Everyone starts life at different starting points – some, through sheer luck, are born into wealthy families and have everything at their feet. Others start out life less fortunately and are born into families who are barely able to support themselves.

But whatever it is, it’s also a fact known to all, that Malays in Singapore are a minority. However this minority is quite different from other minorities in the world. Similarly, to many people, Singapore is just a red dot in this vast Asian region. But it is no ordinary red dot.

It is a grave mistake to equate size with ability, just as it is wrong to assume that being small and in the minority is to be weak and insignificant. The recent World Cup proved this. While Spain may be the world champion, it was minnow Switzerland that became the only country in the tournament that was able to defeat Spain.

Total racial harmony may be something of an utopian dream. Granted, we acknowledge the fact that there is no nation in the world where even the slightest wisps of racial prejudices are not present.

For your info, I consider myself to be a true born and bred Singaporean. I got pure chinese blood (Grandma – Dad’s side) and also pure indian blood (Grandad – Mum’s side) running through my body, apart from Malay blood. And I also have chinese and indian distant relatives who are not at all Muslims. But I grew up in a Malay Muslim community, speak and write the language, listen the songs, see the movies, ate the food, dated the chicks and also abide by its culture & traditions.

As I am always in contact with other races, be it through work, distant relatives and also friends, I always talk with them and discuss the topics of Singapore Malays and how they felt about them, the positive and negative nature of the Malays in general. And they always will have something to tell. And most times, its purely a case of classic stereotyping.

Let’s face it. Stereotyping of the Malays is still very much alive, be it through word of mouth or what you see on the Internet. And this is no secret, even if you go into online forums, you will see some form of Malay negative comments being directed at Malays. And lately, with the online hoo-hah and comments lately about religious and ethnic issues regarding the Malays and also Muslims from time to time, I come to the conclusion that the stereotyping exists because of several myths that have been going around for quite some time regarding the Malays in Singapore.

But it is my wish that the dispelling of these popular myths, which have been such popular ingredients in the stereotyping of the Malays, would somehow take us a step or two towards greater tolerance amongst the races here. I felt that it’s time to put a mutual understanding to it once and for all. Clarifications of these myths will not magically make everyone see eye to eye on a same racial plane, but it is my hope that they might just be the first step needed in dispelling the stereotyping nature in certain individuals.

Myth : Malays Receive Free Education

One of the sore points many Singaporeans on the Internet have regarding our Malays is the notion that we are receiving “free education” from the state even through polytechnic and university.

Free education for indigenous people is a legacy brought about by the British to protect the original inhabitants of a country. It is still widely practised in other Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand where the aborigines are fully subsidised in tertiary institutions.

However the legacy for tertiary fees has been dismounted by the Government since 1991. While students coming from households earning less than $1500 a month will be put through a subsidy programme via Mendaki ( a Malay version of the Chinese CDAC and Indian SINDA), the majority of Malay students in polytechnics and universities today are there on tuition fees fully paid for by their parents. Be rest assured that your Malay countrymen are working and saving just as hard as you are to support their children’s tertiary educations.

Myth : Malays Will Betray the Country for the Neighbours in War

I am not sure how this misconception came about but having served my NS stint in the Army with good buddies of all races, it is a myth that puzzles me as much as it bereaves me.

Some time in April this year, a member of the malay forum posted an informal poll meant to be answered by Muslim Singaporeans who served in the Army. The question was “If Singapore goes to war with Malaysia, will you shoot a fellow Malay-Muslim from the enemy side?”

Several people responded to the poll. And all responded in the affirmative. To me, the results are hardly surprising. History has also shown that Malays are loyal to their country and its people first. Race will only come in second. When Tunku Abdul Rahman invited Malays from Singapore over to Malaysia to enjoy the vast Bumiputra privileges during the separation in 1965, our Malays in Singapore largely remained loyal to the nation and refused to budge.

Loyalty of the Malay race to this country and its people should never come into question, ever.

Myth : Malays are a Druggie Race

Another popular misconception is that Malays are a druggie race and largely are a liability to the society. Granted, this would have been accurate in the 70s or 80s. I make no apologies for the ignorance of these people during that era. They were an eyesore and a source of huge embarrassment for the Malay society.

But the community has made great improvements with the help of the country’s community leaders and evangelical activists within its own ranks. According to statistics from the CNB, Malays are no longer the No. 1 problem race when it comes to narcotics. It has been that way for the past few years.

Myth : Malays are Lazy

Historically and culturally, Malays have always had a good life. Unlike their counter parts from China and India who had to toil the soil and endure extreme climatic forces just to ensure their survival, Malays never had to endure these hardships much. Everything that you throw into the fertile soils of the Malay Peninsular will sprout into a healthy plant within a few months. Unlike the Chinese in China, growing food was never much of a problem nor was it a matter of toiling. Leisure and quality time with the family became a very much entrenched way of life within the Malay community.

Unfortunately these civilizations came on a collision course when the Chinese started migrating into the Malay lands. When the Chinese came, they brought along their hard-working and industrious ways that has been so much a part of their life for thousands of years. Naturally the Malays soon found themselves behind, unable to break out from the norms that their forefathers have lived over the centuries. To make things worse, the British continued to shower the indigenous Malays with various concessions, further lullabying them into an existence of complacency.

This is popularly regarded as the reason for the notion of “The Lazy Malay”. But let it be known that ever since Singapore separated from Malaysia, our Malays here have been growing up in a separate ecosystem than their Bumiputra counterparts. Having lived and breathed just like the other citizens of the land and void of special privileges, the younger generations of Malays here have developed their own variant of a Malay DNA.

Malays here have given rise to its fair share of President Scholars, PSC Scholars and other prestigious graduates. In fact, Malays in Singapore have held the record for being the most academically improved when compared to other races at various educational levels including the polytechnics and universities. Our youngsters are hungry for success and chasing the Singapore Dream, just like the other youths of Singapore. On the economic front, we have also produced our fair share of Malay millionaires.

Laziness is an attribute that exists in every race and creed. It is unfair to label Malays as still being lazy just because you keep seeing the same group of Malays hanging out at the void deck. I am sure someone somewhere can point you the way to a group of youth from other races who are wasting time in a similar manner.

While I mentioned that generally, Malays in Singapore has improved over time, we all also know that there are still a lot of other Malays that are under-performing both academically and professionally. I am aware of that. Some come from broken homes; some come from tattered lives and poor upbringing. But to blame this all on their laziness, lack of competitive spirit or lack of desire is truly simplistic and helps no one.

Yes, as of today, majority of Malays are not doing as well as the other races but this is only going to continue if no one is willing to help them and instead conveniently lay the blame at their feet, claiming they are a group of lazy people. It is because people perpetuate the idea that the Malays are lazy that many employers are reluctant to hire them. I’ve even heard teachers complain that certain schools have too many Malays in them, that’s why the school’s ranking will never improve.

When people already give up on the community and give up on people because they belong to that race, then that’s pure racism. Sure, we don’t hurl stones at them or beat them up, but we limit their opportunities in life by stereotyping them & refuse to help them and then blame them when they can’t seem to rise above their problems.

We, the Malays in Singapore, should be proud of our achievements, because we have attained them through hard work. It is true that what we have achieved so far may not be the best, and that we are still lagging behind the other races. There are still large pockets in our community facing various social problems. Yes, we have achieved so much, and yet there is still a long way to go. But we should not despair. We can do a lot more on our own if the community stays united and cohesive. In critical issues, we should speak with one voice. We need to help and strengthen each other while at the same time reach out to the other communities in a multi-racial and multi-religious country like Singapore.

A successful and prosperous Singapore can only mean a successful and prosperous Malay community. But can we do it ?

We Malays, have a saying in which we strongly believed in – “Bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh“ (United we stand, divided we fall). Therefore, if we can stand together as one community and one voice together in times like these, like we always did, then my answer is yes, without a doubt, we can.


The article contains portions taken from this 2006 blog post