Five notes from The Malayan Forum


I just wanted to share some thoughts from the interesting discussion I participated in last week, “The Malayan Forum, 65 years on” (see here).

Background: “The Malayan Forum was set up in London by future leaders of Malaysia and Singapore. Primarily a platform for politics, the topics would however have extended to governance and other related aspects for future independence. Key to the premise was the joint stewardship of matters relating to the lands, and hence the term “Malayan” was used. The sessions seeks to interrogate and delineate the term “Malayan” in its myriad representations, and to consider the impact of the term on the socio-political landscape, and on the arts and culture, in the period leading up to the Merger. 65 years after its inception, the forum will question the relevance and legacies it has engendered over time.”

The wide-ranging discussion was moderated by Lai Chee Kien, a Singaporean architect and good friend whom I first met in Berkeley, when I was an undergrad and he was completing his PhD. Alongside was fellow panellist Tay Kheng Soon, also an architect, but much older, more established, and famous as a social activist from the 1960s. Mr Tay has, in many ways, been a leading voice of our national conscience, on everything from the environment to language. He has also played crucial roles in specific Singapore developments.

The story of how Mr Tay lobbied for Changi as the site of our airport—publicly disagreeing with plans by the PWD (Public Works Department) to expand the Paya Lebar Airport then winning in the court of public opinion, which infuriated PWD and forced it to change its plans—is interesting not simply as a window into the history of one of the world’s most recognisable institutions, but also because it harks back to a time of remarkable democratic activism and accountability in Singapore.

Can you imagine the current government changing plans in response to either rational counter-proposals or popular democratic sentiment? Bukit Brown—or what’s left of it—is a case in point. (Click here to read about Mr Tay, the PWD and Changi. In the section, one-third down, titled 4:09am.)

Anyway, do treat the below less as well-reasoned points than random thoughts from last week. Appreciate hearing your own views.

1. What is Malayan identity?

It is difficult enough to describe any cultural identity, let alone one that never actually crystallised. In the 1950s-60s, one of the big contestations in Malaya was between a broad Malayan identity and communal identities of the Chinese, Indian and Malays. A few interesting quotes from the 1950s to ponder:

“The prerequisite of Malayan independence is the existence of a Malayan society, not Malay, not Malayan Chinese, not Malayan Indian, not Malayan Eurasian, but Malayan, one that embraces the various races already in the country.” – Lee Kuan Yew

“who are these ‘Malayans’ that Datuk Onn speaks of? This is a Malay country….This country was received from the Malays and to the Malays it ought to be returned. What is called ‘Malayans’, it is not certain who they are; therefore let the Malays alone settle who they are.” – Tunku Abdul Rahman

Onn Jaafar, a Malaysian hero, was one of the pro-Malaya leaders in Malaysia. He founded UMNO and then later left because of its communalist tendencies, founding the Independence of Malaya Party, the only one that I’ve found with the name “Malaya” in it to have actually achieved electoral success,  in the 1952 KL municipal elections.

Onn is the father of Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, who is in turn the father of Hishammuddin Hussein, current minister of defence and prominent as government spokesperson for the MH370 disaster. Ironically, in a departure from his grandfather’s values, Hishammuddin is one of the most fervent Malay nationalists around, seen brandishing the Malay kris, an aggressive symbol of superiority, at UMNO conferences.

Now it is clear that any attempts to build a broad Malayan identity were hijacked by different elements. In Malaysia, efforts largely by the Malay nationalists ensured that communalism would reign. In Singapore, although Lee Kuan Yew pursued a more integrated, egalitarian ethos than Malaysia, his administration’s educational and ethnic policies—from the suppression of Chinese dialects to the artificial maintenance of a Chinese ethnic supermajority—also ensured that a “Malayan identity” would never be forged organically.

But did ordinary Malaysians and Singaporeans subscribe to a Malayan identity? Or was it a notion fostered by the British and the elites in society? To what extent did income and class influence “Malayanness”?

I suppose there isn’t an easy answer. Another interesting quote I found was from Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame), who wrote three books, now known as The Malayan Trilogy, at the End of Empire moment for the British, as newly-independent Malayans were finding their feet.

One of his main protagonists is Victor Crabbe, history teacher, education officer, who appears in all three Malayan trilogy novels. When it is suggested that the average Malayan would not care whether Malaya had a national music of its own,

“It’s culture, and you’ve got to have culture in a civilised country, whether the people want it or not. That’s one of the stock cliches—“our national culture”. Well, here’s the first bit of national culture you’ve ever had: not Indian, not Chinese, not Malay—Malayan, just that.”

The implication here being that “Malayanness” was being forced by the British.

But if the Malayan identity of the 1950s stood in stark contrast to communalism, what does a modern Malayan identity comprise? Is there even such a thing?

One thought is that “Malayanness” today stands in stark contrast to transnationalism. In other words, in Singapore today there are many people who hold allegiances to more than one country or city. By contrast, a Malayan would be in no doubt of his/her identifying most strongly, if not exclusively, to local Singapore culture.

Of course, this is all very abstract and impossible to unpack. After all, as Singapore has distanced itself from the Indonesian-Malay world, how can it possibly lay claim to anything “Malay”-an? Furthermore, how might a modern Malayan identity differ between Malaysia and Singapore?

Perhaps the more realistic, sombre takeaway is that there is no such thing. Malayan identity is something that might have developed in a parallel universe. But not one where Chinese and Malay nationalists hold sway.

To move away from the abstract towards the everyday, consider these two facts:

Why is it easier in Singapore today to buy a good macaroon than a good ondeh-ondeh? (a tension I attempt to capture in my poem, What the papers white out)

Why are school children in Singapore today so much more familiar with Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars than Rasa Sayang or Di Tanjong Katong?

2. Language

Language is the best prism through which to observe the radical shift in Singaporean society from the 1950s till today. Essentially, Malay and Chinese dialects have been supplanted by English and Mandarin. The common caricature is of the Peranakan grandparent who speaks Malay and Hokkien unable to communicate with their grandchildren, products of modern Singapore.

Many more intelligent analyses have been done on this. Two interesting nuggets from the talk: Koh Tai Ann, a professor from NTU and one of the more lively discussants at the forum, mentioned that in 1951, there were 11 different Chinese dialects spoken in Singapore. Mandarin was spoken by just 0.1% of the population.

Second, a young Malaysian Chinese student in the audience suggested that, since he studied in a Chinese language school, while learning Malay and English as well, perhaps people like him are the closest approximates to what a Malayan might have been.

It is an interesting thought. I have often found that Malaysian Chinese are some of the smartest/friendliest people in Singapore, mixing IQ with a high degree of EQ. Perhaps culturally they are relatively more comfortable in their skin? (Notwithstanding all the challenges they face growing up in a country with institutionalised discrimination.)

On a related note, Malaysia is perhaps the only country in the world with a Chinese minority where Chinese-language schools are accepted as part of national education. It is one of the counter-intuitive symptoms of their communalist approach to development. Malay nationalists sometimes cite this to rebut accusations that Malaysia is anti-Chinese. Even the Chinese in Singapore don’t have their own schools! The lack of integration, while laudable perhaps from a diversity standpoint, worsens ethnic segregation.

3. Confucius vs Lao Tzu

One of Mr Tay’s recurring critiques about Singaporean society is that we have bred a culture where intrinsic motivations have been largely replaced by extrinsic rewards. It is the fable of the cold, calculating, homo economicus in a world where, above else, incentives matter.

He illustrated this point by reciting an anecdote about Confucius, a believer in external systemic order, having a conversation with Lao Tzu. Confucius asserted that virtue comes from knowing the rites and correct behaviours. Lao Tzu’s reply was that one has no virtue at all if one does not know the Tao.

And this is Mr Tay, in an interview last year:

“Even as I acknowledge Singapore’s great administrative achievements, I regret the lack of internalised values. The streets are clean not because people take it upon themselves not to throw rubbish, but through punishments and employment of cheap labour to pick up the mess Singaporeans leave everywhere.

For self pride and identity to form, there must be belief in the goodness of people. This is a sea change from the dim view of human nature that underpins the rules, regulations, incentives and disincentives that make up everyday reality. Where to start? I suggest through the establishment of community-based enterprises and a new type of live-in schools.”

This is something I am extremely interested in, first because I agree with his diagnosis, but second because Chinese philosophy is something I am trying to get my head around as I do research for my second book (see here).

4. Lee Kuan Yew and ethnic determinism

“The indefinite continuance of the subjugation of one race over another is only possible where the subject race is inherently, both mentally and physically inferior. Anthropologists, are unable to prove any innate superiority of one race over another.” LKY, 1950, Malayan Forum

“Three women were brought to the Singapore General Hospital, each in the same condition and each needing a blood transfusion. The first, a Southeast Asian was given the transfusion but died a few hours later. The second, a South Asian was also given a transfusion but died a few days later. The third, an East Asian, was given a transfusion and survived. That is the X factor in development.” LKY, in a meeting at the University of Singapore on 27 December 1967, as recorded by Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist

When exactly did LKY start to believe in ethnic determinism? Was it a view he always held (but initially suppressed)? Or was it something that emerged as he struggled against right-wing Malay nationalists?

As the great man nears  the end of his life, his belief in eugenics—including the bit about graduate mothers marrying graduate fathers to have smarter babies—will have to be critically assessed by obituary writers everywhere.

5. Lee Kuan Yew and poetry

Finally, I have discovered the origins of LKY’s famous statement, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”, which he made to students at what was then called the University of Singapore in 1968.

Without knowing the full context, I have often used it to depict Singapore’s extreme emphasis on “practical” subjects like Math and Science over the seemingly frivolous like Literature.

According to Ms Koh, the NTU professor, who had just graduated as an English Literature Honours student in 1968. Lee Kuan Yew had “replied to my question as to whether he thought values could be taught through literature (the issue was moral education in schools, and the Malay Teachers’ Union had suggested this).  So I wrote it down immediately in a notebook that I always carry with me.”

(Note: I did not hear this from Ms Koh at the session itself, but in a follow-up email.)

The two interesting new angles for me are that it was a question of morals; and that it was the Malay Teachers’ Union that had suggested it. This chimes firstly with the intrinsic/extrinsic tension. Moral education, so it seems, is not something that can be nurtured through Literature (or poetry). Presumably it has to be enforced through the stick. Secondly, might he had responded differently, I wonder, if the suggestion had come from the Chinese English-speaking elite rather than the Malay Teachers’ Union?

7 thoughts on “Five notes from The Malayan Forum

  1. Thanks for your article. In your opinion, what is the Singapore identity? Or rather, what is the future of a Singaporean identity? Right now in Singapore, there seems to be a culturally bland society with inherent disregard on what the Singapore culture is.. All people seem to care is that our transport system runs on time; weekends are spent in an air-conditioned shopping centre with their children; our shophouses are torn down to make way for 10-storey condos (like at River Valley and Mohd Sultan Rd); large influx of foreigners have form ghettos within society and areas; and many new skyscrapers are turning our city into a kitschy Dubai/Doha/Shenzhen of soul-less glass buildings. Do you think there’s anything that could make Singapore more quintessentially Singaporean?

    1. Hi Aaron, to be honest, I’m not really sure. I have a rather cynical outlook, in that I believe we are simply destined to have a Global City Identity. Which is not very organic, but more a patchwork, hodgepodge of things, “kitschy Dubai/Doha/Shenzhen” as you say.

      I wrote a piece on this, see here:

      What could make Singapore more quintessentially Singaporean? I have several suggestions.

      a) Get rid of CMIO classification, which is reductionist. Let people construct their own sense of ethnicity/identity

      b) Slowly get rid of ethnic policies, e.g. HDB quotas. We need to get Singaporeans thinking less in terms of communal identities, and more in terms of a broader Singaporean one

      c) Open up social spaces and media–provide room for artists and journalists to express themselves. Identity needs to crystallise organically, not through edict

      d) Provide far more support and subsidies for all things “Singaporean”, be it original hawker food or art forms. The counterpoint to this is that we need to stop trying to be everything to everyone. Forget spending all our energies trying to attract Gordon Ramsay, F1, Rolling Stones. Let’s focus more on Singaporean culture. Of course, this doesn’t mean we ignore the outside world, which has and will always be an essential part of Singapore’s evolution. Simply that we need to recalibrate the relative emphasis.

      e) Integrate further with the Malay-Indo world. Singapore should aim to be the primary city for South-east Asia, which is our natural competitive advantage. What might this entail? Perhaps greater emphasis on Malay language. Building more ties socially with Malaysia and Indonesia.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the above will happen anytime soon. Which is why I am a bit cynical….a global city identity, for better and worse…:((

  2. I agree with you particularly with the issue of integrating further with Malaysia and Indonesia our immediate neighbours. Our language policy has somewhat alienated us from our immediate neighbours. The language of the young Singaporean is now a hodge podge of poorly spoken Mandarin and English. The education system is overhauled all the time but one must keep an eye on the social issues that are thrown up everytime an overhaul is done.The older generation of Singaporeans were quite at home in Malay and their respective dialects and most of them spoke excellent English.

    Thirty years ago we had a good number of Asean visitors…. this has dwindled now because of the strong Singapore Dollar isolating us further from our immediate neighbours.

    Integrating with our immediate neighbours is essential for us to have an identity in S.E. Asia.We after all are not a part of China but of S.E.Asia.

    1. Agree, Tiba, especially with your last sentence. One could make a very good case that the Singapore of today is closer–trade, finance, immigration, culture–to China than SE Asia. Which is bizarre

  3. It so happened that on the evening of the fifth day, a black guy, a Brazilian, with whom we met on the beach throughout the day, was sitting at a table around. He spoke Russian fairly well and approached all his occasional verbal issues with humor. He was 38 years old, and he looked good, was moderately well-fed, had a fairly short hair and, according to him, had been divorced for several years. He was friendly, smiling and slightly flirting with my partner.
    She liked this manifestation of male interest in her person. And I saw how she was thrilled with the signs of attention, which proved to her that she really attracted not only me, but also for other men.
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    Most of us sat at our table, chatting on various abstract issues and listening to music. Women were in light summer dresses, husbands in shorts and T-shirts. My partner was wearing a light white sundress, barely reaching to the middle of her thighs, from under the bodice of which only transparent silicone straps from the bra arrived on her behalf bare shoulders. When the next song ended and a more calm melody of slow dance sounded in the hall, us friends visited dance.

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