Laziness or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Singapore prides itself with its multiculturalism. Just look at our food and our local language, Singlish. They’ve all been influenced by the various races that make up our population – Chinese, Malays, Indians and Others. 


That’s right, if you’re white, you will be lumped into a whole group of minorities called ’Others’. However, behind the façade of the Crazy Rich Asian setting, creative Singapore Airlines advertisements, and Nas Daily sponsored videos, there are many gaps that prove we are not multicultural. 

Ask any Singaporean for a Malay stereotype and they’ll give you a whole bunch of them. Some of them are funny, some of them are racist. 


Nay, all of them are racist. 


Examples include:

Malays are always late,

Malay are lazy, 

Malays aren’t good at Math, 

Malays like to lepak

Malays only know how to make babies, 

Malays are usually poor.


I used to laugh off because  me by friends and family. As I grew older, I started wondering where these comments came from and how did manage to cement to be representative of race. I why were some of these stereotypes so spot on – w a reflection or internalized biases by community?  stopped being funny and started to hurt once I learnt that institutionalized. It’s no longer child’s play the moment I realized these biases hindered me from opportunities.


Let’s take a look at the most commonly used  – (Malays are lazy). The root of the phrase “lepak malay” and its eventual perception that Malays are lazy did not appear out of thin air. Research has shown that the phrase was used by British and Dutch colonizer some 200 years ago in Southeast Asia when they found that Malay people did not want to work. When I say work, the colonisers meant being part of trade and constructions.


Malay were agricultural labourers, we spen days out in the sea or padi field gathering food for our families. The idea that we worked for what is enough for us without looking for surplus and profit unfathomable. To the colonisers, that kind of labour wasn’t work. Our refusal to  serve the colonisers’ and expectations resulted us in being branded as lazy. 


Here’s a quote our lovely Sir Stamford Raffles (who we put on a pedestal for God knows why) about Malays: “he is so indolent, that when he has rice, nothing will induce him to work”. 


What can I say? We really do love our rice. I personally start shaking if I don’t have rice for dinner. This prejudice worsened when coloni decided to unfavorably compare us to the Indian and Chinese immigrants, planting the seeds for racial hierarchy that eventually germinated.


But here’s the catch: how can we possibly be lazy when there Malay merchants before colonization? How could be lazy if we had state-of-the-art naval crew and was constantly warring with colonisers to stop their infiltration?


Today, the idea of a lazy Malay takes the form of someone who just wants to hang out at the void decks and spend his hours listening to jiwang Malay songs and smoking. You may think it means the harmless ‘chill’, ‘laid back’ dude but no, it still very much retains the negative connotation. What was once a myth has now become a truth so ingrained in everyone’s perception of race. There is a running perception that Malays are inherently lazy and as such are undeserving of employment and success. This understanding is exacerbated by other factors such as the perpetuation of the stereotype by our leaders, portrayals in the media and lack of helping hands from the Malay elites.


Firstly, it is very difficult to refute the fact when your leaders are out here giving quotes that perpetuate the stereotype. Lee Kwan Yew said “We could not have held the society together if we had not made adjustments to the system that gives the Malays, although they are not as hardworking and capable as the other races, a fair share of the cake”. 


Thanks, Mr PM. 


Other Malay Ministers were also found making comments faulting Singaporean Malays for putting themselves where they are now (read: lower tier of statistics). You really got to love a Melayu makan Melayu* scenario happening on a political level.


In academia, the stereotype morphed itself into a social theory to explain the inequalities between the races called ‘cultural deficit theory’. The theory attempts to blame inequalities to one’s biology and culture. Sounds a lot like a cop out, doesn’t it? Also, imagine being in an education system which constantly upholds the narrative that Malays are lazy through pointing at the fact that we are always in the lower end of the academic tier. Yes, it is true but surely, we are all educated enough to understand that there are other socioeconomic factors at play here. It is not an inborn trait; it is systemic conditioning.


Secondly, the media plays a huge part in shaping the perspective and narrative. Malay news media is often found painting the narrative that successful hardworking Malays are the anomal. The magnitude of coverage insinuates that it is abnormal for Malays to do well during exams or in various us employment sectors. Furthermore, the angle that has been used to death is the fact that these success stories usually by persons who are from underprivileged backgrounds. Some argue that they are merely celebrating the success, I argue that its excessiveness makes it seem like the community is overcompensating for the lack. When it comes to reporting on race-focused government initiatives, English and Malay media alike love to use the phrase “low income Malay families”. Rarely does this phrase get applied when reporting on other races. While the initiative may  help those less fortunate, the constant bombardment of such phrases on newspapers ingrains the sentiments to readers.


The effects of this perception  is detrimental to the community. Off the bat, we can already see that non-Malays and Malay elites believe that your average Malay is undeserving of payouts from their hard work. Even more so the perception has been tightly in the social psyche that it is used as a means to explain the societal inequalities and also becoming this unspoken ‘status quo’ explanation for Malays behaving in a certain way. Now I’m not saying that the Malay community is the passive audience, but it has been observed multiple times that reinforcements of narratives have dug way into the community. The institutional grooming worked. We have internalized the biases from a very young age, I mean how could you not?


*Melayu makan Melayu is a malay proverb which translates to the act of Malay people tearing apart and backbiting others from the community.