2020 Census – A Community Perspective

Over many decades, the Malay community has generally been making good progress in almost all areas such as educational attainment, employment and income levels, and dwelling type as demonstrated in the latest Census 2020 released in June 2021[1]. Of course, in meritocratic Singapore and where excellence is the byword, the other communities have also advanced and with their head start, disparity between them and the Malays remains a stark reality.

Some in the leadership circles both inside and outside the community have taken the pragmatic approach that the Malays should measure and compare their achievements over time on a longitudinal basis and be less preoccupied with inter-ethnic comparisons. While others have disagreed and advocated that progress should be benchmarked both over the years or decades and across other groups. This is in the spirit of recognising our achievements and at the same time, addressing gaps to rectify the shortfalls vis-à-vis the national trends.

This review of Census 2020 from the Malays’ perspective looks at key trends and issues of concern including those which are structural in nature.

Of late, categorisation of Singapore’s population by race in the census has been under scrutiny. A major bugbear of the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian & Others) system of categorisation is that such an approach may lead to reinforcement of racial differences and obstruct the development of a more diverse multiracial national identity. Other developments such as changes in demographic profile and increase in multi-racial marriages are other arguments against the model. For example, about one in five marriages in Singapore in 2020 is between people of different races compared to only 8.9% in 1997.

At a media briefing on the release of Singapore’s population census on 16th June 2021[2], Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah, who oversees the National Population and Talent Division, explained the importance of breaking down population data by ethnicity. She clarified that such a breakdown helps identify specific areas where certain ethnic groups may not be doing as well as others and attention by way of policy and societal intervention can be given.

While there is a general consensus that census data collected, presented and analysed in the CMIO framework remains a valid and useful tool, the challenge is to manage the ensuing discussions without succumbing to tendencies to stereotype and stigmatise certain groups that can occur from such categorisation of data. For example, differences in educational attainment may be better explained by differences in socioeconomic status (SES) rather than anecdotal factors such as lack of commitment and motivation.

While Singapore’s total population grew by around 1.1% a year between 2010 and 2020, ethnic composition of the resident population was 74.3% Chinese, 13.5% Malays and 9.0% Indians in 2020. As expected, the population is ageing with those aged 65 and older forming 15.2% of the resident population in 2020, a marked rise from 9% in 2010. For the Malays, the figure increased from 6.1% to 10.3%[3].

It interesting to note that Malays’ proportion of the population was 15% in 1970 compared to 13.5% in 2020, indicating a continuous decline over the decades due largely to higher rates of immigration of the other ethnic groups and lower fertility rates though impacting all communities. An AMP Singapore commissioned study by G Shantakumar titled Singapore Malays in the New Millennium: Demographics and Developmental Perspectives[4] flagged the possibility of a sustained decline in the future proportion of the Malays due to lower immigration and fertility trends. Although the study predicted a slightly lower proportion of Malays in 2020 compared to the actual figure of 13.5% in 2020, the concern of an organic decline in the Malays composition in the population remains valid.

The Government position on ethnic composition has always been to maintain the status quo but how and what basis are these defined are not very clear, for example, which benchmark year is being used noting that the composition varies in the last few decades. While immigration will continue to be an important lever for supporting Singapore economic progress and in particular talent rejuvenation, what does this leave for the Malays considering that attracting indigenous races within the region has been difficult, if not futile? This is confirmed by the fact that only 3.5% of the resident population born outside Singapore are Malays in 2020. The decreasing fertility trends compounded by the aging population and almost negligible immigration will very likely lead to a further decline in the Malays composition in the population – an existential threat if nothing urgent is being done.

Malays’ unbroken progress in education is well demonstrated in the Census data. Among Malay residents aged 25 and over, almost half had post-secondary or higher qualifications in 2020, compared with less than a third in 2010. Their proportion of university graduates doubled from 5.5% in 2010 to 10.8% in 2020. The other ethnic groups’ composition of university graduates also increased but their proportion is far higher – 34.7% and 42.3% for the Chinese and Indians respectively in 2020. From another angle, Malays comprise 4.1% compared to Chinese 80.5% and Indians 10.5% of the total university graduates in 2020. This gap in educational attainment at the highest level has remained persistently huge over the decades but the low base for the Malays may offer them more headroom theoretically speaking, assuming a statistical Normal curve can be applied. The increasing number of university graduates securing 1st Class Honors and those who went on to pursue post-graduate studies over recent years augur well for the community.

The growing trend of diploma holders pursuing a university degree and the expansion of the tertiary education landscape provides a ready pool of potential university graduates for the future. Malays’ proportion of Diploma & Professional Qualification was the highest at 16.9% compared to 15.2% Chinese and 15% Indians in 2020. Can this be the booster for the future to an increasing university graduate pool and perhaps PMET group for the Malays?

Another promising picture is the field of study Malay university graduates are in – a significant number of them are in new technology/sciences, for example, Health Sciences (10%), Information Technology (5%) and Engineering Sciences (11%) as Chart 1 indicates. This corresponds well with the distribution for polytechnic graduates – Health Sciences (9%), Information Technology (9%) and Engineering Sciences (35.8%). It is heartening to see more Malays venturing into new areas of study apart from the popular disciplines such as Business & Administration, Humanities & Social Sciences and Education. This perhaps can contribute to an expansion of the PMET group and higher participation of Malays in the digitalisation and high-tech driven Singapore economy.


Singapore’s religious landscape continues to maintain its diversity over the decade as indicated in Chart 2.

The proportion of Muslims increased from 14.7% in 2010 to 15.6% in 2020. Chinese residents had a significantly larger proportion who identified as not having a religion (25.7%) than Malays (0.4%) and Indians (2.2%). In terms of age group, those in the range of 25-34 years old has the highest proportion, with 26.2% in 2020 (from 19.9% in 2010) identifying as not having a religion. For the Malays the overall figure increased from 0.2% in 2010 to 0.4% in 2020 which could be a trend to watch. Overall, not much can be interpreted from these figures except to say that there are no significant shifts in religious affiliations over the decade although with possible minor effects from immigration and religious conversion trends.

Income & Housing
Over the decade, median household income from work rose across the board for all ethnic groups. In nominal terms, the median household income from work per household member for the Malays was $1,594 in 2020, compared with $2,603 for the Chinese and $2,521 for Indians with Malays having the highest growth (4.3% per annum, or 3% per annum in real terms). However, the gap remained significant and Malays’ figure of $1,594 is close if not lower than what is normally considered by scholars as the subsistence level to survive in Singapore[5]. Chart 3 shows the income distribution amongst the three major ethnic groups and depicts the high concentration of Malays in the lower income brackets.

Based on Chart 3, the proportion of Malays earning less than $1,500 per household member at 46.8% is the highest compared to Chinese 31.5% and Indians 29.6%. Of this, about one third or 11.2% of Malays are not employed. Overall, this reflects the high distribution of Malays in low-paying jobs, for example, 10.9% are employed in the Cleaners, Labourers & Related Workers category and 14.4% in the Clerical Support Workers category, based on employment type. The low-earning power of the community has a significant impact on their ability to experience a better quality of life, accord better provisions for the family and afford bigger HDB flats.

The dwelling type and tenancy distribution amongst the ethnic groups shows another dimension of the issue. A larger majority – 96.2% of Malay resident households were in HDB flats in 2020. The share of Malays living in one- and two-room flats rose from 8.7% in 2010 to 16% in 2020. This suggests some form of downgrading from larger to smaller flats which can be attributed to many reasons, for example, retirees and families cashing out from selling their larger flats, lower income jobs and affordability.

The number of Malay households in one and two-room rented HDB flats more than doubled in the past decade, from about 9,100 in 2010 to about 18,600 in 2020. Comparatively, Chinese and Indian households’ increments are marginal. The doubling of Malays living and renting in one- and two-room flats is a cause of concern which fortunately has been identified as requiring urgent attention. In a media report, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli told reporters on June 17 that “while the Government’s efforts to increase the number of rental flats has enabled more Malays to move out of cramped conditions and live on their own, it has also given rise to a worry that they might not wish to work towards owning their own home”[6].

There is also a concern that this trend may lead to the worsening of living conditions of dysfunctional families in the community. In response to this challenge, a new programme called Project DIAN@M3[7] has been initiated to assist these Malay families in public rental flats by providing holistic support through national and community initiatives, with the aim of guiding them towards owning their own homes.

Based on Malays’ relative high proportion of low-income earners and their not insignificant share of those dwelling in smaller 1-2 room flats, with more of them renting these flats, one can surmise that this group falls in the strata of Singaporean society with a low socioeconomic status, trapped in the so-called poverty cycle. In fact, Table 1 and Chart 3 clearly indicate that the Malays are overrepresented in this lowest income group in Singapore society.

Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) in an interview in July 2021 said that “based on conventional associations of smaller HDB flats with lower socioeconomic status, there should be concern over the Malay community being distributed more in these housing types”[8]. It is important to note that a lot of help has been extended through schemes such as Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) and Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) to assist low-income wage earners, with more on the way.

In his National Rally speech held in August 2021[9], PM Lee identified helping lower-wage workers to uplift their incomes as one of three key strategies to enhance the well-being of Singaporeans. Amongst a number of measures, the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) will be extended to more workers. The Ministry of Manpower is also studying ways to strengthen job protection and address work benefits of delivery workers and those in similar roles which offer little job protection, low remuneration with no CPF contribution. The plight of such workers has become a growing issue in Singapore, as more and more people join the gig economy which is an increasing trend. Although it would take time to implement, this initiative is an important step in addressing the issue for all those engaged in the gig economy including Malay youths and casual workers.

The whole-of-society approach complemented by the “many helping hands” model have improved the socio-economic conditions of all our low-income earners and their families over the years – the Malays have benefited from this as well. However, the Malays’ ability to take the next big leap in closing the persistent gaps in educational attainment, employment and income, and living conditions that we see in every census report may get more challenging.

Singapore society has evolved from its humble meritocratic beginnings to one where inter-generational social mobility becomes harder to achieve and society deeply stratified. This is not to say that Singapore is less meritocratic now but we are at the stage in the meritocracy cycle where the so-called “earlier winners and their descendants have become more entrenched in their own social orbits leading to more class-segregation”. Social scientists refer this as the paradox of meritocracy[10] and the Malays, with much less social capital at the start, are in a disadvantaged position to the other ethnic groups who are better able to transfer these advantages inter-generationally and cumulatively over time. This can take the form of providing better living conditions conducive to children overall development, affording basic and sustained enrichment programmes, getting good and sustainable jobs and climbing career ladders.

This is further accentuated by the increasing income inequality and the associated widening wealth divide in Singapore. Some academicians have suggested that census data should also look at how differences in wealth, education and other factors are transmitted between generations and the increasing role inherited wealth is playing in shaping people’s opportunities in Singapore.

Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon speaking on the topic “An Inspiring Nation” at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy[11] in July 2021 advocated a more enlightened meritocracy. In essence, he proposed broadening and making it inclusive, recognising the roles society and fortune play in an individual’s success. In terms of policy enhancements, the move towards enhancing preschool subsidies to ensure preschool education is accessible to all Singaporeans and legislating guidelines on fair employment in the workplace are measures in the right direction.

At the grassroots level, it is heartening to see the more successful and better endowed groups in the larger society including the Malays coming forward to assist those underprivileged members in ground-up initiatives such as reaching out to rental flats dwellers and low-income earners and providing micro business training for those unemployed. The resolve and determination to take the challenges head on and carve out opportunistic pathways to secure a better future need to be reinforced.

Thought leadership has played an important part in helping the community to further uplift itself. More can be done in terms of breaking new ground in self-help initiatives using new interventionist socio-economic upliftment strategies[12] and the boldness to challenge widely held narratives that need changing such as the country’s social upliftment policy and even unfettered meritocracy. ⬛

1 Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore. Singapore Census of Population 2020, Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion. Available at: https://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/reference/cop2020/cop2020-sr1/census20_stat_release1; see also: Singapore Census of Population 2020, Statistical Release 2: Households, Geographic Distribution, Transport and Difficulty in Basic Activities. Available at: https://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/reference/cop2020/cop2020-sr2/census20_stat_release2
2 Ong, J. Race-based data in population census needed for S’pore to help ethnic groups meaningfully: Indranee. The Straits Times. 2021, June 16
3 Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, Republic of Singapore. Singapore Census of Population 2020, Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion. Available at: https://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/reference/cop2020/cop2020-sr1/census20_stat_release1; see also: Singapore Census of Population 2020, Statistical Release 2: Households, Geographic Distribution, Transport and Difficulty in Basic Activities. Available at: https://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/reference/cop2020/cop2020-sr2/census20_stat_release2
4 Shantakumar, G. Singapore Malays in the New Millennium: Demographics and Developmental Perspectives. Association of Muslim Professionals, 2011
5 Ng, K. H. et al. What people need in Singapore: A household budgets study. 2021. Retrieved from: https://whatsenough.sg/key-findings-mis2021/
6 Baharudin, H. New scheme to help Malay families in rental flats own their own homes. The Straits Times. 2021, June 19
7 Ibid
8 Ong, J. Singapore population census: Of strata titles and stratification. The Straits Times. 2021, June 19
9 Kurohi, R. National Day Rally 2021: 7 highlights from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech. The Straits Times. 2021, August 29
10 Littler, J. Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Routledge, 2018
11 Ho, G. Broaden and enhance meritocracy to give S’poreans hope and opportunity: MAS Chief Ravi Menon. The Straits Times. 2021, July 28
12 Teo, Y.Y. This is What Inequality Looks Like. Ethos Books, 2018


Yusof Sulaiman is an Associate Lecturer with Singapore University of Social Sciences and PSB Academy. He is a member of the Executive Committee of RIMA.

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