Reflections: Malay/Muslims in Singapore – Then, Now, Beyond

July 16, 2006

I recently attended the book launch of Malays/Muslims in Singapore: Selected Readings 1819-1965 at the National Library. This included a panel discussion where Mr Iskandar Mydin, Mr Zulkifli Mohamed, Mr Yang Razali Kassim and Mr Ibrahim Hassan were guest speakers talking about issues concerning the state of Malay development today. Mr. Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs himself was the Guest of Honour at the event.

I arrived quite late for the event, only wanting to buy the book to read. However, once I heard the last few minutes of the discussion, I knew I had missed out on a lot, especially on the views of the Malay community given by such esteemed and highly intellectual academics of the Malay community of Today. One view which was emphasized by Mr Yang Razali Kassim was the need to cure ourselves from the “minority symdrome” and for a “paradigm shift” in thinking to ensure the continued development of our community.

Something about the book from the National Library Website:

The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) is pleased to inform you of our upcoming publication -“Malays/Muslims in Singapore: Selected Readings 1819-1965”. The book is edited by Emeritus Professor Dato’ Khoo Kay Kim, Elinah Abdullah and Wan Meng Hao with a foreword by Professor Wang Gungwu. The book will be launched on 15 July 2006.

To open up the avenue that the past has to offer us, a dynamic understanding of history is needed. We wish to extend this spirit in our upcoming book launch where we can share with our fellow Singaporeans our perception of the past, our reading of the present and our positive hope for the future.

The underlying theme of the launch is “reflections”. Reflections will be the act of an honest inquiry into the contributions of the Malay/Muslim community, their cultural interpretations in heritage and sense of activism. There will be a panel discussion made up of a cultural activist, a practitioner in a history-related area and a media practitioner. Each will be offering a short commentary on the relevant chapter in the book, comparing the situation with present times. With this information in hand, they will offer suggestions for the community to forge forward in the respective areas of engagement. We invite you to be part of this historic event.

I simply cannot wait to read the book, especially since it approaches the history of the Malay community of the past academically and intellectually, without influences of governmental and popular stereotypes.

I could help but notice that there were only quite a handful of people who attended the book launch, mostly older academics and Malay professionals who had directly or indirectly contributed to the book. There wasn’t much people of my age listening to the discussion or buying the book. My sister and I, who thought that it was rather a casual event were dressed rather inappropriately for such a formal Malay/Muslim event. Hopefully there are more of such discussions held in the future. Hell maybe I’ll organise one for myself and invite my own speakers, in an effort to contribute to the Malay academic discourse on our community.


Book Review by Alfian Saat on The Singapore Dilemma by Dr Lily Zubaidah Rahim

November 19, 2005

The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community
Lily Zubaidah Rahim
Oxford University Press

One of the most revealing, and perhaps even shocking passages in The Singapore Dilemma is one which was not written by the author, but excavated from the pages of the Singapore Constitution. Identified as ‘Section 152’, it reads as follows: “It shall be a deliberate and conscious policy of the Government of Singapore at all times to recognize the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of the island and who are most in need of assistance and accordingly, it shall be the responsibility of the Government of Singapore to protect, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests, and the Malay language.”

At first glance, such a provision would seem to challenge Singapore’s much-trumpeted rhetoric on meritocracy and multiracialism. Why should a certain ethnic community be granted special privileges over others? And considering how the genesis of Singapore as a nation was founded on principles of equal opportunity regardless of race, would not any programmes advocating affirmative action run counter to such ideals?

With an arsenal of hard facts, resources dredged from years of social field-work, as well as a certain degree of polemical fire, Lily Zubaidah systematically investigates the ideological assumptions that belie such questions. One of the most overlooked statements in Section 152 is perhaps the one which states, quite blankly, that the Malays ‘are the indigenous people of the island’.

It is a fact that is often ignored or downplayed, with history books constructing the starting points for Singapore’s economic and political history as 1819 (the time of Raffles’ landing) and 1965 (the separation from Malaya) respectively. The insemination of such ideologies into the Singaporean psyche shows up a certain defect in our multicultural project: in attempting to homogenise ancestral experiences in order to create an illusion of ‘equality’, the voice of the native becomes an unfortunate casualty. In fact, the tongue of the indigene is severed to allow him to hum along with the rest in a peaceful, yet artificial chorus of harmony.

Native myths are not the only ones demolished in this book. Also held up for scrutiny are the way Singaporeans (even Malay-Singaporeans) have internalised cultural deficit theories (where the ‘backwardness’ of a certain ethnic group is blamed on their culture, or even on genetic inheritance, the latter a view held by many who believe in the state’s eugenic and elitist agendas), the obfuscation of class differences (as a factor which enforces marginality) by obsessively focusing on racial ones, and finally certain programmes, like the housing quota system, which serve to erode electoral clout.

Among the wealth of well-researched and rigorous arguments, a noticeable absence is observed: a discussion on the viability of programmes which advocate an actively interventionist, rather than a minimalist, approach to Malay marginality. Lily Zubaidah, while doggedly pursuing a line which calls for more pro-active strategies, does not devote much to elaborating on alternatives such as for example, Malaysia’s Bumiputra policy, and whether they create other kinds of social inequalities.

In essence, the Singapore Dilemma is about a game of power. Indigenous narratives possess the power to impinge on the sense of identity of immigrants, and might even upset attempts to construct a ‘national heritage’. While this is a valid concern, there has to be cause for alarm when attempts to privilege one history over another results in the oppression of minority voices. An African proverb states that, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. The publication of this book, the storm it is creating in the Malaysian press, and AMP’s recent call for Malay leaders to be apolitical agents, all add up to a collective statement: who says there are no lions left in the Lion City?

Anyone who actually does a book review on this book must deserve a pat on the back. Its extremely long and technical! But I’m happy I got through the whole book, being able to associate myself to many ideas being discussed in the book.

Andee, here’s what I mean about the our constitutional right being entirely forgotten in the state apparatus. I’m not promoting a Malaysian Bumiputera policy. But I would not want our history to be convoluted into a colonial propagandising tool of power and so called “unity and equality”.

I don’t think the main aim of her book was to find solutions. It was much more an exposition of the true essence of the Malay dilemma faced by the Malays living in Singapore.

Contemporary Islamic World

October 23, 2005

Islamic Thinkers is a refreshing change from the incessant dogma and indoctrination I have been experiencing since young about Islam. What I am able to do is to appreciate its argumentations on Islam on an intellectual level as well as challenge its Islamic worldview which I sometimes find highly fallalious and incongruent to reality. This is not to say I am being unislamic or sinful in any way – what I am trying to do is to understand the problem Islam is facing and what must be reflected upon.

The first chapter of the book deals with the Contemporary Islamic World and all its discontents – woman rights, the global Muslim, terrorism as well as poverty and Islam. What was interesting is that, going beyond portraying Islam as a very “liberal” and “dynamic” faith, it emphasized the idea of freedom in interpretation, that Islam is beyond what we believe it to be – absolute homogeneity in thought and practice. Ms Mariana noted:

“The fact is, Islam possesses dynamic interpretations that are suitable to the context of sociology and history. It stresses the maximum use of rational abilities of the mind, while maintaining purity and essence of Islamic laws which have been suited to current progress and development.”

What needs to be emphasized is “interpretation” as well as rationalism. Above all, Islam is all about “interpretation” and to follow every single dogmatic rule without self-reflection is pure idiocy and imprudence. There are so many strains of Islam in Indonesia, each one sounding even more blasphemous than the other, with Islam Abangan which syncretises Islam with animism, Hinduism and Buddhism while Fundamental Islam rejecting such practices altogether. And there seem to be a sudden loss in rationalism in most Islamic teachers who seem to be better at preaching and proselytising rather than teaching and educating the mind and heart.

But who is to say which is right and wrong? Or to follow a postmodernist perspective, isn’t every single view to be accepted since Islam is all interpretation and absolute truth is unattainable? This brings us again to Ms Mariani’s quote that the “purity and essence of Islamic laws” must be maintained in any interpretations, that taking into account the diversity of cultures and dictates of geography, some differences in thought and practise must be allowed.

Another thorny issue of contention in the contemporary Islamic world is rights and roles of women. Its is the view of Ms Mariani that Islamic liberation as seen in Professor Amina Wahad, who led one Friday prayer in the US, and Ms Zainab Anwar are both against Islamic values. And she compares this to the female Acehnese rulers in the 17th century, noting how these leaders were “abdicated not by way of liberation”, that they did not demand such rights as Professor Amina and Ms Zainab did.

I found this point highly incongruent to the argument that the women still have rights because the fact is, the female leaders did abdicate anyway when a fatwa was released by Mekkah that they could not rule. This even though they were highly competent and capable leaders who maintained diplomatic relations with many countries and worked alongside prominent male intellectuals. What I inferred from her argument was that they were great political leaders but when it comes into conflict with religion, they were viewed differently. Which leads me to this question – what are the rights of Muslim women and how can we call this gender equality when the definition of equality is the equality of responsibility, that both the men and women have different roles and obligations to fulfill which will never be synonymous with each other?

She also brought up the problem of the creation of the “New Muslim” or “born-again Muslim” as termed by Professor Oliver Ray in his book, Globalised Islam – The Search for a New Ummah. A “New Muslim” is one who is full of passion who, through a process of “Islamisation”, wants to portray an overt Islamic identity living in a secular country. Also known as the “neo-fundamentalists”, he is not tied to any culture and is hailed as the “pure, genuine or fundamental Islam”. This assumes that Islam in essence assimilates cultural nuances in difference countries and racial grouping, therefore creating a spectrum of practices and beliefs rather than a singular homogenous template as perceived by the “New Muslim”.

This is most definitely one of the most salient reasons why there has been a revival in Islam, that we are suddenly caught in a wave of “Islamisation” all over the world. Globalisation and migration of populations has created numerous Muslim minorities in various countries who sometimes fall into the dogma of being a “New Muslim”. In wanting to make sense of himself, he uses Islam as a sole means of identification, breeding a destructive mentality of exclusivity and denial that is so characteristic of many Islamic communities today. This is an issue which will be discussed later in the book.

The book has been very thought provoking so far. I’m very much interested in learning more about the various Islamic intellectuals, who contrary to popular perception, still remains relevant in the world today. Maybe I should try to take up Islamic studies somewhere in the future.. On top of politics, international relations, Malay Studies, Philosophy and Law. Hehehe.

The Burden of Youth: Social Consciousness and The Role of Youth in Society

October 4, 2005

This is an academic paper by Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib presented in a seminar I attended last Saturday (1/10/05). In his paper, he identifies the latent potentiality of youth are a force of progress and change, and discuses the three hindrances which impede the development of youth as agents of change, namely religious obscurantism, middle class mentality and media representations. The lack of social idealism among youth, evident through surveys conducted by the National Youth Council, is a pressing problem which needs to be addressed critically and wholistically. He analyses the problem through the “socialisation process” of youth, emphasizing the role played by independent groups and institutions in addressing the problem.

Initially, I was put off by the lecture simply because it didn’t interest me at all (I attended the seminar more for the discourse on Islam, when my friend told me that a professor from the American University of Cairo was lecturing). But upon reading the essay and listening to his presentation, I found it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Malay Marginality issue and that I agreed emphatically with his arguments, especially those made on religious obscurantism and middle-class mentality. I was also pleasantly surprised by his level of intellect (knowing how little I have interacted with the more critical and intellectual of the Malay population) and motivated to learn more about what he has to say. His credentials are certainly very laudable, but I am unable to fully list them in full since I did not take them down during the seminar.

He identifies most prominently that religious obscurantism is one of the factors that impede the “socialisation process” of youth, due to its tendency to “devalue the present world and reduce it to a sense of anomie”. It causes the individual to be “overly and overtly preoccupied with the otherworldly dimensions to the neglect of their present social situations and needs”. The reason he gave for this was the traditionalistic religious orientation in the Malay religious scene. To what extent this is true, I can’t possibly judge, since I am not an Ulama of Islam in Singapore. But I was very amused when I read this:

“At the juncture of facing a high divorce rate amonst Muslims in Singapore, such [religious] books seek to divert attention from concrete societal problems by discussing issues such as whether a human being can marry a jin and who can solemnise such contracts”

It is true that Islam (from what I learnt from weekly weekend Madrasah lessons) emphasizes a lot on the afterlife, that the trials and tribulations are mere tests for the world after. This can be justifiable seen as Islam seems to have failed on most fronts in uplifting the socio-economic status of the Muslim community and stay relevant in today’s modern world (some view that we are permanently stuck in the middle ages). While we can argue that some Muslim countries have progressed, such as Turkey and Malaysia, the most of the Middle east have been continuously plunged into a state of political chaos and social instability. Can anyone safely proclaim they have met an ustaz who pragmatically seeks to deal with real problems such as poverty, divorce and drug abuse without quoting off-hand quranic verses or hadith which sometimes does not adequately solve the problems of today? I am not saying we must be secular and throw Islam altogether. Islam must not cloud our perspectives towards solving critical issues of today.

“In short, religious obscurantism renders religion as a non-functional in the midst of contemporary problems and reality; it imbibes in adherents a sense of false consciousness that hinders his ability to grasp reality.”

I thought his “middle class mentality” argumentation had several echoes to the “inequitable” meritocratic ideals espoused by the state, as previously proposed by Ms Lily Zubaidah Rahim in my previous entry, with specific reference to the Malay marginality dilemma. Mr Imran however uses the phrase “the language of exclusion” when the middle classes rationalise their success purely due to their hard work, whereas denounce the lower classes who are simply lazy and lethargic. He has a very low opinion of the middle classes (which I presume to be that of the thrifty and hardworking Chinese community) who are unable to view reality in its totality, with the existence of structural inequalities. This is the similar line of argumentation by Ms Lily Zubaidah Rahim who provides the example of how the PAP consistently relies on the cultural deficit thesis to explain the lacklustre development of the Malay community.

I found his idea on the culture of “assistencialism” very profoundly true (why didn’t I realise this before!) on solutions towards poverty, especially since we are entering the month of Ramadhan tomorrow (we are encouraged to give money to the poor during this month).

“To what extent, for example, will giving food packages during the fasting month of ramadhan assist the poor move out of their poverty cycle? What is even more saddening is when middle-class mentality disguises its own needs to absolve themselves from guilt of consumption and took it upon themselves to ‘give back to society’ through misguided notions of charity.”

In conclusion, Mr Imran poses the challenge to the intelligentsia to solve the lack of social idealism among youths. One of the problems which he cites as problematic to the intelligentsia – the “mass-man mentality” (as identified by Mr Ortega Gasset in his book, The Revolt Of the Masses) can also be argued to have plagued the whole Malay community at large. Essentially, what this means is that the intelligentsia have no notion of excellence and refuses to go beyond what is common and above others. I was, at this point during the seminar, virtually jumping up and down, wanting to scream to him that this is the Malay problem! I didn’t had the opportunity to ask him the question though since there wasn’t much time.

I felt very enlightened by his lecture. I will attend more soon!

The Singapore Malays : The Dilemma of Development

August 27, 2005

“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.

The Singapore Dilemma: The Educational and Political Marginality of the Malay Community

July 22, 2005

“The rhetoric that Singapore is a meritocratic society where equal opportunities are available to all has also served to add legitimacy to the cultural deficit thesis which infers that Malays have not been able to make it in a meritocratic society because they have not worked hard enough and thus have only themselves to blame.”

This basically sums up the argument by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, on the reasons behind the near political nonexistence as well as the educational marginality of the Malay community in Singapore. The cultural deficit thesis underlines the persisting socio-economic marginality of certain ethnic communities, as a result of their inept cultural values and attitudes. Such communities are afflicted by inertia, complacency, unstable familty units and an overwhelming desire for immediate gratification. This line of contention is echoed by Dr Mahathir in his book, The Malay Dilemma, which I have read prior to this book.

Evidently, Ms Lily Zubaidah (I’ll call her by her first name because its too weird calling her Ms Rahim because its as if I’m feminizing her father or something) has clearly antithetical viewpoints on the Malay marginality issue when compared to Dr Mahathir. Its important to note that she strongly advocates the idea that the marginality of Malay community is due to the institutional and structural factors in the political and educational system, rather than the cultural deficit thesis championed by the dominant ethnic community and the Malay community themselves.

In the first few chapters of her book, I was immediately drawn in by her cleverly well-crafted argumentations and astute terminology like the cultural deficit thesis and biological determinist beliefs in explaining the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue. Its very rare that I am able to associate myself so closely to the issues discussed in a book, especially on the social alienation of the rising middle class Malays by their own community and the society at large (I’ll touch on this later). After a few days of infatuation and shameless flirtation of such clearly controverisal and anti-government ideas in my mind, I was immediately brought back to reality by my mother who sagaciously noted that its not possible that the Malays can absolve all blame for their dilemma, simply because the government did not want to help them.

Its also humourous to note that in the process of spelling out her complex line of argumentation, she also had condemned previous works by UMNO and PAP Malay members on the issue of Malay marginality (including Dr Mahathir of course) because of its emphasis on self vilification and self condemnation. And I quote:

“In echoing and perpetuating the ideology of Malay inferiority, they revealed their acute inferiority complex.”

I thought this statement was particulary hilarious, simply because she implied that Dr Mahathir was suffering from a type of low cultural self-esteem. It seemed plausible at that point that Dr Mahathir could be mistaken, and that there must be some evidence of institutional and structural reasons behind the marginality of the Malay community. Other moments when I had a quiet laugh reading the book (there were many instances when my bunk mates thought I was crazy laughing at the book by myself) were her sarcastic statements peppered throughout her paragraphs, in describing the reasons behind time-based community educational progress reports rather than inter-community juxtaposition.

“Malays are thus expected to be content with their marginality and grateful about the absolute gains achieved… Malays are therefore expected to tolerate thier socio-economic and educational marginality as a permanent fixture with stoic resignation.”

I find her chapter on Malay perceptions of Malay marginality so revealing because it reflects my own views of my own community. She describes how the professional middle class Malays, being socially and economically distant from the general Malay community and being ethnically different from the non-Malay community, suffers from a social phenomenon of double alienation. And I quote:

“The profound level of alienation has rendered the Malay middle class socially vulnerable and susceptible towards uncritically accepting the cultural deficit thesis which gratifies their ego for having extricated themselves from the negative cultural attributes afflicting the Malay community.”

This is linked to her contention of the failure of meritocracy as a doctrine to further the interests of the Malay community. I was pleasantly shocked by what she wrote simply because it reflected my very mindset on the Malay marginality issue (after all, I have been through the whole meritocratic system from nursery all the way to junior college). It was particularly humbling to say the least, seeing that my ego has been inflated to a large extent whenever i see members of my community in void decks and unknown alleys in various housing estates.

However, notwithstanding the empirical evidence and extensive research being done by Ms Lily Zubaidah on this issue, I find her arguments (after having an intellectual argument with my mum on the phone on last Wednesday night about her thoughts) not entirely reflective of the reality of the situation in Singapore. Using some of the ideas brought up by my mother, firstly: Even though she lived in Singapore for the early years of her life and had especially came back from Australia (where she current works at University of Sydney in the Department of Economic history) to do research for the book, she did not live here all her life and had not gone through the various changes undergone by the Malay community since independence. While she strongly argues for the invalidity of the cultural deficit thesis, it seems as if that the Malay community is absolved from all blame for their socio-economic inertia. That given the potential, we can rise up exponentially and defeat the dominant Chinese community at their money-hungry opportunistic game. IF we were not suppressed by the government of course.

But what about Malaysia? What about the efforts by the Malaysian government, purposely legislated for the sole purpose (don’t even think of trying to put us in the lead) of trying to create a level playing ground which has been previously lost to the entreprenuerial spirit of the Chinese community? What about years and years of bumiputera policy? Has the Malay community proven itself to capable of progress? Even though I accept her view that the government has not done enough to further the Malay cause (do you know that under Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution, the government has a constitutional responsibility to protect and ensure the survival of the indigenous Malay community?), that does not mean that the Malay community themselves are not to blame; that something in the Malay culture is in need of a revolution so as to make our beliefs and traditions symbiotic with the flow of modernisation and progress. A balance must be struck between the lack of political resources and the cultural deficit thesis proposed by Ms Lily Zubaidah and Dr Mahathir to really reflect the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue both in Malaysia and Singapore. I might even suggest that we learn from each other so that both communities united, under the banner of the nusantara, can actually be a cultural force to be reckoned with, like the Chinese and the Indians in the world today.

On a slightly different note, I just received a letter by Mendaki. As some of my closer Malay friends know, I have always expressed anti-Mendaki tendencies, simply because of its elitist standpoint (which Ms Lily Zubaidah argues is in line with PAP’s meritocratic zeal for the intellectual elite). And also because of the fact that they forgot about me after the O-levels, even though I got eight A1s and 2B3s. And irony of all ironies, “We are pleased to inform you that you have been identified to receive for the above award (Anugerah Mendaki). The reward is a one off cash of $*** and a Certificate of Merit.” My first reaction was that of shock simply because my results weren’t particularly fantastic (3As, 1C, 1Merit for History S and A2 for GP). Were the results for the Malay batch this year that bad?

I’ll leave it at that.

The Malay Dilemma: Revisited

July 16, 2005

“It is more likely that this [fatalistic] attitude is a form of escapism from the realities of life, an insulation against the envy the Malays must feel for the prosperity of other races and other countries.”

This accurate explanation sums up one of the many reasons for the relative socio-economic stagnation of the Malay community. Dr Mahathir points out ironically that while Malays rever life since its a gift from God, they do not seem to know what to do with it, except preparing themselves for the afterlife. This fatalistic attitude makes the acceptance of everything, whether good or bad, possible with unprotesting tolerance and resignation. This attitude is even more damaging with the rapid pace of change now, as the Malay community slowly slides off into oblivion. Dr Mahathir also points out perceptively that:

“For most part, the Malay Social code is therefore somewhat anachronistic and can only lessen the competitve abilities of the Malays and hinder their progress.”

Having identified the gross deficiencies of our code of ethics and value systems, the solutions also seem as unpalatable and impossible as the problem itself. The only solution to anachronism is revolution, in this case, an ultimate reversal of ideas, values, customs and traditions, which would take generations of Malays to overcome. Ironically, this sheer impossibility of circumstances has also created the quintessential courageous Malay, which in this case, exemplifies his willingness to face up to a hopeless situation.

“The courageous or brave Malay is usually foolhardy, and because he is likely to do things without thinking of the consequences, the average Malay treats him with fear and respect.”

In any case, if the currents trends are portents of the extinction of the Malay race, at the very least we will be remembered as courageous individuals ( following strictly to the Malay definition of courage of course).

On the basic concept of goodness, Malays seem to fall in with the Kantian idea of uprightness. What is good is not what is pleasant but what is proper. This is laid out clearly in Islam and adat. Hedonism has no place in Malay code of ethics. Worldly life is dedicated not to pleasure or merriment but to serious religious thought and obedience to the injunctions of religon. Form is so important that it is prefered to the actual substance.

Is this the reason why I feel that Hari Raya Aidilfitri has become so contrived, simply because there is a severe sense of akwardness and utter dislocation visiting your so-called relatives whom you meet only once every year? Is it also why even in death, we are only allowed to mourn in peace, without excessive melodramatic rantings of a lunatic, who simply cannot let go? Is it also why when someone gives us a gift, it is customary to reject it a few times before inevitably accepting it, since its a sign of temperance and goodness, noting that if we were to really reject it, it would be a discourteous and impolite gesture?

Being a modern liberal Malay trapped in the crossroads of modernity and age-old tradition, sometimes it is difficult to realise and understand the fundamental reasons why the Malay community is as it is. After reading the Malay Dilemma, it only confirms my previously vague and intangible perceptions of the Malay community at large, that even an educated Malay politician across the causeway can realise this 30 years ago (the book was published in 1970) As he has shown throughout the book, there is no evident solution to the Malay dilemma. Even till today, headlines like “Return to Malay cause, urges Umno Johor chief” in the Straits Times, dated 13th July 2005, provides adequate underpinning that the Malay society is still suffering from an incurable plague that has slowly and incrementally eating away all of our defenses. Malay Singaporeans are also no spared from this plague, which I will soon discover more about in the next book I’m reading by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, who is coincidentally is related to Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president.