Assessing the Racial Composition of the Malaysian Judiciary

A critical assessment of the racial composition of the Malaysian Judiciary in relation to the Federal Constitution and the societal and political environment of Malaysia.

If you only knew who were the Chief Judges of Malaya (which is the No. 3 top post in the Malaysian Judiciary) from 1994 onwards, you would be forgiven for thinking this position can only be assumed by a Malaysian of Malay heritage. Let’s do a roll call of them:

2008-present: Ariffin Zakaria
2007-2008: Alauddin Sheriff
2004-2006: Siti Norma Yaakob
2002-2004: Haidar Mohamed Noor
2001-2002: Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim
1998-2001: Wan Adnan Ismail
1994-1998: Anuar Zainal Abidin
1994: Eusoff Chin

In the last 15 years, we see that all the Chief Judges of Malaya were Malay. But if you looked further back, you will be surprised to learn that was not so. Let’s recall them from 1963 – 1994:

1992-1994 Gunn Chit Tuan
1988-1992: Hashim Yeop Sani
1984-1988: Abdul Hamid Omar
1982-1984: Salleh Abas
1979-1982: Raja Azlan Shah
1974-1979: Pajan Sarwan Singh Gill*
1973-1974: Mohamed Suffian Mohamed Hashim
1968-1973: Ong Hock Thye
1966-1968: Mohamed Azmi Mohamed
1963-1966: Syed Sheh Barakbah

Back then, we had two Malaysians of Chinese heritage and one of Indian heritage that rose to such high office. Looking at the appointments of the Chief Judges of Malaya back then, there is no discernible pattern about when they were to be appointed. This suggests that the appointments were not made according to a racial policy. It is fair to infer from this that they were appointed because of their abilities as a judge and perhaps administrator of judges. In short, it is likely that they were appointed based on merit.

Though there was a long break after Pajan Singh Gill of 13 years before Gunn Chit Tuan was appointed, if we look at the calibre of men who served between them, we can appreciate why. Three of them eventually rose to become Lord President (as the post of Chief Justice was then known as) although Tun Abdul Hamid Omar did so under the most disappointing of circumstances.

But now it has been 14 years since Gunn Chit Tuan relinquished office without any indication that the Chief Judge of Malaya’s post would be assumed by a Malaysian of an Indian or Chinese heritage.

The thinking which is palpable both in legal and judicial circles is that this will not happen again. It is also widely thought in the profession that the highest office Malaysians of Indian or Chinese heritage can succeed to is the Federal Court, or the office of Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak (it used to be known as the Chief Judge of Borneo; which is the no. 4 top post in the judiciary), the lowest of the four office bearing positions. But it is generally understood that the position of Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak would go either to a Chinese or someone from Sabah or Sarawak. The implication of this is that a Malaysian of Indian heritage is highly unlikely and regrettably unable to assume an office bearing position in the judiciary.

Worse, recent patterns of appointment to the Federal Court and Court of Appeal show that at most two or three Malaysians of Indian and/or of Chinese heritage are appointed at any one time to those courts. This is indicative of tokenism being practised in judiciary at the highest levels. How else can you explain the perpetual pattern of two or three Malaysians of Indian or Chinese heritage present with an overwhelming majority of Malaysians of Malay heritage in the the Federal Court, or a similar racial ratio in the Court of Appeal?

There is nothing in Part IX of the Federal Constitution that demands a Chief Justice, President of the Court of Appeal or the Chief Judge of Malaya must be of Malay heritage, or dictates that the racial composition of the Federal Court or even the Court of Appeal must contain a majority of citizens of Malay heritage. In fact, Article 123 of the Federal Constitution which deals with the qualifications to be a High Court Judge and above provides the following:

A person is qualified for appointment under Article 122B as a judge of the Federal Court, as a judge of the Court of Appeal or as a judge of any of the High Courts if –

(a) he is a citizen; and

(b) for the ten years preceding his appointment he has been an advocate of those courts or any of them or a member of the judicial and legal service of the Federation or of the legal service of a State, or sometimes one and sometimes another.

More importantly, we have Article 8 of the Federal Constitution which provides as follows:

(1) All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.

(2) Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.

That this persistent racial pattern at the appellate courts (a handful of non-Malays and an overwhelming majority of Malays) continues in our judiciary suggests that race is a more influential factor than abilities or merit when it comes to the appointment and promotion of a judge. Any litigator who is in the thick of litigation practise in our civil courts will acknowledge that at the level of top senior counsel, the composition is the opposite of the nation’s racial population.

Where top senior legal counsel are concerned the ratio of Malaysians of Indian heritage are highest as compared to those of Chinese heritage who come in second as compared to those of Malay heritage who have the lowest numbers. That is how I know it to be from experience and conversation. How this has happened will be dealt with at another time.

It is from this experience that I strongly feel that if the appointment of judges were decided purely on merit, we should see many more Malaysians of Indian and Chinese heritage in the Judiciary, and at its highest levels if not office bearing positions – even that of the Chief Justice, which has been occupied by a Malay since Sir JB Thomson retired in 1966.

So whilst we have the clearest endorsement in the Federal Constitution that racial and religious bias is unacceptable in law, and this must naturally mean the application of the law as well, the racial composition and pattern of appointment in the Judiciary instead parallels the Executive’s racist policies at large, symbolized by the racial ratio of appointments in the Cabinet.

Even now, in spite of being 1Malaysia, it still reflects the political composition of reflecting the racial population of the country. In the current Cabinet of 30, 6 are of Chinese heritage, 3 are from Sabah and Sarawak and 1 of Indian heritage i.e all of which amount to a third of Cabinet. The remaining two thirds are of Malay heritage.

Why should it matter whether the Chief Justice or the President of the Court of Appeal or the Chief Judge of Malaya is Malay, Chinese or Indian? If it was acceptable for a Caucasian to assume its office, it should be even more acceptable for a Malaysian of Chinese or Indian heritage to assume it. After all, they are or would be more Malaysian than he would be. Surely the criteria for positions in the administration of Justice must be based only on citizenship, abilities and integrity. Justice after all is colour blind which means the Judiciary too must be blind to race and religion.

Of course, where it concerns the Chief Justice, some may point out that his appointment is different. Unlike all the other Judges beneath him who are appointed on his recommendation, the appointment of the Chief Justice is ‘appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, after consulting the Conference of Rulers’ (see section 122B of the Federal Constitution). Since they have to consult the Conference of Rulers, there is no way that the Sultans will ever appoint a Malaysian of non-Malay to the position of Chief Justice. This is a fair argument but wrong in law.

Section 122B of the Federal Constitution was considered and defined in the Court of Appeal decision of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v PP [2000] 2 CLJ 570 (comprising of Lamin Mohd Yunus PCA, Ahmad Fairuz JCA and Mokhtar Sidin JCA), where Lamin PCA wrote that judgment made the following decision:

So in the context of art. 122B(1) of the Constitution, where the Prime Minister has advised that a person be appointed a judge and if the Conference of Rulers does not agree or withholds its views or delays the giving of its advice with or without reasons, legally the Prime Minister can insist that the appointment be proceeded with. Likewise in the case of a request from the Conference of Rulers for revocation of an appointment or an advice from it to revoke an appointment already made, the Prime Minister need not respond.

Clearly where the law is concerned, the Prime Minister legally is entitled not to give a toss what the Council of Rulers thinks or feels. He is free to appoint whom he wishes and if the Agong or even the Council of Rulers disagree, he can very politely tell them to issue more Datukships to console themselves.

So whether we have a non-Malay Chief Justice is really not up to the Council of Rules but the political will of the Prime Minister of the day. I seriously doubt that will come to pass under our 1PM’s 1Malaysia and hereby undertake to eat part of my robe if that day ever comes to pass (hey, I still need to work after that happens).

But whether we have a more equitable appointment based wholly on ability and integrity where all the other judges from the President of Court of Appeal right down to the Judicial Commissioners are concerned is now still entirely up to the Chief Justice: see Article 122AB and 122B of the Federal Constitution.

Our judiciary from the lowest to especially the highest courts cannot continue with such a racial if not racist composition. That it continues to do so suggests that the policy of judicial appointments is more concerned about being ‘politically correct’, aping racist policies of the Executive and symbolizing the blatant racial discrimination so acutely felt throughout our nation.

The Judiciary does not exist to be politically correct, or for mimicking the racist policies of the government of the day. The Judiciary is there to mete out Justice, no matter who you are and where you are from. It is not there to participate in the filth of politics. The Judiciary is meant for all citizens of Malaysia, so its judicial appointments should come from from Malaysians of any heritage, and from that we must only cull Malaysia’s finest and brightest.

Judicial appointments must be based on the noblest of human qualities – integrity, industry and intelligence.

A Judiciary cannot claim to deal out Justice if its own racial composition symbolizes and reflects inJustice on a higher, larger political level. How can an inherently unjust institution hope to even mimic Justice?

At best, it can only be a mocking caricature of what it is suppose to stand for and be.

I personally wonder whether addressing this aspect of the Judiciary will form part of the Chief Justice’s Key Performance Indicator for the year 2011, but I won’t be holding my breath on it.

There’s just too much breathing to do just yet.

*CORRECTED 11.02.2010, 11.15 a.m.


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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

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15 Responses to Assessing the Racial Composition of the Malaysian Judiciary

  1. Stella Jane

    While I slowly digest the writings on this blog, I'm sipping my bottle of Barley in a make-shift tank on a compound of what soon to be, a new train line in SG. I'm a Malay, a woman and a Muslim. Yet, I do not feel that justice would ever prevail to me, like ever. I'm underpaid, as per what I found out yesterday and it is hard for me to get a job just because I need to be able to converse in Mandarin (so that I could liaise with Chinese counterparts). SG is experiencing an influx in Chi immigrants who could neither speak nor write English, let alone understand one.

    Bah..I kinda forgot why I decided I want to comment. Oh yeah, I read an article in the papers today (TODAY, SG) with regard to a survey conducted by a UN representative for Racial blah blah (the dept name is like anal really). He had concluded that SG has so much way to go, and his thoughts echoed of those written by Mr. Bar, as quoted by blogger above.

    Has SG defended herself? You betcha. Every statement (selected, fyi), is being scrutinized and rebutted by MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). But honestly, 1 miserable appointment of top management non-Chi do not justify equality being practiced here in SG, HELLO!!

    But what the heck. I'm in SG anyway….You can read the rest of article on TODAYONLINE.com, I think.

    Cheers,

    SJ

  2. Abdul Wahab M. Ghowse was a former High Court Judge of Singapore, maybe twenty years ago?

  3. Loyar Bagus

    See, this is the typical bollocks we get – I was not even talking about Malay rights but when when we talk about electing people based on merit (God forbid!), someone invariably says I am attacking Malay rights and the suggestion that I am somehow anti Malay or anti royalty.

    For your information, sir, I am not anti-anything. You miss the point when you talk about "electing a President" and somehow deducing from that that I am a Republican. Nonsense! I am not anti-anything. As you seem to have a lot of time, why don't you search my posts on this site and see where I have gone on the record defending the rights of our royalty. And besides, I was talking about Prime Ministers. I know that our Constitution requires that a Malay be the Prime Minister but why don't you take my earlier suggestion and run the poll around Malaysia to see how many people would accept a non-Malay PM?

    Oh, your point (1) is incorrect because last year,the SAF appointed its first Malay general.

    Fahri's point was whether these high judicial offices were reserved for Malays. They are not. It is therefore not even a question of Malay rights which are "enshrined in the Constitution."

    And you seem to repeat yourself that the Malays are "said to be brilliant". I didn't say that, Fahri didn't say that and I don't think one can say that any race is "brilliant". Each race has its geniuses and its morons. But you seem intent on repeating that line as if to reassure yourself that the evil racist Singkies are intent on repressing a brilliant race.

  4. dmh1876

    The Prime Minister

    1st.Chinese

    2nd.Chinese

    3rd.Chinese

    Maybe I'm color blind coz by looking at the above I can only see the color yellow for PM.

    For your info there was a survey done and even their PM said that they are not ready yet for a non Chinese to be PM at this point of time taking into account that majority of the population are chinese.

    The same senario is applicable here as it is elimentary Loyar Bagus for the PM to be Malay coz 60% of the population in Malaysia are Malay as 70% of the population are chinese in Singapore.

    You do sound like a Republican but fortunately we are not a republic therefore no President is to be elected and the only rotation is for the KING which is confined to the respective MALAY rulers.

    On sports, arts and culture well nothing to shout about as our is much batter as we used our own people not PR or Nationalised citizen from China.

    Why dont you find out why Singapore although is not consider as developing country but are not categorised as 1st world / developed country, the answer is their failure with the paragraph above.

    Once upon a time long long time ago in Singapore:-

    a) Yusuf Ishak was the first Malay president and after that……..;

    b) There use to be a Malay deputy prime minister;

    c) The Malay is only entrusted to look after only one key ministry for more than 20 years;

    d) The call for prayer “azan” was once could be heard from outside the mosque;

    e) M Nasir, Loloq, Aron Aziz and etc migrated and become successful in Malaysia;

    f) Malaysia Berita Harian paper actually originate from Singapore and yet the difference that in sg there only 4 sheets;

    g) The Malay use to own land and lived on landed property and there were Malay kampong;

    h) The free University education given to the Malay in singapore is provided for under the Constitution i.e Part XIII, General Provisions, Minorities and special position of Malays, section 152: The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language. Unfortunately this is the only thing that are given to them as what we can culled that they are sideline or marginalised as follows:

    1) Malay not allowed to hold key security sensitive post such as IGP, Generals, Admirals and fighter pilot coz they may hesitate ………;

    2) There no Malays High Court Judge, Bankers, CEO of GLC, Billionaire, corporate figure and etc ;

    3) A lot of Singapore Malay migrated even to Malaysia;

    4) The numbers of Malays in a housing estate is control; and many more……

    Just imagine the Malay is indigenous people of Singapore, they are said to be brilliant and yet what do they get? Almost nothing for being brilliant, just imagine if they were stupid.

    So you couldn’t and shouldn’t blame the Malaysian Malays for protecting their rights which has been enshrined in the constitution due to the above.

    The difference is that Malays are an accommodating race which does not like to disturb other people right as stipulated under the Constitution provided they don’t disturb them in the first place. So why only the Malay has to compromise their rights guarantee under the law where the sg Malay predicament is a lousy test case.

  5. Loyar Bagus

    Dear dmh1876,

    It is great that you have done that research to enlighten the readers of this blog, but did you really have to scrape the bottom of the barrel by naming the deputies? I note some two-thirds of the names you mentioned are deputies. And have a look at the relative importance of the ministries held by the non-Malays in Malaysia, compared to the Ministries held by the non-Chinese in Singapore.

    ALong the lines that Fahri suggested, Singaporean Malays have punching well above their weight in sports, the arts and culture in Singapore. For example, all of the native-born members of the Singaporean national football team are Malays. I will not mention that the first President of Singapore was a Malay.

    By the way, my reference to "doing any better" was whether our citizenry could be as colour-blind as those in Singapore, where an overwhelming majority don't really care what race their Prime Minister is from. Can we claim that in Malaysia? Run a survey and find out.

  6. dmh1876

    Dear Loyar Bagus,

    Would we do any better in Malaysia.

    The answer is as follows:

    Ministers in Prime Minister’s Department

    Unity and Performance Dr Koh Tsu Koon

    Deputies: Datuk Liew Vui Keong, Datuk SK Devamany, Senator T. Murugiah

    Finance

    Deputies: Datuk Chor Chee Heung,

    Education

    Deputies: Datuk Wee Ka Siong,

    Transport

    Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat

    Deputies: Datuk Robert Lau

    Home

    Deputies: Jelaing Mersat

    Information, Culture, Arts and Communications

    Deputies: Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum, Senator Heng Sai Kee

    Energy, Green Tech & Water

    Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui

    Plantation Industries and Commodoties

    Tan Sri Bernard Dompok

    Rural and Regional Development

    Deputies: Datuk Joseph Entulu

    Higher Education

    Deputies: Dr Hou Kok Chung

    International Trade and Industry

    Deputies: Datuk Jacob Dungau

    Science, Tech and Innovation

    Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili

    Natural Resources and Environment

    Datuk Douglas Uggah Embas

    Deputy: Tan Sri Joseph Kurup

    Tourism

    Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen

    Works

    Deputy: Datuk Yong Khoon Seng

    Health

    Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai

    Youth and Sports

    Deputies: Wee Jeck Seng

    Human Resources

    Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam

    Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs

    Deputy: Datuk Tan Lian Hoe

    Housing and Local Government

    Datuk Kong Cho Ha

    Deputy: Lajim Ukin

    Women, Family and Community Development

    Deputy: Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun

    Foreign Affairs

    Deputies: Datuk Lee Chee Hong, Senator A. Kohilan

    Federal Territories

    Deputy: M. Saravanan

    where as in Singapore there is only one Malay Minister Yacoob Ibrahim in charge of enviroment.

    it's quite clear that there is a systematic blanket discrimination being practised on top of judicial appointments and yet nobody make a fuss out of it coz…. well Loyar bagus you can fill in the blank space yourself.

  7. Loyar Bagus

    Fahri,

    Thank you for your response and for expressing what I (as a proud Malaysian who happens to be non-Malay) could not.

    Speaking of entrenched racism in Singapore, we would do well not just to focus on the bar and judiciary but also in various other areas. For example, Indians in Singapore have achieved significant success. Of the top of my head, the President, four cabinet ministers (including for National Security, Finance and Law – could you imagine a non-Malay being given those portfolios in Malaysia?), the CEO of Singapore's biggest bank and various other prominent personages. 14 out of 63 Senior Counsel appointed have Indian heritage.

    There was a recent survey carried out in Singapore asking whether people would mind having a Prime Minister of Malay or Indian descent. 94% said they would support an Indian and 91% said they would support a Malay. Is this genuinely indicative of entrenched racism? Would we do any better in Malaysia?

  8. Dear dmh1876,

    Thank you for bringing that terribly interesting article by Mr. Barr to my attention. I am grateful and I shall comment on it after and whilst I attempt to deal with your queries to the best I can:

    (1) Loyarbagus is correct that there are no Malays in the Singaporean judiciary and only 2 of Indian heritage: You can see this for yourself at the Singapore Supreme Court website: http://app.supremecourt.gov.sg/default.aspx?pgID=…. Rajah & Tann actually has one Malay (http://www.rajahtann.com/RajahTannCMS/partners.aspx; am assuming this because his name is Abdul Jabbar). As for Allen & Gledhill, there's an Indonesian, Prawiro Widjaja (http://www.gledhill.com.sg/partners.html). Since he used the word 'virtual' Loyarbagus is correct in his assertions.

    (2) Your million dollar question: I don't agree with the manner and perspective you took in framing the question. The lack of Malays in the Singapore judiciary is not proof of their 'stupidity' or even lack of qualifications or ability to be appointed to such a position. A nuanced, sophisticated and subtle analysis of this is beyond me in this reply but I shall attempt to summarize as simply and briefly as possible why I think this is so.

    First, I would agree for the most part with Mr. Barr's assessment. He has provided a more empirical basis for my gut feeling. I do not doubt the racist elements in the Singaporean administration but on balance I will concede that they have done more things right than wrong as compared to us. They are racist but they are mindful of the minorities too. The difference between Malaysia and Singapore is that they try to placate them somewhat whereas we try to oppress the minorities. Having said that, their own composition is not an argument for us to maintain our racist composition just because Singapore does so. Racism is wrong no matter where we are.

    And this dovetails into my second point; we can find a partial explanation to the essence of your question for this in Mr. Barr's article. That part is as follows:

    "Non-Chinese might be largely excluded from the highest levels of the administrative elite, but just below these rarefied heights there plenty of positions open to intelligent and hardworking non-Chinese—certainly enough to ensure that non-Chinese communities have much to gain by enthusiastically buying into the system, even after the glass ceilings and racial barriers are taken into account. There are many grievances and resentments in these levels of society but the grievances are muted and balanced by an appreciation of the relative comforts and prosperity they enjoy. For most, any tendency to complain is subdued also by knowledge that it could be worse, and the widespread assumption among members of minority communities that it will be if they seriously pursue their grievances. As long as the Singapore system continues to deal such people a satisfactory hand, if not a fair one, it should be able to cope with some quiet rumblings in the ranks."

    I think there is truth in what Mr. Barr says from my point of view. Which is that one of the great strengths of the Malays is their ability to be content with little instead of much (I am generalizing and do not mean this sarcastically) and their inherent natural affinity and talent with the arts and spirituality. The Malays were not an inherently economic race as compared to the Chinese (there is a China town in most major cities) or inherently numerically talented as the Indians (which if you recall invented the number zero: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/0_(number)).

    Their greatness lay in the ability to appreciate life as transient and to wrought as much joy from that short time span of life. Of course there are the exceptions to the general characteristic, but Malays, to me, are generally a spiritual, sensual, passionate, artistically sensitive and forgiving people. Malays are willing to forgive a lot and be contented with what little blessing (rezeki) they have. Climbing the career path, making obscene amounts of money and boasting about their accomplishments is not their style.

    This is why for me, our government is wrong and dangerous to demand that Malays be this entrepreneurial class and earning lots of money to be a success. That was never the Malay definition of success. From my understanding, the Malay idea of success is more about contributing constructively to society and living their lives in the manner that they choose. It is materialistic political interpretation of the Malay that has distorted if not ruined their personalities and culture.

    So for me, the lack of Malays in the Singaporean judiciary or even the top echelons of legal counsels in Singapore is not worrying for the reasons Mr. Barr mentioned. Perhaps, I don't know, the Malays there having weighed up the relevant factors figure it is not worth making an issue about considering all the other advantages and benefits they can enjoy. They can earn and afford a comfortable living, public utilities work as they should, there is relative meritocracy, etc. Personally, I really don't know. But the fact that this has not been a massive issue there implies one of three things (1) they really are contented despite the discrimination (2) they have bought in to the propaganda (3) they are too fearful to complain.

    For myself, I'd like to think they are clever and mature enough to decide for themselves (they have a better education system than ours) and would prefer to think (1).

    Finally, I am not LoyarBurok. All the writers on this blawg make up Loyarburok. I just happen to post a few more than the others. That's all. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  9. dmh1876

    Dear Fahri Azzat aka Loyarburuk,

    could you find out whatever being said by Loyar Bagus is based on fact or just mere speculation or a figment of his own imagination.

    Mind you that High Court Judges is not from the Bar alone but also from the judiciary as well.

    The million dollar question is that is the Singapore Malay either in the judiciary or the bar is so dumb that not even 1 all this years is qualified to be elivated as a HC Judges?

    Well that the question that we've to ponder on top of the question that the Malay there is also not qualified to be a fighter pilot etc.

    Just imagine the Malay is indigenous people of Singapore, they are said to be brilliant and yet what do they get? Almost nothing for being brilliant, just imagine if they were stupid.

    Loyar bagus please read the following article.

    The Charade Of Meritocracy

    October 2006

    By Michael D. Barr

    The legitimacy of the Singaporean government is predicated on the idea of a meritocratic technocracy. A tiny number of career civil servants play a leading role in setting policy within their ministries and other government-linked bureaucracies, leading both an elite corps of senior bureaucrats, and a much larger group of ordinary civil servants. Virtually all of the elite members of this hierarchy are "scholars," which in Singapore parlance means they won competitive, bonded government scholarships—the established route into the country's elite.

    Scholars not only lead the Administrative Service, but also the military's officer corps, as well as the executive ranks of statutory boards and government-linked companies (GLCs). Movement between these four groups is fluid, with even the military officers routinely doing stints in the civilian civil service. Together with their political masters, most of whom are also scholars, they make up the software for the entity commonly known as "Singapore Inc."—a labyrinth of GLCs, statutory boards and ministries that own or manage around 60% of Singapore's economy.

    The basis of the scholars' mandate to govern is not merely their performance on the job, but also the integrity of the process that selected them. The educational system is designed to cultivate competition, requiring top students to prove themselves every step of the way. Singapore's schools first stream students into elite classes after Primary 3 and 4. They then compete for entry into special secondary schools and junior colleges, before vying for government and government-linked scholarships to attend the most prestigious universities around the world.

    These scholarships typically require several years of government service after graduation, and the scholars are drafted into the Administrative Service, the officer corps of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), or the career track of a statutory board or GLC. The government insists that all Singaporeans have equal opportunities to excel in the system, and that everyone who has made it to the top did so purely by academic talent and hard work. Other factors such as gender, socioeconomic background and race supposedly play no more than a marginal role, if they are acknowledged as factors at all.

    On the point of race, the Singapore government has long prided itself on having instituted a system of multiracialism that fosters cultural diversity under an umbrella of national unity. This is explicitly supposed to protect the 23% of the population who belong to minority races (mainly ethnic Malays and Indians) from discrimination by the Chinese majority.

    But this system conceals several unacknowledged agendas. In our forthcoming book, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project , Zlatko Skrbiš and I present evidence that the playing field is hardly level. In fact, Singapore's system of promotion disguises and even facilitates tremendous biases against women, the poor and non-Chinese. Singapore's administrative and its political elites—especially the younger ones who have come through school in the last 20 or so years—are not the cream of Singapore's talent as they claim, but are merely a dominant social class, resting on systemic biases to perpetuate regime regeneration based on gender, class and race.

    At the peak of the system is the network of prestigious government scholarships. Since independence in 1965, the technique of using government scholarships to recruit cohorts of scholars into the administrative and ruling elite has moved from the periphery of Singaporean society to center stage. Even before independence, a makeshift system of government and Colombo Plan scholarships sent a few outstanding scholars overseas before putting them into government service, including most notably former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Yet as late as 1975 this system had contributed only two out of 14 members of Singapore's cabinet. Even by 1985, only four out of 12 cabinet ministers were former government scholars.

    By 1994, however, the situation had changed beyond recognition, with eight out of 14 cabinet ministers being ex-scholars, including Prime Minister Goh. By 2005 there were 12 ex-scholars in a Cabinet of 19. Of these, five had been SAF scholars, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. A perusal of the upper echelons of the ruling elite taken more broadly tells a similar story. In 1994, 12 of the 17 permanent secretaries were scholars, as were 137 of the 210 in the administrative-officer class of the Administrative Service.

    The government scholarship system claims to act as a meritocratic sieve—the just reward for young adults with talent and academic dedication. If there is a racial or other bias in the outcomes, then this can only be the result of the uneven distribution of talent and academic application in the community. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it when he spoke on national television in May 2005, "We are a multiracial society. We must have tolerance, harmony. … And you must have meritocracy … so everybody feels it is fair…." His father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was making the same point when, in 1989, he told Singapore's Malay community that they "must learn to compete with everyone else" in the education system.

    Yet if Singapore's meritocracy is truly a level playing field, as the Lees assert, then the Chinese must be much smarter and harder working than the minority Indians and Malays. Consider the distribution of the top jobs in various arms of the Singapore government service in the 1990s (based on research conducted by Ross Worthington in the early 2000s):

    • Of the top 30 GLCs only two ( 6.7%) were chaired by non-Chinese in 1991 (and neither of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

    • Of the 38 people who were represented on the most GLC boards in 1998, only two (5.3%) were non-Chinese (and neither of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

    • Of the 78 "core people" on statutory boards and GLCs in 1998, seven (9%) were non-Chinese (and one of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

    A similar outcome is revealed in the pattern of government scholarships awarded after matriculation from school. Of the 200 winners of Singapore 's most prestigious scholarship, the President's Scholarship, from 1966-2005 only 14 ( 6.4%) were not Chinese. But this was not a consistent proportion throughout the period. If we take 1980 as the divider, we find that there were 10 non-Chinese President's Scholars out of 114 from 1966-80, or 8%, but in the period from 1981-2005 this figure had dropped to four out of 106, or 3.8%. Since independence, the President's Scholarship has been awarded to only one Malay, in 1968. There has been only one non-Chinese President's Scholar in the 18 years from 1987 to 2005 (a boy called Mikail Kalimuddin) and he is actually half Chinese, studied in Chinese schools (Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College), and took the Higher Chinese course as his mother tongue. If we broaden our focus to encompass broader constructions of ethnicity, we find that since independence, the President's Scholarship has been won by only two Muslims (1968 and 2005).

    If we consider Singapore's second-ranked scholarship—the Ministry of Defence's Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS)—we find a comparable pattern. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to my request for a list of recipients of SAF scholarships, but using newspaper accounts and information provided by the Ministry of Defence Scholarship Centre and Public Service Commission Scholarship Centre Web sites, I was able to identify 140 (56%) of the 250 SAFOS winners up to 2005.

    Although only indicative, this table clearly suggests the Chinese dominance in SAFOS stakes: 98% of SAFOS winners in this sample were Chinese, and about 2% were non-Chinese (counting Mikail Kalimuddin in 2005 as non-Chinese). Furthermore I found not a single Malay recipient and only one Muslim winner (Mikail Kalimuddin). A similar picture emerges in the lower status Singapore Armed Forces Merit Scholarship winners: 71 ( 25.6%) of 277 (as of late 2005) scholars identified, with 69 (97%) Chinese winners to only two non-Chinese—though there was a Malay recipient in 2004, and one reliable scholar maintains that there have been others.

    The position of the non-Chinese in the educational stakes has clearly deteriorated since the beginning of the 1980s. According to the logic of meritocracy, that means the Chinese have been getting smarter, at least compared to the non-Chinese.

    Yet the selection of scholars does not depend purely on objective results like exam scores. In the internal processes of awarding scholarships after matriculation results are released, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise subtle forms of discrimination. Extracurricular activities (as recorded in one's school record), "character" and performance in an interview are also considered. This makes the selection process much more subjective than one would expect in a system that claims to be a meritocracy, and it creates ample opportunity for racial and other prejudices to operate with relative freedom.

    Is there evidence that such biases operate at this level? Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question is "yes." Take for instance a 2004 promotional supplement in the country's main newspaper used to recruit applicants for scholarships. The advertorial articles accompanying the paid advertisements featured only one non-Chinese scholar (a Malay on a lowly "local" scholarship) amongst 28 Chinese on prestigious overseas scholarships. Even more disturbing for what they reveal about the prejudices of those offering the scholarships were the paid advertisements placed by government ministries, statutory boards and GLCs. Of the 30 scholars who were both prominent and can be racially identified by their photographs or their names without any doubt as to accuracy, every one of them was Chinese. This leaves not a shadow of a doubt that those people granting government and government-linked scholarships presume that the vast majority of high-level winners will be Chinese.

    The absence of Malays from the SAFOS scholarships and their near-absence from the SAF Merit Scholarships deserves special mention because this is an extension of discrimination against the admission of Malays into senior and sensitive positions in the SAF that is officially sanctioned. The discrimination against Malays has been discussed in parliament and the media, and is justified by the assertion that the loyalty of Malays cannot be assumed, both because they are Muslim and because they have a racial and ethnic affinity with the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia . Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has historically been a vocal defender of this policy.

    This discrimination hits Malay men hard, first because it deprives many of promising careers in the army, and second—and more pertinent for our study of the elite—it all but completely excludes potentially high-flying Malays of a chance of entering the scholar class through the SAF. A Chinese woman has a much better chance of winning an SAF scholarship than a Malay man.

    Yet even before the scholarship stage, the education system has stacked the deck in favor of Chinese, starting in preschool. Here is the heart of Singapore 's systemic discrimination against non-Chinese. Since the end of the 1970s, the principles of "meritocracy" and "multiracialism" have been subverted by a form of government-driven Chinese chauvinism that has marginalized the minorities. It was not known to the public at the time, but as early as 1978, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had begun referring to Singapore as a "Confucian society" in his dealings with foreign dignitaries. This proved to be the beginning of a shift from his record as a defender of a communally neutral form of multiracialism toward a policy of actively promoting a Chinese-dominated Singapore .

    The early outward signs of the Sinicization program were the privileging of Chinese education, Chinese language and selectively chosen "Chinese values" in an overt and successful effort to create a Mandarin- and English-speaking elite who would dominate public life. Two of the most important planks of this campaign were decided in 1979: the annual "Speak Mandarin Campaign" and the decision to preserve and foster a collection of elite Chinese-medium schools, known as Special Assistance Plan ( SAP) schools.

    The SAP schools are explicitly designed to have a Chinese ambience, right down to Chinese gardens, windows shaped like plum blossoms, Chinese orchestra and drama, and exchange programs with mainland China and Taiwan. Over the years the children in SAP schools have been given multiple advantages over those in ordinary schools, including exclusive preschool programs and special consideration for preuniversity scholarships.

    For instance, in the early 1980s, when there was a serious shortage of graduate English teachers in schools, the Ministry of Education ensured there were enough allocated to SAP schools "to help improve standards of English among the Chinese-medium students, in the hope that they will be able to make it to university"—a target brought closer by the granting of two O-level bonus points exclusively to SAP school students when they applied to enter junior college. By contrast, neither Indians nor Malays received any special help, let alone schools of their own to address their special needs. They were not only left to fend for themselves, but were sometimes subjected to wanton neglect: inadequately trained teachers, substandard facilities and resources and the "knowledge" that they are not as good as the Chinese.

    This account of discrimination against non-Chinese might lead the reader to assume that the quarter of Singaporeans who are not Chinese must form a festering and perhaps even revolutionary mass of resentment. Such an assumption would, however, be a long way from the mark. Non-Chinese might be largely excluded from the highest levels of the administrative elite, but just below these rarefied heights there plenty of positions open to intelligent and hardworking non-Chinese—certainly enough to ensure that non-Chinese communities have much to gain by enthusiastically buying into the system, even after the glass ceilings and racial barriers are taken into account . There are many grievances and resentments in these levels of society but the grievances are muted and balanced by an appreciation of the relative comforts and prosperity they enjoy. For most, any tendency to complain is subdued also by knowledge that it could be worse, and the widespread assumption among members of minority communities that it will be if they seriously pursue their grievances. As long as the Singapore system continues to deal such people a satisfactory hand, if not a fair one, it should be able to cope with some quiet rumblings in the ranks.

    While this discrimination is not sparking a reaction that threatens the regime in the short term, the resulting injustices are certainly undermining the myth that the regime operates on meritocratic principles. This is worrying in the longer term because this myth, along with the capacity to deliver peace and prosperity, is one of the primary rationales by which Singaporeans reluctantly accept the many unpopular aspects of the regime, such as the lack of freedom and democracy, the intrusion of government into most aspects of private life, the pressure-cooker lifestyle and the high cost of living.

    The rhetoric of meritocracy has given Singaporeans the consolation of believing that their ruling elite are the best of the best and can therefore be trusted almost blindly on important matters, even if they are highhanded and lack the common touch. As this illusion gradually falls away—and today it is already heavily undermined—the trust that Singaporeans have for their government is becoming increasingly qualified. It remains to be seen how long the regime can avert the logical consequences of the contradictions between the myth and the reality.

    Mr. Barr is a lecturer at the University of Queensland and author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (Routledge, 2000) and Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (Routledge, 2002).

  10. MamakPenang

    Hii dmh1876, you are spot on. Marvellous. If u let some of the idiots here say the racial thing about Malaysian judges and other racially juicy stuff, we will hear really awful remarks not even found in South Africa's apartheid days. I'll see u in my chambers, and yes, without them.

  11. Loyar Bagus

    dmh1876,

    Have you had a look at the racial composition of the Singapore Bar from which the senior judiciary is appointed? Check out the websites for the major firms such as Rajah & Tann and Allen & Gledhill and see how many Malays have gained partnership there. The answer is virtually zero. It is clear that for whatever reason, Malays have not achieved any critical mass in the senior ranks of lawyers in Singapore. It's therefore pointless to argue that Malays have not been appointed to the senior judiciary when partnership appears so elusive.

    Compare that with the number and proportion of skilful Indian and Chinese practitioners in Malaysia and it becomes quite clear that there is systematic discrimination being practised in judicial appointments here.

  12. dmh1876

    For your info in Singapore either in the present or past no Malay has ever been appointed as a High Court Judge.

    The highest that malay can be is a District judge = to our Session Judge.

    One of Malay ex Distirct Judge is Syed Alwi now practising in KL and was one of the lawyer acting for Tun Fairus in the Lingam saga.

    At least here presently or in the past there has been so many no Malay elivated not only to the High Court but also to the Appellate Courts.

    For this we need not be apologetic coz the record speak for it self. RES IPSA LOQUITOR

  13. Malaysian

    Eusoff Chin is Malay. A Chinese would not have done what he did as Lord President.

    Judgements are criticised and scoffed at these days because those making those decisions are not Chinese or Indians. Honest Malay judges make up less that 5% of them and these are in the High Courts.

    The others are scums who will be condemned even in death.

  14. farez jinnah

    hey isn't eusoff chin technically NOT malay, but muslim convert, no?

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