Not All Muslims in Singapore are Malay

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

In Singapore, the media and the establishment use the term Malay-Muslim to refer to any issue pertaining to the Malay or Muslim community.  This creates a problem.  Words and word association affect the way we think about things.  That is why definitions are very important.  The following definition of ‘Malay’ was adapted from several articles in Wikipedia and the associated references provided in these articles.

The concept of a Malay race was originally proposed by the German scientist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach.  The term, Malay race’ was commonly used in the late 19th century and early 20th century to describe the Austronesians.  The earliest records of the word ‘Melayu’ or ‘Malayu’ came from a Chinese record that reported a kingdom named ‘Malayu’ had sent the envoy to the Chinese court for the first time in 645 CE, during the Song dynasty.

It was suggested that the term ‘Melayu’ originated from the Tamil word ‘Malaya’ or ‘Malaiur’ which means ‘high ground’.  The name ‘Malayu’ was originally, from early records of the Chinese and neighbouring civilisations, identified with the area around the Batanghari river in present day Jambi and parts of West Sumatra.  The people inhabiting the Eastern coast of Sumatra and parts of the Malay peninsula identified themselves as Malay with a common language, the Malay language.  After the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, the Europeans identified the native people living on both coasts of the Malacca Strait as Malay.  This term extended to neighbouring peoples with similar traits.

Malays are now viewed as an ethnic group of Austronesians predominantly inhabiting the Malay Peninsula all the way south to Singapore, eastern Sumatra, the southernmost parts of Thailand, the south coast of Myanmar, coastal Borneo including Brunei, West Kalimantan, and coastal Sarawak and Sabah, and the smaller islands which lie between these locations.  This geographic region is collectively known as the Alam Melayu, Realm of the Malays in some circles.

Historically, the Malays descended primarily from the earlier Malayic-speaking tribes that settled in the region, who founded several ancient maritime trading states and kingdoms.  The advent of the Melaka Sultanate triggered a major development in Malay history and provided the basis of a common cultural legacy.  Common definitive markers of the Malay identity, Islam, the Malay language and traditions, are thought to have been promulgated during this era.

In terms of religion, the early Malay communities were largely animists, believing in the existence of semangat, spirits, in everything.  Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced by Indian traders to the Malay Archipelago, where they flourished until the 13th century, just before the arrival of Islam brought by Arab, Indian and Chinese Muslim traders.  Even today, there are many elements of Malay culture that are derived from these earlier influences.

Malays in Singapore are defined by the Singapore government and by intellectuals in the country using the broader concept of the Malay race.  The Malays have inhabited the area that is now Singapore since the 17th century.  The majority of Malays in Singapore are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence.  There is, however, a small community of Christian Malays.  The majority of them are apostates from Islam, but there are Christian Malays descended from the Bataks who still retain their culture. 

Without any elaboration required, it is common knowledge that Islam is a global faith that originated in Arabia.  There are Muslims of almost every major nationality and ethnicity.  Even in Singapore, while Malays are overwhelmingly Muslim, there are Malays who are not.  Conversely, there are large numbers of Muslims who are not Malay in Singapore, including people various ethnicities originating in the South Asia, Arabs, Chinese and Muslim converts of many different origins.  They are distinct communities, not necessarily assimilated into the Malay culture.

When the state media and the government establishment insist on using the term Malay-Muslim, it creates the false impression that Malays and Muslims are synonymous to the extent that Malay issues and concerns are Muslims issues and concerns.  It pigeon holes two diverse groups and conflates their issues.  It has never been adequately explained why the need for this.  I have never heard the appellation Chinese-Buddhist, Indian-Hindu or any sort of combination.  There is the occasional use of Indian-Muslim when there is a need to differentiate them from the Indians who are Hindus or the Muslims who are all apparently Malay according to the national media.

Because of this association, it creates the unfortunate idea that to convert to Islam in Singapore is to ‘become’ Malay, which is a ridiculous assumption.  I can no more ‘become’ Malay than I can ‘become’ an Eskimo.  The term used by some people in the Malay community when someone converts to Islam, is ‘masuk Melayu’, literally meaning, ‘enter Malay’.  The convert is assumed to adopt a Malay cultural identity regardless of his ethnicity.  This creates problems since the issues of religion are confused for the issues of a specific culture.

There is no other part of the world that I am aware of that makes such a limited, erroneous distinction. It is not even politically correct.  It is a shame that a seemingly global city such as Singapore perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype based on ignorance and political expedience.  As such, we should take a stand and discourage the use of this term.  It is at best dishonest, and at worst, discriminatory.


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