Sunday, August 14, 2011

NDR 2011: Winning back the Malay ground

Two bug-bears of the Singapore Malay community are finally getting some long overdue attention going by the two key points raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in Malay.

I suppose this is part of the ruling PAP's strategy to start winning back some of the ground it lost since the May general election, and in focusing on these two issues, I believe that the PAP has calculated that it will gain a good amount of political goodwill and mileage with the Malay community.

Such political goodwill and mileage would certainly help to offset the underlying disquiet in the community over the government's immigration policies which have seen the influx of a large number of foreigners from Northeast and South Asia.

And with the presidential election just around the corner - nomination day is on 17 August while polling day is on 27 August - I am also inclined to believe that the feel good news - covering housing, education, employment and healthcare - delivered by PM Lee in his various NDR speeches had been designed to sweeten the ground for the establishment-preferred presidential candidate.

Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy Criteria
The first issue is the plan to revise the income ceiling crieteria for the tertiary tuition fee subsidy (TTFS), which has not been reviewed since it was first introduced 20 years ago. As it stands now, the TTFS is given out based on very outdated income ceiling criteria: 100% for households with a gross monthly income of $2,000 or less and 70% for households with a gross monthly income of between $2,001 and $3,000.

That a review is finally being undertaken is credit worthy but why has it taken 20 years for the question of a review to be brought to the surface? Why has the means criteria for the TTFS been allowed to languish in limbo, as if divorced from the reality of the increases in real income and cost of living over the last two decades?

These questions need to be addressed in tandem with the deliberations that will be convened to establish the new income celings that will serve as the criteria for qualifying for the TTFS.

This responsibility will have to fall on the shoulders of the Malay members of parliament, who while elected into parliament as national leaders, are also at the same time leaders of the Malay community. They, or their predecessors, had been party to the establishment of the criteria and owe it to the community to explain why this review is only taking place now.

It is my hope that the process of reviewing the income ceiling for the TTFS will be one which will involve and engage the community, and that a broad range of perspectives will be considered before a decision is taken. The community too should come forward to give their honest, considered and thought-through opinions on this matter.

For me, besides just looking at income levels, one aspect that needs serious consideration is the inclusion of a per capita income criteria in the assessment of ability and affordability, especially when one considers that the Malay community tends to have larger families and by extension have the possibility of having more than one child pursuing a tertiary education.

Looking at household incomes on a per capita basis is more likely to give a more realistic picture of ability and affordability, whereas household income levels merely provide a broad sweep of earning power without taking into consideration the real expenses incurred by a household.

If my memory serves me right, this had been suggested some 20 years ago but it was not accepted and included in the criteria for the TTFS. I can only hope that this will not be the case now.

Geylang Serai Renewal
The second issue raised by PM Lee looks at transforming the existing Malay Village in Geylang Serai into a civic centre and plaza for the Malay community, furthering the efforts to renew the Geylang Serai area which is synonymous with Malay culture and heritage.

The successful redevelopment of the Geylang Serai market, which was well-received by the Malay community, has probably provided a firm foundation for the government to embark on this initiative.

The Malay Village, which was touted as a showcase of Malay culture and heritage when it was first built about 20 years ago, has been largely a white elephant for the community and only comes to life during the month of Ramadan with the Hari Raya bazaar and Geylang Serai light-up.

Based on what was announced by PM Lee, the Malay Village, whose lease is due to expire soon, will be replaced with a multi-level complex that will include a Malay Heritage Gallery.

Judging by the fact that a name has already been given to the complex - Wisma Geylang Serai - it would appear that this plan is good to go. A minister of state has also been appointed to oversee the transformation project.

I can only hope that Wisma Geylang Serai will be a place of pride for the Malay community, a showcase for Malay culture and heritage as well as a place that the community can use as a rallying point to engage itself and continue to build bridges with the other communities that make up Singapore society.

And although it seems that much of the plan has already been put to paper, I still hope that the team tasked to oversee the transformational project would involve a broad cross-section of the community in the course of seeing through the plan.

A Time of Opportunity
Through these two issues, the Malay community has been provided with an opportunity to have a say in their future, in particular, in the areas of keeping tertiary education affordable to more families and ensuring the preservation of Malay culture and heritage.

An opportunity has also been provided to rise above partisan politics, and it will be to the benefit of the Malay community if the leaders within the community (and I hope that it will include leaders on both sides of the poliltical divide) as well as members of the community engage each other constructively towards a greater purpose.

Let us not waste the time and opportunity that has been given to us.

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