Malay Role Models: A Necessary Impetus Or An Ironic Symbol of Failure?

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.


15 Responses to Malay Role Models: A Necessary Impetus Or An Ironic Symbol of Failure?

  1. Andee says:

    Here’s a thought: Why must role models for Malays be Malays? Example: If you want to be a lawyer, must your role model be a Malay lawyer? Why not the most successful lawyer, or one whose methods or work ethic inspires you the most? This preoccupation with race seems counter-productive in my opinion.

  2. Libertas says:

    Yes you are right. This preoccupation with race is counterproductive at times. In a perfect world, I would hope that Malays would look to Germans to become the best reasearch scientists, or even America for the best graphic designers. But sadly this is not the case. Why do you ask?

    Malays do not have the belief in themselves that they can succeed if they are Malays. And this is the main reason why they look to Malay Role Models to inspire them to become great people. Chances are, these successful Malays have gone through a somewhat similar life experience which may provide indicators as to why they have attained such a level of success. Hence the need for Malay Role Models.

  3. ~fatma says:

    agree with andee..that’s why i said malay role models are not needed
    it’s sad that they need to look for ppl of ‘their own’ when we are all humans after all. they might think their fellow Malays go through similar life experiences (i am assuming here it means challenges and difficulties) but there are others who go through much more, so why not look up to them instead? if they can go through all that and get to the top, why not those who are more privileged?

    and another related matter..
    sometimes it really irks me when people are only comfortable within their own race. such insular thinking ain’t going to help. it just limits your capabilities and also achievements if you are not willing to explore the world.. this isn’t exactly the best place to rant (i.e. public for the world to read and i don’t intend to bring down some ppl/org) so i shall elaborate more the next time i see you (provided i remember that is haha)

  4. Libertas says:

    Hahaha. True enough! Too public a place to air your views.

    But you talked about being “privileged”. You do have to keep in mind that not all Malays are “privileged”.

    In any case, concurring with your point, we have did it in the past without Malay role models in the early stages of development. Just that now, these people have succeeded and therefore the Press decides to display them to everyone. Maybe the question as to whether we need them is irrelevant – we have achieved so much without them in the past. The question now stands whether we need them now and whether it has a unknown detrimental effect on the mindset of the Malay community.

    I still stand firm that I find the motives of having Malay Role models suspect at times. But do we still need them despite the detrimental effects I have raised in my entry? That is the question I really want to discuss.

  5. ~fatma says:

    i meant “privileged” compared to maybe ppl who are worse off in the third world, living on less than US$1 a day, fighting poverty and AIDS..some Malays here may not be privileged but i believe there are ppl out there much worse off than them.

    detrimental effects is inevitable. there is always two side of the same coin. is there anything in this world that has only benefits or only detriments? i can’t think of any.

  6. seeker94 says:

    Interesting blog you have here. If you don’t mind, I gonna put you on my blogroll. Most other local sites are really pathetic. I’ve been wanting to include you for some time but I’d thought you’ve given up on blogging.

    Salaam, Brother.

  7. kamya says:

    a new blog! sheesh! and i wasnt told! *waves the FINGER*

  8. kamya says:

    a new blog! and i wasnt told! sheesh. *waves the finger*

  9. kamya says:

    shit. i posed this twice accientaly.

  10. Andee says:

    kamya! what’s going on with you??!?!

  11. Libertas says:

    Isn’t it obvious? She’s suffering from “Nitam Kamdee Deficit Syndrome” which happens when the “Kam” goes CMU. Its perfectly normal actually for all four involved once school begins.

    Really hope to see you soon! Though i didn’t tell many people that i changed my blog, just one or two. When are you coming back?

  12. Rosli says:

    Salams, I’m a producer a new segment on current affairs programme Detik on blogs. Yours caught my attention and would like to feature it on the programme…and possibly have an interview with you. So I’d like to in touch with you.

  13. Libertas says:

    Would it be okay if you could email me at on the details of this new segment in Detik? Thanks!

  14. […] be or not to be on Detik? In my previous entry, a producer wanted to feature my blog in a Malay programme called Detik. Though I was very happy […]

  15. Feroz says:

    Dear Libertas,

    I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago, and I must admit, your entries are highly intriguing. 🙂

    With regard to your post above, race & ethnicity are salient aspects of a persons identity. One might argue that searching for Malay Role Models serves no real purpose, but every community is bound to search for its heroes. Let me provide an analogy, why do soccer fanatics follow their national teams so closely? Or idolize local superstars? Why not just forget about Fandi and look to Zidane?

    My point here is to illustrate that nations, cultures & religions form an “imagined community”- a Malay role model is perceived to have much in common with other Malays culturally, religiously, etc.

    The policy of Multi-Racialism (Spore is actually the first country in the world to declare itself “Multi-Racial”) has unintendedly led its citizens categorize themselves as C/M/I/O. Malay role models in my view are essential, since being a power minority, Malays (and even Indians) lack networking abilities or face discrimination, that many believe, make their success stories different from that of other groups.

    Unfortunately, the relative success of the Indian community has further ingrained the belief that the “cultural deficit thesis” holds ground. High divorce rates, teenage pregnancies, lack of educational achievement and the need for immediate gratification are problems the Malay community need to deal with. What’s sad is that most people associate this as a byproduct of being a Muslim or an indigene.

    In my view, Mahathir has a point when he states that the malaise of the Malay community is associated with the nurturing of children/ “child rearing”. Most Malay parents do not espouse to their progeny the importance of discipline- which is inextricably linked to education, hard work & life chances. Children who do not show any interest in education are often allowed to begin full-time work early in life, which is detrimental- and in my opinion the root cause of the problems mentioned above. Coupled with the lack of earning potential, is the non-existence of an ethos of saving, prudent spending or investment. The conflation of these 2 factors continues to plague the Malay community in its efforts to excel.

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