Masalah Melayu di Singapura: The continuous strive to “succeed”

This is a commentary I read in JG News written by Yasuko Kobayashi who is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He identifies accurately what the government sees as the Malay problem and its inherent contradictions, that the government has consistently tried to colonise the Malay mindsets of perpetual inferiority, while at the same time euphemistically highlight infinitesimal growth and progress within the community.

Like in yesterday’s Malay newspaper dated 20th August 2005, in the article “Yakin Melayu akan bertambah makmur”, the president again emphasized that the Malay community should not compare themselves with other communities or be totally dependant on figures of our own progress. If you read between the lines, again it highlights how the government feels there is little or no progress within the community itself.

Even though SM Goh noted the positive achievements the Malay community had made up to date, the title of his speech nevertheless shows, the two elements jaya (success) and ubah sikap (change attitudes) continue to be the basic framework for referring to the Malays.

Ever since the independence of Singapore, the history of the formation of Malays in the Singapore context has been a story of constant “striving” by Malays to achieve a package of targets set by the government.

Masalah Melayu – “The Malay Problem”

Malay efforts to make Malays successful began as early as 1970s, although it was not until the 1980s that the ‘Malay issue’ was recognized nationwide (when state statistics revealed that Malay students had the lowest education level in Singapore and Mendaki was subsequently formed.)

Soon after independence, Malays organized dozens of seminars to discuss their situation in Singapore. Gradually the term “the Malay problem” (Masalah Melayu) began to be used among Malays.

In 1971, one seminar – titled “Malay Participation in the National development of Singapore” and organized by the Majlis Pusat (Central Council of Malay Cultural Organizations of Singapore – became a land mark.

Participants at this seminar identified and stated problems of the Malay community in the context of nation building, and secondly, discussed how to seek jaya (success). “Jaya” became a key word as a goal for Malays to achieve. Since this seminar the term ‘Malay problem’ was frequently used in Malay newspapers.

What did it mean at this time for Malays to achieve jaya? It was interpreted by Malay political and other leaders as meaning: changing the attitude of Malays to successfully adopt themselves to a new nation-state.

Another key word at this time was “Ubah Sikap” (change attitudes). For instance, Malays had to increase the level of their children’s education. Malays had to become fluent in English. Malays had to enter the commercial sector by running small shops like the Chinese. They had to limit the number of their children, so they could supervise their children’s education well and so that the family could fit into an HDB flat. For that reason Malay women were advised even by Islamic religious leaders to use contraceptive pills.

These goals were set by the government in the 1970s as a model for successful Singaporeans in the 1970s. They were then consumed by Malays as a way of framing “Malay” success in Singapore.

The continuous strive to succeed

This pattern originating in the 1970s continues today. Firstly the state sets a package of targets. The Malays then diagnose themselves in order to identify problems preventing them from reaching these targets. They articulate these problems and resolve to change their attitude to overcome them and thus prove that they can be successful Singaporeans.

In this way, any new target, no matter how unreasonable it could be, can stimulate a desire among Malays to prove that they can be successful.

This mentality also launches them on a permanent journey of becoming. As they are always looking to a future goal, then where they are right now is not good enough. They have to keep going till they reach some destination.

The question at stake for Malays is whether one day this will make them a visibly “successful” community in their own right, without any comparison with other communities. This is in line with their longing in the 1980s to change the perception of Malays in the 1980s as second class citizens.

State power to define difference

For the state, it is effective to label some people as those who are not quite on par with rest of society, hence different. Why? In order to recognize “standard” Singaporeans versus “non-standard” Singaporeans some form of difference is inevitably required. For instance if we want to determine whether something is (say) tall, or dark, we always need a yardstick for comparison (i.e. taller than X; darker than X).

The majority can tell what the majority is and what it means by looking at those who are not majority, not standardized, not the same as them.

This need to create someone different is met by the frequent change of instructions to Singaporeans by the government. The government constantly creates new targets, and therefore can constantly produce and demarcate in new ways those who are not coping quite as well as other communities such as the Chinese.

In this regard, Goh stated in his 17th February 2005 speech above, “In 2003, Manpower Ministry figures showed that Malays, who formed about 11 per cent of the workforce, made up 14 per cent of the retrenchments. Also, within 12 months of retrenchment, 74 per cent of Chinese were able to find another job, compared to 69 per cent and 67 per cent, respectively, for Malays and Indians.”

The gap shown by this figures is not large, but the point for the government is that there is a difference, which serves demarcate the minority from the majority.


If Malays have achieved well already – as Goh in fact acknowledged in his speech – then why does he point out this difference? The ‘underachievement’ of Malays has to be constantly remembered, or more precisely re-created. Thus, in his speech, Goh sets new targets for Malays, such as “the acquisition of skills in new growth areas” as “globalisation accelerates the pace of economic change.”

Will this end? Until Malays in Singapore can free themselves from their habitual way of perceiving jaya (success) and ubah sikap (change attitude), they will always function as the inevitable element of difference that validates the majority within Singapore.


6 Responses to Masalah Melayu di Singapura: The continuous strive to “succeed”

  1. Muddy says:

    That article is a little sad with a grain of truth. Here the author seems to be pointing out how the “Malay Problem” is actually the fact that we see ourselves as a problem. (or least the govt sees us as that justified by facts/figures/comparisons). This is evident by the last sentence “will always function as the inevitable element of different that validates the majority within Singapore.” Makes me wonder what other ways can we perceive success? That we retain our culture? That we progress even minisculely towards the standards majority advocates? Another perspective is what is so wrong about “jaya” that is perceived by the govt. if it does good for the community. Are we rebelling for sake of it?

  2. Administrator says:

    HAHA! Finally you commented on some of my posts! I believe what the author is trying to point out is the blatant attempts by the government at marginalising the Malay community, highlighting our inadequacies through statistics and numbers. That even if we achieve a little it is never enough. There are of course two ways to look at it. One way is to blame the government (read my earlier entry on a book by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim) or to look inwards as argued by Dr Mahathir in the Malay Dilemma. I’m still quite unconvinced as to how we can quantify or justify the level of development of the Malay community in Singapore.

  3. Muddy says:

    Haha..Just looking at the length of posting for the entry on the book by Dr. Lily Zubaidah was enough to turn me off. =P But for your sake, I did read it. And I agree with Jireh. First of all, correct me if I’m wrong for I have not read either her book or that of Dr Mahathir. From my understanding, it seems that both are trying to rationalise and find the answers to the so-called non-progression or slow-progression relative to its other cultural counterparts. And yet, my first basic question is: “What is the DILEMMA?” There is an assumption that all of us measure our successes primarily base on the educational levels, presence in political arena and business success and this applies throughout the racial boundaries. But it does not happen!! Malays have been known to prioritise other things and if they’re happy, isn’t that a success by itself?

    Okay, if indeed we see it as facing realities of the world and the need to measure ourselves by looking at others, then how do we solve this so-called dilemma? Your two ways seem to sum it up. I subscribe to changing ourselves. Why? It has been shown in history and even in pyschology that it’s impossible to change someone. Only they can change themselves. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi.” Yes, trying to identify the source might help us figure out how to solve it. Yet, individually
    starting with ourselves, the beliefs we have that constructed our realities we do a better job at CHANGING (note it’s a verb)

    On another note, there’s a school of thought that sees developing strengths (rather than improving weakness) as a bigger leap towards self-improvement. So what are our strengths?

    HAHAHA, I sound like a posting all for myself.

  4. Administrator says:

    Firstly, in clarifying what the Malay dilemma is, I must highlight that it is the dilemma of solving the Malay socioeconomic stagnation rather than just our desire fore immediate gratification and a peaceful unprogressive life (Even though I concur both are connected).

    The Malay dilemma is about having to push forward a whole society into changing their cultural psyche, realising that socioeconomic indicators prove that the Malay community has consistently fallen out of the progressive modern cycle of development, in danger of being marginalised politically, economically and psychologically.v However, this is met by resistance simply because some argue(Dr Mahathir and Wan Hussein Zoohri) that the Malay culture itself teaches us to be unprogressive and antithethical towards modernity (hence the dilemma!).

    Hence I disagree with your opinion that being happy is a success by itself because if we were to imagine a Singapore 100 years from now with that mentality, we as a commuinity will be non-existent (due to political marginalisation, lack of economic influence, cultural deficit thesis).

    I agree with you that changing ourselves is the way to go. But now the problem is time taken and the pace of change. How much time can be afforded to us so that a significant number of our community has progressed to a state of independence and modernity? And is the pace of change too slow? Another problem to consider, which is happening in Malaysia now in the run up to their elections, is instead of the gap between races, now it is the gap within the community itself – the rich and the poor. While the rich and highly educated grows incrementally in numbers, the poor swells exponentially in size, failing to find jobs and education. And who can forget social ills such as drugs and divorces which the government highlights that it is highest among Malays.

    That’s the Malay dilemma. By the way, I just discovered I have Wan Hussein Zoohri’s book entitled “The Singapore Malays: The Dilemma of Development”. He points out that the government must play a more important role in solving the Malay dilemma. I’ll post about it soon, if I can read it before I enter camp on Monday.

  5. Muddy says:

    Woohoo!! Power lawyer in da house!!
    Good arguments. Just go to show I should go read the books!!

    Hey, just to point out. There is a higher divorce rate in the States.

    Hhmmm there are so many parts I can talk with you about this from successful life being a happy life and how this compares with other parts of the world that also might face cultural deficit thesis. Plus talking about the time to change and catch up, a revolution just might be a good idea. And plus, looking at history, revolutions are usually initiated by a small minority. So do we have that in place already?

    Anyway, I’m reading books by Thomas Friedman ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’ and in the midst of ‘The World’ if Flat’. Very insightful look at globalisation. The former touches on the clash between global forces (lexus) and the cultural roots (olive tree!). Let me know if you are planning to read them. Then we can discusssssss

  6. Administrator says:

    I will try to look for it and read it okay? Reading the Wan Hussein Zoohri’s book entitled “The Singapore Malays: The dilemma of developoment and a book entitled “The Singapore Legal System”. Sigh. Going back to camp soon. Sad.

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