Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Singapore and It's Malay Heritage

A few years ago, I applied to Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore for my doctoral studies. My application was viewed favourably that I was eventually offered to study there with a full scholarship. Although I had to refuse the offer eventually due to personal reasons, the experience I had throughout the process was quite interesting.

When I came for an interview at NTU, the head of the division said the university needs "more Malay-male role models". I was quite touched by her remark. In fact, to be honest I was very surprised. Surprised because one of the myths many Malays in Malaysia believe is, Chinese in Singapore do not care about the Malays and would not want them to develop or improve in any way.

There are quite a number of other myths about Singaporean Malays embraced by many here in Malaysia. A classic one is the belief they are not allowed to fire life bullets when they go for military training in the national service programme. In addition, there is this deep suspicion that no Singaporean Malays, no matter how capable and qualified, are allowed to hold top positions in the military and police. And to top it all, is the Mahathir-esque belief that most Malays in Singapore are oppressed and so depressed that if allowed will migrate in droves to Malaysia to be with their Malay brothers and sisters across the strait.

I've travelled to Singapore a couple of times in the last two years. I've met quite a number of Malay entrepreneurs and professionals. These are highly educated and successful individuals whom I can't imagine would want to migrate to Malaysia even if offered money to do so. Those who went for military training have fired hundreds of life bullets each. And I was duly informed that there are in fact high-ranking Malay military officers in the Singaporean army.

In the years I've been teaching at IIUM, I've also had a number of students from Singapore. These students most often were among the best in every class. Their English immaculate, their Malay refined, and their Arabic splendid. Most of these students yearned to go back to Singapore upon graduation to work and contribute to their society. I have never met anyone among them who expressed desperation to remain in Malaysia for whatever reason.

With all this in mind, the least we can say they must be something good going on for the Malays in Singapore. Oppressed and depressed? I don't think so.

Many negative things were said in reaction to the statement made by the Prime Minister of Singapore in the aftermath of the US presidential election last year that a Malay cannot become the prime minister of the country at any time in the foreseeable future. I, personally however, did not find the statement harsh or offensive. I accepted it from a pragmatic perspective. The head-of-government of any country I believe should always be from the majority group. To have someone from a minority group will create unnecessary tension in the society which may proof detrimental to the stability of the country. For the very same reason, I don't think a Chinese or Indian non-Muslim can ever become the prime minister in Malaysia.

What about President Obama? With all due respect, Barack Obama is a minority only in terms of his skin colour and race, but in all other remaining aspects (religion, mother-tongue, education etc) he shares the same characteristics and background with the majority of the society. If Obama is a Muslim, who's mother tongue is Swahili (and speaks English with an African accent), schooled in a madrasah in America, would Americans vote for him as president?

As a Malay from Malaysia, what then are my views about Singapore? I am a normal human being with emotions and feelings, and in addition a keen reader of history. Deep in my heart Singapore will always be Singapura, the lion-city founded by Sang Nila Utama (not Stanford Raffles) in the 14th century. And just like any other Malay states in the Malay Archipelago, Singapore has a history that spans more than 700 years. For me then to read or hear from anyone that Singapore's history began in 1819 is rather annoying. And the images of Singapore that I enjoy best are not those of the city's modern skyscrapers or even the durian-like Esplanade, but the splendid Masjid Sultan and Istana Kampung Glam nearby.

If there are any Chinese Singaporeans who are reading this, if you are beginning to feel the above paragraph is some sort of revelation that I am in fact a Malay chauvinist, allow me to invite you to imagine a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine the city of Shanghai in China, governed and administered by Western powers today just like it was 100 years ago; imagine IF third and fourth generation Europeans are now the majority in the society, all the streets in the city are named in English, the medium of instruction in schools at all levels is English (Chinese is only an optional language course), as a result hardly anyone in the city speaks proper Mandarin; history of the city in the national school syllabus focuses mainly with events starting from the Opium War and the coming of the British in the early 19th century (with very little emphasis on what happened before that), Sir Charles Elliot is taunted as the founder of Shanghai, a life-size sculptor of him is erected at the heart of the city and buildings and hotels named in honour of him...

Even though you are not a Chinese citizen, but as someone whose ethnic background is Chinese, and in addition have read and appreciated the 2000 years Chinese history of Shanghai, when you visit Shanghai and witness all this, how would you feel?

The emotions I feel at times as a Malay visiting Singapore is a kind of sadness brought about by a sentimental lost. I'm sure many Chinese would feel the same way too in the hypothetical situation mentioned above. Nevertheless, these emotions, though undoubtedly negative, do not necessarily lead to antagonism and hatred. A strong sense of realism will eventually creep in that things of the past are confined to history, and everyone now must look forward to the future in the best interest of all. And harbouring thoughts about instigating revolutionary changes in the society's demography is definitely not an option worth considering. The Chinese-dominated Singaporean government has provided many opportunities to the Malays. This can never be denied and should never be questioned.

Having said that, I do feel the Singaporean government can do a bit more to appreciate Singapore's Malay heritage. An issue that I feel very strongly about is respect towards the Malay language. I've found most of the Chinese and Indian Singaporeans I've met; especially amongst the youth today have very little command of Malay. Most of the Malay words they know are those that are now part of Singaporean-English (Singlish), which are mostly swear words like bodoh (stupid), gila (crazy), and mati (die).

Now, even if there are political reasons for not wanting to encourage Singaporeans to learn Malay, would it make sense to do so for pragmatic reasons? Is Malay not the national language of Singapore's next-door neighbours? Wouldn't it be advantageous to have all Singaporeans able to speak, write and read Malay for their own convenience when travelling to and doing business in Malaysia and Indonesia?

I apologise if any of what I've written here offends anyone in any way. My intention is none other than to express my honest views. My apologies if there are any factual mistakes. I stand corrected.


Anonymous said...

Hello there Sir,
I don't know wether you have read an article entitled "The Charade of Meritocracy" by Michael D. Barr.If you have not, maybe you will have a second thought about it.Here is the link
The article first published in Far Eastern Economic Reviews in 2006.The author and the publisher since then had been subjected to legal action by the Singapore government because of its inaccurate depictions of their meritocracy systems.
Inaccurate? really?
What do you think? Please let me know.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Anon 6:18,

Thanks for your comments. I am quite familiar with Michael Barr's work having read his books on LKY and Asian Values. With regards to the article you've mentioned, my response is the evidence given are circumstantial, heavily relying on his personal assumption albeit a strong one. No one can really say there is a deliberate and systematic discrimination against the non-Chinese in Singapore. The numbers may indicate but they can also be interpreted in different ways to absolve the Singapore PPP government completely from negative accusations.

To way I see it, minorities in any society will always find it hard to succeed. They have to work double-hard to proof their worth. A Malay police officer in Singapore must be truly exceptional if he is to climb the ladder, likewise for any Chinese or Indian police officer here in Malaysia.

Meritocracy is the key issue here. I don't think there is any country in the world (including Finland) where absolute meritocracy is practiced. There will always be some subjectivity and sentiments involved.

Allahu'alam. Hope this answers your question.

Anonymous said...

You are too apologetic and far too kind. Read the article below by a Malay in Singapore. Maybe you'll better undertand things.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Dear Anon 6:23,

Thank you for dropping by. The letter by Ismail Kassim is indeed very interesting. I've heard similar grievances from some Malays in Singapore. My general response is, the level of mistrust that exist between LKY and the Malays there is not much different from what we see here in Malaysia between the ruling Malays and the minority Chinese. Anyone who has gone to any BTN courses would have heard much worse things than what was uttered by LKY.

There's a lot to be done if we are to truly realise the ideals of the Singapore Pledge and Malaysia's 1Malaysia. I'm hopeful this will improve substantially when the younger generation assume leadership in both countries.

Nia said...


Actually, in my secondary school, Malay is offered as a third language elective to all. I think it depends on the school. Most of us already have to learn two languages at a young age, and for those whose native tongue is not Malay, it would only be an additional burden. Unless of course the child is really interested, in which case there are institutions - like my school - which provide ample opportunities.

On that note, Mandarin is also offered as a third language to non-Mandarin speaking students.

Shi Xiong said...

Hi Sir

I reckon you have written a very fair and balanced post, and especially since Singapore-Malaysia issues are somewhat sensitive and emotional in nature. Your example on Shanghai is very well written and I have enevr thought of it that way, until now.

I thank you for that in opening my mind.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Dear Nia & Shi Xiong,

Thank for visiting my blog. Greatly appreciate your feedbacks. What I've written are my personal views. I only wish to contribute in promoting better understanding and relations between the Malays and Chinese in both Malaysia and Singapore.

Thanks again!

Muhamad Zhafry Hakim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Muhamad Zhafry Hakim said...

My name is Zhafry Hakim, IIUM Graduand, B.HSc. Psychology 2007-2012

You on study leave. I never become your student, but saw you sometime. I hope you are always in the pink of heath Dr.
May Allah bless you.

I hope it just a sharing of idea, knowledge and experience.

Muhamad Zhafry Hakim said...

Assalamualaikum Dr. Zaki Samsuddin,
I am impressed by your writing regarding Malay Singaporean and Malay Language in Singapore.

Last year, I did my own in depth study about Malay people,,, how true the Dilemma issues among them... I read a lot of books and of them book written by niece of 1st former President of Singapore, Allahyarham Yusof Ishak, named Dr. Lily Zubaidah, "Malay Dilemma"....I borrowed from IIUM Library, and several other books which related.
yes, some of the issues are merely negative, but more positive as well. I'm Johorean from Johor Bahru, therefore, I was curious to study about history of Singapore. I visited Singapore accompanied by my classmates who from Singapore.
I was on MRT, I experienced and can imagined, deep in my heart feel pity and sad. how living as minority among majority...because I'm Malaysian who living among majority and together with minority. Crossed in my mind, sense of Thankful and grateful to God, born as Malaysian and live in Malaysia. We are well-supported by Malaysian Government... Ni'mah of peace and harmony life, education, work. being bersyukurlah. Why we always not been thankful, and double standard treats to minority in Malaysia. Ok, That's different issues, It might be political aspects...let those at the top do their job. We in society, must work together, mingling with non-malay, learn others culture or maybe take opportunity learn others languages in way to understand them better. I believe language is the tool of communication and understanding.
*Orang Malaysia kebanyakannya sombong, sensitive or allergic when listen or even watch Tamil songs; movies...why???
and mandarin as well...
Eh tukar2 radio tu...tak faham...kesimpulannya macam mana nak faham kalau tak belajar bahasa mereka. Kita nak mereka yang belajar b. melayu dan memahami kita. kan ke bagus ambil peluang belajar Tamil dan Mandarin, seperti yang telah dicadangkan oleh Tun Abdullah Badawi untuk memperkenalkan pengajaran Mandarin dan Tamil di Sekolah Kebangsaan.
Back to the issues of Malay Language status in Singapore...yes, it is true, that not majority of non-Malay knowing Malay Language or fluent in Malay. Only older generations might be known.
Singapore, using English as medium of comm and unity. The positive and relevant about english, because English is language which are not belong to any one of them in Singapore, not language for Malay people, not for Indian as well not for Chinese...Therefore, how Singapore's government concern to unite and integrate among them. This is very good example. The negative, the status of Malay Language is National Language...really applied for National purposes such as National Anthem song, language in the parliament, National Day Rally speech, Command language among Army (Baris sedia, luruskan Barisan, letak senjata, dan lain-lain), Announcement on LRT, and teaching Malay Language for Malay people only.

Malaysia, still focuses on Malay as medium of instruction at school and unity. How successful is it. when malaysian use Malay mix with English, or other languages....uhhh heboh satu kampung. Eliminate Bahasa Rojak. Use standard language.
Ok fine, I understand...but how come cognitively speaking, it is due to our brain functioning of language.
Here, I am thanking IIUM, coz English as medium of instruction and Arabic as compulsory elective. I got chance to learn and improve my English proficiency. I gained a lot of knowledge in English, reference books. Not downgraded Malay status, still there is books, or articles, but in limited number.
Long time ago, I had attitude, that why singaporean comes to Malaysia still want to speak english, any races."Berlagaknya..."
Now I understand, after studied cognitive psychology and raised up on campus, that english speaking environment which is IIUM. Automatically, I able to speak english. Education is important as well as language; it is getting rid of ignorance.

Super Yop said...

Asalamualaikum En Zaid,I have just read about your article. you said in your article" n the years I've been teaching at IIUM, I've also had a number of students from Singapore. These students most often were among the best in every class. Their English immaculate, their Malay refined, and their Arabic splendid. Most of these students yearned to go back to Singapore upon graduation to work and contribute to their society. I have never met anyone among them who expressed desperation to remain in Malaysia for whatever reason."
If the Singapore malays are relaly that good and progressive,then tell me how many of these malay Singaporean students you have once? What was their study then? What posts are they holding now? Flash forward 4 years later ,I 've never heard any big malays except for the normal quota 1 Malay Minister and surprisingly one Parliament Speaker and a few MPs. Are these the succesful Singaporean malays that you are talking about?