In the late 1990s, inflammatory remarks by BJ Habibie, then Indonesian president, probably affected the life trajectory of Suhaimi Zainul Abidin, a Malay Singaporean then doing his national service.
It was a time of regional turmoil, what would later be called the Asian Financial Crisis. Financial woes, including the rupiah’s collapse, prompted socio-political chaos, notably the May 1998 riots around Indonesia, which included anti-Chinese pogroms that saw at least 160 people raped and over a 1,000 dead. Suharto resigned the same month, ending his 32-year autocratic reign. Habibie, his vice-president, took over.
Habibie had already felt slighted by earlier comments from Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, which appeared to question his suitability as vice-president. In August 1998, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) quoted the new president Habibie: “… a friend in need is a friend indeed. I don’t have that feeling from Singapore.” Pointing at a map in his office, he said: “…there are 211 million people [in Indonesia]…Look at that map. All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore. Look at that.”
In doing so he unwittingly gifted Singaporeans a catchphrase, which just weeks later had already been memorialised—we’re just a “little red dot,” said Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s prime minister, sarcastically— and subsequently transfigured into a badge of pride, one depicting our (apparent) outsized ambition and achievements.
Habibie wasn’t done. In February 1999, Taiwanese media quizzed him about discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Habibie responded with whataboutism. “In Singapore, if you are a Malay, you can never become a military officer. They are the real racists, not here.”
At the time, Suhaimi was about to graduate from the Office Cadet School (OCS) of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). Few would have expected him to be there, though not because of skin colour. Suhaimi hadn’t, in his view, done that well at his A-Levels, and thus had been conscripted only in the second junior college batch.
He also entered unfit: “I struggled to pass my IPPT [a fitness test]. When I went into the army, zero pull-ups.” By the end of basic training, Suhaimi could do seven pull ups, and by the end of OCS, 15. “It’s amazing what your body can do if you put some rigour into your training.”
Given his fascination with army tactics, Suhaimi went on to win a prize at OCS for military knowledge. Just weeks after Habibie’s comment, he also found himself being interviewed for OCS’s top award, the Sword of Honour. No ethnic Malay had ever won it, Suhaimi was told. (It later emerged that there'd been at least one previously.)
“Could it be that the decision was made [by the SAF]? Let’s push this guy up to make a point. Okay, maybe I worked hard enough to actually be there. But the fact that I was there presented a nice opportunity for them.”
Almost immediately, Suhaimi, just 20 then, faced doubters. “I had dozens of people who, in my face, just basically told me, ‘Ya lah, it’s because of who your father is.’” Zainul Abidin Rasheed is a former minister of state with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
Suhaimi, a self-professed “late bloomer”, credits the army, including his commanders who “saw something in me”, as an inflection point. “In real life it doesn’t mean anything, right? Who cares that you are ‘Sword of Honour’? But to myself, at least it told me, okay, you know, if I work hard, maybe I can achieve something. And as a result of that, I took university a lot more seriously. And I took work a lot more seriously.”
Suhaimi, 44 this year, is today the CEO of Quantedge, a leading Singapore-founded hedge fund, and director at numerous non-profit organisations. His background and experience are unusual for a minority Singaporean: the military as personal rejuvenator; ethnicity as a source of possible advantage; and networks flowing down the family tree.
Throughout his career, Suhaimi has had to grapple with questions around privilege, tokenism, and meritocracy. They inform his view of the just, equitable and race-neutral Singapore that he is striving to help build, one where helping and empowering those in need–including, he believes, the socio-economically disadvantaged, single mothers and migrant workers—is second nature to all.
Suhaimi, his older brother, younger brother and younger sister grew up in a public housing flat in Chai Chee, Bedok. “My mum [Sakdiah] was the quintessential tiger mum,” he said. “I mean that in the best way possible. She was fierce. She fought to give us the education we needed.” Sakdiah rarely allowed them to go to the playground downstairs. His wife-to-be grew up in the same block, but he didn’t know her then.