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

April 8, 2007

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.

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Opportunistic Musafirs of Geylang Serai

October 15, 2006

After being viciously cornered on four separate occasions by random individuals known as musafir asking for money today, I sincerely feel that something is wrong with this whole idea of donating money to such people if at first glance,
a) there seem perfectly physically able to work (since they are so aggressive and industrious in their search for donations) and
b) that you can encounter so many of them in Geylang Serai or even at the comforts at your own home!

According to MUIS, musafir or ibnu sabil are stranded travelers on a permissible journey who are in need of money. Such individuals are immediately recognised by their white innocuous songkok haji donned on their heads, white long sleeved shirts and an open hand constantly gesturing for money. You can even add in a white moustache or beard for a more realisitic effect.

Once such people approach you, they will use the Muslim salutation of Assalamualaikum to greet you and speak Malay in a fake arabic accent, asking for donations, dropping Islamic references here and there and even quranic phrases to religiously compel you to donate. Because in doing so, when you refuse to donate, you are by implication going against the main tenets of Islam, proving to everyone how heartless and selfish you are.

But why is there a sudden deluge of kaum musafir roaming the streets of Geylang Serai and Kampung Glam during the month of Ramadhan? I would assume that they fall under this category because most are ethnically Indian. Is the state of poverty of those underprivileged that bad in Singapore? If so, why do they only make an appearance during Ramadhan? Doesn’t this mean that since they know people are generally more generous during Ramadhan that they take this opportunity to ask for money since they know on religious and moral grounds, they would have a higher chance of getting the money they want? Such individuals go to the extent of roaming your HDB flats, knocking from house to house trying to find a Muslim family and minta sedekah or beg for money. Isn’t there something very wrong in that when even at home you are not free from the constant inundation of people asking you for money? Isn’t there something even more wrong when my parents, brother and I were breaking fast on our car boot at the car park in Geylang Serai, that we were asked by not one or two but three different individuals asking for money while we were eating, when we are most vulnerable and busy? (There wasn’t space at the various eateries along Geylang Serai so we decided to head to the car)

I’m not saying that we should not help them. I believe that there are more sustainable ways of helping such people earn a living so that they can focus their energies on something that can help themselves. Asking people for money during Ramadhan is simply a short term measure, something that does not solve the real problem of poverty at hand. At the same time, I must remind all Muslims to pay their Zakat Fitrah during this month because the money collected will go towards helping those who really need them in a equitable manner. To know more about zakat read here.

Doesn’t anyone else find this a persistent perennial problem that occurs each Ramadhan? Am I wrong to say that I can exercise my right not to donate money to such people since I already paid my Zakat Fitrah and that maybe one is enough not four or five? Aren’t there checks and balances on such occurances so that people do not get conned into giving money each time they see such people which may be 5 or 6 each visit to Geylang Serai?


Who is the Moderate Muslim?

November 12, 2005

Chanced upon this article in singabloodypore. The link to the original article here.

by Abukar Arman in International Herald Tribune

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the disastrous war in Iraq, the argument that “moderate Muslims” – the so-called MM Factor – are the “only legitimate defense against Islamic extremism” has found its way onto center stage and has found acceptance in certain circles.

But, who are these “moderate Muslims”? What is the ideological engine driving them? What indicators are there to authenticate them? And, more important, who should interpret the readings of such indicators?

Before an objective debate on these questions could get under way, neocon activists like Daniel Pipes have been spinning the whole MM Factor in order to push a handpicked list of what he describes as “anti-Islamist Muslims.” Not surprisingly, the list includes controversial figures like Khalid Duran, a notorious Islam-basher and a friend of Pipes; Irshad Manji, who hosted “Queer Television” on Toronto’s City TV; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-declared atheist who collaborated with the murdered film-maker Theo Van Gogh on a film offensive to many Muslims.

Granted, these are individuals who are exercising their freedom of expression and who may want to “shock the system” from the periphery. But this tack will not moderate the current trend of extremism. Bringing Islam back to its original nature of being a middle-ground faith, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad, would require a moderate tone and judicious dialogue. Lending support and a platforms to individuals considered pariahs could simply undermine the whole MM-Factor.

Credibility and sincerity is the name of the game.

For anyone to be accepted as a moderate voice and for his or her message to resonate with the broader Muslim population in the United States and around the world, one must demonstrate, among other things, the following three characteristics:

First, that he or she is a devout Muslim with a track record of community service – an individual without any apparent ulterior motive. Second, he or she is an independent person with an independent mind, an individual not predictably on the same side of any issue all the time, since neither truth nor justice is predictably on the same side. Third, he or she is a sensitive bridge-builder willing to cultivate a peaceful, tolerant community that respects the rule of law, who supports his or her position through Islam’s main authority – the Koran and the Sunnah (the legacy of Prophet Muhammad).

Unfortunately, there seems to be a competing standard for moderation based on one’s position on the Israel-Palestine issue – not on the moot question of whether Israel has the right to exist, but whether the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination and to resist oppression and occupation. This is what the overwhelming majority of Muslims in America have gradually come to understand as the real litmus test.

Muslim thinkers and activists who are apathetic or oblivious, or are supportive of the status quo are readily embraced as “moderates” while others, regardless of how moderate or liberal they might be, are declared radicals or terrorist sympathizers.

A case in point is the routine harassment of prominent Muslim activists like Yusuf Islam – formerly known as Cat Stevens – who is famous for his peace songs and indeed activism; of widely respected moderate Muslim scholars like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who made a career campaigning against extremism and radical literalism; and of “liberal” thinkers like Tariq Ramadan, who is known for being a pioneer in bridging Islamic values and Western culture. All three were, in one way or another, denied entry to the United States for “national security reasons.”

Recently the U.S. Embassy in Cairo denied Sheikh Abdul Hamid al-Atrash, the head of Al Azhar Fatwa Committee, an entry visa give to lectures and sermons at a number of American Islamic centers during Ramadan. Ironically, in addition to being the oldest and most prestigious Islamic university, Al Azhar is considered the most moderate Islamic educational institution.

It goes without saying that any such subjective alienation and deliberate silencing of those widely recognized as genuine moderates will only fuel more cynicism, anti-Americanism and extremism. If the goal is to defeat extremism in the marketplace of ideas, both Muslims, whose religion has been eclipsed by terrorists, and the United States, whose foreign policy has been highjacked by ideologues, ought to find genuine Muslim moderates to support.

And until a bona fide definition crystallizes, there will always be the risk of blindly embarking on yet another quixotic foreign-policy endeavor.

(Abukar Arman is a freelance writer and a council member of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio.)

There has been many talk about labels which, rather than simplify, complicate matters inextricably into one big mess. What does being a “moderate muslim” mean? Is it a Muslim who remains true to the pure elements of Islam which does not preach death to non-believers but life to everyone? Is it a Muslim who agrees with the western doctrine or American one to end the war on terror? Or is it one which assimilates modernisation and development with Islam and change the seemingly perpetual anachronism at all levels of belief and practices?

Contrary to Samuel Huntington’s theory of the Clash of Civilisations, Islam does not see the future in such determinist terms. According to Idris Rashid who talked about Ibn Rushd (an Islamic philosopher and law expert) on a series called Islamic Thinkers on Mediacorp Radio,

“The modern civilisation also proved to be heritage of the Islamic civilisation and together, we have to contribute to the good in each other because the fate of the entire human race will be determined by the development of contemporary civilisation. With this, we can reject the current prevailing ideology that instigates the clash of Western civilisation against the Islamic civilisation.”

In today’s Straits Times Review, an article about using ideological discourse with extremists were tried and tested in Yemen proved to be quite successful in reconfiguring their misconceptions about Islam. I felt that this was the right way to defeat the seemingly overpowering force of the Al Qaeda’s brand of Islam and Jihad. I hate to use this analogy but winning the hearts and mind of the Singaporean and Malayan populace during the Emergency did stem the threat and spread of Communism, even though it was during the post war era. More should be done to bring back Muslims to the “moderate” fold, one which does not use violence as a modus operandi to validate its cause.


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.