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)