The Online Citizen

“Chinese or Malay, what does it matter?”

September 03
20:14 2013

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib


Image from

Sometimes, luck has it that you got a really memorable conversation with a taxi driver.

Knowing that I’m heading to a mosque in Braddell Road, the middle-aged driver of a blue Comfort Sonata taxi posed a question: “Sir, you know if mosques take donations? I want to give some money to Malay children.”

It’s not often that you hear a Chinese man asking if he can donate to a mosque. Curious, I asked him if he wanted to make a general donation or specifically for disadvantaged children. “Can I specify to the mosque that the money is for the children?” I told him yes, but also gave the option of donating direct to orphanages or children’s homes.

“But I want to give the money only to Malay children,” he insisted. After a short pause, he continued, “My grandfather told me that you must always help the Malays.”

The conversation got me curious and as he went on with his story, I cannot but felt a sense of hope for what we can be as a nation. It was unfortunate that despite our professed status as a “multicultural society” (some would call it “multiracial” instead),  we are in fact a deeply racialised people. And this has been the result of at least 4 decades of post-independence racialisation process that struck deep into the hearts of our social policies and national institutions.

“Chinese or Malay, what does it matter?” said Mr Leong Kim Meng who had been driving taxi for many years now. But he will always remember his grandfather’s word: “As long as you live, you must help the Malays.”

His grandfather was from Hainan. Driven by poverty, he came to Singapore to work as a coolie. Mr Leong recalled how his grandfather had suffered for two years working like a slave without any pay under a Chinese towkay. It was an oppressive condition. Eventually, he brought his 12-year old son (Mr. Leong’s father) to stay with him in Singapore. They settled in Pulau Tekong, in a village named Kampung Pahang, which was a settlement linked to the Malay royalty in Pahang. (A civil war broke out in Pahang from 1857-1863, causing mass relocation of the followers of Tun Mutahir to Johor and Singapore.) But it was during the Japanese Occupation that Mr. Leong’s grandfather felt deeply indebted to the Malays.

“The Japanese were hunting the Chinese. And my grandfather was caught and hung upside down from the tree. But as they were about to kill him, it was the Malay penghulu (village headman) who pleaded and persuaded the Japanese soldiers to release him. From that day onward, my father swore to help the Malays in return for saving his life.”

This is a story that we don’t often hear in our National Education narrative. It is unfortunate that our schools continue to teach our young about the “faultlines” between the different races and how we will pounce on each other if given the opportunity. And there is always the imagery of the racial riots to remind us how perilous our situation is – something told over and over again like a bad dream.

Mr Leong’s testimony flew in the face of those who continue to monger the racial riots as “proof” of what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew described as the “fundamental primeval differences”. The truth is, when it comes to basic humanity, people do not resort to race. Even during the racial riots of the 60s, we found testimonies of Chinese families sheltering Malay families and vice-versa. We must allow these counter-narratives to surface and shape a new discourse for our multicultural future. And I found Mr. Leong’s story as testament to what have been buried in our social memory, while we construct a racialised society based on segregation of the races – a continuation of what our former colonial masters engineered in their attempt to rule over a burgeoning cosmopolitan trading post.

As I arrived at my destination, Mr. Leong drove his point home. “We must always remember that Malays and Chinese don’t naturally hate each other. It is because we (Chinese) have come to your (Malay) home and somehow occupy a privileged position now. We fight over resources, not because you are Chinese or Malay. My father taught me this history. Therefore we must remember to always be good and help each other. My grandfather came from China and was helped by the Malays. Now, it’s our turn to help the Malays.”

The taxi ride took barely 20 minutes, but it was worth every second to listen his story. And it is a story that must now be retold. As I alighted from his taxi, it came across my mind: who says we will only help our own races and think ethnocentrically when it comes to providing assistance to another fellow human? Mr Leong’s testimony proved that. And I thanked him for sharing his story.

Yes, there is hope.

  • Andrew Leung

    PAP got Malay/Muslim Minister but no Malay Affairs Ministry. PAP must produce the Malay/Muslim Community White Paper for all to see. Every GRC/SMC must have a Malay Leader to discuss community development issues and affairs.

  • Alex Chin

    Race is an artificial divide which the unscrupulous exploit for their selfish gains

  • Sunny Sooi

    I speak Malay like a Kedah Malay as I was brought up in Baling, Kedah and then in Sungei Patani, also in Kedah. When I was very young I socialised and played with Malays, Chinese and Indians. But, when I was a lecturer at Universiti Malaya in the early 1970s, my lecturer colleagues, many of them Malays, behaved and acted in an entirely different manner from the Malays that I got to know so well during my younger days in Kedah. They conspired to get rid of me just because I am a Chinese. They said I cannot lecture in Malay and not even in English. I told them I was placed third for the Otago University Bledisloe Cup Oratory Contest, held in Otago University, NZ and that it was not a mean feat as NZ is a 100 per cent English speaking country. They succeeded as they formed a gang, ganged up on me and gave adverse formal and informal reports to the dean and vice-chancellor. I asked the VC what was wrong with me and he arrogantly said,”We don’t have to tell you.” So, I left and rode my motot-bike to Singapore and stayed in Singapore till now. How I hated the Malays for doing this unspeakable act. It had affected my whole life. I had a young family and I had nightmares on how to feed the. My many relations in Alor Star believed that I must done something that was really wrong or that I must be so dumb that I cannot lecture at all. But,I heldon to the principle that I will never take my revenge on the Malays. When I was in the SAF as a civilian officer I never use my rank to pull rank against the Malay NCOs. I never forgive my ex-colleagues for what they had done to me and I never forget them for their shady act.

    • SEE GEE

      sabar tuan. mereka tu memang tak adil. yang tak adil jangan salahkan bangsanya, tapi diri orang itu. makin pandai makin sempit jiwa mereka.


      It’s unfortunate to hear such a thing happened to you.
      It’s understandable if you have hatred towards the Malay community after that horrendous episode in your life but the fact that you’re not harbouring such thoughts says alot abt your own principle.

      There’s always the bad fruits among the good ones, irregardless of racial or religious backgrounds. Life will get better as long as we give our best and selalu ‘ikhlas hati’. :)

    • dew

      Dont piggyback your malaysian problem to spore.

      • Sunny Sooi

        I earned the right to be a Singaporean long before I stepped on the soil of Singapore. My father gave me a special kind of right as he volunteered and fought on the side of the British against the Japanese from Kedah right to Singapore and he survived. I added on to this right as I enlisted in the SAF and was in this service from 1979 till 1997. My other family members, brother and two sons were regulars and active NSmen. To sum up, all the male members of my family had and are defending Singapore since 1941 There is no piggy backing as it implies the crutch mentality and certainly this kind of attitude is double Dutch or Greek to me. Another side to my objective in my story is to show that there are Chinese Singaporeans who have a deep knowledge of the Malay culture and so enabling them to move seamlessly in the two societies and cultures. This is a reference to myself and others and in the SAF I carried out translation from the local Malay press, Berita Harian to English for Military Security Department, the internal intelligence arm of this force. While I had this Malaysian problem but I was able to expoloit my bicultural backgrounds to make a living and also to contribute to the defence objectives of my new country, like killing two birds with one stone.

  • BT

    “It is unfortunate that our schools continue to teach our young about the “faultlines” between the different races and how we will pounce on each other if given the opportunity.”

    ….I don’t know from where the writer obtained this piece of information. It’s probably a reflection of his own racial prejudice which TOC, which for whatever or its typical misplaced reasons, chose to publish.

  • Andrew Wifred

    I have to ask though. Where is this racial segregation that you speak of?

    Admittedly as an Indian, and a Tamil at that, I’m basically a minority in any country I’m in and I don’t really see segregation along races in Singapore, compared to the quite visible segregation by races in the US when I was there for 6 years.

    I would argue that the segregation in Singapore is really along the lines of socio-economic class rather than race. But that’s just my experience.

  • yancancook

    During the 2nd world war, japs I usa were put I camps.
    They could not be trusted to fight the jap imperial army

    • arkie

      You don’t know shit. Stop spouting bigoted conjectures. You don’t even know history so stop trying to appear smart on the internet.

      • MaiKayPoh

        Unfortunately, much as I hate to say it, youcancook is correct. The Americans did not trust the Nisei to fight against Japan and considered them potential spies so that’s why they were interned. Sad but true and it was the Americans’ attitude towards Nisei, not that there was anything unpatriotic about the Nisei towards America. The 442nd Regiment was raised but *ONLY* allowed to fight in battles which did *NOT* involve Imperial Japanese troops (i.e., in the European theatre). They *NEVER* fought in the Pacific theatre against Imperial Japanese troops.

    • arkie
  • yancancook

    There is a primeval diff between the races.
    Will a muslim spore bear arms against our
    Northern ad western neighbours

    • dahfug

      Falkland war – Argentinian vs Great Britain (which of them are Muslim)
      WWII – Allied forces (UK,US,French) vs Germany (which of them are Muslim??)
      American civil war – Blues vs Grey (which of them are Muslim???)
      Go hit the books yancancook,your brain is stuffed with trash!Did some malay makcik slap your face so hard till you talk incoherently?Pathetic!

    • Finn

      I’m a Malay guy and I’d happily defend my country if war ever broke out. But it’s funny how no one asks whether you would bear arms against the People’s Liberation Army if China invaded us, isn’t it? Your loyalty is taken for granted. Mine has to be constantly questioned.

      • raymond

        We fought the communist didn’t we?

    • MaiKayPoh

      What about BG Ishak Ismail, former CO 6 Div?

  • yancancook

    In europe, neighbours who very friendly with jews for genarations turned them in to the nazis at the drop of a coin. Ethnic differences exist below the surface and are immutable

    • Sunny Sooi

      Thwew were also those Europeans who hid the Jews from the Nazis, who searched for them in a most thorough manner in Nazi occupied Europe.

  • sadup

    my mother learn her cooking from her Malay neighbours, even though we are chinese. So now i get to eat the best from both worlds!

  • kr1234

    My mother saved several chinese from the savage japanese by hiding and feeding them in her home risking her’s and her family. I have been through the times of racial discriminations, racial hatreds and racial riots. I was so glad we become Singaporeans united and successful as a nation. But now i am concern with the influx of new citizens (too many too fast) we are getting back to the old times when communities were separated by the nationality, colour, culture and race.

    • dew

      I am a chinese, 41 yrs, it is now so rare to see our local born brothers, and sisters.

      I can said i am elated to find one, through their talking, irregardless of malays, indians. It feel like seeing your own family members.

      Those who work civil, military services may not understood this feeling, as that is probably the last fortress for singaboreans. In years to come, it may not be so.

      Now u go most places, u r surrounded with languages unknown. I dont even understand the alien chinese talk.

      Most times, this aliens will switch to their own native language…

      • ???

        Dear Sir…
        Your views are ‘respected’, but not necessarily welcomed.

  • andy kok

    This situation on racial tension was a result of systematic racial policies used by Mahatir admin. on divide and rule.This way they can continue to fool the rural Malays in believing that UNMO is the protector of Malays.In fact UNMO is so corrupt it siphoned of billions of rural Malay money into their members and cronies pockets.Eg.cow condo-RM250 millions

  • Rod

    Singaporean Chinese and Indians and other races need to remind themselves that our neighbours have no real friendship with Singapore, and we are the minority in the grand scheme of things – not the Malays.

  • Andrew Leung

    Straits Times should have a section on the Malay, Indian other communities news to highlight issues that affect them. PAP Talent and Population Management Minister in-charge of integration and Community and Culture Minister must give community news everyday that affect the citizens and PRs etc. They must create more opportunities for people to have insights and collaborations.

  • A Razak Ahmad

    Pass the message around especially to those who think that their race is better than others and those who does not know or forgotten their roots. Pass to the government leaders, the Chinese elite. Let them know how the Malays have been helping n very accommodating. Majulah melayu

    • razak bro

      wrong country bro, u need to move north.

      • Nina

        The thing stop probing questions like the govt always says”Want a bigger contribution from the Malays?”What do you mean?Why are you asking the land owners?just like tenants asking landlord kinda ting…

  • Beng Chiat Seah

    if the taxi driver is to be believed,
    funny how he doesn’t know about how to donate to his cause.

    nothing against malays,
    in fact most of my longest lastings friendships r with malays.
    its the historical fact about the rightful owner of the land.

    if anyone insists that it belong to a certain race,
    then may i go one step further to say it belong to a certain family only?
    and the head of that family ceded the land to others in exchange for favour.
    land was later given to her residents after a war.

    we are all decendants of immigrants,
    malays included.
    how many can trace their roots to temasek’s days,
    or even further than that?
    so its ludicrous to keep hearing about how the land belongs to the malay.
    repeating a half truth is not going to make it truth.

    • Naatasha

      being part of the majority you will never know. the land belongs to no one. but the fact remains that “malays” are indigenous to the region. and when i say region, that stretches out from Malaysia to Indonesia to even the Philippines (yes, filipinos are of similar race to us– like chinese and japanese are). wouldn’t you agree? and we are appalled to see how badly the whites treated the indigenous people in different regions back in those bygone eras. be it the aboriginals, the africans or even the american indians. and we expect better treatment were to be given to them. as a compensation for “stealing” their opportunities in their land. because lets think of it; the aboriginals had the opportunity to be rich with mining their own coal, the africans their own diamonds, the american indians their own tobacco and spices, and the malays their own entrepot trade (which they did- read the history books).

      yet when it comes to our shores, we marginalise and discriminate the “indigenous people” so easily. When I worked in Singapore, the company I worked for insisted on conducting their meetings in chinese. Despite there being a few non chinese workers and constant friendly reminders. (Rude much, don’t you think?) But a chinese will never see it, not in singapore. nor understand it. to you its trivial. to us, its another discrimination added to the list of other discriminatory experiences. Personally, I believe that playing the race card is passe and that racism is so 1950s. But i guess, those believes come with experiencing racism first hand.

      With that i leave you with this clip.

      • Beng Chiat Seah

        the company u used to work in, its not just rude, but it is doomed, conducting business without regards to others’ feeling.

      • Beng Chiat Seah

        my issue with my ‘minority’ singaporeans is this- we hv a minister for the second largest race but not the third, n yet we hv more minister from the true minority than them. its time they take charge of their own life n stop blaming others. no one owes them a living.

        • nash

          Sorry to nit pick, sir. But we don’t have a minister for the malays. There is no malay ministry. We do have a minister in charge of muslim affairs, yes. Is part of the regulatory framework associated with the administration of muslim law act back in the seventies. It is about managing issues pertaining the global religion with more than a billion faithful, not the regional ethnic community. Things that need the backbone of government enforcement, like marriage and divorce, inheritance etc. Is quite fascinating, really. But I digress.

          I do posit though, that there is still institutional discrimination when it comes to the malay community.

      • Beng Chiat Seah

        ps- btw, should u work for the malays, u would find urself in a malay speaking envirnment. but chances r, they hire only their own kind. nothing wrong, we love to be with pple we r familiar.

      • alan

        I feel sorry to hear that our local malays feel discriminated in spore. We chinese dont have the intention but perhaps sometimes make the casual habit of speaking in mandarin amongst our peers.

        as for the racial issue, I honestly feel that spore malays are the most high class breed. Look around us, sporean malays are doing well in polytechnics and universities. They excel in sports and art. Some even drive good cars and stay in fine housing. Compare this to the northern neighbors north,, I dont see them having just as good an education or are competitive enough in this global economy. Despite the bumiputra policies up north, majority of locals are still struggling and only the royal few enjoy good life.

        Worse still for the archipelago southern neighbors, the corruption there is massive and corrupt chinese businessman control huge chunks of the resources. How are the lives of the average people?

        Im no pap or supporter of the govt. But I do feel we have a relatively better meritocracy system here in singapore, and that brings out the best in our local malays.

    • Rayden

      Trace your roots… this land was called MALAYA. true enough it belonged to the Malays. Just like how American natives was the indians. The are but a few true Singaporean whos forefathers all came from Temasek. but there’s no RIGHT to claim that this land belongs to whom and who. Arent we Singaporeans now? Whats our National Language may i ask?

  • Merianne

    I think you are all missing the point. Its not about just helping the malays or the chinese or the indians or the eurasians but helping fellow human beings. Leave Race out of it. Rise or fall on your merit and hard work… help out of the goodness of your heart… from one red blooded human being to another. Race and religion should not be criteria for doing good for one another.

  • oros

    Such a good article. Compared to the shit times…