The Malay Identity, or lack thereof?

I recently attended a dialogue session with Mr Hawazi Daipi, a Member of Parliament, and Mr Nawab, who was the Vice-President of Young AMP, entitled, “What is the role of the Malay/Muslim Youth in the Globalised World?”. What struck me as most surprising was the lack of pride in being identified as a Malay in the Singapore Society, and the general emotional vacillation between an absolute sense of helplessness or an almost apathetic dismissal of the Malay Community as only having progressed infinitessimally vis-a-vis the other races. When Mr Hawazi Daipi asked the audience of undergraduates to vote on which they identified first as who they are: a Malay, a Muslim or a Singaporean, less than five voted for being a Malay or Singaporean, whereas an overwhelming majority voted as being a Muslim first.

I am here not to discuss about the rising Islamisation of our youth or the increased awareness among youths of the need to counter Islamic Terrorists who abuse the religion to suit their own ends. Assuming that there were only a handful of Indian/Chinese Muslims in the audience and the fact that Singapore’s brand of National Education has a long way to go into inculcating a deep sense of patriotism among the youth, what struck me was the fact that many of whom were Malays did not raise their hands to identify as being Malays. One even suggested to drop the Malay out of the Malay/Muslim label, in an effort to be more inclusive, since being is Muslim is much more important (in the afterlife) than being a Malay.

Why is there a total lack of faith amongst the educated Malay elite in identifying themselves as Malays first? Is it because of the sense of alientation, as identified by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim of the professional middle class Malays from their community, having pulled themselves out of the cycle of poverty? Or is it the overwhelming sense of frustration over the snail pace speed of progress of our community, measured primarily through high divorce rates, teen pregnancies and juvenile delinquencies?

The sense of alienation arises once the educated Malay elite measures his socioeconomic standing based solely on his educational qualifications and economic success with the community at large. Once he affirms this, his first question would be to ask the rest of the community why can’t you? This narrow mentality absolutely disregards the socioeconomic and structural problems faced by the Malay families of the lower income groups and underestimates the level of difficulty in earning a sustainable source of income in Singapore. As most sociologists and social anthropologists would attest to, such socioeconomic changes within a community takes generations at least, as the community matures and takes stock of past mistakes. Rather than to ask why, the educated Malay elite should appreciate the immense difficulties faced by the government, as well as numerous Malay and Muslim self help groups, in trying to nip such problems in the bud, by either directly going to the children of broken families, or dealing with the consequences, through counselling and fiscal education with the parents themselves.

The assessment of progress through the breakdown of statistics among the races should not only include divorces, pregnancies and juvenile delinquencies, but also education attainment, from passes in PSLE to the increasing number of undergraduates, and economic achievements in all sectors, with many Malays entering new professions, professions not explored by Malays once before. Granted that the pace of progress is not as high as we can hope, the existence of progress is undeniable, and the changes can be seen through the Malay educated elites themselves, having achieved what many Malays could only hope to achieve 10 years before.

I was once a cynic. I think I still am in some aspects. At times, I also felt alienated and frustrated. But, I do know that we must not loose hope in our community in its ability to reinvent itself.

Being a Muslim is important to me, but that is not what I am only. I am also a Malay, and always will be.

(If anyone is curious to know, I saw myself first as a Singaporean. I guess National Education did work for me at least! :D)


20 Responses to The Malay Identity, or lack thereof?

  1. Hi Libertas

    Nice one. I think the other communities also might not identify themselves as Singaporeans first. Somehow, the identity of being a Singaporean does not stick that easily.

  2. blueheeler says:

    The contentious issue of ‘malay’ identity exists not only in S’pore. Malay Malaysian academics such as Shamsul and Farish Noor have eloquently challenged the notion of Malayness in Malaysia, as constructed by the colonial past and the current establishment. I for one think that ‘ethnicity’ is a smokescreen for which the good stuff is credited for and the bad stuff is blamed on. Beyond this, much of ‘ethnicity’ is the prime playgound of politicians who use it for self-power and to strike fear with.

  3. ~fatma says:

    i see myself as a Singaporean first too! 😀
    the question of identity (malay/muslim/singaporean etc.) is an interesting one..learnt that in gender depends on the situation you are in..everyone has multiple and intersecting identities (: (ok i can go on and on abt this but i’m too lazy to type haha!)
    oh and yesterday’s ST Home section had interesting articles regarding the malay whole page on it..nothing to be proud of tho heh. might blog abt it later

  4. Libertas says:

    Hey The Void Deck:
    Thanks for visiting my site!

    To Blue Heeler:
    I guess using the word “Identity” in my title may not have been the best choice since I only touched on a few aspects of it, in this case the lack of pride in identifying oneself as Malay first. I find the “notion of Malayness” interesting as it suggests different degrees of being Malay, on how it can easily change to suit the political needs of the time. I would agree that “ethnicity is a smokescreen” to some extent as it allows the Singapore government to identify problems specific to each community and leave it to the community leaders to deal with them. One thing I did not touch on would be the stereotypes of a Malay, and how easy for one to feel angry and frustrated to be labelled as part of the ‘kumpulan anak metropolitan’ or ‘geng-geng hanyut’.

    Will read the article soon. Sigh. Had a sudden flash of inspiration as I tried to sleep! Hahahaha!

  5. introspectif says:

    Interesting piece.

    When one writes on such a topic as this, I find this question coming back again and again: Who is a Malay? That’s when people try to make guesses such as ‘one who speaks Malay’ or ‘one who embraces Malay culture’ etc. which further spawn tricky questions like ‘what is Malay culture’ etc.

    Sometimes, it reaches a point where it’s really hard to say who a Malay is—and it’s not an issue of one not wanting to identify with the negative stereotypes, but the mere ‘technical’ challenge of defining a Malay. For instance,

    – Is a person born to Malay parents but who speaks little or no Malay a Malay?
    – Contrariwise, a person not born to Malay parents but adopted into a Malay family, is fluent in speaking Malay and has embraced Malay culture—is he Malay?

    And it is perhaps a comparison of the former and the latter that often leads to the notion of ‘Malayness’, as people often refer to it.

    Personally, I am Malay, but as an honest feeling, I think I can be ‘more Malay’ if I started speaking and writing more in Malay, haha. Just sharing a perspective 🙂

  6. Libertas says:

    Hahahaha! I recall your own entry and the ensuing debate that followed, in particular the comment by Mr Michael Chick!

    I tried to stay clear of the question “Who is Malay?” because since sociologists and politicians can never agree on the universally accepted definition of “Malay”, much less a “Malay Identity”, I don’t think I should even attempt to. I guess the degree of Malayness is there, but there’s no denying whether someone is Malay or not. Or is there? Hmm.

    Maybe since the Malay MPs have been trying to define a “Singaporean Muslim Identity” we should also suggest to them to think of a Malay one too? Heeheehee.

    (Ha I decided to edit my comment too! Hahaha!)

  7. [andee] says:

    “Why is there a total lack of faith amongst the educated Malay elite in identifying themselves as Malays first?” Haha, interesting choice of word there, since it is exactly an abundance of “faith” that compels some to prioritise religion before race and culture.

    Also, I find it most interesting that you would identify yourself as Singaporean before being Malay. You, a fierce advocate of looking after concerns of your the community before those of the country, for, as you have said to me time and time again :), each community has its own specific concerns that cannot hoped to be addressed without specialised attention. How do you rationalise this apparent disconnect?

    Interesting post! And you love for Lily Zubaidah has obviously not waned in last 2 years, lol. 🙂

  8. Libertas says:

    I know! My sis was telling me how I should not rely on her on my musings too much! Hahahaha, But I can relate to her argumentations so well, especially on her culture deficit thesis and the double alienation of the Malay elite!

    Hahaha! I thought no one would catch my particular choice of the word “faith”. Heeheehee. What you say its true though. Maybe I was rebelling against the tide of Muslims first, the more supra-national choice , thereby choosing myself as Singaporean? Or maybe is the fact that I didn’t feel particularly Malay that moment, with many others whom I thought would choose to be Malay chose Muslim instead.

    In any case, there is such a fine line between helping your community and advocating for Malay rights from the government, and Malay MPs cannot afford to be seen to be too racially preferential. Even though the government expects them to be the panacea of the community’s problems. Though the apparent contradiction is there, I guess there must be other ways in which the MPs try to get their concerns across. I don’t know much about how they try to do so though, voicing the community’s problems but appearing to be acting for the good of the country. Its a very tough political act to follow.

    Heeheee. I hope you start writing soon, even though I won’t understand much about science. Heeheehee.

  9. [andee] says:

    dont worry, the new post is very un-science-y. im glad you posted something new. I was getting tired of seeing the Cavana chicken rice thing haha.

  10. Libertas says:

    Hey I commented your entry. Heeheehee.

  11. zao says:

    Ever read The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P Huntington? People tend to associate more strongly to whichever prevalent identity which they share. You have Singaporean, Malay and Muslim. Currently on a global context there is a surge in Islamic faith, so more people will tend to associate themselves with their faith than national and racial identity. There is nothing wrong with that IMO.

    Apathy and lack of drive to progress is the civilization’s own fault. It is part of their supposed culture. Patriotism when used correctly can bring about positive changes, but I hate the fact that Patriotism could also very well be used in the wrong context. In a rapidly globalised era, we should seek to reduce our association with national identities which basically is limited by borders and seek to embrace supra-national identities like being a Muslim or a Malay.

  12. a :) says:

    Well firsly, if im not wrong, the title of the debate was “ the identity of the Malay/Muslim in the globalized world”. Well technically when we’re being asked this question, an immediate answer comes to mind- malay, muslim or singaporean? However who is to say that identity has to be exclusive?

    I personally find that the cause of your concern rather unjustified. How can u pass a jugdment abt ‘the lack of pride in being a malay’ simply because a majority of the audience identified themselves with being a muslim first? U mention sth abt how we should not be discussing abt ‘the increased awareness among youths of the need to counter Islamic Terrorists’. However, not taking that into consideration would be like approcahing the issue with one-eye closed(hhas.. sorry cant think of that word). Neways. Being a minority in a country that is already small in itself is never easy. Being a muslim, a believer of a religion that is continually tainted with massive stereotypes is wORST.Thus, it could be precisely this tt many feel that there was an OVERWHELming need to identify themselves as a Muslim first in the wake of these evernts without neccessarily compromising on their Malay identity. And if u look at it different angle, imagine what would happen if everyone were to raise their hand idnetify themselves as malay or even singaporean first, it would raise yet be another issue. whteher are we too embarrassed to associate ourselves with this religion. Thus the whole thing may seem to be like a conundrum no?

    Dont get me wrong. I do acknowlege that there may be sometruth to ur concern, but i just cannot agree w u if u simply based ur conclusion on that itself. Certainly that there may be a culture of shame attached to being a malay as we always find ourselves dominating headlines especially on issues such as domestic problems and etc.

  13. a :) says:

    Indeed i do admit tt i have submitted to feelings of helplessness most of the times, especially when i see a discerning lack of effort on the part of lower-income grp to change theirlives for the better. But i was personally insulted when u mention thg abt “narrow mentality” of the elites ‘disregarding the socioeconomic and structural problems faced by the Malay families’.

    As much as i am disappointed with ‘the snail speed progress’, i certainly do undertsand some of the plights faced by e lower income grp and im truly grateful for all the efforts made by governments in wanting to change the existing condition. However, im frustrated not because they’re ‘not earning a sustainable source of income in singapore’, but rather by the lack of willingness to truly lift themselves out that poverty cycle. i certainly wont deny being critical of those who choose to adopt a nonchalant attitude towards issues such as education or job employment despite help from various organisational bodies available.

    What bothers me even more is the over-reliance on the government at times, thinking that it is the responsibility of the government to take care of their welfare. Is that really what we want to encourage? Ultimately, they have to be responsible for themselves. Indeed our priorities may not necc seem to be insync with that of economic growth, but a change in mentality is still needed-irregardless of any sociol-economic probelms encountered.

    –hehee.. nizam im so sorry if it really long!!.. and truly apologise if it really is messyn disorganised all.. hahs.. i was really rushing thru.. but honestly i question the intention of such debates. didnt achieve that much for me really.

  14. wany says:

    you should take the ms module i’m taking now, political culture of the malays. i have a feeling you’ll like it… heh. and how’s school been? hope it’s been great! mine has, i’ve been reaching home after 10pm everyday.. haha

  15. Libertas says:

    Why so late? I love school! The campus is beautiful and the lessons are quite fun! Hehehehe. Got any interesting issues in the module?

  16. ahara says:

    You’ve got a breakthru weblog. Salute. But just one thing to comment. I think we shudnt label either we are Malay or Muslim or Singaporean separately and put them in ranking. We, human being, zoon politicon, have multiple identity which overlaps each other. If asked we are facing a security threat from, say, Japan, are we still labelling ourselves as Muslim? If asked when our prophet was being insulted, are we still labelling ourselves as Singaporean? All I’m saying is having an identity is a means to liberate ourselves from any form of repression and not an isolation.

  17. MC: Hello, thank you introspektif for such an encouraging intro.

    “…I really admire your effort in writing such a long, information-packed and entertaining comment….”
    MC: I really do apologize for not responding for so long, as I was abroad attending to other matters.

    “…I agree with you that it is hard to define what/who a “Malay” is. Acknowledging this, the complications compound when politics come into play i.e. when policies are made based on definitions of Malay that are until now elusive and controversial…”
    MC: I’m really glad that you are aware of this. It was actually specifically to this issue, which the entire topic was dedicated to. Just not expounded explicitly.

    Therefore, I feel I must make it clear that I support none of the race-based politics.
    MC: You’re re definitely among the few who do so, and to that end I salute you.

    Although it is hard to define “Malay”, I am sure it is easier to point out that there are native speakers of Bahasa Melayu. I prefer to call it Bahasa Melayu, because perhaps “Bahasa Malaysia” is bound to be complicated, since Malaysia is a country; the same I feel for “Bahasa Indonesia”. Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Melayu are in essence the same, but Bahasa Melayu is a more Singaporean term, for obvious reasons; again, I don’t like to go into politics. But judging by the name alone, Bahasa Melayu is a more neutral term, because it doesn’t attach itself to a particular nationality, and hence, my preference for it.
    MC: Perhaps I may be wrong, but just like Bahasa Jawa, and Bahasa Acheh, wouldn’t the term Bahasa Melayu refer to the Language spoken at Kampong Melayu near Jambi as I explained earlier?

    My theory and proposal is simple: as long as there are people who natively speak this common language, let’s call them “Malay” or “Malay people” (from “orang Melayu”).
    MC: It I also this term which Prof Timothy Barnhard of NUS attributes to the British calling it “…an artificial construct of the Colonial Masters…”

    Yes, the Malays living around West Malaysia and Singapore come from different places and have different ancestral roots. That’s fine.
    MC: I was specifically addressing that issue. The fact that no one can change his or her race. Take the term Indian Muslim for example. It defines a race, and then, a religion. Would you call them Malay? Well, the Malaysian constitution does. And that is exactly what I am addressing. No one can change races. By virtue, Angeline Jolie is now a Buddhist. What would you call her then? Point being that religion and race have nothing to do with each other. They are independent labels. Much like the Hindu Malays in Bali. Or the Catholic Malays in Sulawesi. We need two words to describe them because there are mutually exclusive of each other.

    But inter-marriages and settlement after migration are making them converge based on language alone. Yes, I am sure there are people who are still proud of their roots by calling themselves “orang Jawa”, “orang Boyan”, “orang Bugis” or whatever, but inter-marriages would inevitably blur these lines, and the only thing they can fall back on for their identity is their language. That language is a mixture of their ancestors’ languages, which has now come to be known as Bahasa Melayu.
    MC: It is also to this strangeness that I wish to address. Following most other traditions, including the ones practiced by the immigration, the (so-called) race of a particular individual is usually attributed to the Paternal side. Whereas either parent can be a Malay, and still they are called Malay. In Malaysia, neither parent is Malay, and they are still called Malay as long as they are Muslim. How can that be so? You must know Mahatir Mohd. He calls himself a Malay, whereas he is clear-cut an Indian. Care to expound?

    I would like to relate a personal example. Technically, my great great grandfather is a Chinese man who married a Malaccan. Wow, some roots there. So technically, I must be Baba or something. But now, I am not living in Malacca; I am living in Singapore. I know how to speak Bahasa Melayu, but I do not know how to speak any dialect of Chinese. I don’t wear clothes like my Baba ancestors probably wore; I wear casual T-shirt and jeans when I go out, and occasionally, what I know now to be “Baju Melayu”. I am sure it is the same with many others who fall within my definition of “Malay”, regardless whether originally “orang Boyan”, “orang Jawa”, “orang Baba” or others.
    MC: By your own admission, you are of mixed parentage. That’ all. Just like everyone else who is. And nobody has a problem with that.

    But let’s digress for a bit. Who are Chinese? People who speak Chinese? I know there are people who speak Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Mandarin… wait, Mandarin? Mandarin was officially made Standard Chinese, official language of China. I know the speakers of those language look somewhat alike, but technically, were there “Chinese” people? Were there “Chinese” people before “China”? Oops, “China” was only Zhongguo, and the term “China” apparently came from outsiders who wished to refer to the Qin Dynasty. So, how about the dynasties before that, the Shang and Zhou dynasties? Were the people known as or called themselves Shangese and Zhouese?
    MC: I’m glad that you brought this up. You are referring to the sub-groups of the Chinese people. (or you may call it from the Mongoloid classification). By virtue, the majority of the Malays are a sub-group of the Southern Chinese. This attribute is much like the Hokkiens and the Teochews. You will never hear someone calling a Cantonese a race. Heavens no! That would be an uneducated presumption. As the migration of the Malays (most of them anyway) started out from Taiwan, then to the Philippines and so on, (I call it the Alisan migration) then the correct term for the Malays would be a sub-ethnic group of the Chinese. After all, the Malays fall under the Mongoloid cluster. Definitely not the Caucasoid, or the Negroid.

    “…How about the English? Who are English? There are people who speak Irish, Scottish, British English, American English… all are “English”, and they look pretty much alike (”orang putih”). Oh wait, English is a Germanic language? Does that mean English people are Germans too? And there were influences from Old French, Latin and Greek — does this mean they are GermFrencLatGreekIsh too?
    How about the Indians? Who are Indians? There are people who speak Tamil, Urdu Bangladeshi, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi… all are “Indian”, and they roughly look the same. Are they BanglaTamilHindBengPun…i too?…”

    MC: And it is precisely this linguistic definition which we are all so caught up in which allowed people to wrongly define races by. All dictionaries and thesaurus definitions of race specifically defines it by physical anthropological specifics. Races cannot be defined by the language by which a person speaks. You will never call a Singaporean an English man (or woman) just because he or she speaks the Language. The race definition describes distinction in features, hair, skin color and so on. Also to note that nowhere else is there a reference to religion being a factor in determining a race. Correct me if I’m wrong, please.

    “…What I wish conclude is, “Malay” is a man-made term as much as “English”, “Chinese” or “Arab”. What differentiates between them is their history. Malay history seems so insignificant because it is relatively so short, and in our so relatively short history, we haven’t been warring or conquering or colonizing other people. In fact, we ourselves have been colonized. Maybe that makes for much of the belittling from outsiders. Maybe there’s the geographical factor too, in terms of land size. And perhaps more certainly, there’s the military factor, since we were still wielding keris and parang when the Chinese, British and the Dutch had wholesome gunpowder…”
    MC: Please please please do not belittle the people by such comments. Civilizations developed at different paces and it is not a discussion of who is superior or inferior. The playing field today is equal, and it is to that which I wish to address the perpetuation of such equality.

    That said, however, the de facto establishment of a “Malay” language, Bahasa Melayu, demonstrates the ability of this certain group of people to unite/converge under a shared identity. And as it goes with the English, Indian or Chinese, we look generally alike to each other too, unsurprisingly.
    Next thing, call it “race” or whatever—I have no objections against the establishment of a “Malay people” under a same language, Bahasa Melayu. In fact, for as long as we understand each other when we talk, I might regard some Indonesian people as Malay too.
    MC: Here’ the other illusion. The “new” common language is called Bahasa Melayu / Indonesia/ Malaysia. This language is also a relatively new construct. What I am I talking about? Simply put, a native speaking Kelantanese has absolutely no clue whatsoever when a native Iban is speaking in his own tongue. How then can anyone say that the language is the same? They are in fact not the same at all. What Linguists mean by same is in actuality, referring to the word “similar” It is merely the structure of the language. They call it the “Lego-type” language whereby words are added to the root words to give it tenses as well as other variants.

    “…In fact, I have gone under a school excursion to Pulau Penyengat, which is technically “Indonesian” for it is in Indonesia, but the people there speak pure Bahasa Melayu (i.e. with no hint of Bahasa Indonesia), and are proud to be once part of a Malay Sultanate. And I have Indonesian friends and relatives with whom I speak a mixture of Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia; I can still regard them as Melayu, but of course I don’t have to ask them “kau Melayu?” or tell (or classify or label) them “kau Melayu”. Again, inter-marriages and migration will blur these distinctions; moreover that Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu are not very different. The people on the West Coast of Johor who claim themselves to be Javanese but can speak Bahasa Melayu, might be a case in point….”
    MC: Great exposition. This all the more this reinforces the fact that one cannot define a race by the language by which they speak. A Bengali cannot become a Chinese just because he can sing in Teochew.

    I must emphasise again, however, that Bahasa Melayu must be the first language; otherwise, I can call myself English too — God forbid — simply because I speak English (but as a second language).
    MC: I’m so glad you don’t think of yourself as an English just because you can speak the language. I am so glad you have this knowledge that language does not define a race.

    From here on, it is up to us what we want to do with this shared identity. Look at India. “India” is originally an outsider’s term, and India has been colonised by the British before. Look at where India is now. “Malay” is not much different.
    MC: You are absolutely right again. India is facing a lot of problems because its leaders and people are hell-bent on religious dogma. Killing each other in the name of religion is not good. You are so right again. But really hope that you are wrong about Malays doing the same. That would be a bad thing. Y’know, this has been a great discussion. We should sit together and chat some more over a cup of the-tarik, perhaps at one of the 24hr mamak stores near Mustafa of something? There’s nothing I love more than intellectual constructive discussions.

    Pointless Barbaric screaming and shouting which half the morons in Malaysia are actively practicing, is so “yesterday”

    Cheers man

    Truly Asia Boleh

  18. ~huili says:

    nizam! wow your blog is really interesting (: and i can really really tell you’re a foodie haha 😀

  19. malayatheist says:

    Interesting post… I think most Malays are proud of their roots even though they do identify themselves as Muslims first. But that’s only because of religious reasons. I guess some of them have been taught that if culture clashes with religion, religion should take precedent.

  20. Feroz says:

    Is it actually possible to disassociate Muslim from Malay?

    All to often government rhetoric uses the phrase Malay/Muslim….So while Malays themselves might see themselves as Muslims first, and then Malay, everyone else seems to associate a Malay as a Muslim.

    Relating to why the authorities started using the term Malay/Muslim only about ten years ago- my Prof believes it has to do with placing the loci of Malay identity within Islam (not its culture), and with the centre of Islam being the Middle East, that would somehow deconstruct the image of Malays as indigenous inhabitants.

    Its also surprises me, an Indian Muslim, that a convert to Islam in Malay is termed as “masuk Melayu” which is inexorable proof that Malayness & Islam cannot be separated.

    Most Malays, I believe would try to downplay their Malay identity because it holds little “cultural capital” to themselves or the wider public. I’ve met many Malays who claim to be Arab, Indian or whatever else, although they are most of the time they are at least 3/4 Malay by descent. More importantly to me, they are culturally Malay. Malay ethnicity, like any other, is tied to its food, language, costumes, mannerisms, etc. There seems to be a growing fetish among the lumpen Malay mass to alter their ethnic identity, which I find rather perplexing.

    Malayness is rooted primarily in its ethnic practices, not in racial features. This explains the reason why Anwar Ibrahim & Mahathir, although both are half Indian, can make such headway in UMNO.

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