In an attempt to provide an accessible introduction to the collective experience of Singapore’s largest ethnic minority, Alfian Sa’at and I put together this presentation, as part of a lecture series organised by Future of Singapore (FOSG), which we delivered at the Agora on 15 July 2017. It was not easy. The history of the Malays in Singapore seems short, but is actually vast, multifaceted and diverse, and thus challenging to distil it into just ten objects. Furthermore, in constructing any historical narrative of a community, there is always a risk of viewing it in monolithic terms. This is where the importance of the indefinite article comes in: I am not trying to present the definitive account of Malay Singaporeans’ past, but rather my interpretation of it, which is necessarily subjective and limited. Nevertheless, I have tried as much as possible to bring attention to the major themes and milestones in an attempt to provide a sufficiently comprehensive overview.
The upcoming Presidential Elections reserved for Malays has led to much ink being spilled — both physically and virtually— over what constitutes Malay identity. However, many aspects about Malay identity, and the historical processes that have shaped it, remain obscured. In the official narrative of Singaporean nationalism and identity, Malay cultural and intellectual activities receive scant attention. It barely alludes to Malay nationalism beyond UMNO’s right-wing, racially-exclusive ideology. Singapore is presented as being separate from the Malay world, rather than being an important part of it. The perception of Malays in Singaporeans’ popular imagination continues to be informed by racialised health and education statistics , and ethnic stereotypes, as well as a failure to understand the legacy of events and policies that influence Malays’ outlook on institutions like the Singapore State or ‘multiracialism’. Even Malays ourselves, as a result of rising Islamic conservatism, tend to overlook key facets of their identity that are not usually associated with being ‘Malay/Muslim’.
It is for this reason that we begin, 700 years ago, with our first object.
1) Kala Armlet
In 1926, an excavation at Bukit Larangan (Fort Canning Hill) unearthed several crucial finds, among which was a golden armlet which dates back to the 14th century, around the time when the fabled Kingdom of Singapura flourished on the island. An account of Singapore’s Malays will not be complete without reference to our pre-colonial history, when Singapore was inextricably linked to the culture of the Malay world. This is reflected in the armlet’s visual aesthetic. Its most striking feature is the Kala motif: the face of a mythical creature that finds expression in many ancient structures throughout Southeast Asia. Farish Noor, in Spirit of Wood: the Art of Malay Woodcarving, recounts the mythological background of the Kala motif:
“In Hindu mythology, Kala was a disobedient being who had been ordered by Siva to eat himself as a punishment. Fortunately, Siva relented halfway and Kala was established in the pantheon as a guardian figure. His likeness – a truncated head with protuberant eyes, leonine nose, gaping jaws often spewing luxuriant foliage, and occasionally two arms – can be found guarding the entrances of most early temples in Cambodia and Thailand.”
The Kala is also found across the Malay Archipelago, looming over portals at the temples and palaces of Java.
This armlet is evidence that complements indigenous Malay writings that establish a firm dynastic link between the classical Malay sultanates and the kingdom in Singapore. It is a solid refutation that the presence of a state in Singapore headed by Malay elite is mere myth. It is also an important reminder of the Malays’ fluid religious identity across the ages. It reflects their pre-Islamic past, when their worldview and beliefs were informed by Hindu cosmology. The Kala, as a personification of Time, is an apt symbol reflecting the enduring, historied presence of Malays in Singapore.
2) Diorama: Signing of Singapore Treaty, 1819
This diorama was taken from an exhibition at Sentosa called “Images of Singapore LIVE”, depicting, from right to left, William Farquhar, the Temenggung Abdul Rahman, Sir Stamford Raffles, Tengku Long and finally, his son Tengku Ali. The signing of the Singapore Treaty on 6 February 1819 is often presented unproblematically in official historical narratives as the defining moment that marked Singapore’s birth as a British settlement. Until relatively recently, school textbooks usually gave short shrift to Singapore’s pre-colonial history and opened with Raffles’ arrival in 1819. Generations of Singaporeans have grown up internalising the myth that Singapore was terra nullius when Raffles came, and fete this episode as the joyful beginning of Singapore’s road to nationhood.
These triumphalist narratives often overlook the less comfortable realities associated with the signing of this treaty, such as the political crisis of the Johor Sultanate that Raffles exploited in order to secure rights to establishing a settlement, as well as the anxieties felt by Tengku Long, who was worried Raffles was plotting to abduct him to India.
The diorama reflects the stasis in which this episode has been forcibly trapped as a result of the decades-long scripting of our national history. The neatly-packaged narrative ignores ethical questions involving colonial intervention. The framing of the treaty in official discourse neglects its legal dimension, which actually asserts the Sultan’s authority over Singapore, providing only a lease for the British to establish a trading post at the Singapore river. It did not grant them the right to administer the island as a governing authority. This raises further questions as to the legitimacy of the British in establishing full sovereignty over Singapore via “A Treaty of Friendship and Alliance” in August 1824 when the Sultan and the Temenggong both refused to play by the rules the British had laid down and insisted on asserting their rights as local rulers.
This raises questions about the treatment of the native rulers’ role in Singapore’s early history, as well as Malay indigeneity in general in relation to the founder status accorded to colonial figures like Raffles.
3) Hikayat Abdullah
Hikayat Abdullah (The Tale of Abdullah) was the first Malay language book written by someone who identified as Malay published in print. It marked a crucial turning-point for Malay literature as it signalled the beginning of Malay letters’ departure from a manuscript tradition to one that embraced the medium of print. Stylistically, although there are elements of continuity from Malay courtly literature in Abdullah’s adoption of tropes from Malay epics, the elevation of the authorial voice is a radical development. Hikayat Abdullah is the first Malay text that is strictly autobiographical, in which the narrative voice is not that of a scribe recounting the history of a Malay sultanate or the adventures of heroes, but instead addresses himself in first-person.
Although Abdullah was born in Melaka in 1796, work eventually brought him to Singapore where he came into the service of Raffles as a secretary and personal Malay tutor. Abdullah continued to teach Malay to European and American traders and missionaries in Singapore for much of his life. Although Malay nationalists lambasted Abdullah for being a colonial stooge, few realise the remarkable self-awareness he actually displayed, bound by his obligation to please the patrons of his work. His defiance to Europeans subverts the voice of the white man’s condescending observations of Malays that run from Alfred Wallace and Somerset Maugham to Wilkinson and RO Winstedt. To Malays growing up internalising the stereotype of their poor academic ability, it is amusing to witness Abdullah calling his German student “stupid, insane and rebellious”. The upheaval of the colonial power dynamic is again seen in his critique of Raffles’ plot to remove the Temenggung to Telok Blangah through carefully worded subterfuge. He describes Raffles as “feed[ing] him bananas while impaling his backside with thorns”.
Abdullah is also notable for his fierce criticism of Malay society, and here he pioneers the popular Singaporean pastime of trying to understand the causes underlying ‘the Malay problem’. But unlike the prevalent explanations we have now that lazily fall back on cultural deficit theory, Abdullah astutely identified specific socio-political challenges: the Malays were victims of feudalism, patriarchy and religious dogma. The Hikayat encapsulates many enduring challenges relating to the politics of identity that many Malay Singaporeans can still relate to.
4) Landing Permit
This landing permit, belonging to an ‘anak dagang’ from Java, encapsulates the highly mobile and semi-nomadic nature of people in the Nusantara. Although ‘dagang’ in Malay now translates to commerce or trade, an ‘anak dagang’ originally referred to those who wandered away from home in search of a livelihood. This man’s journey to Singapore is part of that long tradition. To voyage from one’s home island (‘pindah pulau’) to travel elsewhere (‘merantau’) is an important rite-of-passage in many communities, such as the Minang, a matrilineal community primarily concentrated in the historically and culturally interlinked regions of Minangkabau in Sumatra as well as Negri Sembilan in Malaysia. Minang men are compelled to leave their villages to fend for themselves once they reach a certain age. The Javanese too established a widely distributed diaspora across the Archipelago, as have the Baweanese, and Bugis. All these cultural identities now make up the ‘Malay’ community in Singapore. So ingrained is this practice that it has been immortalised in verse:
Biola bertali empat
Digesel orang Semarang
Anak dagang tak bertempat
Mencari di rantau orang.
A violin with four strings
Played by the man from Semarang
The traveller has no place/home
Searching in others’ territories.
Anak-anak di kayu tinggi
Tempat galah si daun pisang
Anak dagang menumpang di sini
Bajulah basah kering di pinggang.
Children on the tall branches
Poking at the banana leaves
This traveller seeks refuge here
Wet clothes dry on his waist.
Berdentum bedil Melayu
Nak tembak talam tembaga
Datuk Bandar bukalah pintu
Anak dagang nak masuk berniaga.
Bang go the Malay guns
Shooting at brass trays
Chieftain please open the door
The traveller wishes to trade.
These poems poignantly express the hardship and struggle of the anak dagang, following long established patterns of trade and internal migration. Given this context, it raises questions on whether Singapore was really ‘foreign’ from other parts of the Malay Archipelago, or if the Malays were also ‘immigrants’. Before border controls were implemented and political boundaries drawn, it had always been part of a wider Malay world across which people constantly moved freely.
5) Printing Press
This printing press belonged to Utusan Melayu, a prolific Malay daily newspaper established in Singapore. The press represents the Singapore Malays’ enthusiastic adoption of modern technology as a means of mass communication. This eagerness to adopt an advanced medium also reflects the progressive spirit that characterised this new public discourse. By the early 20th century, Singapore had become the capital of Malay journalism. Although the first Malay newspaper – Jawi Peranakan – was established in 1876, by the eve of the Japanese Occupation there was a tremendous variety of periodicals that ran the gamut of ideological orientations, from the religious-reformist al-Imam (1906) and al-Ikhwan (1926), to the secular-nationalist periodicals like Utusan Melayu (1939), to name just a few. They were pioneered by a new breed of mostly urban, middle-class Malay intellectuals of different educational backgrounds, including vernacular schools, English institutions and Islamic madrasahs.
True to the tradition of social criticism pioneered by Munshi Abdullah, these newspapers expressed the anxieties of Malays living in Singapore, where they were out-competed by other ethnic groups in an unfamiliar metropolis. In response to rising land values forcing Malays to move outside the city, a newspaper stingingly remarked:
“Where is it all to end? Soon we shall be in Papua, where everyone is stark naked.” -‘Menuntut Ketinggan akan Anak2 Negeri’ (In Pursuit of Greatness for Our People), Al-Imam (1907)
Many were deeply invested in reforming Malay society and enhancing its material well-being through better education, employment and healthcare. Utusan ran pieces like these below, which actively urged Malays to go to the hospital if they felt ill instead of traditional healers (left), and, and called for the cultivation of a ‘New Malay’ (Melayu Baru), through university education (below).
Utusan Melayu’s history reflects the extent to which the Malay press was involved in politics. The common discourse newspapers created significantly contributed to the shaping of an imagined community for the Malays who had a shared experience in colonialism and economic marginalisation. Readers’ columns were exceedingly popular and editors had to appeal to contributors to keep their writings brief in the interest of space.
Utusan was established through the efforts of the founders of the first Malay political party, Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (Singapore Malay Association) in 1939. KMS itself emerged in interesting circumstances. The impetus lay in forming an alternative voice of representation for the numerous Nusantara Malays, who were hitherto represented by wealthy Arab Muslims. The Arabs acted as community leaders, and were the intermediaries between the Malays and the British authorities, despite their living conditions being far removed from the challenges faced by the poorer Malays. By extension, the creation of Utusan was also driven by the desire to set up a newspaper fully owned, financed and staffed by Malays of the Nusantara, as opposed to prior Malay language newspapers who were owned by either the colonial authorities, Arabs, Straits Chinese or Jawi Peranakan. These contestations for political power and who gets to be the ‘voice of the community’ still hinged on who was ‘more Malay’ and therefore had the right to speak on behalf of the community. Recent developments in Singapore seem to eerily echo these debates.
After dominating the scene for nearly two decades, Utusan’s progressive, left-wing stance was slowly eroded as the government of the newly-independent Federation of Malaya cracked down on its criticisms. Utusan stood for a more racially inclusive Malaya, providing a platform for people of all ethnic backgrounds to air their opinions, as well as reformist in outlook. On the other hand, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which was the largest party in the governing Alliance coalition, was a right-wing Malay ethnic nationalist party that stood for preserving traditional social institutions like the Malay monarchies. By 1961, most of Utusan’s shares were controlled by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the paper’s takeover by UMNO was complete.
Eventually, cost hikes compelled most newspaper companies to move to Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore’s heyday as a Malay press hub ended. Berita Harian is the last of the newspapers from Singapore’s pre-independence era to survive to this day, likely due to its strong multiracial leanings and emphasis on current affairs rather than political commentary.
6) Beverage Advertisement
This advertisement for Guinness Stout was featured in a programme book for the 1968 West Malaysia Teachers’ Union (Kesatuan Guru-guru Malaysia Barat) Annual General Meeting. For this reason, its reach may not have been widespread. However, it raises interesting questions about attitudes towards Islamic dietary restrictions and how they change over time. The caption in bold reads — “Guinness Stout: good for us”, and the passage proclaims, “A glass of Guinness Stout whets the appetite. A glass of Guinness Stout restores energy. For every glass of Guinness Stout is healthy. It provides strength when your body feels tired and lethargic. This is the drink that gives extra health to every meal. Yes, after work, whenever you’re exhausted or sometimes lack appetite, nothing is better than a glass of Guinness Stout.”
The religious aversion Malays harbour towards alcohol has been raised as an example to demonstrate their separateness and unwillingness to integrate with the rest of Singaporean society. In Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote:
“I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate. The generation that worked with me – Othman Wok, Rahim Ishak – that was before the wave came sweeping back, sweeping them; that generation integrated well. We drank beer, we went canvassing, we went electioneering, we ate together.”
The “wave” here refers to the trend of rising Islamic conservatism following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. After the statement led to unhappiness within the Malay and Muslim communities, Lee eventually retracted his statement, saying “[his] call [was] out of date”.
Nevertheless, Barr and Low have noted that Lee’s speeches and statements over the past few decades seem to place the burden of integration consistently on minorities, with the Chinese majority in Singapore hardly being called to account for not ‘integrating’ with the other ethnic groups. This is symptomatic of the wider context of multiracialism in Singapore, which appears to be based on minorities having to assimilate to the dominant Chinese culture.
7) Mark III Rifle
This corroded rifle is one of three that were unearthed near the rear entrance of the Istana Kampung Gelam in 2000. It is a Lee-Enfield Mark III. It was most likely produced by the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, England and was used during the Second World War by a soldier of the Malay Regiment. The Istana Kampung Gelam served as a shelter for wounded soldiers at the time. Although rusty and worn, it is a poignant reminder of Malays’ contributions to the island’s defence during the Battle of Singapore. The heroic last stand of the Malay Regiment at Pasir Panjang is particularly familiar to most Singaporeans, where Lieutenant Adnan and his plucky band of Malay soldiers were outnumbered by the Japanese thirteen to one, yet mounted a formidable resistance. Adnan and his men have been mythologised like Leonidas and his famed 300 at Thermopylae. But the irony here must be acknowledged. Despite our formal recognition of Malay heroism and military sacrifice in war, the reality paints a different picture. The Singapore Armed Forces’ manpower policies are still deeply controversial: Malay service personnel are still barred from sensitive vocations, and Malays are over-represented in the police force and civil defence. Lee Kuan Yew once openly acknowledged that it is “tricky business” putting a Malay officer who is “very religious” and “has family ties in Malaysia” in charge of a machine gun unit. These notions open up questions about how an ethnic minority group has to pay the price for the majority’s perceptions of danger, arising from the siege mentality of being a Chinese-majority population ‘surrounded’ by Malay-speaking, Muslim-majority countries.
When good citizenship is so strongly conflated with participation in the military, as seen in how membership in it is a ‘national’ duty, such exclusion diminishes the Malays’ ‘Singaporeanness’ compared to the other ethnic groups. The corroded rifle symbolically reflects a bygone period when Malays used to make up a significant proportion of the armed services – Walsh notes how Malays made up a significant portion of the Singapore military and police force until 1967, when recruitment of Malays was virtually halted despite 50-80% of volunteers being Malay. Institutionalised discrimination in the military weighs heavily on the Singaporean Malay psyche, as it represents a hypocrisy that fails to live up to the nation’s ideals of racial equality. Preventing Malays from being active custodians of Singapore in particular capacities is a direct affront to their status as the indigenous people of the country.
8) The Singapore Dilemma
The Singapore Dilemma: the Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community by Prof. Lily Zubaidah Rahim is a landmark text outlining the structural challenges the Malays of Singapore face in various areas such as education, political representation and socio-economic status. In particular, the ‘dilemma’ in question seems to be about how to interpret Article 152 of the Singapore constitution:
‘Minorities and special position of Malays’
(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.
(2) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.’
An intense debate surrounds this Article, with Rahim’s work noting the more minimalist approach the Singapore government has taken in implementing this article, as opposed to a more interventionist one. This includes — previously — free tertiary education for Malays, which is a relatively more minimalist method of affirmative action, as opposed to, for example, according Malay-medium schools the same status as Chinese SAP schools. Alfian Sa’at argues that particular policies and actions pursued by the State have not lived up to the spirit of Article 152. These include the seizure of the Istana Kampung Gelam, former residence of Sultan Hussein’s descendants in 2000, the ban against the tudung in schools two years later as well as the inadequate funding allotted to madrasahs. None of these can be said to live up to “foster[ing] and promot[ing]” the “educational, religious […] and cultural interests” of the Malay community.
He goes on to call into question the continued inclusion of Article 152 in the Constitution, arguing that it has been exploited to silence criticism of institutionalised racism against Malays. In 2009, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Viswa Sadasivan tabled a motion to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ideals expressed in the National Pledge, and urged against continued “apparent contradictions and mixed signals” including racialised military manpower policies, SAP schools and ethnic self-help groups. Then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew rebutted by invoking Article 152 to argue that the State’s duty was never about ensuring racial equality, dismissing such “highfalutin ideals” as “false and flawed”.
Beyond helping deconstruct the uses of Article 152, Rahim’s text remains an enduring classic that situates the Malay community within the context of various constraining forces underlying its continued marginality. By examining structural factors that perpetuate the Malay condition, it helped shift the discourse away from simplistic attributions popularly employed in official narratives, such as cultural deficit theory or that of the lazy Malay.
9) Zubir Said’s Piano
Zubir Said’s Strohmenger and Sons grand piano is notable for being used to compose a number of Singaporean classics. Viewing it from a wider perspective, it represents Singapore’s former role as the cultural capital of the Malay world. Keroncong orchestras, jazz bands and bangsawan troupes populated the lively performing arts scene of the country for the first half of the 20th century. Zubir Said’s move to Singapore reads like a typical immigrant narrative, as he was drawn to the “glittering lights, kopi susu and butter” of the archetypal big city. There is a contrast to be observed between Singapore – the hub of Malay cultural life, the famed ‘New York of Malaya’, the central nerve of artistic production – and the rest of the Malay Archipelago, from which composers, musicians, singers and actors came in droves. These included Noormadiah and Maria Menado (from Menado), P. Ramlee (from Penang), Sudarmaji (Java), Jamil Sulong (Johor) and countless others. Far from where entertainment proliferated and flourished, places like Zubir Said’s village in the Minangkabau Highlands of Sumatra were relatively more conservative. Zubir’s father (the village headman) was particularly averse to music, and viewed it as a sin. He was against Zubir’s move to Singapore.
Following his arrival in Singapore, Zubir became actively involved in the city’s thriving cultural scene. Zubir Said started out as a conductor with the City Opera bangsawan troupe, and after the war joined Shaw Brothers in 1939. In 1952, he became a composer for Cathay Keris film studio. This was the golden age of Malay cinema, which was in full swing in Singapore by the 1950s.
It was on this piano that Zubir Said wrote Semoga Bahagia, a Children’s Day mainstay in Singapore that also reflects the ideals of Malay nationalism at the time. These include a spur to hard-work and self-improvement, while emphasising staying true to one’s roots and embodying traditional values. More significantly, the piano was used to compose Singapore’s national anthem, Majulah Singapura, with its republican messaging that accords language once reserved for Malay royalty, such as ‘seru’ (to proclaim) to the ‘rakyat’ or commonfolk — a subversion of feudal power dynamics.
Zubir Said’s piano is a symbol of the frontiers pushed, stylistically and ideologically, by Singapore’s Malays in the arts. It also stands as a symbol of Singapore’s past as the pulsating heart of Malay popular culture in the region, perceived by Malays as ‘the big city’ where they went to make it big on the silver screen or on the radio waves.
10) Family Studio Portraits
For copyright reasons, we have not reproduced the photos here. Please visit this linkto see the referenced family studio portraits.
Family portraits shot in a studio are a common feature of Malay households. Usually found framed on a wall where it will likely be visible to guests, such as in the living room, they are a deliberate exercise in displaying an ideal image of the family to the outside world. This is done through the inclusion of specific status symbols, such as a son or daughter in graduation robes — signalling the importance placed on academic achievement, which occasioned the moment to be captured. Graduation robes – as in some of the examples on the webpage – also signal the family’s social mobility, as the succeeding generation secures its chances for a successful career and guarantees the continuation of the family’s comfortable socio-economic position. Western business attire is also a prevalent choice amongst Malay families taking studio portraits, as it carries connotations of success in one’s career, and more significantly, helps project a modern, progressive character. The distinction between Western fashion with its ‘modern’ associations and Malay garments which suggest rootedness to tradition is interesting to note when observing these portraits.
In the first portrait appearing on the webpage, all three women wear the tudung, with the family matriarch donning a full baju kurung. There is a tendency, it seems, to portray women as bearers of tradition, whereas the men in their business suits suggests a throwback to traditional roles which dictated entering public life and going to work as predominantly male endeavours. Often, however, as in other examples, the entire family may be clothed in Malay garb, in apparent celebration of the virtues of traditional domesticity. In these cases, it appears as if multiple generations are captured, unified through adherence to a shared set of cultural values.
Family portraits are an interesting window into the way Malay families perceive themselves. The art of self-representation involves conscious decisions, and these cut right across questions of class, tradition and religious adherence.
The Singaporean Malay experience is characterised by moments of triumph and struggle. It is useful, perhaps, to recapture the idealistic fervour of Malay nationalism that shone in the decades when Malay newspapers flourished. Not in the sense of an insular, racist ideology that seeks to privilege Malays over other ethnic groups, but in that embraced by the likes of KMS and Utusan Melayu: progressive, forward-looking and with a spirit for reform. Confronting issues like socio-economic backwardness, discrimination and erasure, the community finds itself jaded and disempowered. But from a 19th century book urging social change to family portraits displaying social mobility, one finds in the Malays, too, aspirations to exist with dignity.
It is never easy to encapsulate the entire history of a people in a single article, complete with all its nuances, perplexing turns-of-events and immense cast of characters. I hope this undertaking will serve to help broaden sympathies and provide a fuller picture of Malay identity beyond common stereotypes. For members of the community, may it help shed light on lesser known aspects of Malay identity, that we become more conscious of the breadth of our history, and in the process more accepting of diverse expressions of Malayness.
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 Lee K.Y., Han F. K., (2011) Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. Singapore: Straits Times Press
 Barr, M.D., Low, J., (2005) Assimilation as Multiracialism: the Case of Singapore’s Malays. Asian Ethnicity, Vol. 6(3) pp. 161-182.
 Walsh, S.P. (2007) Roar of the Lion City: Ethnicity, Gender and Culture in the Singapore Armed Forces. Armed Forces and Society, Vol 33(2) pp. 265-285.
 ‘SM’s remarks ‘must be seen in right light’, The Straits Times, 30 September 1999.
With Singapore’s first racially reserved Presidential election looming, historian Thum Ping Tjin observes that the government’s much vaunted “Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others” model of managing race has historically increased racial tension and strife. So why do they cling to it?