The idea of Malay role models have been a prevalent feature in the Malay community since the times when there was a need to inspire Malays to achieve excellence, either through the National Examination Systems (PSLE, O Level, A Level) or through the success of Malays in various fields, such as being a successful neurosurgeon or lawyer. Role Models serve both as an inspiration, as well as an underlying justification that Malays in Singapore can succeed through meritocracy, and that the culture deficit thesis espoused by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim does not prevail in the community today. However, I find the notion of role modelling particularly suspect at times because of how it may ironically impedes our growth and what it actually symbolises.
There are justified arguments for having Malay Role Models. Proponents of such would extemporise on the need to inculcate a belief in the new Malay generation that it is possible to become a Malay lawyer, a Malay doctor, a Malay Research Scientist, or even a Malay entreprenuer. That even a Malay can become a true professional or an astute intellect. Other arguments for the continued emphasis on having Malay Role Models include serving as a reminder to other races and to ourselves that the Malay community have achieved success, that we are not a marginalised community, or even the theory that our culture impedes our mental and intellectual growth. The older generation may even profess a hidden deep-seated Malay patriotism, that anak Melayu jugak yang boleh capai kejayaan, thereby satisfying that need through the presence of Malay Role Models.
But isn’t constant inundation a representation of a lack of belief in our abilities as “a community of excellence” to achieve what we are really capable of? That our community may not need such role models to justify to others that we have achieved some parity in terms of academic and economic excellence?
Sometimes the idea of Malay role models actually limits their belief in their own abilities and stunts their development towards achieving their desired aims. Its so common to see Malay families with both the elder brother and younger sister working in the same graphic design industry, or having all three brothers enrolling in a biomedical course in polytechnic and university to become research scientists. These younger siblings tend to follow the footsteps of the older siblings in chossing their respective fields of work and schools simply because the older siblings have tried this and done it. Though I don’t doubt their passion and abilities in such fields (and many have gone through them and gained employment), there seems to be an apparent disconnect between what they will be able to achieve against what they can achieve. At times, they don’t have the mental freedom to decide to go through it on their own simply because no other Malay individual has tried it.
That said, isn’t this why we need role models? To inspire and create the belief in ourselves that we can do it? I must point out the dangers of this line of argument because it can fall into an irreversible conundrum that will not resolve itself. (which is the beauty of this argument in my opinion if you understood what I have been trying to say!) But my question is why have this ceiling in the first place? Why place an intangible wall to our abilities simply because we have not seen it being done? Why can more Malays dream of doing things that we may have not even heard of?
This begs another question: Do role models symbolise our insatiable need to prove to others that we are not a marginalised community living on the fringes of the economic success of Singapore? One successful Malay Entrepreneur does not mean that we have reduced ten teen pregnancies or ten divorces among teens. One Neurosurgeon does not mean that we have reduced the percentage of credit card debt among Malay families.
Should we therefore totally eradicate Malay role models from the Malay psyche and wallow in our socioeconomic problems? Definitely not. However, one must be sure of the true intentions of having these Malay role models, and what they really mean to the younger generation; that it is not an end in itself, but one of the many ways of greatness, one you must challenge yourself to go it alone, and be brave enough to explore.