Karyawan — Volume 11 Issue 1

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Supervising Editor Azmoon Ahmad Editor Mohd Anuar Yusop

The Community’s Development in the Last 50 Years by Mohd Guntor Sadali SG50 AND THE COMMUNITY 4

Beyond SG50: Our Singapore Soul by Saleemah Ismail


Revisiting the “Malay Progress” Narrative by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim


The Singapore Malay/Muslim Community at 50: Concerns & Hopes by Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim


Education of the Malays: 3 Phases, Differentiated Approach and the 3Cs by Dr Mohamed Aidil Subhan Mohamed Sulor


What Next for the Malay Community and Education? by Dr Jason Tan




More than Simply ‘Malay’: Reflections on Ethnic Diversity and Being ‘Malay’ in Singapore by Nur Hamidah Abdul Rahim


Obesity as a Racialised Narrative: Moving Beyond ‘Malay’ Issues by Muhammad Fadli Mohd Fawzi


“Single Thread in the Tapestry”: Travelogue and Reflection in Spaces of Dis-Familiarity by Dr Nuraliah Norasid


An Epoch of Sleeplessness by Nabilah Mohammad BOOK REVIEW


50 Years On: Malay Women and Progress by Nurul Fadiah Johari 50 Years of Malay Films in Singapore: History, Silence, and a Revival by Nurul Ain Yahya

Beyond the Community Sketchbook; And into Human Complexity by Dr Nuraliah Norasid FOCUS


Against the Tide With... Saiyidah Aisyah by Nabilah Mohammad

EditorIAL TEAM Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim Nabilah Mohammad Nuraliah Norasid Sarah Abdul Karim Sharifah Maisharah Mohamed Sharifah Norashikin Syed Sultanul Abidin Winda Guntor

We welcome letters, comments and suggestions on the issues that appear in the magazine. Please address your correspondence to: Editor, Karyawan Association of Muslim Professionals 1 Pasir Ris Drive 4 #05-11 Singapore 519457 T +65 6416 3966 | F +65 6583 8028 E corporate@amp.org.sg

Karyawan is a publication of the Association of Muslim Professionals. The views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Association and its subsidiaries nor its directors and the Karyawan editorial board. © Association of Muslim Professionals. 2015. All rights reserved. Permission is required for reproduction.


After a five-year hiatus, Karyawan is finally back on the bookshelves. The time away had accorded us with the opportunity to reflect on and explore new ways to improve, rejuvenate, and revive Karyawan. We thought that this year, being Singapore’s 50th year of independence, would be an opportune time for us, as a community, to look at how far our community has come over the past five decades and what challenges lie ahead of us. This has led to the revival and re-launch of Karyawan. To call our reaching of the 50th-year mark a significant milestone would be an understatement. Some had sentenced us to failure after we separated from Malaysia in 1965. A city-state with neither hinterland nor natural resources, how could we possibly survive, they thought. But we did. In fact, we prospered. Fifty years have passed, and we have shown just how far we have come along, and how, in a matter of decades, we had transformed ourselves from a Third World country into a First World one. Drawing a parallel to this, this Karyawan looks at how much progress our community has made over the last 50 years and what we can expect in the years to come. Our panel of distinguished writers have contributed their thoughts in areas such as education, health, arts, and women, among others. The new Karyawan is aimed at drawing our readers into a much needed discussion on issues that are close to our hearts as a community. Readers can also expect to better connect with the topics at hand as we will be including many more ‘man-on-the-street’ perspectives in the issues to come. Karyawan will also feature topics that extend beyond the community, as well as interviews with prominent individuals in the community and those from the larger Singaporean society. We hope you enjoy the new and improved Karyawan. I wish you happy reading.

Azmoon Ahmad Supervising Editor


Beyond SG50:

Our Singapore




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So who is Singapore? She is kind, gracious, collaborative, cooperative, giving, united and pragmatic. She is also efficient, productive, grateful, expressive and empathic. The soul of Singapore is in her people.

Singaporeans are enjoying a good quality of life thanks to strong political and economic leadership of the past 50 years. There has been much focus on economic success but less on areas that enrich the soul of Singapore.

healthcare affordability, (i) public housing affordability (j) public transportation affordability, (k) environment and energy including green common spaces for citizens and (l) equity in early childhood education.

What is the soul of Singapore? Who is the soul of Singapore? These are questions that had me stumped for a very long time. I do know that the soul of Singapore is not in the chrome silver and glass of our skyscrapers. It is not in our fleet of Boeings nor is it in our income per capita growth.

Singaporeans’ “win-at-all-cost” mentality is the result of measuring success solely based on economic growth. When we apply this at the national level, the same mentality is also imbued in our individual consciousness. Similarly when we measure success based on the acquisition of material wealth, individually we will tend to measure our happiness by the same yardstick—in economic terms.

So who is Singapore? She is kind, gracious, collaborative, cooperative, giving, united and pragmatic. She is also efficient, productive, grateful, expressive and empathic. The soul of Singapore is in her people. I have seen glimpses of the soul of Singapore over the years. I see the country’s soul in the heartland estates of Singapore, within the block communities and at family gatherings. I believe that our true beautiful Singapore soul emerges when we have no fear of losing out to others—the fear that we will have less when others have more. Changing Indicators of Success Economic developments have been the backbone of our development and success. Our economic success is the main reason for our transformation from a Third World to a First World country in just one generation. As we move beyond our 50th year of independence, the time has come for Singapore’s success to be measured by a basket of indicators. We cannot and must not be measured by GDP alone. I advocate for Singapore’s success to be measured by a basket of indicators with our GDP growth underpinning these indicators. A few of the indicators could be measuring (a) diversity in decision-making positions, (b) ethnic and racial integration, (c) social mobility, (d) income gap, (e) size of middle-class population, (f) space for civil society, (g) political and civic participation, (h) public

When we measure success using a basket of indicators, we, Singaporeans will also learn to view those who have less material possessions not as failures but in a more equitable and kinder light. We might then become happier and kinder as a nation. Malay-Muslim Community Leaders to ‘Show Up’ Over the past 50 years, Singapore’s public policies have ensured that minorities were neither marginalised politically nor lived in ghettos. Our public policies stood resolutely against sectarian politics and majority domination. This is perhaps the single most precious aspect of our nation’s legacy but one that is the easiest to lose. I believe Singapore needs community leaders who will speak up and step up to address sensitive issues such as those related to race and religion, issues that the Government would not be able to tackle on its own, or those that are better resolved without government intervention. Religious and racial harmony is one of Singapore’s greatest achievements of the past 50 years. Racism and discrimination against persons on the basis of their race have ancient roots and they have led to many human tragedies. We are indeed fortunate to have enjoyed 50 years of racial peace. AUGUST 2015


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As we live in a troubled world, racism continues to impact many countries including Singapore. My experience of working with grassroots organisations and feedback projects showed that Singapore is not as integrated as we think we are. There is still a lack of understanding and empathy between the ethnic communities. Concerns about job security and affordable housing are often perceived as a race issue. This perception is unhealthy and may have spill-over effects that can create a deeper divide among ethnic communities. Upon analysis of these sentiments, I am of the opinion that this perception is more of an economic/class issue instead of one based on racial lines. We need to ensure that these socio-economic and class issues do not escalate into race or religious issues. This is where Malay-Muslim community leaders need to step in to mitigate the sentiments and situations. Singapore needs inspired individuals and community leaders who will speak up more frequently and more immediately to



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build bridges between the different races and strengthen peace and harmony. Building Bridges between Different ‘Tribes’ Just as negativity and divisiveness breed more of the same, a collective consciousness for peace makes a positive difference in our world. I believe that when there is crossfertilisation of cultures and values within the multi-ethnics and multicultural people of Singapore, people of different tribes and vibes will have more understanding and empathy for each other. Professor Tommy Koh once said that the Malay culture is “more subtle, more nuanced, and more appreciative of people who are halus (refined)”. Malay culture has ‘softened’ the rough edges of Singapore culture. Its mix of ethnicity has led to unique cultural traits, which mark Singaporean Chinese and Indians, for example, as different from those that originate from China and India.

Singapore Malays should stand tall and proud over the impact they have had in softening the rough edges of the Singapore culture. We are more powerful than we think are. At the same time I also believe that the community have become more pragmatic due to ethnic integration. This cross-fertilisation of culture is a positive evolution for the Singapore soul. I hope to do my part in building bridges across people of different tribes and vibes with the dream of making Singapore a nation of peace and kindness. n

eur cial entrepren Ismail is a so y, sit er div y, Ms Saleemah lit er equa cate of gend and an advo clusion. She in l cia so d an powerment y countries. economic em lived in man globally and ed rk wo s ha a, a -founded Aidh Saleemah co co-founded so al e In 2006, Ms Sh . ts ol for migran n tio sa ni business scho ga or ofit ies, a non-pr New Life Stor hers and their ot m ed at er incarc cycle of that supports to break the assisting them programme. g in children, by ad re e h an in-hom essing poverty throug ivers in addr of the key dr rved She was one e and once se or ap ng Si in cking of Women human traffi cil un Co e or of Singap director of on the board ently a board . She is pres lage Fund. Vil s pe Organisations Ho r of and a directo Casa Raudha

“Malay Progress”Narrative

Revisiting the

BY Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

The progress of the Malay community has been a concern among national and Malay leaders since Singapore declared independence in 1965. National statistics show the Malays are lagging in areas such as education and income when compared to other communities. The gaps persisted even over the last 30 years despite key developments such as the establishment self-help group, MENDAKI (refer to Charts 1, 2 and 3). What, however, has not remained as consistent is the narrative of the Malay progress. This has changed over time. From the 1970s till around the 2010s, leaders had been making statements which imply that either the sociocultural or attitudinal factors prevalent among the Malays have had a part to play in perpetuating the lag. Former Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Sha’ari Tadin, said in 1970 that it was cultural education which made the Malays contented and obedient, thus resulting in the Malays not having an inquisitive mind. He described it as the “wrong kind of education”. 1 At the MENDAKI Congress on education held in May 1982, then-Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr Ahmad Mattar, cautioned that whatever MENDAKI and its intellectuals and activists did will not

100.0% 95.0% 90.0% 85.0%




85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13





100.0% 95.0% 90.0% 85.0%


80.0% 75.0% 70.0%


65.0% 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13

This was mentioned in his speech at a seminar organised by the Central Council of Malay Cultural Organisations and the Community Study Centre on Friday, 11th December 1970.





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SOURCE: Progress of the Malay Community in Singapore since 1980, Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth 1) Data for 1980 is not directly comparable to subsequent years. 2) Data for 1985 is not available. 3) Data for 2010 is taken from Census of Population 2010, Monthly Household Income from Work by Ethnic Group of Head Among Resident Households.

be able to replace attitudes necessary for every family, individual and student to uplift educational attainment.

Malays as a group are still lagging behind the other ethnic groups in academic achievement” in the 1991 seminar.

Similarly, in a seminar on Education and Singapore Malay Society: Prospects and Challenges held by the Malay Studies Department, National University of Singapore in January 1991, former Senior Minister of State, Mr Sidek Saniff, stressed the need to broaden and intensify efforts to change the attitude and educate parents, especially those from the lower socioeconomic group.

ABSOLUTE VS RELATIVE PROGRESS However, the stance adopted by presentday leaders showed a noticeable shift from that of their predecessors. During a Hari Raya Get-Together event on 8 August 2013, the current Minister-in- charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, said, “Over the years, our Malay/Muslim community has made considerable progress in our quest to scale many peaks of excellence. Rising educational achievements brought us higher income and wealth.”

The call for a change in attitudes stems mainly from the tendency to compare the Malays with other communities. In the 1982 MENDAKI Congress, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that “… the importance of performance in examinations has become part of the culture of Chinese. The Indians too are keenly aware of the importance of studies and examinations as the road to success …” which implicitly suggested that the Malays have yet to acquire such values2. Mr Sidek also mentioned that “…the 8


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On his appointment to the Cabinet as the second Malay minister, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, said, “It is good to see more and more Malays doing very well in education, doing very well in all fields of their professions and even in Government, and I’m very happy for that.” The change in the Malay leaders’ articulation of the community’s progress seems to follow from what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his speech 2

during the Third National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals held in 2012. While acknowledging that the gaps should not be ignored, he had urged the community not to focus on comparing themselves with other communities. Doing so would be akin to benchmarking against “a moving target”, as other communities could either be doing better or worse. Instead, he had suggested measuring progress from the Malays’ own “starting point”. Considering what Mr Lee had said, the Malays are now perceived to have been doing well despite the earlier portrayals by the leaders. The reason is that there has been absolute progress (depicted by the rising curves of the Malays in Charts 1 to 4) as opposed to a relative one vis-àvis the other communities which show the disparities prevailing, widening in some cases as they approach recent years (Charts 1 and 3). Absolute progress has been taking place over the last 30 years, as corroborated by Mr Lee in his speech during MENDAKI’s 30th anniversary dinner in 2012 when he said, “The community’s education performance has improved significantly in these last 30 years. It does not matter which indicator you look, there has been progress.” As Singapore prepares to celebrate its 50th National Day, perhaps the time is right to revisit the narrative on the Malay community’s progress. REVISITING THE “MALAY PROGRESS” NARRATIVE Firstly, the complexity of analysing the dominant attributes of the community must be acknowledged. As is the case with most communities, the Malays are culturally and socioeconomically diverse. Contrary to perception of Malays being clumped into one lower socioeconomic group, they are in fact spread across the income strata, indicating a class divide within the community. Accordingly, the expectations, value systems, behaviours and responses to policies and other

This view is expressed by Dr Suriani Suratman in her paper entitled, “Problematic Singapore Malays” – The Making of a Portrayal.

developments of one Malay group differ from another. Given this, and the cultural diversity of the Malay community, statements to the tune of Malays needing a mindset change, as articulated by some leaders, may not achieve any meaningful outcome. Secondly, there is a need to review the ways in which national statistics, such as the Ministry of Education’s annually released “10-Year Trend of Educational Performance” report – which provide the breakdown of data by ethnicity – are being used to explain the Malay progress. To date, the discourse on the progress of the Malay community has been centred mainly on the idea of self-help, thus playing down the significance of national factors in the Malay community’s development trajectory. To credit the former with the community’s progress, it has to be ascertained that the participation of Malays in the community’s self-help initiatives has reached a critical mass, which is essentially the minimum number needed to influence nationallevel statistics. Otherwise, it would be misleading to use such data to evaluate the community’s efforts. To illustrate this point, we can examine the oft-cited case of students advancing to post-secondary institutions between 1990 and 2013. The rising trend is observed across communities, not just the Malay community (The curves are

understandably flatter as they approach the 100-percent mark). It hints that a number of factors were at play. During this period, there were changes to education, economic and social policies and circumstances. To claim that selfhelp initiatives have a more profound role than these factors in influencing the community’s statistics requires substantiation that has hitherto not been produced. Moreover, according to a study commissioned by MENDAKI, about two-thirds of low-income Malay/Muslim households do not seek help from social services despite hopes that their children can escape the poverty trap. It begs the question: what is the take-up rate of the community’s self-help programmes? Moving on, a pertinent question that needs to be asked now is whether it is time for the emerging national narrative on success to take precedence over the community’s narrative of progress. The SkillsFuture initiative announced by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in his Budget 2015 speech is a national movement that will give impetus to redefining success. According to the SkillsFuture website, it aims to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points. Hence, it is set to

challenge established norms of couching success in terms of standardised test performance and the eventuality of landing jobs in ‘prestigious’ disciplines like medicine and law. The next phase of development towards an advanced economy and inclusive society could see greater recognition being accorded to the many other forms of intelligences that are vital at both the micro and macro levels: the individual’s ability to satisfy future job requirements that are poised to place greater emphasis on talent and skills than mere academic qualifications; and forging a more innovative and creative culture in order for Singapore’s economy to maintain its comparative advantage in terms of human capital over developing economies that are fast catching up. Going forward, will the community’s narrative on progress continue to be framed along ethnic and sociocultural lines, with other communities seen as if they are control groups? Will there be acknowledgement that national factors have a profound impact on the community’s progress? Will the new narrative embrace a broader definition of success and acknowledge that the Malays have the wherewithal and acumen to seize the opportunities that are right for them? It will be interesting to see how the “Malay progress” narrative changes as Singapore advances beyond its 50th year of independence. n

CHART 4: Percentage of P1 Cohort Admitted to PostSecondary Institutions SOURCE: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION





iff Aboo Kassim Mr Abdul Shar / Projects er ch ar se Re is a the Centre for th wi r ato Coordin ic and Malay am Isl Research on research e th , Affairs (RIMA) n of the Associatio of y ar idi bs su als (AMP). ion ss ofe Pr Muslim



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The Singapore Malay/Muslim Community at 50:

Concerns & Hopes BY Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

10 K A R Y A W A N Š Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

1965 witnessed Singapore emerging from the political turmoil of the merger with Malaysia and entering a period of economic, social, and political uncertainty. The city-state’s future had then seemed bleak; there were no readily available means, like natural resources, to kickstart the development of the nation. However, the course of the next half century saw the national and human capital development process accelerating at a miraculous pace. A developed infrastructure, competent workforce and political stability made it possible for foreign direct investments to flow rapidly into Singapore. Jobs were created, raising the employment prospects of Singaporeans. Housing policies made home ownership possible, even for the lower-income groups.

Now a developed economy, Singapore is struggling to find new ways to sustain economic growth.

Singapore’s phenomenal economic progress is a source of pride for the country and the object of admiration by the international community. However, as the republic approaches its 50th year of independence, the road ahead is once again looking uncertain. Now a developed economy, Singapore is struggling to find new ways to sustain economic growth. Contemporary economic policies have produced some undesirable side effects, such as rising costs and high income inequality which poses a threat to upward social mobility. While the per capita GDP is high, the wages of the bottom three deciles of the income strata have risen only marginally in real terms over the last decade1. The social landscape is also transforming. Being one of the most globally-connected countries in the world, there is an unbridled inflow of ideas that have an impact on lifestyles, value systems, beliefs and expectations, particularly of the middle-class. Social media have made it possible for varying viewpoints to be expressed and discussions to ensue in just about every


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed this out during his speech at the Debate on The President’s Address, 20 OCTOBER 2011 AT PARLIAMENT.

domain, including politics and religion. These expressed views and discussions are accessible to an increasing number of users, particularly the young, and has proven to be capable of championing causes and dividing opinions. CONCERNS & HOPES FOR THE FUTURE Amid such profound economic and social changes, the Karyawan team spoke to Malay/Muslims of various backgrounds to find out what their concerns as well as hopes for the future are. Financial Issues Financial issues remain a major concern among the respondents that the team had approached for an interview, especially for those from the low- to middle-income categories. Lin, a single mother and homemaker whose household has no income and who is on full national assistance, is keen to work but has to care for her child whose mobility and independence is limited due to a medical condition which requires the latter to be attached to a medical apparatus. It needs routine maintenance every two hours. Lin wishes that there are more home-based work opportunities which would provide her with the flexibility to care for her child while still earning a stable income. Another respondent, Haszelinah, who works part-time as a banquet staff member and is actively looking for a full-time job, is struggling with housing issues. Having been registered as a flat’s occupier during her previous marriage, her second application for a Build-to-Order (BTO) flat is fraught with hurdles. She qualifies for only a small housing grant, thus needing to pay a relatively substantial amount in cash. Already beleaguered by various other financial difficulties, she fears that she may not be able to raise the amount required to purchase the BTO flat. With a monthly household income of $1,400, she hopes that housing will be made more affordable. AUGUST 2015


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Masyitah, a homemaker and business owner shared her concerns about the sandwiched middle-income groups. She feels that, despite the rising costs of living, the help extended to the middle-income earners remains insufficent. Haszelinah perceives that her housing woes stem from policies that tend to “prioritise foreigners”; a condition that she believes also applies to employment opportunities, thus “enabling them (foreigners) to advance faster than locals”. Ain, a pre-school teacher with a household income of $2,200, feels that the costs of raising children are rising, a reality that could potentially pose a problem should any misfortune befall parents at any point in time. She is concerned that, with increasing costs, a sudden decrease in household income could one day deprive her of the means to provide the “best environment for her children to study in”. She had, in fact, gone through the experience of a rapid decline in her household income when her husband underwent a brain surgery which had left him physically impaired. Masyitah, a homemaker and business owner shared her concerns about the sandwiched middle-income groups. She feels that, despite the rising costs of living, the help extended to the middle-income earners remains insufficient. Based on her observation, she holds the view that government transfers introduced over the years to share Government surpluses and help Singaporeans cope with various structural shifts and changes to key policies are inadequate as they are one-off measures. She also thinks that Singapore Budget 2015, which had announced a slew of measures – including education and healthcare subsidies and the raising of the CPF salary ceiling – to help middleincome Singaporeans, will be calibrated 12 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

in a manner that will not fully address the needs of the sandwiched groups. Masyitah hopes that the government will introduce more schemes to help middle-income earners. Education Issues Education is a key concern among Malay/ Muslim parents. Mustaffa, a civil servant, is cautious about what he saw as a shifting emphasis pertaining to children’s educational success, arguing that the “government’s promotion of alternative avenues of pursuing higher education” needs validation in the long run. In the meantime, the uncertainty it entails poses a problem to parents who are deciding on the most suitable pathway for their children. He also foresees that despite the creation of multiple pathways to higher education, enrolling in Junior Colleges and local universities will become increasingly competitive, a problem he believes is compounded by foreigners competing for places. He therefore hopes that there will be more support for parents who wish to send their children to overseas universities, such as being allowed to tap on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy (TTFS) schemes. Ahmad, a technician, whose children are enrolled in a madrasah, worries about their future prospects. He believes it is likely that they will have to further their education overseas as the subjects that

they are pursuing at the madrasah level may not be taught at tertiary level in local institutions. He fears that he may not be able to meet the required expenses. He hopes that children pursuing a madrasah education will be given the same subsidies or grants enjoyed by those in state schools, especially in light of compulsory education imposed on madrasahs. He hopes to see financial support being offered to madrasah students pursuing their education overseas. Government Schemes On the side of government schemes, the CPF remains a thorny issue among some parents. Mr Othman Salim, an operations supervisor, feels that the new guidelines allowing CPF account holders to withdraw 20 percent of their retirement savings after their 65th birthday is insufficient. He argues that withdrawal should be allowed at the age of 55 as it is the prerogative of account holders to decide how they want to use their “hard-earned money”. STUDENTS’ CONCERNS AND HOPES The Karyawan team also spoke to Malay/ Muslim students who also expressed their concerns and hopes. Afiq Aiman would like to see all races being given equal opportunities of getting into the Singapore Navy. The issue had been discussed in February this year when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen reiterated that a person is deployed in a sensitive unit based on his ability and beliefs to

ensure he is not a security risk, not his race. He also revealed that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has begun deploying Malay servicemen onboard ships as sailors. Previously, Malays in the navy were only deployed as “sea soldiers” who primarily patrolled naval bases. Responding to a question on perceived bias against Malays in the SAF and why they have been excluded from the Navy until then, Dr Ng said it was a “practical issue” of not having halal-certified kitchens onboard ships2. Another student, Hambali, also expresses views pertaining to race relations. He feels that interaction and respect between people of different racial and religious backgrounds could be improved. He hopes to see the different ethnic communities in Singapore having “more respect” for one another. KEY CHALLENGES Considering all the responses of the interviewees, there are key challenges that have to be addressed to ensure that the nation-building endeavour remains on track and works towards building an inclusive, strong, and cohesive society. The social safety net has to be strengthened over time, against a backdrop of rising costs to ensure groups like single parents and middle-income earners do not fall through the cracks.

housing, education, and healthcare remain accessible to the low-income as population size grows and higher demand leads to price increases. In addition, education has been the community’s primary focus due to its instrumental role in uplifting the community. Existing schemes such as CPF and TTFS should be made more flexible to support those who pursue their education overseas. As Singapore becomes more diverse in terms of its racial, cultural, and nationality demographics, relations between the various people should be managed not only by having more ceremonial events to celebrate the diversity but also by creating spaces within which dialogues that touch on the most contentious issues between races and nationalities can take place. This way, the issues between them stand a chance at being resolved. n

is a iff Aboo Kassim Mr Abdul Shar dinator with or Co cts oje Pr Researcher / Islamic Research on the Centre for search (RIMA), the re rs fai Af lay and Ma tion of Muslim cia so As e th of subsidiary (AMP). Professionals

There is also a need to ensure that

The social safety net has to be strengthened over time, against a backdrop of rising costs to ensure groups like single parents and middleincome earners do not fall through the cracks. 2

The Straits Times, “Malays deployed in the SAF as sailors: Ng Eng Hen,” February 16, 2015.



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The Community’s





It is hard to predict the shape of the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore in the next half a century. It will depend very much on how the Republic will transform, which in turn will depend on changes that will likely take place in the world, especially in this region. Each development will have an influence on another. The world itself has changed dramatically in the past decade, as a result of the Internet and inventions such as smart phones. We now live in a borderless world. Communication between individuals from different parts of the world is a breeze. Information of any kind can easily be obtained in an instant. Budget airlines help make travel affordable to many. All 14 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

these developments have a significant impact on our lives and lifestyles, and this trend will continue. It is possible to have an inkling of how the Malay-Muslim community here will likely progress in the next five decades. We can do this by looking back and tracing our achievements since 1965 – when we gained independence. This can be done in two ways: by comparing our own progress as a community, or by comparing ourselves with the progress made by other communities in Singapore. As a community, we have made tremendous progress in many fields such as education, housing and economy. Much progress has also been made in the



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jobs and careers of our community. We have produced many doctors, dentists, architects, engineers, lawyers, magistrates and other professionals. The progress is significant compared to the past when we were only able to produce mainly teachers, policemen and odd job labourers.

This is because as we progressed, the other communities have moved even further ahead. This catch-up game is expected to continue in the future. Unless the Malay community moves at a greater speed, the gap will remain, or even widen.

We are no longer the ‘poor’ Malays we used to be. Just like other Singaporeans, most Malays own their homes, including private properties. Their holiday destinations are no longer confined to Malaysia and Indonesia, but covers all corners of the world. Many own cars which they consider as a necessity. In short, there has been absolute progress.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? How much progress will we make in the field of education in the next 50 years? It will depend largely on our resolve and determination. It is heartening to see that parents of the new generation of Malays generally understand the importance of education. Many hold the view that education is key to the future of their children.

However, relative to the progress made by the other communities in Singapore, we are still lagging behind in many areas.

However, to accelerate our progress, Malay-Muslim organisations such as MENDAKI need to more than just

ensure the majority of our community attain an acceptable minimum standard of education. We need to nurture and produce a large number of ‘super students’ who excel in various fields and advance their education in well-known foreign universities. Our ability to produce such students will act as a catalyst that will help spur the community further. This can be done by identifying students’ talents in the early stages and providing the best possible support to them. They will need guidance in choosing the appropriate institutions to further their studies. Most important will be to ensure that they are not hindered financially from achieving their goals. If done systematically, we will be able to produce a substantial number of the ‘crème de la crème’ of our community who can help create a new image of our community in the next half a century. The Malay community should be proud of its ability to produce many professionals in various fields in recent years. Some of them hold senior positions and have played important roles in multi-national companies (MNCs) not just here, but also abroad. This encouraging trend is likely to continue as companies in the world seek talents in diverse fields, regardless of their country of origin. As we produce better educated and more confident Malays, they will be able to fulfill these needs. The widening focus of our education system from merely academic to include technical studies, arts and sports, should benefit many Singaporeans, including Malays. The emphasis given to acquiring skills in these areas is congruent with the interest of some members of our community. This broadening focus will help reduce the school dropout rate among our students. The challenge that follows will be in ensuring that our students acquire more than just the basic skillsets and to have the ability to explore opportunities that lie ahead when they graduate.

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Perhaps the time has come for the Malay-Muslim community to consider starting its own foundation, similar to many other foundations here which are mainly owned and managed by Chinese tycoons. One area that the Malay-Muslim community has not shown much progress in is business – a very vital point to note, as doing business is what Singapore is all about. We do have many businessmen and businesswomen, however most of them are small-time retailers. While this enables them to earn a living, there is a need for them to be more daring in expanding their businesses. There are many government schemes available to help local businesses grow, which many Malay-Muslim businesses are not taking advantage of. The Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) has a critical role to play in this area.

at the forefront in promoting moderate and modern views among Muslims, leading to harmonious living here. More importantly, it has helped to strengthen the financial stature of the Muslim community through the systematic collection of zakat, effective management of wakaf and the management of halal certification.

Nevertheless, there are growing numbers of Malay businesses seizing opportunities abroad. Progressively, more of them are using our neighbouring countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the Middle East, as their new base to do business. This trend is likely to continue as our businessmen are more willing to take risks.

What used to be almost ‘dormant’ properties, the 132 wakaf properties and assets, 63 of which are administered by MUIS, are now worth more than half a billion dollars.

FUTURE HOPE As we look back on our short history, one of the most significant developments for the Malay-Muslim community was the establishment of MUIS or the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore in 1968. While playing a key role in ensuring that Muslims are able to practise their religious obligations in a multi-racial and multi-religious society, MUIS has been

The potential of wakaf and halal certification and their related activities cannot be under-estimated. Properly managed, they can be important instruments that can make a difference to the community.

Yet another area that has great potential in generating a significant income is halal certification, especially when we have undisputed reputation for credibility and reliability. If we are able to capitalise on the growth of the Islamic financial market globally by plugging our expertise in the right places, we will be rewarded generously. Perhaps the time has come for the MalayMuslim community to consider starting its own foundation, similar to many other foundations here which are mainly owned and managed by Chinese tycoons.

It is not unrealistic or impossible to make this a reality. In fact, we already have it in the form of our wakaf. The combined income from wakaf properties and assets, as well as halal certification and its related activities, will be substantial and will form the key pillar of the foundation. SOCIAL CHALLENGE While we set our sights into the future, we must not lose sight on some of the serious social problems that are still confronting us – high divorce rates, drug abuse, crime and high levels of school dropouts – which have their roots in broken families. While the community continues to play a critical role, its efforts would be somewhat limited by its resources, be it in terms of manpower or funds. Direct involvement by the government is necessary as these problems are national problems that require national solutions. A more holistic approach is needed, and perhaps a very senior person in the government, preferably a Malay-Muslim, is needed to lead this coordinated effort. Tackling these social problems should be at the top of our ‘To do’ list. They have been with us for far too long. Unless more drastic and concerted efforts are taken, it will have serious implications on our efforts to forge ahead at a faster rate. n

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Education of the Malays:


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Differentiated Approach and the 3Cs By DR MOHAMED AIDIL SUBHAN MOHAMED SULOR

Since 1965, when independence was thrust upon us, the State has made it their mission to uplift the economy and its peoples’ lives via education.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Singapore’s education system has been ranked consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems. We are among the top three countries in terms of good education system (2014 Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment), among the world’s best school performing systems (McKinsey & Company), and our students are among the top performers in Mathematics and Science for more than a decade (Trends in International Math and Science Study, TIMMS). Since 1965, when independence was thrust upon us, the State has made it their mission to uplift the economy and its peoples’ lives via education. This article will chart the growth of Singapore’s education system since 1965 by highlighting its key milestones based on the three phases of education and its impact on the Malay community, discuss issues and challenges faced by two Malay-Muslim self-help groups; MENDAKI and Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) in their quest to uplift the academic achievements of the community, and lastly, the challenges facing the Malay community in the new education landscape of the 21st century. Introduction Singapore’s school education system is currently ranked third in terms of cognitive skills and educational attainment index based on a report by The Learning Curve published by education firm Pearson. OECD PISA in 2014 ranked Singapore together with South Korea as being the highest in terms of creative problem solving and our students are highly regarded for their ability as quick learners, being highly inquisitive and

having the aptitude to solve unstructured problems in an unfamiliar context. There are many factors contributing to the success of our education system. Firstly, the State’s dogged pursuit of an education system that is able to provide human resources to fuel the economy, secondly, seeing education as a leveller and a determinant of success, and lastly, education as an investment in the future of Singapore. The investment has now borne fruit and we will now look at the phases of this development and how it has impacted the Malay community. Key milestones – 3 Phases There are three phases of education in Singapore. They are namely, the survivaldriven education phase, the efficiencydriven education phase and the abilitydriven education phase. Survival-driven Education Phase (1965-1978) The survival-driven education phase lasted from 1965-1978. During this phase, the aim of education was just to ‘survive’ the initial years of independence. Thus, emphasis was placed on producing trained workers for Singapore’s early industrialisation stage of economic development. In this phase, a uniform curriculum was introduced and standardised testing was carried out at all national schools. Bilingualism, together with post-secondary technical and vocational education, was introduced in 1966 to prepare students for the workforce by utilising their linguistic and technical skills. During this phase, the Malay community had to grapple with the increased AUGUST 2015


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importance of the English language, which had overtaken Malay as the language of education and administration. All subjects were taught in English except for the Mother Tongue language subjects. The lack of English language ability disadvantaged the Malays greatly and it impacted their academic performance. There was a lack of concerted effort by the Malay community to address this situation. There were pockets of initiatives organised by small groups representing university undergraduates and welfare organisations but no community-wide movement to solve the problem. Efficiency-driven Education Phase (1979-1996) The next phase was called the ‘efficiency’ phase as the system had to be fine-tuned to produce more skilled workers who are effectively bilingual. A study done in 1978 called the Goh Report found the earlier bilingual system to be inefficient and had failed to produce workers who are effectively bilingual. There was a revamp of the education system with the introduction of streaming where students were first assessed based on their ability for languages and mathematics. They are then streamed into different courses at the primary and secondary levels.

In this phase, the Malay community and its leaders sensed the need to have an affirmative action plan for the educational development of the Malays. With support from the government, Mendaki was set up in 1982. This was followed by the setting up of AMP in 1991. Both institutions have education as their core focus; the uplifting of the community via education as their mission. Ability-driven Education Phase (1997 to date) This phase started from 1997 onwards with the introduction of the Thinking Schools, Learning Nation vision. Under this vision, various initiatives were rolled out to ensure that students are well-prepared for the knowledge-based economy. Among these initiatives were the National Education and Our Shared Values, the ICT Masterplan (all in 1997), Teach Less, Learn More (2005), Curriculum 2015 (2008), and 21CC (2009). In this phase, Mendaki and AMP faced the challenge of not only uplifting the Malay community via education, but also to ensure that the community is ready for the 21st century. One-size-fits-all programmes have to give way to more tailored programmes targeting certain

groups that need help or assistance. Emphasis should not just be on the product of education, but also the process of it. Mendaki & AMP – Differentiated Approaches Mendaki Mendaki was set up in 1982 and its main focus was to empower the Malay community through excellence in education. More than 30 years later, Mendaki transformed itself into an icon of success among Singapore’s selfhelp group institution. From conducting weekend tuition for primary, secondary and pre-university students, it now provides life-long educational training and opportunities with the setting up of Mendaki Sense in 2004. Among its challenges were ens uring the fair distribution of resources to benefit the most needy within the community and to ensure that its programmes are well-run and effective. Association of Muslim Professionals AMP was set up in 1991 as a result of the 1st National Convention of Singapore Muslim Professionals, which was held a year earlier. Its ideals were simple, “face

As the Malay saying goes “sekali air bah, sekali pantai berubah”, the changing educational landscape and the 21st century challenges deem it necessary for the Malay community in general and the selfhelp groups in particular to relook some of its programmes and initiatives.

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the facts, brainstorm for ideas, converge into actionable strategies and work in unison for the betterment of the Singapore Malay/Muslim community.” Twenty-five years on, AMP too has transformed itself not as an anti-thesis to Mendaki, but as an equal partner in delivering ideas and services to the Muslim community. Among its challenges were to ensure that the Malay community produced more graduates and professionals within each family. Differentiated Approach Tomlinson (2001) in her book on Differentiated Instructions (DI) indicates that differentiated is not differentiating. In that sense, the approach taken by Mendaki and AMP is one that is differentiated. Both institutions complement each other by coming up with customised programmes to benefit the Malay community. Mendaki’s programmes cater mainly to the lower 30 percent of the community, helping them to integrate into the knowledge-based economy, whereas AMP targets the upper 30 percent and projects for greater achievement at the professional level. Even though there are programmes that may seem identical, they are not necessarily so as the approach in running them is different. This differentiated approach has served the community well, so far. Challenges – the 3Cs There are three main challenges facing the community, namely issues relating to competency, meritocracy and bi-literacy. Competency The Ministry of Education (MOE) has outlined 21st Century Competencies (21CC) in 2009 in preparing our students for the 21st century. There are four traits to be achieved, that of a self-directed learner, an active contributor, a concerned citizen, as well as a confident person. These competencies cannot be learnt by mere rote learning or via tuition schemes. It

requires an overhaul of some programmes by Mendaki and AMP. Thus far, there have been initiatives rolled out but there should be more that specifically target the four-mentioned traits. Meritocracy There have been grumblings about the meritocratic ideal and a need to relook its working definition. Rather than a meritocracy of knowledge, the government is now saying that we need to have a meritocracy of skills. But this over-emphasis on skills at an early age, as some educational experts are saying, is misplaced, as the skills that are required may not yet exist when they are in school. There needs to be some radical thinking by Mendaki and AMP on this issue. Should we adopt a wait-and-see approach or should we embark on our own community initiative? Bi-literacy Then there is the issue of bi-literacy. Lee Kuan Yew once said that a bilingual person has “binocular vision, then you see the world in 3-D”. This is definitely true especially so in a globalised world. The need to have different perspectives and yet, to still be grounded on values and our own culture cannot be emphasised enough. At the moment, Mendaki and AMP are concentrating on core issues of education such as content or subject matters. Not much has been done to look at the cultural and economic capital that the Malay language and culture can bring to the community. With the eminent challenges ahead, going back to basics and rediscovering our strength and nuances may just be the tonic to reinvigorate and revitalise the community to face the challenges of the 21st century. This is even more vital in a student-centred, valuesdriven education phase that we are going through now.

challenges deem it necessary for the Malay community in general and the self-help groups in particular to relook some of its programmes and initiatives. Mendaki and AMP have to remain relevant and serve the community well. Mendaki has to remain true to its ideals of empowering the disadvantaged through excellence in education, whereas AMP has to “face the facts, brainstorm for ideas, converge into actionable strategies and work in unison for the betterment of the Singapore Malay/ Muslim community.” May we succeed in this endeavour together as “bersatu kita teguh, bercerai kita roboh.” n

Aidil Subhan Dr Mohamed is currently a lor Su d Mohame tional Institute Na e th lecturer at apore). His ng of Education (Si licy is language po t es er int of area culum and rri cu , ing nn and pla les and d learning sty pedagogy, an assessment.

Conclusion As the Malay saying goes “sekali air bah, sekali pantai berubah”, the changing educational landscape and the 21st century AUGUST 2015


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Malay Community

What Next for the

and Education? By DR JASON TAN

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Alongside the rest of the Singapore population, the educational profile of the Malay community has risen.

After 50 years of national independence, the Malay community has a lot to be proud of in terms of educational achievement. Alongside the rest of the Singapore population, the educational profile of the Malay community has risen. Many more Malays proceed to various forms of post-secondary education. The numbers of Malays with university degrees, polytechnic diplomas and technical qualifications are promising. What lies ahead for the community? This article outlines major features of the evolving education landscape in Singapore and draws implications for the Malay community. Streaming After two decades of government effort in the 1960s and 1970s to unify and standardise schooling experiences for the entire school-age population, a new era of differentiation was ushered in with the publication in 1979 of the Report on the Ministry of Education 1978. The Report identified a few major problems including: high dropout rates at both primary and secondary levels, low literacy levels and the lack of effective bilingualism among many school-leavers. A major policy reform was advocated, that of streaming students into different tracks in order to ensure that learning experiences could be better tailored to variations in students’ learning abilities. Primary school students would henceforth be streamed at the

end of primary three while secondary students would be streamed on the basis of their Primary School Leaving Examination results. Interestingly enough, the report noted a positive relationship between students’ home background and the quality of schools, in other words, ‘good schools’ had higher percentages of pupils from better home background, in terms of pupil’s father’s occupation and educational level, than the other schools. In other words, even after two decades of state intervention to ensure comparability across schools of such factors as physical infrastructure, school curricula and teacher qualifications, the playing field was still not level for students from differing socio-economic backgrounds. Since streaming was introduced at both primary and secondary levels of schooling more than three decades ago, various modifications have been made to the streaming system. During the last decade, the Ministry of Education has tried to soften and blur the boundaries between students in different streams at both primary and secondary levels. For example, efforts have been made to encourage greater interaction between primary students enrolled in the Gifted Education Programme and their other schoolmates, while students from lowerprestige academic streams have been provided greater opportunities for upward mobility to higher-prestige academic A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 23 © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


The connection between students’ home background and academic achievement that the Goh Report identified in 1979 has persisted till the present.

streams. Nevertheless, the concept of differentiated tracks for different students has remained essentially unchanged. Diversity of Courses Besides streaming of students, other Ministry of Education policies since the 1980s have introduced greater diversity of programmes and choices for students. For example, in the 1980s, the Gifted Education Programme, the Music Elective Programme and Art Elective Programme were introduced. By the late 1980s, a few top-ranking secondary schools were allowed to become independent schools. In the mid-1990s, some secondary schools were granted ‘autonomous school’ status. A little over a decade ago, top-end secondary schools and junior colleges introduced ‘integrated programmes’ allowing students the chance to bypass the General Certificate of Education ‘Ordinary’ Level examination. At the same time, a number of specialised independent schools were established to cater for secondary- and junior college-age students talented in the arts, sports, and mathematics and science. A few schools were also set up to cater for secondaryage students who had failed the Primary 24 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

School Leaving Examination at least twice, in order to provide them a chance at leaving school with vocationallyappropriate qualifications. Marketisation The 1980s marked the beginning of what is known as the marketisation of education. In other words, parents and students were increasingly introduced to the virtues of ‘diversity,’ ‘choice,’ and ‘competition.’ The Education Ministry introduced the annual Direct School Admission (DSA) scheme for secondary schools in 2004 and for junior colleges in 2005. The scheme allows schools full discretion in conducting selection interviews based on their own selection criteria (based on non-academic endeavours) to offer early admission to a certain percentage of students before the qualifying national examinations. Social and Educational Inequalities The connection between students’ home background and academic achievement that the Goh Report identified in 1979 has persisted till the present. For example, in 2011 former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew presented statistical evidence that a far greater percentage of students in more prestigious secondary schools than their counterparts in less prestigious secondary schools had universityeducated fathers. Similarly the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had observed in 2011 that Singapore society is ‘stratifying,’ and that “while the children of successful people are doing better, the children of less successful people are doing less well.” These inequalities exist despite the numerous initiatives already in place – such as the self-help groups, Edusave, student care centres and financial assistance schemes – to level the playing field for all students. The Rise of a ‘Parentocracy’ Over the past two decades, the Education Ministry has expected parents to play a more significant role in supporting their

children’s schooling. In December 1998, the advisory body COMPASS (Community and Parents in Support of Schools) was tasked with strengthening and promoting school-home-community collaboration. Parental volunteering has been introduced as a criterion for admission to primary one. A combination of factors such as rising family incomes and parental education levels, along with falling fertility rates, have contributed to increasing parental involvement with their children’s schooling experiences. Growing parental aspirations for children’s educational achievement is fuelled by a positive relationship between educational qualifications and wages. With the advent of social media, more parents are widening their social networks in order to find out more information about the education system and strategise their children’s educational success. Schools are dealing with more input from parents about matters such as homework. The private tutoring industry, which was estimated in a recent press article to be worth more than $1 billion annually, not only provides academic tutoring in school subjects but also provides parents with tutoring, so that they can help their children with their homework. Some tutors promise parents help with securing their children admission during secondary schools’ DSA exercises. In addition to sports tutoring, they are also helping students prepare for tests, auditions and interviews. Singapore education appears to be exhibiting what the British educational sociologist Phillip Brown has termed ‘parentocracy’, where “the education a student receives conforms to the wealth and wishes of parents rather than the student’s individual ability and effort.” This ‘parentocracy’ is co-existing alongside ‘meritocracy.’

I have mentioned earlier. First, parents need to be able to navigate the education system. They need to be aware of the diversity of courses and programmes on offer, and the implications of their choices for their children’s educational outcomes and upward social mobility. The Malay community, while having made considerable progress, is still underrepresented at the university level and over-represented at the vocational level. If Malay educational achievement levels are to rise further, Malay parents will need to avail themselves of social networks and strategise actively for their children’s success. A big worry is that many Malay parents are not able to do this because they lack the necessary social and cultural capital. In particular, it is important to remember the inter-generational effect of streaming. In other words, many Malay parents, who were streamed into less prestigious streams themselves as students, are less well-placed than other parents who were streamed into higher prestige streams, to help their children. If nothing changes, the chances are the existing educational inequalities will persist, if not worsen. How can Malays, both individually and collectively, respond to the major changes in the education landscape? n

Growing parental aspirations for children’s educational achievement is fuelled by a positive relationship between educational qualifications and wages.

Masters completed his Dr Jason Tan d national an on ati educ in Education in of Hong Kong ity rs at the Unive development mp co arative ral studies in rk and his docto rsity of New Yo ive Un ate St e education at th te professor cia so as ly nt is curre at Buffalo. He s at the dership studie gapore. in policy and lea ucation in Sin Ed of ute tit National Ins itorial board ed l na tio na er His Dr Tan is an int nal journals. veral internatio member of se ucation in Ed e lud inc blications most recent pu oking Forward. king Stock, Lo Singapore: Ta

Implications for the Malay Community There are a few major implications of what A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 25 © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


50 Malay Years On:



and Progress

Introduction: 50 years of progress? The nation recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of its independence on 9 August. The process of nation-building cannot be understood without an inquiry into our understanding of ‘progress’. It is therefore timely to reflect on where we came from, the milestones achieved, the obstacles faced and, more importantly, where to go from here. What do we mean by progress? When speaking of ‘progress’, what might come to mind would be the idea of moving forward, achieving certain goals or realising certain ideals. Our notion of progress and success determines the type of ideals we select as a vision for progress. Ideals reflect a certain social and cultural outlook, shaped by historical, ideological, political and religious factors. Those who manage to embody these ideals become the role models for those who have yet to succeed. Ideals are not necessarily benign, 26 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

and neither are they free from certain vested interests or ideological baggage. To understand our progress and to shape a vision of progress for the future, it is crucial to examine our existing ideals and how we attempt to realise them. In Singapore, the dominant notion of ‘progress’ is understood in material and economic terms, exemplified through educational attainment and gainful employment. This has to do with the dominant state ideology of capitalism and pragmatism, maintained through its brand of meritocratic policies. Since the period of independence, Malay women have attained progress in education and employment. Women, who were encouraged to participate in Singapore’s burgeoning industrialising economy, contributed largely in the fields of labourintensive manufacturing industries, the commerce and trade sectors where they worked as secretaries, clerks and

Women are still defined fundamentally in terms of their sexual, reproductive and caregiving roles, instead of being seen first and foremost as complete human beings with diverse backgrounds, value systems and aspirations.

saleswomen, and in the professional sector as teachers and nurses. Statistics show that since the 1970s, the rate of female participation in the economy has been rising steadily. This indicates the success of the state’s capitalist vision. The limitations of such notions of progress are often not questioned by the Malay-Muslims here, who have generally adapted to them. This can be seen, for instance, in the mainstream media and echoed by Malay-Muslim elites. A certain understanding of Islam, which is uncritical of capitalist and patriarchal values, is also used to buttress such notions of progress. These are limited because they do not consider other nonmaterial or human factors which would contribute to building a more just and equal society. In my opinion, while Malay women generally have attained material progress, other aspects of progress are often overlooked. An important aspect of progress is that of gender equality. This vision of progress would be one which challenges and overcomes patriarchal and sexist norms, ideologies and practices perpetuated by the prevailing political system, the excesses of capitalism, as well as certain types of religious orientations and cultural practices. The existing vision of progress is limited in the aspect of gender equality.

For instance, the notion of the “ideal” family where men are the natural leaders and providers and women are the supporters and caregivers, creates problems when they are promoted without considering people’s lived realities, such as the predominance of dual-income households in our contemporary society. Such arrangements, which affect a household’s division of labour, would certainly transform gender relations, and one may even question the naturalness of certain roles. The problem is not only that these different roles are seen as a given and unchangeable, but they also signify a hierarchy, where men are viewed as innately superior. Another example would be the continued expectation of women’s submissiveness to their husbands, which contradicts social norms where women are seen as active partners and colleagues to men in the public sphere. These ideals or expectations are sanctioned by patriarchal interpretations of Islam and cultural values transmitted from generations. This problem is further compounded by certain policies in Singapore which still rely on this understanding of gender roles while also expecting women to contribute economically. It perpetuates the idea that women should be able to have and do it all, hence creating pressures and burdens on women while not placing the same emphasis on men. The ideal

‘supermom’ is not merely abstract but has implications on the lives of women since it has repercussions in policy and decisionmaking. They also create problems when it comes to the social perceptions of women who do not fit into these categories as not fulfilling their destinies as women. Women are still defined fundamentally in terms of their sexual, reproductive and caregiving roles, instead of being seen first and foremost as complete human beings with diverse backgrounds, value systems and aspirations. Changes and continuities: the making of the ideal Malay woman To examine our dominant idea of progress, we should look into the sort of ideals which we aspire to or set as a benchmark. Therefore, I want to problematize the idea of the ideal Malay woman, reflected in those who embody such ideals and are championed as role models to the community. In the past 50 years, the making of the ideal Malay woman has been subjected to various dynamics shaping our local and global economic, socio-political and religious landscapes. Some studies have shown the shifts in the portrayals and expectations of the ideal Malay woman in the mainstream media, which echo the sentiments of the Malay-Muslim political and religious elites and the A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 27 © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


dominant state narrative. Nonetheless, as these studies demonstrate, the primary assumption underlying these portrayals is the primacy of the role of women as wives and mothers. These portrayals, particularly in Berita Harian, have shown some shifts while maintaining certain dominant ideas about the ideal role and self-presentation of Malay women.1 Prior to independence, there were voices of women who actively expressed their views to promote the emancipation of Malay women. From the 1970s, with industrialisation and the increasing admittance of women into the workforce, there were concerns articulated by the government and Malay elites of the tensions for women between modernisation and maintaining traditional notions of morality. The ideal Malay woman, as shown in the media, was one who worked while simultaneously upholding her morality, thus not being swayed by the excesses of modernity. Such a notion of women as bastions of traditional morality against increasing modernisation and Westernisation continued to be perpetuated in the 1980s. However, a more pronounced and distinctive Islamic dimension was added to the ‘ideal Malay woman’. This was in line with the heightened religious fervour within the Malay-Muslim community, in line with the regional and global religious resurgence of that period. Women were largely portrayed as dutiful wives and loving mothers. The notion of ideal motherhood was couched upon an overtly Islamic image, which affirmed the pre-existing expectations of gender roles. From the 1990s, with the increasing talk surrounding the need for women to juggle work and motherhood, the portrayal of the ideal Malay woman shifted to one who could effectively balance work and family commitments. Such women were often shown as success stories. It served to demonstrate the idea that women, who were primarily mothers and caregivers, could still ‘have it all’ by successfully 28 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

1 Nurhaizatul Jamila Jamil, Perempuan, Isteri dan…: Embodied Agency and the Malay Woman of Contemporary Singapore, Academic Exercise, NUS (2009) and Nursyahidah Binte Mohamad Jamal, Framing Malay Women: Representations of Malay Women in Berita Harian Post-Independence, Academic Exercise, NUS (2012)

balancing work and motherhood. There were also reminders given out to women to maintain their domestic femininity even while contributing socially and economically. Therefore, the traditional notion of women’s domestic roles were not downplayed in light of modernisation, but were highlighted to complement their modern lifestyles.

women are treated, the opportunities given, our treatment of gender and sexual discrimination, as well as our expectations and practice of gender roles, which is becoming increasingly fluid. An increasingly diverse civil society and social media should also serve as platforms for ideas of gender equality to be continually promoted and engaged with.

Telling women to somehow find a way to balance their multiple roles or idealising those who are seemingly successful in doing so does not consider the limitations of existing policies and structures concerning families and employment. Also, this creates dilemmas within many women, who are forced to make difficult choices between financially supporting their families and being caregivers to their children. Such an outlook on the ‘ideal Malay woman’ also does not place an equal amount of responsibility and pressure on men to fully exercise their roles as husbands and fathers, aside from being economic providers. This is not to disregard the importance of the role of economic provision, but to highlight the fact that such expectations of women do not factor in various family arrangements, such as dual-income households and single-parent families. Our expectations of gender roles should certainly be empathetic to the shifts in people’s lived experiences.

Moving forward, as a society, we should rethink some of our existing ideals for continued progress. Material accumulation as a key indicator of progress is insufficient. One such ideal, as highlighted, is that of gender equality. This has to begin with the recognition that gender roles (for both men and women) are not fixed and thus it is necessary to rethink some of these roles. This should have structural implications in terms of policies and support for families. Social and cultural expectations of gender roles, especially those sanctioned by patriarchal religious interpretations, should also be questioned and examined. The lag between certain problematic ideals and lived realities can only be mitigated when real change is experienced. n

Moving forward: where do we go from here? Learning from our past, we can uncover marginalised histories of Malay women’s participation in society. For instance, between the 1940s and 1960s, women’s groups actively expressed their views and visions for the emancipation of women. Clearly, certain historical developments which ensued had gradually marginalised and silenced such women’s voices, replacing the projection of domesticity which is somehow balanced with economic pursuit as an ideal for women from the 1970s onwards. Progress needs to be understood in terms of how

Progress needs to be understood in terms of how women are treated, the opportunities given, our treatment of gender and sexual discrimination, as well as our expectations and practice of gender roles, which is becoming increasingly fluid.

ntly pursuing Johari is curre Nurul Fadiah t of Malay en the Departm her Masters at iversity of Un l na tio Na Studies, in the erests include r research int Singapore. He logy of ho yc social ps s, as sociology and -faith relation ra int d an er religion, int ncerning the co lly ra ne ge well as issues r ongoing community. He Malay-Muslim y intraar or mp o conte thesis looks int e Malay-Muslim th in th wi s faith relation pecially in light Singapore, es community in visibility of d an y sit er div of the growing s and voices. ion tat s orien various religiou

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Years of

Malay Films

in Singapore: History, Silence, and a Revival

This year marks Singapore’s 50th year as an independent nation after a tumultuous merger with and separation from Malaysia. Although it has been half a century since the nations’ parting, they were once closely intertwined, not just socio-politically, but also artistically and culturally through intensive and extensive film production. Over 360 Malay films were spawned during the transnational collaboration from 1934 to 1972 before a solemn 40 odd years of silence descended upon the Malay film industry in Singapore. It is only in recent times that the modern Singaporean-Malay cinema is slowly taking shape. In light of Singapore’s half-century of nationhood this year, it is imperative that we look back into the cultural and artistic landscape of the past, study the present 30 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

and ponder about the future. Thus, before we can delve into Sanif Olek’s Sayang Disayang/My Beloved Dearest (2013), and M. Raihan Halim’s Banting/Slam (2014), the history of Singapore’s rich Malay film culture needs to be rekindled, even if only in memory. 1934-1965: A Glimpse into the Past In its heyday, Malay cinema was built upon interactions and transactions between different nations and varied cultures. The very first Malay film made in Singapore was Laila Majnun (1934) which was directed by Calcutta-born B.S. Rajhans. The film was based on the 1931 Hindustani film Laila Majnu and marked the genesis of the transnational and transcultural nature of Malay cinema. The two prolific film studios of the time were located in Singapore and notably belonged

to Chinese entrepreneurs. Malay Film Productions (MFP) belonged to Runme and Run Run Shaw who hailed from Hong Kong. Their rival, Cathay-Keris Film Productions, was owned by Singaporeanborn Loke Wan Tho and the Malayan Ho Ah Loke. Film directors from India were consequently hired to make films for these studios because the Indian film industry was already establishing itself at the time, though there was a significant increase in the number of Malay directors in the 1960s. During the Golden Age of Malay cinema (1947 to 1972), the Shaw Brothers made 170 Malay films and Cathay-Keris Film Productions made 123 films. Effectively, as Malaysian film historian Hamzah Hussin succinctly puts it, “[the] film industry was founded on Chinese money, Indian imagination and Malay labour”. Malay cinema was, thus, a conglomerate business effort that had varied predecessors from many nations. 1965-1972: Birth of a Nation, End of the Film Studio Era The separation between Malaysia and Singapore in 1965 signalled the beginning of the studio era’s decline. High nationalistic tensions, the departure of P. Ramlee for Studio Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, and the untimely death of Cathay-Keris’ director Hussein Haniff during this period were some of the setbacks that the Malay film industry faced. Nevertheless, production of Malay films still took place between 1965 and 1972, before the closure of the Shaw Brothers studio in Singapore in 1967 and Cathay-Keris in 1972. The films produced during these eight years showed a shift from the folklore and mythology tropes dominant in prior Malay films, to a more socially present perspective. Films based on popular myths, Anak Buloh Betong/Son of the Bamboo Demon (1966) and Naga Tasek Chini/Dragon of Chini Lake (1966) were structured around rural landscapes, staged royal grounds,

and utilised supernatural elements as a means to convey social politics. However, there was a clear emergence of films that focused on social issues within present day situations in light of the changing national landscape. These films include Dosa Wanita/A Woman’s Sin (1967), Jefri Zain Gerak Kilat/Jefri Zain – As Fast as Lightning (1966), Mat Bond (1967), Nora Zain Agen Wanita 001/Nora Zain – Woman Agent 001 (1967), and Aku Mahu Hidup /I Want to Live (1970). Dosa Wanita and Aku Mahu Hidup addressed controversial decisions and moral ambiguity under the critical eye of societal expectations. The protagonist from Dosa Wanita, Zainab, fails to live up to her mother-in-law’s unreasonable expectations. Feeling neglected by her busy spouse, she engages in an intimate relationship with her husband’s friend. This leads to Zainab’s banishment from her home by her mother-in-law, effectively separating her from her young son. While Zainab could easily be figured as the film’s antagonist due to her extramarital affair, the film establishes the true ‘villain’ of the film as the overtly elitist and patriarchal mother-in-law who not only demanded a grandson from Zainab, but also made conscious efforts to widen the gap between Zainab and her child. Similarly, Aku Mahu Hidup scrutinises social hypocrisy and confronts ethical questions between good and bad through the tale of prostitution and alcoholic excess. Effectively, such films were pushing the envelope by addressing sociocultural issues within a modern landscape. These films are a testament to the rapidly evolving industry greatly influenced by Singapore’s social changes.

Unlike the visually poetic Sayang Disayang, Banting is more light-hearted and details a young woman’s passion for professional wrestling. It is timely in the way it engages with the societal stigma of hijabwearing women. As the protagonist, Yasmin, declares, “I refuse to believe what I wear can stop me from doing what other girls can”.

With globalisation taking over Singapore, access to Hollywood films led to the popularisation of the spy genre. Films such as Mat Bond, Nora Zain Agen Wanita 001, and Jefri Zain Gerak Kilat were evidence of a film industry that was integrating new tropes into its vision. Nora Zain Agen Wanita 001, for example, utilised a AUGUST 2015


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These films signalled a shift in the way the Western film industry was influencing local production. Sadly, the influx of international films into Singapore proved to be too large a competition for the Malay film industry, which eventually led to the demise of the film studio era. female character as primary investigator, which is a feat in terms of privileging the female perspective. As narrative films are predominantly controlled through the gaze of the male protagonist, the fact that this 1967 film gives authority to the female detective character is progressive. Mat Bond and Jefri Zain similarly reimagine the Bond figure; one through parody, and the other through parallel. Unlike Jefri Zain, who is an actual secret agent with access to fancy gadgets, action sequences, and beautiful women, Mat Bond finds himself escaping from air hostage situations by flushing himself out of the toilet.

cultural inspirations and influences. The protagonist of the film, Murni, is a foreign domestic worker from Aceh, who is the caretaker of the elderly widower, Harun. Though Harun often demeans her and her cooking, Murni finds herself falling for him. The film negotiates between cultural spaces through the characters’ personal history as well as the film’s culinary showcase. For example, Sambal Goreng, a dish familiar to the Nusantara region, is a constant motif throughout the film. As a reference to the past, the film title comes from a song composed by Zubir Said for the 1950 film, Racun Dunia/Poison of the Earth.

These films signalled a shift in the way the Western film industry was influencing local production. Sadly, the influx of international films into Singapore proved to be too large a competition for the Malay film industry, which eventually led to the demise of the film studio era.

Unlike the visually poetic Sayang Disayang, Banting is more light-hearted and details a young woman’s passion for professional wrestling. It is timely in the way it engages with the societal stigma of hijab-wearing women. As the protagonist, Yasmin, declares, “I refuse to believe what I wear can stop me from doing what other girls can”. The film presents Yasmin’s obstacles stemming from her mother’s and, by extension, society’s expectations of her. By secretly participating in women’s wrestling, Yasmin literally and figuratively fights her opponents, be it her competitors in the ring, or narrow-minded perspectives of what a hijab-wearing woman should embody. The acceptance that Yasmin’s mother gives her at the end of the film

2013 Onwards: The Revival of Malay Cinema, and the Future Ahead Singaporean-Malay cinema has only recently been revived. Television and film director, Sanif Olek, is responsible for Singapore’s first proper Malay film since the end of the Golden Age of Malay cinema. Sayang Disayang, like the films of yesteryears, draws on multi32 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

expresses hope for a more open-minded community, especially within the context of Singapore’s multi-cultural landscape. This is a film that aims to not only dispel stereotypes of hijab-wearing women, but of all women through the presentation of a femininity that does not conform to traditional societal perceptions. Both films are impressive starts to the revival of Singaporean-Malay cinema. The response to both films has also been encouraging. Banting has had screenings in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, and was showcased at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Sayang Disayang was not only selected for submission to the Oscars’ in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it also won the Best Asian Film (Jury Prize) at the 2013 SalaMindanaw International Film Festival in the Philippines, and the Best Musical Award at the 2014 Mexico International Film Festival. The future, thus, holds great potential, with the industry building momentum once more. Hence, as Singapore attains 50 years of nationhood this year, and embarks on the beginning of a new era, Singaporean-Malay cinema is doing just the same. n

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More than Simply ‘Malay’:

Reflections on

Ethnic Diversity and Being ‘Malay’ in Singapore By NUR HAMIDAH ABDUL RAHIM

On my first day at junior college, I was asked by my classmates whether I was an ASEAN scholar. I was secretly pleased, at first, that I appeared to be erudite enough to be mistaken for one. My pride was quickly dashed when they clarified that it was because I did not “sound Malay” when I speak—in other words, not minah enough in the inflections of my spoken English, in my diction and enunciation. On another occasion, while I was out shopping a couple of weeks earlier, a salesgirl hesitantly asked if I was Malay and commented that I did not look like one. The initial look of surprise on her face when I answered her question in Malay was priceless. These were not isolated incidents. Many a time, people have mistaken me for many other nationalities and races except of being Singaporean and Malay respectively. As hilarious as those situations were, they also aggravated and intrigued me. I found myself questioning my own identity: What does it mean to be Singaporean and Malay, or rather, in favour of the scope of AUGUST 2015


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this article, what does it mean to be Malay? What quintessential aspect of ‘Malayness’ was I lacking, despite the fact that official documents categorised me as Malay? My designated Mother Tongue in school was Malay Language (Bahasa Melayu). My family’s way of life is not remarkably different from other Malay families. We speak a mixture of English and Malay at home and school. Our traditional outfit of choice is the baju kurung and the dishes whipped up during special occasions and family events are typical Malay fare of many a Malay food stall. As a Muslim household, we celebrate the festivities of Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji as well as observe the religious rulings such as abstaining from pork and alcohol. Though my parents can be considered to be rather conservative, they are also liberal enough to encourage my siblings and I to pursue higher learning. Considering that Singapore has been dubbed the Tuition Nation many times, their emphasis on education buys into the current local mindset. Singaporean-ness aside, why do others not see me as Malay? In tracing my ethnic genealogy—to know a little more about my family’s history—I found out that my mother is Javanese, or “of Indonesian origin” as per the official books, whereas my father is a mix of Ambon and Boyanese. In addition to this, my paternal grandmother, much to my surprise, is of Pakistani descent. At first I had thought that this whirlpool of genetic mixing is part of the reason why I do not appear distinctively Malay from the common Singaporean perspective. Yet further investigation with friends and

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relatives showed that this multiplicity is not uncommon to Malays in Singapore. While there may be what can be conceived as a ‘common face’ to Malays as a racial group, no one is just Malay—they are, or are mixes of, Javanese, Boyanese, Bugis, Ambon, and a number of other ethnicities, remnants of a time when the Nusantara was a region thriving in trade and interisland migratory movements. This does not include those whose blood heritage are formed by interracial marriages—between Malays and Chinese, Arabs, and Indians— some of which dated back to pre-colonial trade histories within the region. It became evident to me that it wasn’t so much of what I lacked or possessed. Rather, the larger perception of Malays is one that posits it as a singular identity in which the various multiplicities that make it is being submerged in favour of a more standardised racial identity. What many perceive to be Malay is rather culturally singular. We have been taught to equate local Malays with Islam. It is true that since Islam was first introduced into the region by Arab traders, it has become so prevalent in most of the Malay cultural practices. In the contemporary Singaporean sensibility, the religion has become so intertwined with Malay culture that it is easy to forget that it actually has Hindu and even Polynesian influences from a much earlier time. Price to Pay Growing up, learning about culture was essentially a lesson on uniformity. Schools, the media and even my relatives approached the topic with broad strokes

It became evident to me that it wasn’t so much of what I lacked or possessed. Rather, the larger perception of Malays is one that posits it as a singular identity in which the various multiplicities that make it is being submerged in favour of a more standardised racial identity.

of the brush. The simplification of the Malay identity not only makes for easy categorisation in the official spheres, it also makes society appear efficient and orderly. In some ways, it even presents a kind of united front to the world: “We are Malay and this is our culture”. Thus, simplification can easily lead to collectivity that creates a sense of cultural belonging and identity. This is something that can be observed across the racial spectrum in Singapore. We are familiar with campaigns such as ‘Speak Mandarin’ that omits dialects in favour of Mandarin. This is similar to the submergence of the Malay ethnic groups and the various minor Indian ethnic groups, such as Punjabis being conflated as Indian. However, what is the price for the stateimposed uniformity and cultural neatness when the reality we live in is actually charmingly chaotic? What do we lose by blinding ourselves to the true diversity of our heritage? A simple Google check on the history of Singaporean Malays reveals that while indigenous Malays have lived here since the 17th century, it is more than likely that my own Javanese/Boyanese/Ambon ancestors were actually immigrants. In other words, I’m actually not really Malay in the strictest sense of the word. In a way it can be said that: “I am Malay yet not Malay.” This is not to say that traces of our rich history do not exist. Our existence in this modern world, where efficiency and

neatness is prioritised, is not so bleak as to have been completely whitewashed and diversity eradicated or forgotten. The Javanese headdress that many brides wear with pride on their wedding day, the ever popular nasi padang we savour during lunch, familiar Javanese words such as nyayi in the Malay lexicon, the historical possibility that the production techniques of the Malay songket may have been introduced by Indian or Arab traders. These are more than just well-known symbols of what we claim to be part of the Malay culture. They are living gateways to our true history that have withstood the test of time. This year, the SG50 celebration is not just a time to celebrate the uniquely Singaporean spirit. I believe it is also a time for contemplation on our own history, both on a personal and national level. In the past 50 years, it seems that the Malay community, in their desire to assimilate into the standardised, westernised Singaporean society, is seeing more of their multifaceted cultural identity slowly dissolving, leading to greater cultural dilution. The ease in which Malays and the larger Singaporean society settle into an easy acceptance of homogeneity and national standardisations comes at the cost of the common narrative, of seeing the Malays as a group without internal varieties. Living in a country that prides itself in being a confluence of cultures, to experience this ironic, systematic, gradual uniformity of culture is rather alarming. Is a state mandated culture still truly our own culture? If the Malay community continues on this trajectory, we risk losing

sight of our unique heritage. Worse still, we might even limit our own cultural progress. After all, history has shown that the contemporary Malay culture evolved from adapting traditions from multiple sources—both internal and external. Hard Questions Is a culture still considered to be rich and dynamic when it has been stripped bare? Is it still possible for an efficient and standardised narrative to continue maintaining and creating a collective sense of belonging or will it risk alienating future generations? Are we not already seeing this happening on a wider scale as more and more of the younger Singaporeans express a desire to migrate, partly due to an inability to define and relate to a Singaporean collective? So let us not be too quick to accept simplified, textbook versions of our cultural identity. To shave off our cultural diversity is akin to a cliff being eroded by the waves. Eventually, there will be nothing left. Admittedly, it is no mean feat to balance modernisation while preserving cultural heritage. A compromise must always be made and unfortunately, it is usually the latter that takes the shorter end of the stick. As we continue clinging on to the still existing gateways and artefacts of our true history, let us hope that we have not gone past the point of no return. n

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Obesity as a Racialised Narrative:

Moving Beyond

‘Malay’ Issues


An ageing woman is found selling tissue packets on the streets without a permit. From a policy perspective, this could be approached either as a criminal matter of illegal hawking or an issue of social welfare. This elderly lady would certainly prefer the latter, as making her a criminal only aggravates her dire situation. Framing matters. The frames that we adopt govern how we understand social issues and how we respond to them. In Singapore, there is a prevalent tendency to use ethnic frames in order to understand certain social issues. This is problematic. It prevents us from having a robust discussion about policy and structural issues, as it instead pushes us towards spurious culturalist accounts to explain away any social problem as a failing of that specific ethnic group. Construction of health as a ‘Malay’ problem One example is that of the construction of health issues as a ‘Malay’ problem. A passage from a Straits Times article 36 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


succinctly frames the problem: ‘Malays are too fat, getting fatter too fast and succumbing to chronic diseases in the process’.1 This is evidenced by statistical data in which over one in two Malays are too heavy, with a BMI of 25 or more, and one in five have a BMI of 30 and above. This is associated with high rates of obesity-related disease, such as diabetes and blood pressure. Health surveys play a crucial role in the construction of obesity as a ‘Malay problem’. The 2010 National Health Survey2 highlights several traits of the Malay community. The breakdown of data across ethnic lines reveals that Malays have the highest blood cholesterol (22.6%) and obesity levels (24%). Framed in this manner, the statistics depict a grim view of the health conditions of the Malay community. Such a framing feeds into the tendency to seek culturalist explanations for the obesity crisis. In an article in the Berita Harian, a male journalist argued that

1 chang Ai Lien ‘Malays and Obesity: Big trouble’ Straits Times, 13 Mar 2010. National Health Survey 2010 Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, Ministry of Health.

Malay women were now more likely to be obese due to their tendency to over-eat while doing little work – a stark contrast to the past where women were kept busy with housework.3 Here, again, it is the contemporary cultural norms of the Malay community that is blamed for engendering obesity. The selection of ethnic frames as the dominant mode of breaking down health data, which comes attendant with spurious culturalist explanations from this ‘Malay problem’, presents a missed opportunity for a more nuanced discussion of health and obesity. For instance, the book The Spirit Level4 argues for the role of socio-economic class as a causal factor for obesity. According to the analysis, although the effects of modern living have contributed to increasing rates of obesity, not all developed countries suffer uniformly from obesity: countries like the United Kingdom and the United States may suffer from high rates of obesity, but this is not true of many other modern states such as Japan and Sweden. The authors thus argue that economic inequality is a variable that affects the level of social dysfunctionality within a country. Socio-economic class is very much linked to obesity as people with lower incomes and social standing are more likely to consume ‘energy dense’ foods which are often cheaper and more accessible. The poor usually neither have the time nor finances to make healthconscious food choices. Another aspect of class which directly affects health and obesity is work. Stress resulting from poor working conditions or precarious employment conditions can adversely affect health. Hence, class and income should be salient to any discussion of health and obesity – such data was however notably absent in the National Health Survey. Other factors which can affect health and obesity rates that should be taken into consideration are urbanisation, the 3 4

growth and prevalence of the fast food industry, as well as a consumerist culture that encourages consumption of processed foods. Having more of such metrics and data would allow a more informed and nuanced engagement with our health policy – instead, the demographic breakdown of the National Health Survey leaves us with the framing and racialising of obesity as a ‘Malay problem’. Better data, media coverage needed Frames thus matter. Framing issues through an ethnic lens not only reproduces and reinforces futile and inaccurate cultural stereotypes, but it also prevents us from having a constructive discussion about policy shortcomings stemming from the social structure and built environment. The challenge now is to transcend these ethnic frames and instead engage these issues at a deeper and more nuanced level. It might help, for one, if more raw data can be collected and made available to all. Statistical data that is presented to the public must be more varied and comprehensive. The construction of obesity as a ‘Malay problem’ attests to this. By releasing only one set of statistical data (i.e. data grouped by ethnic sets), it gives a veneer of objectivity to claims arising from the cultural deficit thesis. The collection and publication of more data points will allow policymakers, academics, and civic-conscious citizens an opportunity to re-interpret and re-think the social issues from a different perspective. Instead of along ethnic lines, presenting such data on health in terms of income will introduce a fresh dimension to our understandings as we seek to find new correlations and patterns of behavior and consumption.

is necessary is that such perspectives are questioning dogmas and assumptions rather than merely perpetuating myths and stereotypes. Ethnic frames, while convenient, are inadequate in understanding complex social issues. This is not to say that data presented across ethnic lines are not relevant – it might be. In certain cases, having ethnic data may make policy implementation and outreach more effective. However, while data presented across ethnic lines might be relevant, it is definitely not sufficient. At this stage, political and policy discourse in Singapore can only mature if we avoid relying on ethnic frames as a crutch to interpret and diagnose social problems. n

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Secondly, the role of the media is crucial. The media has a responsibility to critically interrogate such ethnic framings, instead of blindly perpetuating such narratives. This is not a simplistic endorsement of anything and everything alternative: what

Mengapa Wanita Melayu Kini Gemuk-Gemuk?’ Istimewa, Berita Harian, 27 Mar 2011. Wilkinson, Richard and Pickett, Kate (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better Allen Lane

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“Single Thread in the Tapestry”: Travelogue and Reflection in Spaces of


By DR NURALIAH NORASID Dis: to gesture at ‘apart’, ‘away’, ‘asunder’, or to have a negating or reversing force. Dis-familiarity: therefore, and implicitly, apart or torn from the familiar.

Brihadeeswarar Temple of Tanjavur

Away India is not a place one would associate with comfort and safety, especially for the lone woman. So, yes, travelling to Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India on my own was a cause for concern, and yes, I was very nearly persuaded to jump into a car to be driven to the transit hotel without prior checking up on the risks of such a stunt, was stalled at the entrance into the departure hall of the Chennai Airport twice, and was very uncomfortably followed about by an airport official, for “my safety”. And yet, given all that I knew and had to go through, I still went into the airport during my 8-hour transit in Chennai believing that I would be able to find a

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Toy cradles at the snake deity’s shrine

power plug at every juncture, and a prim café serving hot cappuccino and English scones. And free Wi-Fi. It turned out, I was wrong on two accounts and half-right on one: the stall-like, prim-enough café didn’t have scones that day. I have travelled before, and differences, or ‘inconveniences’ as some might put it, ought not to be new to me. However, in that moment, alone in another country and without any way to plug in my laptop, I realised how privileged I have been back at home. Apart Mind you, beyond commodity and comfort, the material and daily eases, it does not always feel that way. There has never been more of a time when my various identity markers—Malay, Muslim, woman, Singaporean—have been put under the microscope of social and political scrutiny than in the past decade and a half. In 2001, there had been the confusion of the solemn ‘talk’ given to all Malay students in my secondary school Mother Tongue class about religious tolerance, and not more than a year later, the derisions surrounding the tudung affair in which, the body I inhabit felt doubly

scrutinised for it being female and Muslim all at once. In the years that follow, the larger world has become rife with disasters and humanitarian crises, protests and uprisings, wars fought and terrors wrought; manifestations of religious and racial intolerance and the wills of those who seek to capitalise on it. Made central in this less-than-rosy picture is the threat of Islam to the global sociopolitical fabrics and, right at the heart of home, the prevailing perceptions of a Malay cultural deficit in Singapore, no doubt in a way counter-fuelled by the movement towards Malay political hegemony just across the Causeway. Singaporean-Malays stand in a state of acute consciousness: aware (or made to be aware) of their identity and their state of apartness from the larger Singaporean society. Yet, for all of that, there has never been a greater sense of awareness than when I was in Madurai. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and, already aware of my gendered body and wary of the intrusive penetrations of the male gaze, took care to drape my

dupatta over my chest. I accepted to don the kumkuma, a powder made out of either turmeric or saffron, and the bindi upon my forehead, for I was always mindful to treat the culture and religion of another with the same respect and curiosity that I hope others would treat mine. Eating with my hand came naturally, although, for all of the Malay cuisine spiciness my tongue and stomach could boast of enduring, they were outmatched by the cuisine of the region. During my stay in the Fortune Hotel Pandiyan, I was never short of courtesy calls and friendly visits by my friend and her family, as well as their extended family members. However, out in the streets, there were never any intrusive stares. Eyes were cast my way only in passing, before they were returned to the more pressing realities of life: trying to make a living selling jasmine flowers to visitors of the city’s Meenakshi Amman Temple, manoeuvring the charmingly chaotic roads, or going back to observing the goings-on from behind shop fronts raining in packets of snacks and toys. Between the non-stop honking from a traffic that A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 39 © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

flowed smoothly without traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, the free-roaming cows grazing on bits of grass growing beside piles of rubble and uncleared rubbish, and not seeing a single face of kin, the thought came to mind that I, to quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (1939), “was not in Kansas anymore”. A part Madurai and its neighbouring cities of Tiruchirappalli and Tanjavur are places of intriguing dualities: old-fashioned shop windows juxtapose with new-fangled ones; villages of homes made of dried palm leaves and earth exist within sight of bungalows; income gaps set the rich on plinths of superiority while keeping the poor desperately so. The ennui of vast stretches of undeveloped land would

then goes hand-in-hand with how many are also “illiterate”. However, looking at the toy cradles in the shrine of the snake deity and a woman begging for food from the temple priests, I wondered if there is anywhere else they could turn to for hope and a sense of worth? What is heartwrenching are the ways in which bodies of authority seek to gain from the religiosity of the people: from notching up food prices sold within the temple complex to utilising religion in political discourses. It is easy for the few to dictate the actions of the many when many take an ideology as the only epistemological framework they know. And as we strive for the betterment of the community, it is also easy for people to fall into and to fall back on the anonymity

The way forward for the community may well lie in moving away from setting ourselves, or letting others set us up as other to the Singaporean society. be occasionally broken by towering palaces of universities and colleges. The city streets are never without a distinct scent—of jasmine and incense, sometimes the sweet tang of tea, and the less than pleasant smells of rubbish piles, dust, and on occasion, human waste and sewage. Temple complexes dating as far back to the early part of the 11th century tower over the sprawling city space. Unlike the heritage sites of Singapore, which are subjected to so many refurbishments and repurposing, they are so little changed. Religion coalesces closely with the social lives of the people who, as my guides described, are “deeply religious”, which 40 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

of statistics, news flashes, community leader discussions and battles over top-down perception surveys—putting more numbers here, placing more bodies there. Noble and kind as these approaches are, we sometimes forget we are dealing with people. Ideally, there needs to be a balance of the human touch and criticalminded problem solving. Away from the couched discourses of having to be on par with another, we must look towards empowering those who need a little more help getting into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, without balking at difference, (or ‘différance’), and learn to see, as a communal and national body, the value

in every member, from the lyricist to the engineer. The way forward for the community may well lie in moving away from setting ourselves, or letting others set us up as other to the Singaporean society. Rather, it is to recognise in ourselves the fundaments of the human condition — everything from erudition to ambition, duplicity to honesty, and vulnerability to resilience in the face of dire situations — that the complexities we so easily see in others are neither non-existent nor denied to us by virtue of our race and ethnicities. Outside looking at our social developments of the past half century, the community’s intellectual growth needs also to be fostered in remembrance: far from merely being the gawking 150 or so fishermen realised out of oblivion by colonial memory and later even postcolonial memory, we were seasoned travellers once. The history of the Malay Kingdom is etched into the records of the ancient Brihadeeswarar Temple of Tanjavur, hinting at a historical existence far beyond the demarcations of national history. The past fifty years past was preceded by few hundreds more, and perhaps it is time we do not forget this, even as we propel, with a golden torch in our fists, into the next few hundred and fifty years more. n

from rasid graduated Dr. Nuraliah No rsity (NTU) ive Un l ica log no Nanyang Tech Honours) r in Arts (with with a Bachelo sophy, with ilo Ph Doctor of d in 2009 and a tive Writing an ea Cr in n tio a specialisa , in 2015. She sis oe op th My y Contemporar the Centre Associate with is a Research lay Affairs. Ma d an in Islamic for Research e Writing, tiv ea has taught Cr Formerly, she d Introduction an , re atu er Lit o Singaporean U. She has als erature at NT to English Lit ultant ns co d an h iting coac served as a wr unication uage and Comm with the Lang iversity. un me sa e th at Centre (LCC)


An Epoch of




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And it is He who has made the night for you as clothing and sleep [a means for] rest and has made the day a resurrection. -Al-Furqan, 25:47

The Internal Timekeepers Deep in the inner recesses of our brain, resides a master clock which guides our daily behaviour throughout the course of a 24 hour day. Termed as Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), this central pacemaker is synchronised to geophysical time and controls the circadian rhythm among other biological processes. The circadian clock is triggered by external stimuli such as light and dictates many physiological rhythms, including the body’s sleep-wake cycle. We live on a clock whether we want to or not, and maintaining this Mother Nature’s cadence is fundamental for a good sleep.

capacity to revitalise and rejuvenate the human brain and body.

Sleep: An Underrated Ergogenic Assistance Proper sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and plays a key role in ensuring optimal growth and well-being throughout your life. Numerous studies have emphasised on the importance of sleep. Like eating and exercising, sleep is a biological imperative. An adequate amount of shut-eye significantly helps memory and mood, keeps you trim, gets your health in check and enhances your looks.

Consequences of Sleep Deprivation A research sponsored by Estée Lauder demonstrates that poor sleep is correlated with reduced skin health and accelerated skin ageing. Indeed, inadequate sleep leaves you looking less youthful, but its importance goes way beyond just addressing vanity concerns.

The importance of sleep is also emphasised in the Islamic literature. The topics of the benefits of sleep, good sleep hygiene and maintaining a pattern of light and darkness (also known as ‘circadian rhythm’) is frequently mentioned in the Quran and Hadith. Sleep is nature’s panacea, more potent than any drug in its 42 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.

Therein, lies the problem for people who attempt to beat this system by curtailing sleep, hoping to get the most out of their lives. People are increasingly sleeping later and lesser as compared to fifty years ago due to various cultural and social factors. In fact, Singapore is among the top three sleep-deprived cities in the world. Clocking at an average of 6 hours and 32 minutes a day, we are short of the recommended 7 to 9 hours’ sleep. What’s more concerning is that these habits are trickling down to the next generation.

A legion of research publications in recent years have shown that the quality of sleep affects various critical health domains including metabolic, endocrine and neurological functions. Consistent with laboratory evidence, several epidemiologic studies have demonstrated a connection between short sleep and higher BMI, as well as a causative role of chronic sleep loss with diabetes. Lack of sleep rattles the physiological mechanisms in our body and disrupts hormonal secretion, elevating

the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity. Findings from the National Health Survey 2010 reveal that the Malay community in Singapore has the highest prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Figures 1 and 2 show the health profiles of the Malay community as compared to the national average between the years 1992 to 2010. The charts depict an increasing trend that coincides with a widening gap between the Malays and the total population in both obesity and diabetes prevalence.











The mounting evidence on the association of sleep with metabolic disorders is a convincing indication that sleep is a promising target to help curb diabetes and obesity among the Malay-Muslim community. As sleep is a manageable and alterable risk factor, it is useful to address the issue of sleep disorders and identify influential factors that would spearhead the problem of sleep deprivation among the Malay population. Electrified Singapore One of the distinct factors that have led to the culture of pushing waking hours far into the night is the proliferation of light-emitting electronics. Singapore has transitioned from an underdeveloped nation to a highly industrialised firstworld metropolis. Technical innovations attack our eyes with artificial light and because our circadian rhythm is highly influenced by light, these gadgets trick our body clocks into living at a perpetual high noon even at night. The stresses and lifestyle that accompany our nation’s advancement may have also invaded our ability to sleep well as we trade sleep for more work. As urban dwellers frenzied with social schedules, we have accustomed ourselves to get by with shorter sleeping hours. The escalating amount of activities available round the clock and the expanding 24 hour economic demands are among major factors that have led to sleep deprivation. A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 43 Š Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.






Being sleep deprived undermine productivity so consuming more hours to get things done at the expense of sleep actually makes you get less done; the irony.

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The Graveyard Shift According to Professor Michael Chee, a neurologist who has been studying the association of sleep and brain, one of the predominant culprits behind lack of sleep is work. The rapid acceleration of Asian economies has drawn detrimental ramifications on employee wellness and one of the significant factors associated with increased sleep disorders is shift work. Working at night or during irregular hours goes against the human body’s biology, which is hard-wired to sleep during the night and be active in the day. Typically many jobs in the services sector require shift work. Figure 3 shows the breakdown of the Malay Resident Working Persons Aged 15 Years and Over by Industry according to the Singapore Census 2010. According to the data, the service sector has the largest proportion of Malays,

an indication that majority of them are holding night shifts job and thus, wrestling with getting quality sleep. While shift workers are victims grappling with misaligned body clocks, they are also builders of the nation who provide necessary services in public safety, healthcare and transportation. It is impossible to abolish shift work altogether, so the challenge is to establish strategies to keep them healthy and everyone around them safe while they work round the clock. Being sleep deprived undermine productivity so consuming more hours to get things done at the expense of sleep actually makes you get less done; the irony. Indeed catching a good night’s sleep won’t grant anyone immunity. However, the increasing links between sleep and health suggest that investing in quality

Getting quality shut eye may seem impossible in this era but good sleep is more under your control than you might think. Here are some simple tips to get a good night sleep:



sleep has a promising remedy. So how much sleep do we need? Both the National Sleep Foundation and the Singapore Sleep Society agrees that the amount of sleep we need varies according to age, and are influenced by lifestyle and health. Figure 4 illustrates the optimal sleep duration required across the life span of an individual.

Stick to a sleep schedule even on weekends to regulate your body’s clock. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual to help disassociate your sleep from activities that elicit stress or anxiety. If you have trouble sleeping at night, avoid napping in the day as it might disrupt the normal sleep and wakefulness routine. Exercise promotes good sleep provided it is not too close to bedtime. Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning to maintain your natural circadian rhythm. Avoid heavy meals in the evening and stimulants before sleep. Associate your bed with sleep. Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions strictly for sleep and rest. Sleep on your side and avoid sleeping face down, on your stomach. Choosing the right sleep position influence the quality of your sleep, the health of your skin, and your overall well-being. Islamic literature emphasises on the importance of sleeping on your right side with the hand under the cheek and modern science confirmed the benefits of sleeping in this position.


May be appropriate

Coping with Shift work Additionally, these are some useful tips for shift workers:

Not recommended










Get plenty of sleep before your first shift. You may also try staying up later the night before to adjust Napping during your shift where possible. These naps can be as short as 20-40 minutes but no longer than 45 minutes to avoid waking up during a period of deep sleep Reduce your caffeine intake and drink more water. Most shift workers consume caffeine to help them stay awake. As a result, they find it difficult to fall asleep when they get home.

Sleep deprivation is an endemic problem whose best cure is, quite simply, sleep. Allow the daytime to bring us across distance and space, and leave the night time sleep to bring ourselves across time, and awaken our senses of intuition and wisdom. n

hammad is a Ms Nabilah Mo re st at the Cent aly An ch ar Rese ic and am Isl on ch ar for Rese (RIMA). She Malay Affairs a Research was previously the Cognitive for r ato din Coor p boratory (Slee La e nc cie Neuros aduate Gr US -N KE Team) at DU ol. Medical Scho

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Beyond the


Sketchbook; And into Human



It has been three years since Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches1 (2012) came out in print, however, its subject matters, its poignancy, and the elegance of its language warrant no less than this review as we propel into Singapore’s 50th year of independence. Complemented by whimsical illustrations by Shahril Nizam Ahmad, and arranged in such a way that every few stories are marked by a place and time stamp (“Paya Lebar, 5 AM” to “Kaki Bukit, 3 AM) by way of showing progression, Malay Sketches is a collection of flash fiction and vignettes centred on the themes and concepts of Malayness and Malay lives in Singapore. Invoking the Familiar In his critique, “On the Subject of Race”, Laremy Lee, notes how “Alfian often resorts to negative stereotypes of the Malay community” in order to “quickly convey plot points and themes to the reader”2.

Malay Sketches is available at Booksactually, No. 9 Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru, Singapore 168645 (booksellers@booksactually.com).

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Within the stories, we find easily recognisable characters: the drug addict, the driver, the single mother, and the pregnant teens. There are also scenes that 2

may be familiar to some of us: concerned Malay mothers telling their children to be more like the Chinese (“Shallow Focus”, 73), even going so far as to tell them to only hang out with Chinese kids in the hope that their merits—“a competitive spirit and a natural aptitude in Maths” (“His Birthday Present”, 131)—will rub off onto them. There are the educated elites and professionals who are burdened by the expectations to improve perceptions of the community (“Cold Comfort”, 51), even as they are irked by the failures of their brethren to break out of the vicious cycles of destitution and social immobility. We also find the religious and cultural boundaries that have been considered a racial characteristic of the Malays: the disapproval and horror of handling dogs (“A Howling”, 113), a teenage girl’s outright rejection of shaking the President’s hand on stage because she was not supposed to come into contact with the opposite gender (“Losing Touch”, 21), and a mother’s concerns about party food not being halal (“His Birthday Present”), and whether her son’s paintbrush bristles are made of pig’s hair (“Child”, 213).

1 Alfian Sa’at. Malay Sketches. Illustrations: Shahril Nizam Ahmad. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012. Lee, Laremy. “On the Subject of Race”. Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Vol. 11, No, 3. Jul 2012.

The Malay/Muslim community is multi-faceted, and the way Alfian shows this is by giving these same characters and their stories a universal human touch.

These are stories we have heard time and again—the tensions of race perceptions (“Shallow Focus”, 73), the difficulties of reconciling modern society with cultural and religious practices (“Visitors”, 175), and the problems, reiterated first, it seems, within the spaces of media and sociopolitical rhetoric, and then now inscribed in the eloquent words of fiction. So, it is easy to point out where Malay Sketches fails to overturn the larger-known narratives of its subject community. Responding to, and Inciting Response However, it is my belief that there is more to Malay Sketches than meets the critical eye. Talking about the inspirations for the book at its launch at KLAB in 2012, Alfian revealed that some are taken from “(sic) episodes in real life, some from stories that people have told [him]; some are even from headlines” which he then tried to re-imagine as stories3. He shared that the book is partly a “reaction to journalism”, or more specifically, to “the way journalism is practiced in Singapore”. For him, the myth of journalism being more objective than literature is untrue and noted how the stories on drugs, divorce, and unwanted pregnancies found in the Malay newspapers serve as a 3 4 5

diagnosis of the “problems of the problem minority” and the “social mythologies that the community has got to solve”. He considered journalism reductive, pointing out how the “ugly statistics that [we] keep on publishing to warn the community to pull up its socks and find some collective action” in fact centres the people as the problem as opposed to people who are, like any other, facing challenges in their lives. The Malay/Muslim community is multifaceted, and the way Alfian shows this is by giving these same characters and their stories a universal human touch. There is magnanimity in the character of Suhaili from “Sacrifice” (57), who becomes the pharm kos4 so that her lover would not be incarcerated. Melancholy and nostalgia permeates “After Dusk Prayers” (37) which features an elderly lady feeding cats, absentmindedly forgetting to lock her gate out of old, kampung habit. “The Bath” (101) takes on the lasting stigma of bearing a sexually-transmitted disease with the story of a pengurus jenazah5 who has to tend to a body covered in late-stage AIDS lesions, which even in death is shunned by his family. A husband rediscovers his love for his wife after considering his inability to give her the life she deserves in “Reunion” (141), and a son struggles with

his father’s growing dementia in “A Toyol Story” (149). A man gets his heart broken when the woman he longs for does not feel the same way for him in “Singapore By Night” (169) and “Gravity” (163) sees the concerned thoughts of a divorced father spending a precious weekend with his daughter. “Child” (213) and “The Boy At the Back of the Bus” (209) exude the warmth and joy of fragile innocence. Alfian wishes for the book to be received on two levels: Malays being able to relate to the stories within, and for non-Malays to have a better understanding of the lived realities of their country brethren. However, what struck me about some of these stories is how a number of the characters remain unnamed—should they be read isolated from a collection so titled, Malay Sketches, they could easily have been the narratives of any other person, of any other race. Whatever the readers’ views—whether the book falls back on to the stereotypes it should have been avoiding, or whether it has covered the whole breadth of the ‘Malay experience’ in Singapore—Malay Sketches is still an important Singaporean read, for its efficient prose and beautifully-rendered images, if not for its ability to create much needed dialogue. n

Book Launch: {Malay Sketches} by Alfian Sa’at @ KLAB 2012. Organised by Ethos Books. (Youtube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F14Q-2HQj7Q). A figure in Greek religion of a human scapegoat that is used in state rituals. Undertaker.

from rasid graduated Dr. Nuraliah No (NTU) ity rs ive Un nological Nanyang Tech urs) no Ho r in Arts (with with a Bachelo sophy, with ilo Ph of r cto Do in 2009 and a iting and n in Creative Wr a specialisatio 2015. She in , sis oe y Mythop Contemporar e Centre th th Associate wi is a Research Malay Affairs. d an ic am Isl in for Research eative Writing, has taught Cr Formerly, she Introduction d an , Literature Singaporean She has also U. erature at NT t to English Lit and consultan h ac co g itin served as a wr unication mm Co d an uage with the Lang iversity. at the same un Centre (LCC)

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Against the Tide with...




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Source: Berita Harian © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction

Over the course of the past 50 years, Singapore has seen a progressive restructuring of the traditional gender norms in our society, especially in the field of sports. Recently, female athletes have made significant strides in attaining equal representation and media coverage, and have begun to participate in formerly male-dominated sports. Compared to how it was in the past, it is clear that female athletes in Singapore are beginning to establish themselves in sports that are not considered mainstream for women. Their ability to challenge gender barriers and restrictive perceptions of their athletic capability and participation in sports is a positive development for the sporting culture in Singapore. One of the first notable cases for Malay/ Muslim women in sports was in 2013 when Saiyidah Aisyah Mohamed Rafa’ee, a Professional Athlete of the Singapore Rowing Association, secured Singapore’s first- ever individual Gold for Rowing at the 27th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games held in Myanmar. Aisyah made history for the nation by clocking the winning time in the Women’s 2000m Lightweight Single Sculls race. She was also the only competitive female rower and sole representative for Singapore at the 2013 Games. In the recent 28th SEA Games 2015 held in Singapore, the 27-year-old female athlete did the nation proud again by making it to a podium finish with two Bronze medals. Early Years Born and raised in Singapore, Aisyah was a student of Anglo-Chinese Junior College and later graduated from National University of Singapore (NUS) with a Bachelor in Psychology. Aisyah had always been active in physical activities since at a young age and played numerous sports including netball, Silat and even street soccer, but later realised her calling in rowing. She started the water sport in 2004 when she was talent-scouted by an ex-national rower at an indoor rowing competition held in her school.

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Accomplishments Being one of the few successful Malay/ Muslim female athletes in Singapore, Aisyah has made headlines and won many awards. In addition to her collection of medals bagged from both local and international competitions, Aisyah was awarded with the Inspiring Young Achiever Award by Berita Harian in 2014. The award serves to motivate young Malay/Muslims like Aisyah, who exhibits the potential to achieve extraordinary heights, and at the same time, spur other individuals to continue to endeavour and pursue their dreams. Aisyah was also a recipient of several prestigious awards such as The Straits Times Athlete of the Month in December 2013 and the Women’s Weekly great Women of Our Time Nominee in Health, Sports and Wellness in 2014. Overcoming Obstacles While it’s easy to watch the fame and fanfare that come with being a successful sportswoman, each moment on the water amounts to a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice for Aisyah. She had to plough

While it’s easy to watch the fame and fanfare that come with being a successful sportswoman, each moment on the water amounts to a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice for Aisyah. A U G U S T 2 0 1 5 49 © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


through extensive hours of training and even put her career temporarily on hold to undergo a 3-month intensive training in Sydney to prepare for the games. Her packed training schedule also meant that she had less time to spend time with her family and friends. In addition, the support system and infrastructure for rowing was also limited in Singapore. In fact, rowing was initially excluded from the 2015 SEA Games due to the lack of a 2,000m course in Singapore but Aisyah, along with a few others, managed to convince the Singapore Sports Council to include the sport in the Games. Looking Ahead The question of how well our youths will turn out partly depends on how success is defined and encouraged in the future. Singapore parents are typically inclined to encourage their children in the academics field as academic success is perceived to be the path to greater success. However, there have been recent moves both at the national level as well as at the community level to broaden the definition of youth success by taking it beyond academic results. We are seeing more flexibility in the educational and career pathways, as well as more opportunities for allowing individuals like Aisyah to pursue their passion and maximise their potential in these other non-mainstream routes towards personal achievement. In many ways, Aisyah has contributed into shaping Singapore’s sporting culture and identity. The dreams she brought to Singapore, her fighting spirit, and her commitment, continues to capture the hearts and minds of the nation. Aisyah’s achievement is truly a momentous event for the country. Moving forward, Aisyah already has her eyes set on flying the Singapore flag at the Olympics one day. She is currently training to qualify for a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics – a feat no other Singaporean rower has ever attained. 50 K A R Y A W A N © Association of Muslim Professionals. Permission is required for reproduction.


Q. Parents in Singapore are more willing to encourage their children in academics rather than sports because of the perceived path to greater success in society. What is your view on this?

Q: For most of its history, rowing has typically been a male-dominated sport due to its physical demands. What advice would you give to other Malay female youths getting into a male-dominated sport such as rowing? A: For me, growing up with 4 brothers has

A: It is true that academics are still

taught me that whatever a guy can do, a girl can do it better. I believe that if Malay girls are interested in a sport, gender, race or status shouldn’t get in their way. You love the sport for what it is and not for whom it is dominated by. I used to play soccer / futsal and participated in several competitions. Soccer is a good example of a male-dominated sport but it didn’t bother me that there is a gender bias in that sport. Most importantly, you must enjoy what you do. Q: What is the biggest misconception about being a female Malay athlete and why? A: People often think female Malay

athletes have no future, but I doubt it. I am going to show the world that we do. Athletes in Singapore generally don’t earn much; in fact, we don’t even get an income. People often comment that I am being selfish for chasing my dreams as I can’t contribute to my family. Of course, I am not the typical Malay daughter who cooks, sews and does the household chores and unfortunately due to the nature of my career, I am unable to contribute financially to the household. But I am grateful my brothers are all working and they watch over my mum when I’m not around. But I often pray that all this hard work that I’ve put in all these years will bring about success in the future and Insha’Allah one day I am able to lift the burden off my mum’s shoulders. Q. What would you say most motivates you to do what you do? A: The people who don’t believe in me. I

love proving people wrong.

important, especially in the Singapore context, because eventually, to get a good job, companies still look at paper qualifications. I am lucky that I am naturally self-motivated and was hardworking in both my academics and in sports. My parents allowed me to be involved in sports because I did well in school. However, I understand that not everyone is like that. I believe that parents should allow their children to discover their talent in their fields of interest whether it is in sports or the arts. Being involved in other activities besides school may actually help their children in their studies and even help earn scholarships to get into their university of choice in the future. You’ll never know what opportunities lie ahead for your children. Most importantly, they shouldn’t be pressured into doing something. It takes away the enjoyment of it and this will eventually lead to them burning out and not being interested any more. n

hammad is a Ms Nabilah Mo re st for the Cent aly An ch ar se Re lay Islamic and Ma on ch ar se for Re s previously wa e Sh . A) IM Affairs (R the ordinator for a Research Co ratory bo La e nc cie os Cognitive Neur aduate Gr US -N at DUKE (Sleep Team) ol. ho Sc Medical

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