The Malays

Singapore Table of Contents

The Malay made up 15 percent of Singapore's population and were, like the Chinese and the Indians, descendants of immigrants. They or their ancestors came from peninsular Malaya, Sumatra, Java, and the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Java was much more densely populated than peninsular Malaya, and its people had a significantly lower standard of living. From the mid-nineteenth century to the period just after World War II, many Javanese migrated to Singapore, attracted both by urban wages offering a higher living standard and by freedom from the constraints of their native villages, where they often occupied the lower reaches of the economic and social order. Singapore Malay community leaders estimated that some 50 to 60 percent of the community traced their origins to Java and an additional 15 to 20 percent to Bawean Island, in the Java Sea north of the city of Surabaya. The 1931 census recorded the occupations of 18 percent of the Malays as fishermen and 12 percent as farmers; the remaining 70 percent held jobs in the urban cash economy, either in public service or as gardeners, drivers, or small-scale artisans and retailers. The British colonialists had considered the Malays as simple farmers and fishermen with strong religious faith and a "racial" tendency toward loyalty and deference; they preferentially recruited the Malays to the police, the armed forces, and unskilled positions in the public service. In 1961 more than half of Singapore's Malays depended on employment in the public sector. Although the colonial stereotype of the Malays as rural people with rural attitudes persisted, Singapore's Malay residents were for the most part no more rural than any other residents. Malay identity was couched in religious terms, with Malay being taken almost as a synonym for Muslim, and most Malay organizations taking a religious form.

After independence, the government regarded the Malay preponderance in the police and armed forces as disproportionate and a potential threat to security and acted to make the security forces more representative of the society as a whole, which meant in practice replacing Malays by Chinese. The government's drive to break up ethnic enclaves and resettle kampong dwellers in Housing and Development Board apartment complexes had a great effect on the Malays. Evidence of the convergence of Malay patterns of living with those of the rest of the population was provided by population statistics, which showed the Malay birth and death rates, originally quite high, to be declining. In the 1940s, Malay women had married early, had many children, and were divorced and remarried with great frequency. By the 1980s, Malays were marrying later, bearing fewer children (2.05 per woman for mid-1986 to mid- 1987), and divorcing less frequently. By the 1980s, a large proportion of Malay women were working outside the home, which was a major social change. Many young women in their late teens and early to mid-twenties were employed in factories operated by multinational corporations, which, unlike the small-scale Chinese shops and workshops that had dominated the economy into the 1960s, paid no attention to ethnicity in hiring. Even Malay fishing communities on the offshore islands, which appeared to preserve the traditional way of life, were in the 1980s losing population as young people moved to Singapore Island, attracted by urban life and unskilled jobs that offered higher and more reliable incomes than fishing.

Although very much a part of Singapore's modernizing society, the Malays conspicuously occupied the bottom rungs of that society; their position illustrated a correlation between ethnicity and class that presented a major potential threat to social stability. With the lowest level of educational attainment of any ethnic group, the Malays were concentrated at the low end of the occupational hierarchy and had average earnings that were 70 percent of those of Chinese. Malays had a higher crime rate than other groups and in 1987 accounted for 47 percent of the heroin addicts arrested. The 1980 census showed that 86 percent of the Malay work force was in the clerical, service, and production sector; 45 percent of all employed Malays worked on assembly lines, largely in foreign-owned electronics factories. Only 8 percent of all professional and technical workers (including schoolteachers), and 2 percent of all administrative and managerial personnel were Malays. Malays dropped out of the competitive school system in large numbers, and those who continued past primary school were concentrated in vocational education programs. In 1980 they made up only 1.5 percent of all university graduates and 2.5 percent of students enrolled in higher education.

In sharp contrast to neighboring Malaysia with its policies of affirmative action for the Malay majority, Singapore's government insisted that no ethnic group would receive special treatment and that all citizens had equal rights and equal opportunities. The potential threat, however, posed by the overlap between Malay ethnicity and low educational achievement and occupational status, was clear. Demonstrating the Singaporean propensity for discussing social affairs in terms of "race," both government spokesmen and Malay intellectuals tended to attribute the Malays' economic position and educational performance to something inherent in the Malay personality or culture, or to their supposed "rural" attitudes. The ways in which lower income and ill-educated Malays resembled or differed from the very many lower income and ill- educated Chinese, who had very different cultural backgrounds, were not addressed.

In 1982 the prime minister defined Malays' educational difficulties as a national problem and so justified government action to improve their educational performance. The colonial government had provided free but minimal education, in the Malay language, to Malays but not to Chinese or Indians, on the grounds that the Chinese and Indian residents of Singapore, even those born there, were sojourners. In the colonial period most English- language schools were run by churches or missionaries, and many Malays avoided them for fear of Christian proselytization. Although after independence schooling in Singapore was not free (fees were generally low, but the government felt that people would not value education if they did not pay something for it), Malays continued to receive free primary education. In 1960 that benefit was extended to secondary and higher education, although the free schooling was offered only to those the government defined as Malay, which excluded immigrant Indonesians whom the Malays regarded as part of their community. Throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, most Malay children continued to attend schools that taught only in Malay, or, if they taught English at all, did so quite poorly. Opportunities for secondary and higher education in the Malay language were very limited. Although many Malays were employed in the public service or as drivers or servants for foreign employers, in almost all cases the language used at work was the grammatically and lexically simplified tongue called Bazaar Malay.

Throughout the 1970s, relatively few Malays knew English, a language that became progressively more necessary for high-paying professional and technical jobs. Substantial numbers of the Chinese knew no more English than the Malays, but they found employment in the extensive sector of Chinese commerce and small-scale industry where hiring demanded command of a Chinese regional language and personal recommendation. The former Malay economic niche in the military and police forces was eliminated in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the large number of Malays who had been employed by the British armed forces at British naval and other military facilities lost those secure and well-paying positions when the British withdrew from Singapore from 1970 to 1975. Such factors as poor command of English, limited availability of secondary and postsecondary education in Malay, and the loss of public-sector jobs accounted for much of the low economic position of the Malay community in 1980.

In 1981 Malay community leaders, alarmed by the results of the 1980 census that demonstrated the concentration of Malays in the lower reaches of the occupational hierarchy, formed a foundation called Mendaki, an acronym for Majlis Pendidikan Anak-anak Islam (Council for the Education of Muslim Children). Mendaki (ascent in Malay), devoted itself to providing remedial tuition classes for Malay children in primary and secondary school, offering scholarships for living expenses and loans for higher education, attempting to encourage parents to take a more active role in their children's education, and holding public ceremonies to honor Malay students who excelled in examinations or graduated from academic secondary schools or universities. Government support for Mendaki took the form of financing the organization through a special voluntary checkoff on the monthly contribution of Muslim workers to the Central Provident Fund, and through unspecified other public donations.

Throughout the 1980s, both the number of Malay students in selective secondary schools and institutions of higher education and the proportion of Malays passing and scoring well on standardized examinations slowly increased. As with the changes in birth rates, it was difficult to separate the effects of such government-sponsored programs as those of Mendaki from other factors, including increased female participation in the work force, residence in apartment complexes rather than kampong housing, exposure to television and radio, smaller family size, and better teaching in the schools.

The use of a voluntary checkoff on the monthly Central Provident Fund contribution as a means of raising Malay educational funds was characteristic of Singapore in the 1980s. Malays, like other Singaporeans, were assumed to have regular employment and salaries, and their distinctive Malay and Muslim concerns were efficiently and equitably addressed through a computerized government program.

More about the Ethnic Categories of Singapore.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress