Essay: The Malay Problem – The Myth of the Lazy Native Re-Visited


By Isa Kamari

  1. The Myth of the Lazy Native

Isa KamariIn 1966, the sociologist and researcher Syed Hussein Alatas began pondering the question of why Western colonialists had, for four centuries, considered the natives of Maritime Southeast Asia to be generally lazy. His research eventually produced The Myth of the Lazy Native, a book which was published in 1977. In the book, he cited one instance of a “denigrating” view of the natives, when a German scientist suggested that the Filipinos made their oars from bamboo so they could rest more frequently: “If they happen to break, so much the better, for the fatiguing labour of rowing must necessarily be suspended till they are mended again.” Syed Hussein criticised such beliefs in the book as ranging “from vulgar fantasy and untruth to refined scholarship.” He also asserted that “[t]he image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent one requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress”.

Syed Hussein wrote and published another book in 1971, Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. It is an account of Raffles’ political philosophy and its relation to the massacre of Palembang, the Banjarmasin affair, and some of his views and legislations, during his colonial career in Java, Sumatra, and Singapore.

Let us see whether such notion or image of Malays persists in post-colonial Singapore and whether Raffles’ scheming and colonial policies have planted and entrenched the myth in the lives of the Singapore Malays till today.

  1. The Malay Problem – Definition

At this juncture, I would like to introduce to you the phenomenon of the ‘Malay Problem’.

Malays who are a minority in Singapore poses a strong challenge to the Singapore Government. It is a fact that in the development of Singapore history, Malays are relatively backward in the economic, social and political spheres. As an under-privileged lot in a country dominated by the majority Chinese who are aggressive in the economic field and who are agile and resilient in the modernization process, the presence of Malays poses complex challenges and instil tension in inter-racial relations (Betts, 1975). This phenomenon has been rightly or wrongly called the ‘Malay Problem.’

  1. The Malay Problem – The Causes

Scholars and cultural observers of Singapore Malays have attributed the Malay Problem to three main causes:

  1. British colonial policies – which focussed on the preservation and stabilization of the traditional Malay way of life. The British colonial government practised policies which prevented Malays from active participation in Singapore’s economic development. The British chose to give Malays marginal roles in this sphere. According to Turnbull (1977), Malays were peaceful and hardworking as fishermen, boat hands and woodcutters. Malays were generally not exposed to the demands of the capitalist economy.
  2. Exploitation by other immigrants – the political cultures of the Chinese and Indians were strikingly different from the Malays. This political culture had been nurtured and developed through centuries of hardships faced by these communities which provide the survival skills of tenacity and ever being ready for challenges (Clutterback 1984). They were well known for their dedication and steadfastness in amassing wealth. Slowly but surely the Chinese gained the monopoly in the economy while the Indians rose to the high ranks in the administration and judicial positions (Sukmawati, 1995).
  3. The socio-cultural system of the Malays – Focus and spreading of series of values which emphasized the mosque, home and family. The general perception is that Malays as lazy and lacking of initiative to improve their lot. Competition with other communities was not instilled in their minds. There was general absence of desire to amass wealth and be successful in their careers. It was also said that Islam as practised by the Malays also resulted in them accepting their fate which is generally backward. They can only hope that their fortunes would be better in the hereafter. They avoided worldly affairs and lived a simple existence (Sukmawati, 1995).
  4. Singapore Malays from 1950s till 1990s

To understand whether the above causes are valid and had an impact on the lives of Malays and inter-racial relations in Singapore, and consequently perpetuated the Myth of the Lazy Native, let us do a quick scan on some of the salient issues and challenges faced by Singapore Malays during the period just before Independence till about 1900s:

  1. 1950s

The issue of division of power in post-colonial days between the Chinese and Malays arose. Racial sentiments known as “Malay Nationalism” were at the forefront.

  1. 1960s

Nationalism and racial sentiments slowed down the country’s development before 1965. Political conflicts arose when the two countries merged. Singapore was finally separated from Malaysia. This heightened the racial sentiments amongst the Malays who then realized that they had become the minority in a country dominated by the majority Chinese.

Many Malay families were moved from the kampongs to new and modern housing estates. This move was to dismantle the ethnic groupings and forced the Malays to integrate with other ethnic groups. Many Malays were unhappy because their social ties at the kampongs had been severed.

Many Malays were working at the lowest-rangking jobs and brought home low wages. There were many obstacles such as lack of preparation and training, lack of English language proficiency, lack of technical skills, and social and religious restrictions which close their job opportunities in the civil and private sectors (Athsani 1970).

In family planning, the “Stop at Two” campaign was launched in 1966 by the government. The purpose was to limit the size of the family to enable every citizen to have better living conditions at the HDB flats. However Malays in general prefer to have big families.

In 1968, 100 Malay intellectuals and activists gathered to discuss the problems faced by the backward Malays. The Central Council of the Malay organizations, Majlis Pusat, was formed to tackle the Malay Problem.

  1. 1970s

The income gap between the Chinese and Malays became prominent. Young Malays were not conscripted into the Army or Police, which were their traditional occupation. Malay teenagers were also not called up for National Service, but they were not officially excused from it either. This created a problem for these youths as many employers refused to hire them for the fear that they would be called up for NS at any time. Cries of discrimination were heard from the Malays who felt that these policies favoured the Chinese.

The heightened attempt to integrate the different communities at the HDB estates had caused the Malays to be in a dilemma. They realised that they had to integrate with other communities because of national interests, but at the same time the realization of their backwardness and alienation also deepened, within the dynamics of development of a system based on meritocracy (Betts, 1975).

In 1970, Majlis Pusat organised a seminar “The Malay Involvement in 25 Years of National Development of Singapore: Achievements and Challenges in the 21st Century”. It was at this seminar that the Malay Problem was discussed, especially in the fields of education, employment and housing.


  1. 1980s

The 1980 Survey revealed a disappointing status of the Malays in the educational and economic fields. The Malays occupy the highest percentage in primary education and lowest percentage in secondary and post-secondary education. 63.5% of Malays did not complete secondary education, and 42% failed their Primary School Leaving Examination, PSLE. There were only 679 Malay graduates (Sukmawati, 1995).

The Survey also revealed that the Malays occupied the lowest number in technical and professional jobs. Malay professionals constituted 6% of professionals, compared to 12.2% Chinese and 11.3% Indians. In public administration and management, Malays only constituted 0.7% compared to 6.8% Chinese and 6.4% Indians. In contrast Malays constituted 67.8% of factory workers.

The Malay MPs gathered to find a solution which was more systematic, integrated and effective to the problem that had plagued the Malay community. A self-help group, The Council of Education for Muslim Students, MENDAKI was formed, which focussed in the field of education to uplift the Malay community.

The PM elevated the status of the ‘Malay Problem’ from that which was faced by a specific community to that of a national level. The Malay Problem had clearly hindered the progress of the country.

Other social issues like drug addiction and high level of divorce rates amongst Malays also came to the forefront. It clearly undermined many efforts to uplift the community.

The promotion of Mandarin also irked the Malays. Many felt that the status of Malay as a National language was threatened. Many Malays also felt that the criteria of proficiency in Mandarin in some jobs also favoured the Chinese.

The imposed quota of ethnic groups at the HDB estates, and that of 20% Malays in national schools, and the rather relaxed policy on immigration of Chinese from Hong Kong and mainland China also created suspicion and worry amongst the Malays.

  1. 1990s

Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in 1990. The administration of Singapore which was based on the tripartite bond between the workers’ union, the administration, and the government in the management of the economy was expanded to the management of ethnic relations. Politics became corporatist as the government elites formed tendencies and programmes to administer Singapore society based on ethnic groups, including those involving the economy, politics, religion or race (Brown, 1993). Self-help groups based on ethnicity were seen to be the effective way to elevate the achievement of the different communities. Thus some adjustments to the cornerstone policy of meritocracy were made so that some form of ethnic balance was achieved in all sectors. The implementation of the original meritocracy principle seemed not to work well.

Malays performed better in education and other fields although there was still lack of Malays in the high-ranking jobs. They were seen to have participated more in national development. They were no longer perceived to be marginalised. That was the official position of the Government which declared that there was no longer a ‘Malay Problem’.

The question was and still remains whether this is true.

Let us move next to my novels.

  1. The Novels



The novel relates the founding of Singapore in 1819 from the perspective of the indigenous Malays in contrast with the official versions which are either told by those in power. or by the British colonialists. Important colonial characters like Raflles, Farquhar and Crawfurd were confronted by the likes of the Muslim saint Habib Nuh, silat master Wak Cantuk, Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman. The famous Malay intellectual Munsyi Abdullah who worked for the British as a translator and scribe also played a major role in the narrative. Raffles in particular is portrayed as the merciless schemer who exploits the weakness of the Malay leaders and community to ensure that his British imperialist vision is securely planted in the region with Singapore as the base, just as it is deliberated by Syed Hussein Alatas in his book.

What is important to note in the narrative is the exposition that some of the major policies and actions of the British colonialist have a great and far-reaching impact on the local Malays which translates into some aspects of the Malay Problem faced by the community in modern Singapore. Policies such as segregation of the different communities, and the conscious move to restrict Malays to the lower ranks of administration, and the encouragement for them to be involved in occupations like agriculture and fishing and not get involved in trade and commerce, have created and perpetuated a backward community in post-colonial Singapore.

Part of the blame also rests on the Malay leaders as depicted in the novel through the characters of Sultan Hussein, Habib Nuh, Wak Cantuk and Munsyi Abdullah, for failing to offer viable and effective solutions to uplift the community from backwardness.


It is the story of the Orang Seletar who is the indigenous people of Singapore. The story spans 3 generations and relates the fate of the boat people which lived on the rivers and shores of the island. Arising from the need to build a dam on the Seletar River, a group of them have to make a choice whether to live inland and be assimilated with the mainstream society, or forced to move away from their homes if they were to continue with their living on the waters.

The main character, Rawa chooses to move to the estuaries in Johore, while his daughter Kuntum marries Lamit, a Malay man and lives inland. Kuntum has to adjust to living in a shipyard workers’ barrack at Sembawang before moving to a Housing Development Board, HDB flat in Yishun. She also has to work as a factory worker to support her family to earn extra income to support the family and their modern lifestyle. Both Lamit and Kuntum have a son, Hassan who becomes very close to his grandfather after visiting him at Kampung Bakar Batu in Johore. Rawa then has to live with them at the HDB flat after his wife Temah dies. Hassan has an ambition to be a naval architect and loves rowing the canoe. Rawa tries his best to impart the values of the Orang Seletar to him while not stopping him from immersing himself with modern education and lifestyle.

Through the lives of Rawa, Kuntum and Hassan, the story is related from the perspective of the indigenous people of Singapore which have to face the onslaught of fast-paced development of the country since separation from Malaysia in 1965 till the 1990s. The issues faced by the Malay community in general form the background of the story.

A Song of the Wind

It is a ‘growing-up’ story of a young boy named Ilham who lives in a kampong located in the midst of a Chinese cemetery. The background of the story is Singapore in the 1960s till 1990s. It is a time of great challenges for the Singapore Malays as related in my earlier deliberation on the Malay Problem.

The community at Kampong Tawakal is multi-racial. The Chinese landlord has a provision shop which is patronised by his tenants comprising of Chinese, Malays and Indians. Ilham grows up with a group of close multi-racial friends amidst the squalid conditions of the kampong.

Despite the poor and deprived background, Ilham manages to top his class in primary school. His family then moves to the HDB flat at Ang Mo Kio when Ilham enters secondary school at Raffles Institution, a premier school in Singapore. His family then faces the challenges of living in a modern city. Since his father does not earn much as a gardener, his mother has to work as a housemaid to support the family which has grown to 8 from the 6 when they were living in the kampong.

When he is at secondary school, Ilham becomes acquainted with a religious teacher through a schoolmate. During that time, at the world scene, the Iranian Revolution has just taken place. Unknowingly he gets involved in an alleged clandestine group and is confronted by the authorities. He is interrogated by the Internal Security Division, ISD but released with a warning not to be involved in such underground activities again. He is finally arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act, ISA when it is seen by them that he has not learnt his lessons.

Again the narrative of the book is from the perspective of the Malay community facing the various political, social, economic and religious changes during the development of Singapore from a third world country to that of a modern city.

  1. Conclusion

From the discussion above, The Myth the Lazy Native in colonial days seems to have been preserved and transformed as the Malay Problem in modern day Singapore. While there are many attempts by both the Government and the leaders of Malay community to eradicate it from the psyche of the Malays, and from the perception and portrayal of the community by others, some policy decisions by the Government seem to have entrenched and propagated the myth further. Whether it is a reflection of a series of deliberate or strategic moves by the Government or not, deserves a concerted study, but suspicion and restlessness of the Malay community linger. These insecure feelings are further heightened by the recent policy of bringing in throngs of Chinese and Indian immigrants from mainland China and India respectively, to achieve a target of 6.5 million citizens by 2020. Amongst many Singapore Malays, their status and importance as the indigenous people of Singapore seems to have been challenged. Many feel that they are strangers in their own homeland. Many also feel that the Government has somehow given up on the under-performing Malays and resorted to bringing in immigrants from abroad to support the economy, at the risks of disintegration of the social fabric.

Having said that, in my novels, I have attempted not only to tell the story of the under-privileged Malays, but also offer windows of inspiration, hope and aspiration for progress and development through the portrayal of characters which run contrary to the downward progression of the community in general. Characters like the 3 friends, Ramli, Sudin and Ajis in 1819, Hassan in Rawa and Ilham in A Song of the Wind are symbolic and emblematic of the constant struggle and initiatives of some Malays to uplift their community through the assimilation of positive values brought about by modern living without compromising those which are crucial for the preservation and growth of their identity as Malays. They not only learnt painful lessons from the past but are firmly rooted to the present and have a hopeful vision for the future.



  1. Athsani K and Dzaffir R. 1970. “Singapore Malays and Employment opportunities” in Sharom Ahmat and James Wong (eds) Malay Participation in the National Development in Singapore. Majlis Pusat.
  2. Betts, R H. 1975. Multiracialism, Meritocracy and the Malays of Singapore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  3. Brown, D. 1993. “The Corporatist Management of Ethnicity in Contemporary Singapore”, cap 2 in Rodan, (ed). Singapore Changes Guard. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  4. Clutterback, R. 1984. Conflict and Violence in Singapore and Malaysia 1945. Singapore: Graham Bash Pte Ltd.
  5. Isa Kamari. 2013. 1819. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  6. Isa Kamari. 2013. A Song of the Wind. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  7. Isa Kamari. 2013. Rawa. Kuala Lumpur: Silverfish Books.
  8. Sukmawati Sirat. 1995. “Trends in Malay Political Leadership”. Phd Thesis. University of South Carolina.
  9. Syed Hussein Alatas. 1971. Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826: schemer or reformer?. Singapore: Angus and Robertson.
  • Syed Hussein Alatas. 1977. The Myth of the Lazy Native. Singapore: Cambridge University Press.
  • Turnbull, C. M. 1977. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

This paper was presented as talk/panel discussion, ‘ANOTHER WORD FOR SILENCE,’organised by PARA SITE at Quarry Bay, Hong Kong on 28 June 2015. It is being reproduced here with the author’s permission. The views expressed here are solely of the author and Kitaab bears no legal responsibility whatsoever for their expression.