The Malay Identity, or lack thereof?

July 31, 2007

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)


To be or not to be on Detik?

April 27, 2007

In my previous entry, a producer wanted to feature my blog in a Malay programme called Detik. Though I was very happy that I was spotted, I felt that I was not really prepared to go on television. Fear? Perhaps. Not being able to speak Malay well? Most definitely.

But I hope I will be ready soon. Being able to meet various Malay intellectuals and leaders, engaged in active discussion on such issues would be one of the many things I want to do in the future.

On an ironic side note, I realised as I was writing my email reply that I could well be a Malay role model myself if I were to appear on tv! How cool is that? 😀


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.


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?


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.


Thoughts from a fellow like-minded Melayu blogger

February 9, 2006

I was checking Technorati for links to my blog and found out that a particular blog by He-Bitch has been quoting from my blog in his past few entries regarding Mats and Melayus in Singapore. (Yes I do check on who links to my blog. Its always very interesting to find out how and why people link you through their entries)

Anyway, back to the topic, I found one of the fictitious characters while I was surfing the net.
The smart Malay one. From what I gathered snooping in his blog, he was from RI, have loads of scholarships, Chinese-Malay mix (oh… that explains it!) and served as a 3rd Sergeant in the Army (let’s call him Libertas). If you do want to read more intelligent arguments about the Malay dilemma and situations we are facing, I strongly recommend his blog entries (though bombastic they are)! Mine are just shallow and tongue-in-cheek. haha…

Firstly, I must thank He-Bitch for regarding me as one of those fictitious cartoon characters you find in Marvel or in your daily newspapers. Its always good to have an existentialist moment of revelation, that I do exist for a particular purpose, if not to serve our glorious G3 army, but to ruminate over the puzzling paradoxical dilemma facing the Malay community in Singapore today. I also realised that as much as I want to shroud myself in clouds of anonymity, something will definitely slip out. I guess I will have to leave you all guessing as to who I really am through my writings and hope that you don’t discover too much about who I really am. (And contrary to popular belief, I do not have loads of scholarships. I’m still trying to get one to go overseas. I already have a place in LSE to do International relations in 2007, but I’m still lacking the finances for the tuition fees.)

He-Bitch’s own accounts serves to substantiate my own argumentations concerning the high divorce rates among Malays. And its always good to hear people agreeing with your own postulations about certain cultural observations, especially the one I did on the problem of thrift among Malays.

If you were an employer and you had to choose between a university graduate (only 1.9% Malays are graduates compared to 11.7%f the total population) or one without a diploma, ‘A’ Level or ITE certificate (27% of Malays don’t), who would you choose?
Gee…

This is again very true. However, we must keep in mind that our community has progressed. As my mum constantly reminds me, there are more Malay doctors, researchers, scientists, businessmen, CEOs etc today than in the past. But what is apparent now within the community itself is the socio-economic gap between the haves and the have-nots. A direct effect of PAP’s brand of meritocracy, we see those at the top echelons of society progressing at such a rapid rate, whereas the rest try to fumble around with their spendthrift ways, dyfunctional families and unwanted pregnancies.

Wish I can talk more but my brain refuses to work after two weeks of being in camp (one week was spent in Pulau Tekong…).


The dilemma of Malay Marriages: Part 2

December 26, 2005

According to the Singapore Department of Statistics on Divorces in 2004, among Muslims, personality differences was the main reason sited for 30 percent of the divorces in 2004 followed by infidelity (19 per cent). The proportion who cited neglect and irresponsibility increased from 0.7 per cent in 1994 to 8.6 per cent in 2004. Proportionately more Males (44 per cent) than females (19 per cent) petitioned on the grounds of personality differences. More females (26 per cent) than males (3.4 per cent) petitioned on the grounds of inadcequate maintenance.

Why is personality differences cited as the main reason for 30 per cent of the Muslim divorces in 2004? I personally believe that there is more to Muslim divorces than just simply “personality differences”. That such “personality differences” is a result of unmet expectations in the marriage itself, that marriage is seen as an end in itself, that marriage is a solution to the problem of fornication or that marriage is a panacea that will solve all problems, especially to inculcate a sense of maturity and financial responsibility.

Marriage is seen as the eventual goal to be achieved in life, and nothing else. This level of contention disregards the possibility of a highly successful career, stellar academic qualifications and other possible life goals which you may desire (I always had a dream of travelling around the world, meeting people of different cultures and eating all the delicious food I can find). According to the Department of Statistics, Muslims divorces for males (648 out of 1855) were mostly between 25 – 29 whereas for females (780 out of 1855) were between 20 – 24. Looking at these statistics, I would argue that to most Muslims/Malays, a life of academic achievement or career development is not as important as marriage which they see as the next stage of life. Being in line with the Malay culture deficit thesis, Malays lack a certain cultural gene for initiative and progress and would rather accept the modus vivendi that is marriage itself. Therefore, marriage is the end in itself.

To add a religious dimension to the whole argument, marriage to some Malay Muslims is seen as a guard towards fornication. By marrying your child as soon as he reaches puberty, the problems of premarital sex or having teen pregnancies would be averted. In the worst of all cases, as globbed mentioned in a comment in my previous entry, the Malay teenager is forced to marry because of unplanned pregnancy before marriage. Again this contributes to the Malay teenagers marrying early, and heading straight for divorce.

One other argument which I find extremely puzzling is the belief that marriage would force a sudden metamorphosis, that the transition between being single and being married would cause an individual to be more mature, more financially responsible and more intelligent in some way or another. Or in some cases, solve all the problems the abovementioned survey noted as reasons for divorce, like personality differences, infidelity, etc. Its as if marriage is a social panacea to cure all of societal ills, or at least act as a catalyst to speed up the maturity process in adolescence. Again there’s not logical reasoning behind this belief. The largest proportion (35 per cent) of Muslim divorces was among couples who were married less than 5 years. If two people already have problems before marriage, how would being married solves such problems?

My thoughts on this issue. Its interesting hearing the responses of different people to this problem. What do you think?