The Malay Aversion to Thrift

There’s a certain cultural observation that I simply have to ask – why do Malays always find it hard to save? In asking this question, I am making the implicit assumption that Malays in general are unable to save and that its a cultural issue, since it seems to be rather prevalent among Malays (though I don’t have official statistics to back me on this) as compared to other races in Singapore.

The first argument lies in the cultural stereotype of a Malay, which is an extension of the “cultural deficit thesis” theorised by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim. In this, Malays always find it hard to save simply because it is not in our cultural DNA, that the Malay culture in itself is the reason for this aversion to thrift. With Ramadhan and Hari Raya passing by, who among the Malay community can safely say that they had NOT spent large amounts of money on food, such that the initial perception that more money can be saved on food during fasting is a sad illusion, offset by the large amounts spent on buka alone?

Or to follow another line of argument, is it a result of the attitudinal ‘carpe diem’ mentality of the Malay, to kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang, which gives no thought to their financial future? With the emergence of the New Poor, fueled by the various “buy now pay later” schemes, Malays seem to have formed the bulk of this new social grouping, leading purely hedonistic materialistic lifestyles of Plasma screen televisions and room-to-toom air conditioning with a big fat zero in their bank accounts. But surely some would argue that this is purely a convenient reason to a much more complicated problem? That surely there’s more to thrift than just a hereditary Chinese DNA lacking in the Malay genetic make up?

One other reason I find common among the aversion to thrift is the strong family obligations held by most Malay individuals. Some contribute a large percentage of their incomes, sometimes more than half, to their parents, as a gesture of filial piety and gratitude for years of upbringing. Others spent large amounts on money on their siblings and parents as a gesture of love and bonding, that their relationships transcends over petty disputes over money. Even having a girlfriend is an automatic reason why saving is an impossibility, since money would be spent supporting both individuals, on top of family as well. Even AMP decided that a financial course for Malay fathers on learning how to handle the family income would be beneficial for the community in solving the problem of excessive spending.

Even religion expresses itself in this problem. Since money is purely a secular issue, there is no need to be overly concerned about it. We just need to have faith and do our daily five prayers and we are en route to heaven. In this, I must highlight that it is a religious misconception to think that saving is not encouraged in Islam. As any Islamic scholar of jurisprudence would attest to, thrift is one of the essential moral characteristics of a Muslim. While we can live with little material goods, this does not mean we cannot live with any, and be a hermit in a cave.

Some would argue that economics play an important role in entrenching our inability to save for the future. With the Malay community, making the bulk of the lower income families, as well as having jobs with little future prospects of upward social mobility, saving cannot be justified in having a decent quality of life. This again provides credence to the initial cultural argument of the Malay attitudinal mentality of kais pagi makan pagi.

Its an interesting issue to think about. Maybe I am wrong to make this postulations simply because my initial assumption is untrue, that Malays can save. But with my mini straw poll among my Malay friends and family, I can safely say more than 80 percent don’t save. What are your views on this issue?


9 Responses to The Malay Aversion to Thrift

  1. Kak Ngah says:

    I agree with your observations. I’ve got relatives who are graduates and earning quite big pay packets who save hardly anything – not for their retirement, not for their children’s education. They’re too busy buying that more expensive condo and buying that bigger car. And on the other extreme, I’ve also got relatives who don’t earn much and so can’t save. Which is sad, which is scary?

  2. Muddy says:

    As you said, kais pagi makan pagi. With that mentality, it doesn’t really matter how much we earn. Because ultimately, it will go back down to the baseline and that is usually bare survival.

    What would be interesting is to seek out Malays who do a great job at saving and see what characteristics or background lead to the differences in ‘saving money’ mentality.

    Great discussion! 🙂

  3. ~fatma says:

    i think there are a lot of Malays who save actually maybe u didnt ask enough people?

  4. huda says:

    interesting topic.. i wld have tot our generation wld be the ones who are saving for a rainy day. maybe becoz we give more den we receive. EVERYTHING is so expensive now. even having a child is a burden to pay. not to say u shldnt have 1 thou. hehe.. ppl may have the conception that they muz have wat others have which is a gd life, the 5Cs.. i tink most have ‘y shld i save if u have the money to spend’ mentality.

  5. Libertas says:

    I made the assumption that “in general” Malays don’t save. My purpose of this essay was to find out why, not whether or not they actually do save. AMP has definitely identified this as a problem and has decided to seek a long term solution to uplift the socio-economic status of the Malay community.

  6. muddy says:

    I see. So the assumption is that Malay generally don’t save and the essay was to find out why.

    Sometimes examining what happens on the opposing side (ie the Malays who do save) gives you more ideas as to the reasons behind why they don’t save. Does that make sense?

    One more reason I was pondering about from reading your essay is related to the ‘attitudinal ‘carpe diem’ mentality’ you mentioned. Having been ingrained by our forefathers or closer to home; our families, we grew up thinking that we should be satisfied with what we have. Perhaps religion comes into play in giving us the impression that all things should be in moderation. Any intention or action towards gaining more seems ‘selfish’, ‘greedy’ etc. I have come into contact with many youths who seem to be easily satisfied with what they have. One of the main reasons seems to be that using parents as their role models, being able to just live a little beyond survival is good enough.

  7. Libertas says:

    Ahh yes! Thats absolutely true! I totally forgot to link the part of “living in moderation” and being happy with what we have as a justification for the lack of savings.

    The fact that Malays who save, acting as a cultural counter to the majority who do not save, will be an interesting approach to the issue. Knowing how they manage to go against all cultural stereotypes would be very helpful. But why? Any ideas? Besides islamic jurisprudence and our colourful “Rakyat Yang Baik” textbooks, how is thrift inculcated into our daily lives?

  8. […] He-Bitch’s own accounts serves to substantiate my own argumentations concerning the high divorce rates among Malays. And its always good to hear people agreeing with your own postulations about certain cultural observations, especially the one I did on the problem of thrift among Malays. If you were an employer and you had to choose between a university graduate (only 1.9% Malays are graduates compared to 11.7%f the total population) or one without a diploma, ‘A’ Level or ITE certificate (27% of Malays don’t), who would you choose? Gee… […]

  9. […] with your own postulations about certain cultural observations, especially the one I did on the problem of thrift among Malays. If you were an employer and you had to choose between a university graduate (only […]

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