Managing Diversities
Helping Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community beyond the pandemic

The current circuit breaker measures, while essential from an epidemiological point of view, will have a deep impact on the Singapore economy across the board.

Members of the Malay-Muslim community situated at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are of particular concern. Many from this group were economically vulnerable even before the pandemic began and are now at greater risk of retrenchments and diminished incomes because of the pandemic.

The challenge now is not only to see this group through the crisis, but to ensure that its members do not lose their precarious economic foothold in a shrinking economy.

While Malays currently make up more than 13 per cent of our population, those from the ethnic group comprise only 6 per cent of workers in the Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMET) category. Typically, PMET jobs are higher-paying and tend to be more secure.

This means that the majority of Malay workers are concentrated in lower rung vocations which make them prone to the threat of unemployment.

For instance, Malays make up 17 per cent of the rank and file in the sales and services industry, one of the most affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

In addition, the amount of public assistance schemes made available to the Malay community has yet to correspond with the level of success expected of its recipients.

For example, while the take-up rate is increasing, only 8.4 per cent of Malay workers have utilised the SkillsFuture Credit scheme since its launch in 2015.

Public assistance schemes

Malay-Muslim community leaders have struggled over the years to identify the best ways to implement official initiatives, which have ranged from outright financial disbursement to giving advice on life choices.

As a researcher who focuses on Malay-Muslim issues, I have been collating feedback on concerns raised by various groups within the community as part of an ongoing series of discussions. This is what I have observed:

  • Those who require help may not be sure if they qualify for assistance.
  • Some do not know where or how to go about applying for help.
  • Others are deterred by the onerous paperwork demanding proof of their need.
  • Community leaders, therefore, can find it challenging to introduce and implement programmes.

Hopefully, the SGTeguhBersatu (SG Resilient in Unity) taskforce, set up to help the Malay-Muslim community deal with the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus, will change the situation.

Headed by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli and involving Malay-Muslim Members of Parliament and other leaders of the community, the task force has been disseminating information on how and where individuals can apply for financial assistance, including on social media.

Community Clubs and family service centres are opening their doors to those who wish to walk in to request assistance.

The taskforce will draw extra support from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, Malay welfare organisation Mendaki and the People’s Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council (Mesra), in what has been called the M³ initiative.

These three major organisations cater to the nation’s Malay-Muslim community and will be able to enhance the outreach and assistance measures by SGTeguhBersatu.

Results of this collaboration can already be seen. Take, for example, the urgent need for desktops or laptops for home-based learning by students in low-income families.

As part of the task force’s initiative, Mendaki has loaned out laptops to students who are awaiting approval for new ones under the NEU-PC Plus Programme. This is an initiative set up in 2006 by the Infocomm Media Development Authority to offer affordable computers to students from low-income households.

With recent feedback from the SGTeguhBersatu task force, the programme has also been adjusted to expedite the processing of requests.

Looking beyond the pandemic

While the emphasis today is on helping those immediately affected by the outbreak, the measures should also go beyond the short term.

The SGTeguhBersatu task force, in collaboration with the various aid agencies, could collate the experiences and backgrounds of those seeking help. Once the pandemic has subsided, the Government could use that information to properly identify their needs so as to enhance these individuals’ future pathways.

Different Malay-Muslim organisations serving specific segments of the community can consolidate and integrate their resources, creating an ecosystem of cooperation where they can work together for greater impact.

For example, under the purview of the taskforce, Mendaki Sense, a continuous education and training organisation, could team up with the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS) to teach workforce skills to mothers.

Statistics show that half of married or ever-married Malay women are economically inactive. The reasons for this include childcare issues and spousal objections, although many are also involved in home-based businesses. This demographic is, therefore, a potential untapped labour pool.

PPIS is a voluntary welfare organisation founded almost 70 years ago that has conducted many professional training programmes. It will be well placed to help Malay mothers adjust emotionally and psychologically to enter the labour force.

The recent spotlight on home-based bakers also offers some opportunities. While the ban on home-based businesses will soon be lifted, Malay-Muslim organisations such as the Association of Muslim Professionals and the Singapore Muslim Chamber of Commerce and Industry can equip this group with a more thorough understanding of business models as well as industry regulations.

This could better protect them against future shocks. It might also give them more ideas on how to expand or improve their businesses.

While the community can also take full benefit of the enhanced SkillsFuture Credit scheme with its top-ups and new expiry date announced in this year’s Budget, training providers say some low-skilled workers are less inclined to take up programmes which culminate in end-of-course examinations.

There are several reasons for this, including a lack of time due to the pressures of part-time or irregular work. Unfortunately, training programmes that do not come with a final assessment are less likely to be recognised or rewarded by employers.

For the SkillsFuture programme to be truly effective, employers must find ways to reward and recognise employees who attend upgrading courses and show subsequent improvements in carrying out their duties – without relying solely on paper credentials.

The coronavirus will affect all Singaporeans, with some in the Malay-Muslim community being more vulnerable to its impact.

However, with the implementation of targeted and accessible assistance schemes, this could be an opportunity to improve their economic situations long after the virus has run its course.


Dr Mohamad Shamsuri Juhari is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research focussing on Singapore’s Malay-Muslim community.

This piece was first published in TODAY on 6 May 2020.

Top photo from Unsplash.

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