Malay Seminar 2016: Exceptional, Not the Exception

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By Abdul Qayyum (17A01B) and Noor Adilah (17S06B)


Malays don’t get good marks in Science.

Malays can’t do well in Mathematics.

Those were the stereotypes internalised by Mr. Abdul Halim when he graduated from his Madrasah education nearly 10 years ago. Today, he is a graduate of Imperial College, London, with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Yet, these negative stereotypes continue to haunt him to this very day. As he was taking a taxi one day, a taxi driver expressed surprise about his level of education, and commented, “Wah, not many Malays go to uni for engineering ah!”

On the 23rd of April, RI Malay Cultural Society (MCS) held the Malay Youth Seminar for the fifth time this year, with over 500 participants from over 30 schools around Singapore. The panel comprised successful professionals from different fields. This included Mr. Amrin Amin, Parliamentary Secretary from the Ministry of Home Affairs; Ms. Haslinda Ali, Executive Producer/Director at Screenbox Pte Ltd; Mr. Mohammad Asri ”Riz” Sunawan, Head of Strategic Communications at MUIS, Mr. Djohan Abdul Rahman, Lead Teacher and Cultural Activist, and the aforementioned Mr. Abdul Halim Ali Akbar. The seminar included a hearty sharing by Mr. Amrin, followed by a dialogue session mediated by Mr Djohan including the five panelists.

This year’s seminar panelists (from right to left): Mr. Djohan, Ms Haslinda, Mr. Amrin, Mr. Riz Sunawan and Mr. Abdul Halim.

Entitled “Crushing Malay Stereotypes”, this seminar was met with a highly positive response from both teachers and students alike. The panelists discussed pressing issues in the Malay community such as high divorce rates, poverty, socio-economic problems and comparative differences with other races. The contents of this seminar came as a surprise to many of us, as the subject of race has long been considered controversial or even taboo. Yet many of the participants and panelists believe that this environment of discourse and conversation is necessary to recognize the successes and failures of the community. This in turn, will become crucial in determining the future of the community.

Schools from all over Singapore flood LT1 on a Saturday morning

We often find it easier to dismiss stereotypes as composed entirely of lies. Yet stereotypes more often than not contain some kernel of truth, a line of thought Ms Haslinda picked up on, urging the audience to think about why such stereotypes exist, and emphasized that truth in history and statistics do contribute to society’s formation of these stereotypes. The panelists were however united in their opinion that these negative stereotypes can still present themselves as opportunities for Malays to prove otherwise. These points were raised in the discussion about Malay stereotypes of “laziness” and our “inherent inability” to do well in Math or the Sciences. Mr Amrin stressed that not only must Malays perform well and work hard to crush the perception of an “archetypal Malay” but Malays too must become extraordinary in their areas of study . “By becoming the best in our fields, we become indispensable. We become needed, so much so that our worth cannot be ignored.” The panelists are extraordinary examples of this, with Ms Haslinda Al for instance runs her own business, Screenbox Pte Ltd.

Another comment made by panelist Riz Sunawan struck a chord in all of us. He commented that Malays must stop using race to disguise individual weaknesses and faults. More often than not, these stereotypes arise from the actions of individuals, but these stereotypes become reinforced, entrenched and self-fulfilling even when other individuals continue adhering to them and perpetuating them in everyday life. The panelists stressed the responsibility of every single audience member to disprove these stereotypes and to rise above them, to exemplify that Malays are exceptional, not the exception.

A student from Madrasah Al-Ma’arif Al-Islamiah voices her opinion on religious stereotypes.

With any discussion of the Malay-Muslim community also came discussion about the Madrasahs. The Madrasahs to add in some context, are the 6 Islamic religious schools that aim to produce Muslim leaders in the community. With the advent of the Compulsory Education Act, Madrasah students take on both the academic subjects studied in secular schools, on top of their existing religious and Arabic language subjects. They have produced not just religious scholars, but also students who excel in the fields of medicine, research, banking, law, engineering and the arts. Mr Halim, one of the panelists is an example of a student who has benefited from his Madrasah education.

Despite the local and regional renown of the Madrasahs however, a student from Madrasah Al-Ma’arif Al-Islamiah voiced her own experiences with religious stereotypes and Islamophobia. She was asked by a stranger if there was a bomb in the gift bags she was distributing at an event held a day before this seminar. Her story sparked discussion within the panelists, regarding the importance of Singapore’s civic and political responsibilities to be a bulwark against terrorism and thus to show too that violence is not a part of the Islamic faith. The idea of a shared responsibility amongst all members of the community, whether Muslim or not, to practise an attitude of tolerance and a resistance to Islamophobia was among one of the key takeaways from the discussion. Mr Abdul Halim put it succinctly enough, when he said that “we should not have any space in our hearts to hate, only to accept.”“

As participants in the conference we found the discussion raised in the seminar as reason to celebrate. With it came the unfolding and fostering of a conversation by determined students, ready to tackle and discuss such issues. In a way, this seminar was living and breathing proof of a proactive and determined Malay community, in stark contrast to the stereotypes that surround the community. In fact, what we found especially meaningful was how applicable these ideas were even beyond the Malay-Muslim context. Every single member of the Singaporean community plays an integral part in interacting with each other and resisting hasty generalizations. Only by talking to and connecting with each other can we bridge the gaps between us and foster understanding as well as acceptance, to preserve the multicultural fabric that we have always prized and sustained.

The seminar ended on an optimistic note, turning to the role Malay youth would play in tackling and disproving these stereotypes. The Malay idiom “throw away the murky, take in the clear” is a particularly apt one to make reference to: it means to accept and propagate the good, while working to discard the bad, something which participants coming out of the seminar knew they had to do.

In fostering a conversation, we are confident that the the seminar has pushed participants towards thinking about issues within the community and working towards resolving the stereotypes that surround it. When talking to some of the participants after the conference, we saw heartening proof of an engaged and inspired youth body: Iffah Rusyda, an RGS participant offered a short quote that perhaps best encapsulates the message the seminar has imparted: “I feel so inspired to crush these stereotypes, to represent what the true meaning of the word ‘Melayu’ is. Not lazy, not tardy, but something meaning much, much more.”

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