Being Malay in a Chinese-dominate society

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In one of the HDB rental high rises visible from the Lims’ maisonette, lives Mrs. Katijah binte Ahmad, a Malay Muslim mother of five whose husband Jalil holds down a steady but low-paying job as the owner of one of the food stalls where the Lims often have breakfast. His stall sells nasi goreng (a fried rice dish) and satay. Business is a bit erratic and the competition is fierce from the surrounding stalls. The hours are also long: her husband normally starts cooking by 6 am (breakfast time). Jalil enjoys a brief quiet period in the mid-morning before the lunch rush and again in the long, hot drowsy afternoons before dinnertime, when office workers and students start returning from schools and businesses. He has a fluctuating income and none at all during the Muslim religious holidays when he shuts the stall, or when he is sick, which he quite frequently is. He had a fairly wearying earlier life as a messenger boy for a large trading company, as a deck hand on ships sailing between Singapore and Indonesia, and as a cook in a Malay restaurant. In his youth Jalil even tried a spell in the Gulf as a construction worker, but found the work too heavy and the society unfriendly. In these uncertain conditions, it is necessary for both Jalil and Katijah to work to support their large family. Katijah works in a nearby factory making cardboard boxes and packaging materials. In the past, she worked in other neighborhood factories assembling circuit boards for electrical appliances. However, as Katijah grew older, she found her eyesight weakening and her fingers no longer dexterous enough for detailed microscopic work. Katijah also sews at home after her shifts, to earn extra money. When she has time and resources, she sometimes makes kueh or Malay style cakes of coconut to sell to her neighbors and to a nearly cake stall, to bring in a little extra pocket money. She will even help out at the food stall when not too tired. With five children, Katijah and Jalil find there is not much income left after they have paid the rent on their three-bedroom HDB flat, paid utility bills, and bought food and clothes for their growing family. Time and energy are also in short supply. Katijah spends her limited leisure time visiting with friends. All her friends are Malay, even though she has Chinese and Indian neighbors because all HDB housing estates are ethnically mixed by government policy. She also visits the night markets on Muslim holidays, views an occasional Malay movie at a cinema, and watches Malay-oriented channels on television (broadcast from nearby Malaysia). Malay is really the only language Katijah knows well. Shopping is not a problem, since most of the market hawkers also know at least basic Malay. Malay is still the national language of Singapore (dating from the days when Singapore was still part of the colony of Malaya) and one of the four official ones—the others are English, Mandarin, and Tamil. Because of religious and diet barriers— she will never eat pork or non-Halal (foods prepared in religiously approved ways) dishes—she has little more than superficial interactions with members of other ethnic groups. Despite Katijah’s linguistic barriers, her children’s situation is very different. As Katijah said to me, “I am really proud of my children. They can all speak English and my elder boy has just received a place at the National University of Singapore.” What she does not say, however, is that her son’s slot is in the University’s Malay Studies Department, and not in a “professional” school such as law or medicine. This is a common trend among Malay students, one that perpetuates the chronic underrepresentation of Malays in the professions (Clammer 1998; Li 1989). Katijah’s husband Jalil knows a smattering of Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, English, and even a little Tamil. These languages are necessary for serving the multiethnic clientele of his food stall. For her own generation, Katijah has little expectation of much social mobility. While she is largely accepting of this situation, she does comment that [I] “sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country.” Her feelings reflect a Singaporean reality: the Malays are a minority, comprising slightly under 15 percent of the total population. Once or twice Katijah and Jalil have discussed moving across the border to Malaysia, where Malays are the dominant group, but there are po�liti�cal and practical difficulties in doing so. In addition, the children are pretty well adapted to Singapore. Sometimes, though, hearing Mandarin spoken all around her, and the “Singlish” or distinctive Singaporean variety of English that she can recognize but not understand, Katijah wonders out loud what it might be like to live in a Muslim majority society where my lifestyle would be the norm and where people like my husband would have had greater educational opportunities. Katijah’s eldest son has a government-sponsored university scholarship and she hopes his siblings will follow in his footsteps. Katijah also nurses hopes that the next generation of Singapore Malays will be truly equal citizens along with the Chinese and Indians with whom they share the same physical and political space.

 

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