq and Syria. Amidst this supposedly inherent conflict, a marriage APRIL 2018




The offspring of such a marriage is further implicated. Somehow, the onus is on the Sushi child to navigate this fine line of having a dual theological ancestry. He or she has to put in more effort to explain his positionality; saying simply that “I’m a Muslim” is perceived as a ruse to digress from the reality that one has both a Sunni and Shia parent.

between a Sunni and Shia is bound to raise eyebrows. Such bloodshed is absent in Singapore, and we owe this not only to the state’s tough stance against (violent) religious conflict but also the interfaith efforts of grassroots and religious leaders. To draw parallels between an inquiry into my ‘Sushiness’ and the bloodshed that results from theological differences is simply irresponsible, that is if we are comparing a mundane incident and a civil war in terms of magnitude. However, both phenomena reflect an ‘othering’ process. A process where questioning rather than dialogue is used as a solution to understand someone who is different. While Sushi Muslims may not be discriminated against, the fact that Sunni-Shia marriages raise eyebrows for the wrong reasons should not be taken lightly. Engraved in this narrative is a misconception, though not obvious at first, that Shias are seen as the ‘other’. They are seen as different, hence there must be a clash if a Sunni and Shia marry each other. What will the respective parents and friends say? What will the Sunni and Shia communities say? The offspring of such a marriage is further implicated. Somehow, the onus is on the Sushi child to navigate this fine line of having a dual theological ancestry. He or she has to put in more effort to explain his positionality; saying simply that “I’m a Muslim” is perceived as a ruse to digress from the reality that one has both a Sunni and Shia parent. Efforts to address this dual Sushi identity have been undertaken, most notably through a documentary based in the United Kingdom. Titled Why Can’t I Be A Sushi?, the documentary revolves around two young girls who travel around the UK to speak to religious and academic experts on Islam, and members of the public. The filmmaker herself, Hoda Elsoudani, identifies herself as a ‘Sushi’, refusing to be labelled as one or the other. Over the course of the documentary, Hoda finds herself confronted by Muslims who insist that a Muslim can only be a Sunni or a Shia, and not both. Such a documentary has not


been made in Singapore. However, the relevance of such a documentary should not be lost on Muslims in Singapore. On the local front, civil society has been making headway in fostering dialogue between Sunnis and Shias. Ground initiatives need to complement, if not surpass, mere rhetoric at the elite level about how we should preserve social harmony for the sake of a society’s security. An example that comes to mind is Muslim Collective Singapore, an initiative started just after Ramadan last year. To put it succinctly, their aim is to deepen intra-faith understanding and celebrate a diversity where Sunnis and Shias not only tolerate one another but are actually curious about their different beliefs. Initiatives such as Muslim Collective Singapore also provide the platform for Sunni Muslims who may not be aware of or understand what the beliefs of Shiism are. Taking inspiration from the UK, perhaps a seminar series on ‘being a Sushi Muslim’ is timely too. For the time being, Sunni Islam will continue to be the benchmark according to which Sushis, implicitly, should follow unless civil society changes it, be it through writing or action on the ground.

ve rrently an Executi Imad Alatas is cu the Institute (MEI) in st Ea le dd Mi the he at Singapore where of ty rsi ive Un l l Nationa cations and socia bli pu I's ME es co-manag the topics of on g itin wr s joy media. He en plays on in society. He gender and religi e. tim e fre football during his


The Brutal Reign of Homework:

Critical Reflection of A Parent



APRIL 2018




Homework has been a staple of schoolgoing children the world over. As if in a global race to clinch the Homework Champion trophy, almost every school in every country ensures that its students have something to bring back from school to be done at home every day. In Singapore, The Straits Times published a report in 2014 of an OECD study which found that 15-year-olds here spent 9.4 hours on homework each week, which is above the global average of 5 hours. This landed us in the third place in the global ranking of time spent on homework, behind Shanghai (13.8 hours) and Russia (9.7 hours). In 2016, the Institute of Policy Studies conducted a survey over a three-month period, on 1,500 parents with children in about 180 primary schools to find out parents’ perception of the Singapore primary school system. Among the findings, two-thirds of parents said the amount of homework should be reduced. In a speech during the Committee of Supply Debate in 2016, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng acknowledged one parent’s concern that the amount of homework our children are given is excessive. However, instead of proposing the reduction or abolishment of homework altogether, he suggested that “given appropriately, homework reinforces students’ learning, contributes to their progress and cultivates a healthy disposition towards learning”. Also, to ensure the amount of homework is calibrated appropriately, he added that “all our schools have put in place a homework policy and mechanisms to regulate, monitor and coordinate homework across departments and subjects.” For the love of our children, the statement by the Minister certainly warrants scrutiny. First and foremost, what exactly is homework that is ‘given appropriately’? Who decides what is appropriate and what is not? Secondly, what and where is the evidence to support the claims that 30 T H E K A R Y A W A N © ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS. PERMISSION IF REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION.

homework “reinforces students’ learning, contributes to their progress and cultivates a healthy disposition towards learning”?

parents provide the necessary support and guidance for the child to complete the homework. The objective essentially ignores the issue of class. For instance, In fact, these claims have been refuted by the same homework done by a child educator and parenting expert Alfie Kohn belonging to an upper class family and (2006) in his book The Homework Myth. another who lives in a one-room rental flat Drawing from available evidence, from the can generate totally different experiences. practices of educators who have challenged Parents who can afford it would hire tutors the conventional wisdom as well as to do their children’s homework1, while those already attending tuition classes pointing to the personal experience of parents, Kohn has shown that educational would get help from their tutors with their homework. This leaves those children excellence is possible without homework. According to Kohn, homework provides no whose parents cannot afford tuition to go through the ordeal on their own. The academic benefits for children. slightly luckier ones are those whose parents have the opportunity, time and As a father of three school-going children, I have to say that the claim that homework means to catch up and get familiar with is necessary and beneficial for our children the curriculum in order to assist them is nothing more than a myth that has over accordingly with the homework. Here is where the homework policy seems to the decades come to be accepted as fact. ignore the structural conditions of The sense that one gets is that policymakers inequality faced by some children. tend to rely too much on data analytics While one child may have a proper study when crafting policies but may lack room to focus on the homework, the other firsthand knowledge or experience of the would have to put in a little more effort to struggles parents and children face every shut out the distractions around him or single day, particularly those from the her as he or she shares the same limited underprivileged class. space with other family members. As pointed out by sociologist Teo You Yenn In the case of homework, children are the ones affected, as it seems they have no other who has documented the lived realities of underprivileged families in Singapore, “to option than to complete it. The pressure understand why kids from low-income that these children may feel in having to households do poorly in school, we would spend time on their homework daily, at do well to understand what their lives at times at the expense of getting a good night’s sleep, could negatively impact their home are like.”2 personal well-being, and emotional and The pervasive effects of homework as psychological growth. experienced by most children and their families can be inferred from the gripes and The problem is compounded by the fact grievances one frequently hears against that when we talk about education, it is homework, especially when parents get never a level playing field. Those with together. These effects, which have also resources will always get a head start. Let been mentioned by Kohn in his book, are us take for example one of the objectives all interconnected, with one leading to the of homework that can be found in the other. As alluded to above, not all parents homework policy of any school, which are familiar with the curriculum, because states that homework allows parents the not all parents have the same amount of opportunity to participate in their child’s learning. Such participation demands that time, opportunity and means to grasp what 1


their children are learning in school in order to help them with the work they bring home. Even for parents who are able to help, their daily job is enough to exhaust them at the end of the day. This could end up with the parents viewing homework as a burden. Burden on parents may lead to stress on children. Based on my own personal experience and observation, as well as anecdotal evidence from other parents within my own circle, when you have a parent, a child and homework put together, what you get usually is a nerve-racking session. At the end of it, children once again would bear the brunt. For children who struggle to comprehend concepts that are obvious to the adult mind, their homework session with parents can sometimes be fraught with testiness. It may lead to the inadvertent outcome of even an intelligent child doubting her own ability or feeling dejected. Such an ordeal, when experienced daily, naturally leads to family conflict due to the tense relationship between parent and child. The situation is further aggravated when there is less time for activities that would actually bond families together, because homework predominates the family’s schedule. Perhaps the worst possible outcome of it all is the adverse attitude the child may develop towards learning, because of the negative experience he or she goes through every time he or she starts doing homework3.

scale conventions to speak on the various ways to tackle stress at home as a result of excessive homework. Looking at the solutions, we would do well to then ask the question: who actually benefits from homework? The other question that we ought to ask is, what can be done to ensure our children no longer need homework? The fact that our children need to continue doing schoolwork at home to reinforce their understanding of a particular subject highlights possible flaws in our education system and the pedagogy used in the classroom which have not succeeded in helping them understand the subject within the stipulated curriculum time. As a parent, I see homework taking away precious family time for my children and me and replacing it with a highly tense environment at home. It seizes by force the time for my children to explore, to think and to dream. As a parent, I believe what would be more beneficial for my children at home is the freedom to play and to read books, to come up with their own projects that will help them to realise and further develop their productive orientation – the freedom to think, to question, to decide, to be an active and responsible unalienated participant in the learning process. But these cannot be done when we have a homework policy that dominates our children’s time after school.

Based on my own personal experience and observation, as well as anecdotal evidence from other parents within my own circle, when you have a parent, a child and homework put together, what you get usually is a nerve-racking session. dullah holds a ahril Shaik Ab Muhammed Sh hip, Policy & rs de ation (Lea Master of Educ ity and rs Monash Unive Change) from arch interest se re s Hi . ry ra works in a lib d democratic l pedagogy an includes critica education.

The homework policy in schools takes for granted the existence of homework and probably serves as a response to the question 'what can be done to ensure our children are not overloaded with homework'. Solutions include tweaking and tinkering here and there to see how best homework can be assigned, conducting parenting talks in schools for parents to help their children complete the homework, as well as inviting motivational speakers, educational experts from tuition agencies to workshops, seminars and big3


APRIL 2018




50 Shades of

Malaysian Dramas


My sister is always sharing with me outrageous tweets in Malay that she finds from trawling through Twitter. Many of these tweets revolve around the topic of family. It’s no surprise that a disproportionate number of tweets place the blame on women, especially vulnerable young wives, for marital issues. Worryingly, the same victim-blaming mentality is embodied in many of the Malaysian dramas and telemovies that are imported and shown on the Suria TV channel daily, during prime time hours, or during Hari Raya weekend specials. You can even find them on Netflix now! When you think about how widespread these shows are and how many impressionable minds consume them, they become downright terrifying. I’ve heard the same tired argument repeatedly, about how these dramas are just mindless entertainment. I beg to differ, especially when directors like Haris Fazillah of Diaspora Cinta who appeared on Selamat Pagi Malaysia, admitted that his show was meant to be a ‘tauladan’, a lesson for the masses. I’ve also heard people dismissing the shows as innocuous fantasies. Who doesn’t want to steal the heart of an eligible, rich anak Datuk with nothing but a saccharine smile? But when fantasies with flippant portrayals of abuse take up prime time slots and are broadcasted daily around the region to impressionable minds, they are dangerous and irresponsible.

Increasingly, many of the Malaysian dramas are adaptations of romance novels targeted at young readers. Nothing warms my heart more than to know that people aren’t just watching these shows, they are reading about them too. These vapid stories share similar plot points: • a young couple falls in love or is forced into marriage despite having clashing personalities • a third party, usually a jealous friend, ex or mother, has no other purpose in life but to break them up • the couple has a major falling out and nearly breaks up • alternatively, the couple separates for years and they may marry someone else • the third party in their relationship dies, repents or mercifully divorces them • in the end, the main couple are fated to be together In Malaysian drama universe, when it comes to planning your love life, there is just no way to fight your jodoh or fate. Spoiler alert: If your partner is abusive, you’re still going to blindly love your spouse and have a happy ending. Fret not, love and jodoh will make abusers understand the error of their ways. Eventually, they will be the ideal partner you have always prayed for. Thoughts and prayers solve everything while counselling, personal protection orders (PPO) and the justice courts don’t seem to exist. Even when you almost become a rape victim like the heroine in Cinta Hati Abah, prayers are the preferred solution, instead of making a police report .

more insidious form of domestic violence that includes emotional and mental abuse. However, whenever a main lead commits abuse, such as in Hati Perempuan where the husband diminishes his wife’s individual agency by choosing her outfits, telling her to quit working, controlling her movement, and guilt tripping her in public with vague religious quotes for buying birth control, he or she is excused with claims that it was all done out of love. This is a common trait, especially with male leads. They often spout religious quotes about obeying the husband at all cost. Meanwhile, the victim is always shown as having more patience than a saint. By eventually relenting and abiding by their spouse’s demands, the victim will find that their lopsided relationship grows miraculously stronger and happier by the final episode. What is equally alarming are the consequences of such abuse. Over time, victims of assault or forced marriages will successfully transform their spouses for the better with tender love. ‘Lovingly’ abusive spouses will end up with fairytale endings and receive the ultimate blessings and validation from God: children. The implications are clear – abusers should be tolerated and will be richly rewarded. Passive reception of abuse is far more admirable than proactively defending yourself or getting out of a vicious cycle of violence. Worse, it is perfectly acceptable and expected for abuse to happen, especially within marriages.

Meanwhile, villains face absurd divine punishments such as random car accidents, losing their sanity or in the case TILL DEATH (BY YOUR HANDS) of Cinta Hati Abah, getting gored to death DO US PART by a cow without horns. Some villains To further compound the problem, receive a punishment worse than Malaysian dramas constantly display an on-screen death – limited screen time. alarmingly shallow understanding of domestic violence. Domestic abuse can be In Jatuh Cinta Buta, after the drug addict husband physically assaults his wife, he complex and varied. While villains are portrayed as committing outright criminal gets the money he demanded for, divorces her on the spot and walks away scot free, behaviour such as sexual and physical all within five minutes. This blasé assault, heroes and heroines commit a APRIL 2018




acceptance of divine fate is unnerving to me as a woman. It’s one thing to be taught to submissively accept abuse. It’s another to be implicitly told that I don’t have a choice anyway since it is all jodoh. That I must love and stay by the side of my abuser is not just degrading to victims, it also entrenches the victim blaming mentality. WHERE SOME THINGS ARE TRUE Malaysian dramas do get some things right. In real life, domestic abuse is often carried out by someone the victim knows and the victims are disproportionately women. Abuse can also happen to anyone regardless of socio-economic background. However, the damaging effects of physical, mental and emotional abuse can last a lifetime. You cannot just put on a tudung and get over an assault. Likewise, unlike what Ombak Rindu might have you believe, thoughts and prayers do not magically prevent or stop abuse. Often, there is also a tendency for abusers and victims to get stuck in a vicious cycle. For some real-life victims, thoughts and prayers are simply too little, too late. According to AWARE’s Violence Against Women Fact Sheet, 1 in 10 women are victims of lifetime physical violence by a male and 6 in 10 victims are repeatedly victimised. These numbers may seem low but when you take into consideration that 71.7% of women won’t report cases of abuse, one suspects that actual figures are likely to be higher. This is especially since according to welfare organisation, PAVE, spousal abuse is the most common case of domestic violence. Further supporting this suspicion are the statistics published by the Ministry of Social and Family Development in 2016, where 75.8% of PPO cases were filed by and granted to women. Common sense dictates that telling a real victim to be patient and endure abuse is not only thoughtless but dangerous. Yet this is precisely what is depicted. A common, pivotal plot device is a forced 34 T H E K A R Y A W A N © ASSOCIATION OF MUSLIM PROFESSIONALS. PERMISSION IF REQUIRED FOR REPRODUCTION.

marriage by parents who are blind to the domestic violence. If the family finds out, women are told to keep being patient because the abuser really has a heart of gold underneath his rough exterior. Or more commonly, they don’t find out at all as victims fall in love and stay with their abusers because it is their jodoh. In the popular and highly problematic Pembancuh Kopi Mr Vampire, the male lead tricks the heroine, unlawfully imprisons her in a hotel room where he pins her to the bed and attempts to rape her. All because he wants to know why she left him four years ago. When his father bursts into the room, he tells the traumatised heroine to leave and demands his son to take responsibility for shaming the girl. The son gets a free pass because he claims to know his limits, whatever they are. Immediately after this attempted rape, Mr Vampire romantically proposes to the heroine during a public function and she willingly accepts it. When his abuse continues after marriage, her best friend keeps reminding her to be patient because her husband really loves her. In reality, she has a higher chance of getting killed or seriously injured the longer she stays in such an abusive marriage. Whenever I watch such shows, I am puzzled as to why they are so popular. Surely, I am not the only one who is critical of the sugarcoating of abuse. Why do we allow sexual assault to be frequently used as a lazy plot device to push the story forward or use religion to justify a character’s abusive attitude? What does this say about our society, both as producers and consumers? If we are comfortable with the status quo of Malaysian dramas, we present to the world that we are uncreative, insensitive and worse, uncritical of the cherry-picking of religion to justify abuses. We are admitting that we are willing to overlook violence and romanticise, much to our own detriment, pain and suffering as necessary qualities in a marriage. We are failing the victims and the defenseless

while perpetuating harmful patriarchal ideas that oppress women. It’s time we stop the fantasies and excuses and start asking the hard questions. Thoughts and prayers, everyone.

from graduated bdul Rahim niversity with a A ah id Nur Ham logical U ecialise in ng Techno the Nanya hopes to sp uate he S h. lis ad ng major in E fiction for her postgr or rr ho an Asi studies.

In Defence of


Need for A Culture of Literary Literacy in the Community BY DR NURALIAH NORASID

APRIL 2018




“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” John Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society “‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, ‘…only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey A LUXURY WE CANNOT AFFORD? The sad reality about being a woman of the word in a community striving towards economic and educational excellence is that I am used to hearing statements such as, “A lot of Malays are in the arts and the humanities, and we will need to shift those numbers into the STEM disciplines” or “They want to take the design and the arts, and we cannot encourage it” from our very own community leaders themselves. I have even once been asked to justify my choice of the written word for my course of study – implied in that demand for justification being an incredulity as to what value writing and literature can bring to a community made marginal by both their race and beliefs. Now, I would be a poor writer if I am to say I have the answers, for the very humility and at the same time strength of any human being is to say that they can neither know the mind of divinity nor be the source of all knowledge. Thus, to that incredulity, I answered the bearer of the question, with kindness, that it taught However, human realities are far more me to be kind, to view people kindly, and to complex than the atom they are made understand the epistemology of their belief up of. Perhaps inequality and inequity are a natural part of life, however, it needs to be systems, their worldviews and the choices a condition that is inherently human to try they make, no matter how poor it may seem to the privileged or righteous mind. and rise above that. To be able to do so in To talk about any topic – of race and a world that is built of and framed by multiculturalism, of religion and its narratives, especially in a community practitioners, of discrimination, power and whose morals and ethics are governed by human dignity – in absolute “definables”, the interpretations – the exegesis and/or harbours the danger of falling back onto tafsir – of the truth of a text, I would argue the very reductivism we are trying to fight that there needs to be a culture of literary against. Of course, given the limited extent literacy to go alongside the religions, the of the human experience and perceptions, sciences, the medicines and engineering. we can only go so far when it comes to When I was first invited to give my considerations regarding racial inequality and multiculturalism at the Freedom Boat: Harbouring New Truths in 2015, I admit, I sounded far chirpier in my acceptance than I actually felt in my heart. Later in my capacity as a writer and researcher, I would come to be invited to speak on the same issues at Epigram Book’s panel discussion, Can We Write About Race? in 2017. It begs the question of whether we as Singaporeans lack the logistics to stop the same issues from cropping up again and again. Or is it, as a science professor I once had an argument with vehemently insisted, that inequality is a natural part of all life – that even atoms, when placed in a closed, uniform environment, will exhibit signs of unequal behaviours such as moving faster or having more energy than others. A look at all of humanity seems to drive home his point and besides, one cannot argue with science, now can we?


keeping an open mind in our considerations of society and the environment it has been cultured in. However, the beauty of literature is that it explores a vast range of the human condition – from erudition to willful ignorance, kindness, cruelty, ambition, the justifications for apathy, and the gentle slivers of sympathy – knowledge of which we can add to our public consciousness and conscientiousness. Yet, poetry, prose, theatre – these pursuits do not put food on the table, no doubt about it. I have watched my brothers giving up their love and talents for painting and drawing to pursue courses in industries they believed has some economic value, only to discover that even in those, there is little room for them to grow and make a decent living. It is a struggle to make a living working full-time in writing and arts, yes. The commissions and honorariums can barely cover rent, and dependence on government funding meant being at the mercy of their policies and regulations. Furthermore, in the larger scheme of things, these pursuits have little to contribute when it comes to the country’s economic growth, in job-making and innovation. Often they are considered luxuries only the privileged could afford and something an already struggling community could not. However, from the perspective of a literary practitioner, I have argued that much of our realities today – the ways in which our society is being organised and governed – are significantly influenced by narratives

and myths that have been legitimised by authority and popular practice. As such, even if artistic pursuits may not be entirely economically viable to some as a career, the culture of literary literacy still needs to be promoted in the education of our community and its leaders. BIG SIGNIFICANCES OF LITTLE LIVES At a recent conference titled, Humanities and the City, organised by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), speakers and academics came together to present on the various realities of urban planning and urban living in the different countries that they have focused their research on. During the conference, they also gave their thoughts on the role humanities can play in the public sector, especially in that of urban development within cities such as Hong Kong, Istanbul and Singapore. The common theme that was discussed pointed at the humanities’, particularly, fiction’s and literature’s, ability to illuminate the existing realities within the different interiorities present in the urban environment. What life is like in the poor households, especially that interim rental housing, was also brought up during one of the conference’s panels, examining literature’s and, by extension, the strength of narratives in not only highlighting the ways people cope with living on a tight budget, but also in evoking humane responses to them – empathy, sadness, contemplation – responses that can more effectively result in greater awareness and call to action from organisations and groups on the ground. The value and effectiveness of narratives in the areas of social work and research have already been examined and proven by the spectrum of researchers and academics working in the field. Similarly, work done on Malay/Muslim issues in Singapore have turned to the collection and analyses of narratives to arrive at more nuanced and specific roots of longstanding problems. These can then inspire more directed quantitative research and hopefully, fairer and better informed policy changes.

However, the value of narratives pretty much stops there. Literature is more than the mere reading of stories and poetry; and reading more than several hours curled up with fluff and magic ponies. Rather, it requires for texts to be read in contexts – geopolitical and economic developments, racial conflicts, governing and emerging ideologies, cultural proximities and isolation, among others, all lend to the writing of a text, and as such, given proper direction and equipment with the right skills and knowledge, can help to uncover more than even the conscious interview can reveal. Reading various literary texts alongside academic papers, news and media articles, policies and sets of statistical data can help leaders and stakeholders arrive at a deeper understanding of the community they are trying to help, and challenge pre-existing ideas of groups such as the poor and marginalised. Critical reading and training in literature may seem, what Singaporeans would consider “cheeminology”, requiring a special kind of education at the cost of the money-makers and practical pursuits. Perhaps this is so. However, I have never met a child of whichever level of education with whom I cannot discuss text and humanity. Hope, bravery and selfsufficiency in Mathilda with a Primary 2 child; exploitation, poverty and power in The Hunger Games, mortality in The Fault in Our Stars with secondary school students; gender inequalities, abuse and the importance of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey with two wide-eyed, giggly ITE girls; or discrimination, shame and dignity in The Malay Sketches with Chinese students who have never had Malay friends in their lives. Stories prove to be accessible and powerful tools for the discussion of difficult topics.

People are more intelligent and capable than our categories ever want to think them to be. The medium for such lessons of reading need not be books. Increasingly, film and drama, songs and video games are being used to engage children, youths and adults on important issues, due to their draw and accessibility. In our search for the new narrative, perhaps we can take the creative approach of making the resources for reading and the ways of reading available to the community as part of our educational development programme.

Dr Nuraliah Noras id is a Research Associate with the Centre for Researc h in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). Sh e holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary My thopoesis from Na nyang Technological Un iversity. She is the author of The Gatek eeper and her oth er writings have been published in Perempuan: Musli m Women Speak Out and the Quarterly Litera ry Review Singapo re.

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Opportunities Beyond Home:

Launching Business Abroad with



industry is often the first to suffer, because to work because he knew it was tough to customers won’t have the luxury to spend run a business. However, when he saw my on their services. potential, he grew supportive of my entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, delving into the hotel industry is no easy feat, especially if you’re thinking I personally encourage my kids to be of starting one overseas, but it can be an entrepreneurs. My daughter now has her exciting journey with its own set of own business called Sahara Shawl, while obstacles. one of my sons is with me running the hotel. My last son is still studying in Indonesia for instance, has experienced continued and robust economic growth in Khalid Omar Abdat shares his perspective Victoria School and hopefully, he will be with the Karyawan team on how to strive interested in business like the rest. recent years. The country is also seeing a rise in their middle class community. This for success in this lucrative trade. Q: What motivated you to enter the has created opportunities and fuelled Q: Could you tell us more about hotel industry and why was Yogyakarta demand for more quality and greater yourself? chosen? variety of services and infrastructure in Indonesia, especially in the hotel industry. Khalid: I’m 58 years old this year and Khalid: When I was operating the Jelita The increased business activity and the rising trend of tourist arrivals are triggering I have three children. I was born in Penang boutique, I was liaising with, and getting my supplies from people in Yogyakarta, so demand for more hotel rooms. In addition but I’m a Singapore citizen. I grew up in Kampung Batak in the Eunos / Kaki Bukit I was familiar with the place. There was to Jakarta and Bali, Indonesia also offers also a boom in Indonesia’s air travel and various investment opportunities in more area and went to Victoria School before I saw Yogyakarta was lacking in hotels. than 100 cities and one of them is the city pursuing my tertiary education at Singapore Polytechnic for three years. When I bought the land in 2010, people of culture and tourism – Yogyakarta. Upon graduating with a diploma in were building hotels in other cities. There were earthquakes in Yogyakarta at that Local Malay/Muslim traders in Singapore Mechanical Engineering, I worked in a shipyard for about two years before time too, so investors were skeptical about are now more open to venturing into starting my entrepreneurial venture. building hotels there. I decided to swim and investing in multimillion-dollar against the current and took the risk to businesses in regional countries such as Prior to the hotel industry, I was pursuing build a hotel in Yogyakarta anyway. Indonesia. One example is Khalid Omar a few different trades. I was in the Honestly, I didn’t really have a concrete Abdat who launched Eastparc Hotel, furniture business and operated Bella plan. I saw the opportunity, seized it, and a halal five-star accommodation that Interiors for about 10 years. I then started took action. houses 193 rooms in the heart of a women’s apparel business called Jelita Yogyakarta. Eastparc was officially boutique along with a spa known as Q: What is unique about your hotel and launched in October 2013 and has since SpaJelita, for about another 10 years. what is your competitive advantage? garnered many positive reviews on Towards the end of the clothing line TripAdvisor and high ratings on various Khalid: We are a halal, five-star gardenbig online travel agencies (OTA) including business, I ventured into property. themed hotel. The hotel is a combination I bought old properties including old Agoda, Expedia and bungalows, then renovated them before of lavish architecture and contemporary selling them back at a profit. It was facilities. We had a Singapore architect The hospitality industry is much more design our hotel. The theme of the hotel is through this business that I gained than checking guests in and out. It is experience in property management, modern tropical with lots of trees and among the most economically fragile, which eventually helped me thrive in the greeneries. capital-intensive and failure-prone forms hotel industry. of business in the market. The trade is We don’t serve alcohol and we don’t have much broader than most other industries Q: Are your family members also any lounges or bars. We have a diverse and requires an understanding of a entrepreneurs? customer base including the Muslim number of defining aspects, including community and the Meetings, Incentive customer satisfaction and its heavy reliance on disposable income and leisure Khalid: My father was a trader but he was Travel, Conventions and Exhibitions initially against the idea of me venturing (MICE) market. Our hotel also offers kids time. If disposable income decreases due into business. In fact, he was grooming me facilities so it is children- and familyto a recession, for instance, the hotel Years ago, taking advantage of market anomalies in other countries to set up a business may have seemed unfeasible, but these days, setting up a business abroad might not be as difficult as we perceived. In fact, it may be less risky, and more economically sound than launching one in your home country.

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friendly. In addition to the standard facilities that every hotel offers, there are also kids movies, kids playground, and kids pools with slides.

Q: What are your thoughts on the business opportunities that are available for the Malay / Muslim community in Singapore?

The hotel employs about 350 staff members, both full-time and part-time. Our employees are largely from Yogyakarta.

Khalid: If the Malay/Muslim community wants to grow and seize the opportunities in business, they should consider going to Indonesia. One particular strength that the community has is in the catering or the food & beverage industry. The biggest opportunity for them right now is in Bali, because Bali is opening up to the Muslim community. Muslims from all over the world are coming to Bali but there is a lack of halal food.

Q: What have been the highlights of your career so far? Khalid: Eastparc is the highlight of my career. Of course, I’m always looking to expand, but Eastparc has been the pinnacle of my effort.


In addition, Singapore Malay/Muslims are familiar with the language and customs in Indonesia so they should capitalise on this advantage. The Indonesian market also has a low cost base so it would be much cheaper to launch a business there.

Production and salary costs are also relatively low. In addition, the middleincome Muslim community in Indonesia is growing, and because of this, investments in halal restaurants and hotels are in demand. I believe that if you can deliver quality and value, everyone will support your business, including the non-Malay/Muslim community. This is based on my experience. The Malay/Muslim community needs to have courage, find a local partner and explore the opportunities that are available. Q: What plans do you have for the future? Khalid: I have a new team of 20 to 30 people that is headed by a Singaporean, and we are coming up with IT solutions for the hotel industry. I’m also engaging a team to develop a Property Management

I believe that if you can deliver quality and value, everyone will support your business, including the non-Malay/Muslim community. This is based on my experience. The Malay/Muslim community needs to have courage, find a local partner and explore the opportunities that are available. System to manage other hotels. In addition, Q: What advice would you give to aspiring Malay/Muslim entrepreneurs? I am working on building my own small Online Travel Agency (OTA). I’m hoping Khalid: Aspiring entrepreneurs should to launch all of these in 2019. start young and look beyond economic data to understand where the best I am also currently in talks with another opportunities lie, and use that analysis party to build a beachfront hotel in to guide their decisions and strategies. Central Java. We are still in the planning For instance, the Indonesian market is stages and I am looking for various possibilities and opportunities. Singapore rising rapidly and this is actually a big opportunity for the community. The has a good reputation, especially for our Malay/Muslim community in Singapore efficiency, so we should take advantage should capitalise on the booming upper of this. middle class in Indonesia and our language advantage. I hope to inspire the Malay/Muslim community to invest in the Indonesian market. I believe the community has the expertise in certain areas that are valuable in tapping into the market. In fact, there are already a number of top-level arch Analyst mad is a Rese Singaporean executives in Indonesian Nabilah Moham Islamic and on ch ar se Centre for Re e th at s a Bachelor ld ho companies, but not many are doing (RIMA). She Malay Affairs Specialist a d business in Indonesia. ychology an Science in Ps ining. of ta M atistics and Da Diploma in St

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Singapore is one of the most unequal among wealthy nations. Our gini coefficient has been increasing since the 1980s till the present. However, looking at poverty through the lens of statistics cannot fully capture the reality of social inequality. It cannot tell you about the lived reality of those who live with the constant anxiety of precarity, or what it’s like to bear constant indignities. In Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like, published by Ethos Books, the dominant way of understanding social inequality, as well as the many myths usually shored up in such a discussion, are tackled with empathy and astute analysis. Throughout the book, while discussing the reality of her respondents, Teo does not remove her personal voice in the essays. Shying away from the tone of an objective, factual account was a deliberate choice; one that abided by her insistence that we cannot think of social inequality as a phenomenon that solely concerns those who live with poverty. Instead, it should be seen as reflecting a systemic failure and a problem that is as much about “us” as it is about “them”. A question she poses, and the book attempts to answer, is: “What do the contrast in our circumstances and ways of being tell us about the systems in which we find ourselves navigating decisions and building lives?”

Book Review:


CONTESTING NORMALCY The issue of what is considered “normal” is a consistent topic throughout the book that she invites readers to contest. The basic assertion is this – norms are not value- and politically-neutral. They are a result of prior negotiations among Singaporeans about policies and regulations, and they do not benefit everyone. They are also a standard against which everyone is held, and judged, sometimes unfairly, and against which they can be perceived to have “failed”.

On the topic of education, Teo suggests that the main reason why students from low-income backgrounds “fall behind” can be traced to their class disadvantage. Most of their parents are unable to be as involved in their education and learning, or provide the financial support for enrichment activities or tuition. We therefore need to disrupt the tendency to use the higher-income and highereducated as the norm, or the belief that such norms are necessarily considered “good” at all. To question normalcy is to begin to see and make associations that perhaps those in power do not want us to see. For example, early in the book Teo turns our gaze to the spatial politics of the neighbourhoods of rental HDB blocks. For a start, the surroundings are often bleak, with cramped corridors, and dirtier surroundings due to the higher concentration of residents as compared to the HDB flats of homeowners. She mentions how in contrast to images and advertisements promoting the wellness of residents – such as ads encouraging exercise – rental flats are instead plastered with images cautioning residents against loan sharks and other criminal activities. Low-income areas are also disproportionately policed, and as a result, the residents are more likely to be arrested. Dr Teo raises the following question: “If the signs that we see in our everyday life contribute to our sense of who we are . . . what are the implications for people when the only message they are getting about who they are revolve around crimes and problems?”

On top of the fact that they are unable to own their own homes – in a country where homeownership is viewed as imperative – the very experiential, spatial existence of those living in poverty reminds them through everyday subtle indignities, that they are outside norms.

their poverty. That their parenting is full of bad decisions, and the students lazy and full of bad influences, which explains their lack of progress in education. None of these myths are true, but in discussing the issue of social inequality, their hold on the imagination of Singaporeans are so strong that they are almost always brought up. It reveals the degree of lack of understanding there is into the real, everyday experiences and challenges that the lower-income face. But perhaps what they share in common is a kind of victim-blaming. The problem of poverty and social inequality is individualised instead of rightfully acknowledged as product of a systemic problem.

Looking to the difficulty of work-life balance for those living in poverty, Teo locates the problem as such: “Their poor employment conditions are central to this. There are other norms that have to be The lack of continuous and unconditional contested, such as what is considered the public support for care is another”. The “normal” or “Singaporean” way of raising poor are unable to employ financiallya child, or the educational route and demanding salves to close care gaps. While experience that a child should take. the middle- and upper-class may be able to Regardless of the norm being discussed, employ domestic helpers, or send children Teo urges us to problematise them for to camps, activities and even day care, their lack of class-sensitivity through such options are often out of reach for the revealing the depth of difficulties that poor. More importantly, low-wage jobs are people of lower-income face in their low on formal and substantive rights, are everyday lives. less flexible, and far more precarious. This makes it difficult for them to balance their UNLEARNING MYTHS family’s needs, such as being present with Part of what normalises the treatment their family, supporting their child’s of those who live in poverty, and the studies, or picking them up from childcare, tolerance of social inequality, is the and maintaining their job at the same time. entrenched belief in the myths surrounding There is thus a fallacy that poor people the topic, commonly expressed in platitudes. are guided by different “values” which It might be the myth of meritocracy, for influence their parenting, and inclined to example, where everyone supposedly has “bad choices”. Instead, for Teo, it would be an equal opportunity to succeed through more accurate to say that they have poor sheer hard work, and nothing else. We options, instead of making poor choices. might believe therefore that the poor simply are not working hard enough. We On the topic of education, Teo suggests might also believe that the poor are guided that the main reason why students from by different value and belief systems that low-income backgrounds “fall behind” inhibit their ability to be more productive can be traced to their class disadvantage. market participants, therefore perpetuating Most of their parents are unable to be as APRIL 2018




involved in their education and learning, or provide the financial support for enrichment activities or tuition. Despite the fact that the education system is complicit in perpetuating inequality within a system that promises democratic access to opportunity, Teo cited Zonyi Deng and S. Gopinathan when they “point out that the early signs of the effects of ethnicity and socioeconomic status on children’s school performance were largely ignored. Differences in outcomes were essentially registered as (natural) ability differentials”. SYSTEMIC BARRIERS As aforementioned, the victim-blaming language that the poor face often individualises the problem of social inequality, and flattens it to a supposed problem of individual values, behaviours, or habits. Though they might be well-meaning, even social workers may dwell on the emphasis on individual resilience as the main prescription for getting one out of poverty. How does our country’s systems and narratives itself perpetuate this convenient fallacy? In perhaps the most “technical” chapter titled “Differentiated Deservedness”, Teo observes how the framing of public intervention in the form of state support as “charity” specifically for the “needy” results in this help being seen as something beyond public responsibility. It is not viewed as a basic form of social security that all citizens deserve, but only for those who are deemed truly needy. This unsurprisingly results in stigmatisation for those who seek such help. Additionally, this help is heavily reliant on the condition that the poor are employed and seen as productive market, economic participants. The overemphasis on the individual, instead of the institutional, for the cause of their distress, only serves to deepen the problem. As she rightfully summarises: “The invocation of


motivation, of mindsets, of agency – they are powerful distractions from looking at poverty as linked to inequality.” The inequalities generated by the capitalist system thus ends up being perpetuated, and even deepened, by the state.

discuss already established research on institutional racism and its link with poverty.

Despite my disappointment on the subject of race, I believe that Teo’s book is a valuable sociological contribution on CONCLUSION: ON RACE the subject of social inequality. It is If I had a disappointment with this recommended reading for all of us, because otherwise brilliant book, it would be that all of us live within the society and system Teo is determined not to include race in that has produced inequality. Hopefully it the discussion of poverty in Singapore. drives forward the conversation, and in In her last chapter titled “A memo on race,” time to come, all gaps will be closed. she mentions how she had to be “strongarmed” by the editors (I am thankful for the editors) to discuss her decision to exclude race. It perhaps reveals the sad itor of state of racial discourse in Singapore, ntly serves as ed Diana Rahim curre g stories uin og tal ca g blo ,a where even a sociological scholar does not Beyond The Hijab writing slim women. Her feel like she can talk about something so of Singaporean Mu tional Na n, me Wo ed by UN view has been publish Re ry important without great trepidation. era Lit y , and Quarterl Teo rightfully points out that the issue of poverty (one that disproportionately affects the Malay community) can be prone to essentialising racist explanations, in line with cultural deficit theory. She does not want to insinuate in any way that a person’s belonging to a particular racial group is reason for their poverty, and points out that people with a similar class background may be able to understand and relate to each other better than with members of their own race from different class backgrounds. Still, to talk about poverty in Singapore without also discussing race is to leave a big gap. The two are so intertwined that any thorough analysis on poverty in Singapore is incomplete if it does not address why it is, particularly, that one race is overrepresented. Teo mentions that it is difficult, but judging from how brilliant and complex her analysis had been throughout the book, I am convinced that she is capable of handling such a discussion. In fact, her citations show that she has read scholars who have already dealt with the subject of race and the state. It would have been possible to at least acknowledge and

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