The Singapore Malays : The Dilemma of Development

“In Singapore today, the Malays have been the beneficiaries of socio-economic deprivation.”

Mr Wan Hussin Zoohri starts off his monograph entitled The Singapore Malays : The Dilemma of Development with such irony and sarcasm that I simply had to laugh. Who knows such Malay intellectuals emphathetic of the Malay problem could look at the issue with such humour? The juxtaposition of “beneficiaries” and “socio-economic deprivation” is just so revealing of the magnitude of the problem that humour seems to be the best way to send the message through.

I will be reviewing the introduction of his monograph which chronologically explains the historical reasons behind the Malay problem (or the Malay Dilemma as termed by Dr Mahathir or the Singapore Dilemma by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim. Why are they so obsessed with the word dilemma?) and the various solutions by many of the late Singaporean Malay scholars on the issue, which really had been both enlightening and encouraging. While the start of the whole monograph was humourous and disheartening, he provides a much more encouraging outlook for the Malay community if we were to follow the carefully-crafted solutions by the Malay scholars.

Mr Wan Hussin Zoohri emphatically highlights the importance of historical factors which include the feudalistic mentality of the Malay leaders in particular as well as the repressive (or not?) colonial policy in place. Economically, he underlies how the fate of the Malays were sealed when the Sultan and Temenggong threw away the opportunity of engaging in trade offered by Raffles. Mr Wan Hussin Zoohri’s response to this was particularly harsh:

“It is unbelievable that such a golden opportunity was dismissed with an air of misplaced arrogance.”

It was “misplaced” because the feudalistic mentality of Sultan which provided a knee-jerk aversion to trade and commerce excluded the Malay leaders from being engaged in trade which will soon chart the history of modern Singapore. While Mr Wan Hussin Zoohri argues that the colonial policies were repessive, Haji Sidek Saniff, in the forward to the monograph, wrote how Malay classes were discontinued in 1842 after eight years of existence due to poor response. The Sultan himself also had rejected Raffles’ offer of sending his Malay sons to study in India under the British. Echoing Mr Wan Hussin Zoohri’s stand was Abdullah Munshi. Writing in his autobiography entitled, Hikayat Abdullah, he reflected:

“I had observed their conduct, behaviour and habits from my youth up to the present time and found that, as time went on, so far from becoming more intelligent, they became more and more stupid.”

Again, I just had to laugh at this because of his lack of subtlety and blatant frankness. To quote Mr Wan Hussein Zoohri, “Abdullah’s pungent criticism of the Malays made him the first known Malay writer to emphatise with the problem.” Emphathy through criticism – surely that’s indicative of the lack of appreciation and realisation of the general Malay community of the Malay problem itself!

In the early twentieth century, there were many Malay intellectuals who were concerned with the relative socio-economic inertia that has plunged within the levels of the Malay community. For example, Mr Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad, also known as Za’ba, had written two noteworthy articles entitled “The Poverty of Malays” and “The Salvation of the Malays” in the Malay Mail in December 1923. He painted a particularly encouraging picture:

“They are not, however, naturally of poor intellect, or incapable of high morals. Potentially, they posess such qualities as much as do any other people. But the actualised part of this potentiality is still too poor to bear comparision with what we find in other progressive peoples in the country.”

In this, he expanded the definition of poverty as being inclusive of moral and intellect, notwithsatnding the socio-economic poverty which is still plaguing the Malay community now. His description of the Malay community then is still surprisingly accurate when applied to the Malay community now at some levels:

“Intellectually, the Malays are poor in knowledge, in culture and in general means of cultivating the mind. Their literature is poor and unelevating; their domestic surroundings from childhood are poor and seldom edifying; their religious life and practice is poor and far removed from the pure original teachings of the Prophet. In short, the Malays cut poor figures in every department of life.”

Za’ba identifies a two prong approach to solve the Malay problem: the right education and the unity of the Malays in working hard and cooperating among themselves. Mr Syed Hussein Alatas identifies a more individualised approach. He believes central to answering the dilemma posed by the community is the emphasis on “human factors” as compared to “objective factors”. “Human factors” would include the spirit to think and the will to work hard.

“It is this spirit which leads us to examine the objective circumstances surrounding us and ascertain the necessary steps to be taken to overcome the obstacles for progress in economics, education and in other fields.”

I think this is the best solution yet that I have read in solving the Malay dilemma. The need to look inclusively towards ourselves individually, to have the “spirit” as idealised by Mr Syed Hussein Alatas, before any attempt at change can be effected. With education as primarily highlighted by Za’ba and Mr Syed Hussein’s Alatas and his “spirit to think and the will to work hard”, I believe we can slowly progress forward. The extent by which we have progressed now is debatable. While we lament that we still have yet achieved parity with the other races, we can say we have progressed. But by how much? Until I get official statistics, I really cannot comment.


6 Responses to The Singapore Malays : The Dilemma of Development

  1. anonymous says:

    hi nizam!
    you write really well!
    i’m loving it!

  2. Administrator says:


  3. Muddy says:

    Yeap, I agree. You write well!

    You know as I read your posting and begin to think of the applications to my general community of Malay friends, seriously I would not know where to start? (or do I even have the ‘knowledge’ or ‘expertise’ to do so?)

    Not everyone is at the same level of awareness of current situation. Plus most are satisfied with their lives than wanting to rock the boat to acheive higher. Without the crippling need to want to change, (and maybe we are slowly reaching that stage..) there will be no change.

    One characteristic of the Malay village is the sense of community or ‘gotong-royong’. Yet, as each one of us strive for successes in life, we inevitably leave out some others who don’t have the same opportunities either for lack of resources or mental strength and exposure. Rapport is lost within the community with difrerent values and principals. This might just metamorph almost into a rat race. Each for his own.

    There are of course different repurcussions that could have happen instead. Looking this website Listing of welfare organizations it seems that the Islamic organizations seemed geared to help the Malay/Islam community to ‘solve of their social problems’. There are no specific org that serve those who have indeed done well and to go for further self development, leadership and the next strata of self-improvement. Another observation is the absence of an organization that says they will provide activities to develop the mind, body and heart of a Malay based on Islamic faith. There are a no. of Christian orgs doing just that. It makes me wonder if it’s less prevalent for Malays to apply Islamic teachings to their daily lives and using it as a guideline to impact themselves to the next level.

  4. Administrator says:

    I totally agree with you that one of the fundamental hallmarks of the malay culture is the spirit of gotong-royong. Bersatu kita teguh, bercerai kita roboh. But is this enough? I too am afraid that as we journey forward, we inevitably leave people behind. Can this be avoided? This again has several echos to the cultural deficit thesis proposed by Ms Lily Zubaidah Rahim. Are we too culturally inferior to go beyond self-help groups?

  5. ec says:

    haha! u sound like an nus student..

    guess what? im taking a module that requires me to read all abt wan hussin zoohri and his crap..
    i must admit.. i find his arguments quite pathetic..

  6. Libertas says:

    Why do I sound like an NUS Student? Is that supposed to be a compliment or not because at the time I was writing this, I was not an NUS student.

    I wouldn’t say pathetic, just not as substantive as, lets say Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim or Tania Li, for example. Why are you studying him anyway?

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