An opinion-editorial article published on Friday (11 Jan) on Singapore’s mainstream multimedia Malay-language news platform BERITAmediacorp, which allegedly shames the Malay community in Singapore for their purported lack of concern regarding their own health, has received mixed reactions from Malay Singaporean netizens.
The article, submitted by Osman Sidek, begins with the following premise: “Apakah masalah berat badan dalam kalangan orang Melayu berpunca daripada masalah disiplin diri ataupun kurang faham terhadap tuntutan agama?” (“Do weight issues among Malays stem from problems with self-discipline, or a lack of comprehension regarding religious obligations?”)
Citing Dr Noorshahril Saat’s hypothesis regarding the close relationship between health problems and socio-economic status of the Malay community in Aug 2017, Mr Osman wrote, in Malay: “Statistics show that the Malay community has the highest tendency and likelihood to suffer from obesity and chronic illnesses”.
However, Mr Osman argued that the realities of the Malay community do not align with Dr Noorshahril’s hypothesis, as he has observed that obesity in particular transcends class and socio-economic status within the Malay community.
“Sorry to say, but when we turn left and turn right, it is so easy for us to find big-sized Malays, with a paunch or are fat overall, whether young or old, from hard labourers to those in political leadership, and those in academia and theology,” he wrote.
While it is important to manage socio-economic barriers in order to assist underprivileged groups to take on the challenge of living a healthy lifestyle, Mr Osman argued that an attempt to manage socio-economic hurdles will not be effective if the root of the problem is not identified and addressed.
Quoting an Islamic preacher who “joked” that “Muslims do not care if they are fat or sick, because everyone will die, and we are not afraid of death”, the root of the problem, he posited, is the failure of the Malay community to properly frame discussions and actions regarding health and fitness within an Islamic context without resorting to extremities and a fatalistic outlook.
Mr Osman argued that such failure is evident in the Malay community’s purportedly misplaced priorities in following the example of Prophet Muhammad, adding that many Malay-Muslims are overly fixated with “superfoods” that the Prophet purportedly found to have health benefits, such as “milk, honey, dates, pomegranates, and olives”.
He observed that fewer Malay-Muslims appear to be similarly enthusiastic about following the Prophet’s lead with regards to being physically active. There is plenty of documented authentic narrations, argued Mr Osman, to suggest that the Prophet frequently engaged in brisk walking, horse riding, archery, wrestling, and hiking, in addition to fasting and rationing meal portions.
Mr Osman acknowledged, in his conclusion, that “perhaps many people will remain sceptical” regarding his views, and that questions may arise as to whether it is true that a religious element is equally as significant as scientific or medical knowledge and improving the socio-economic conditions of the Malay community.
At the end of the article, it is stated that Mr Osman is now a retiree, having previously worked as an architect for 25 years. He is also an alumnus of the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s School of Architecture.
Notably, Mr Osman’s lack of expertise and formal qualifications in the areas of medicine and health as well as religion are mentioned at the end of the article.
It is also stated that his commentary was produced based on his general reading of such areas, as well as “a general observation on matters affecting the Malay community” and his “personal experience in sporting and leisure activities such as running, swimming, cycling, mountain climbing, calisthenics, and Spartan Race”.
TOC noted that the article was no longer available on the BERITAmediacorp website as of 12:33 p.m. on Friday (11 Jan).
However, TOC observed around 3:30 a.m. on Saturday (12 Jan) that the article was reinstated on the BERITAmediacorp website.
Several netizens took to Facebook to criticise Mr Osman’s commentary, stating that many Malays, particularly Malay-Muslims as the op-ed’s target readership suggests, are already aware of the need to take care of their own bodies by engaging in regular exercise, in line with Islamic teachings.
The insertion of religious elements into the commentary was also criticised, as a few netizens believed such religious preaching has no bearing on the topic being discussed, as the topic of health and fitness is one that transcends race and religion:
(Ramlan Al-Manof: “You don’t have to worry so much [about this issue] … If Malays [who are Muslims] are diligent in their worship, such as in their daily prayers and fasting, that is already sufficient and the best [thing one could achieve]. There is no need to display friskiness and over-enthusiasm in public at an old age. Malays have restraint … The Prophet preached that if a community loses its decorum, it invites its own ruin. Exercising at home is only meant to get people sweating. No matter how healthy we are, we will someday fall ill and die (for how long would we like to live?). If we see many senior citizens everywhere, it is bound to invite discomfort. Do not worry about this to the point of degrading the credibility of your own race. Take note.”)
(Syahmi Ahmad: I find it strange. If this is a Malay issue, why include Islam? A Malay person is not necessarily a Muslim. A Muslim is not necessarily a Malay person. Don’t you think that this article has become “side tracked” from the original topic – which is “Why are Malays stubbornly lazy about taking care of their bodies?” – when the real topic should be “Why are Muslims stubbornly lazy about taking care of their bodies?” Only then will I find the opinions in this article valid. There are many Malays who aren’t Muslims, right?)
(Anna Ahmad: Editor, please do not involve religion in this issue.)
(Hayati Yusoff: Author’s writing is convoluted.)
(Ida Aman Lim: There’s no use in being highly educated when you’re going to produce trashy news.)
However, several netizens have chosen to validate the points made by Mr Osman in his opinion piece, citing personal autonomy in making the best decisions for one’s own health:
(Merikatakita Tomoshilukitekari: My friends and I exercise actively… It’s not that we’re looking to have a body like Jennifer Lopez, and after all it’s difficult for us to lose weight at this age, but what we can do is exercise for our own health. If our bodies are healthy, our minds will also be healthy. Sorry to say, but many Malays tend to give a thousand types of excuses when we are encouraged to exercise… Sweating due to house work is not the same as sweating during exercise, ya… Besides, there is no requirement to wear tight clothing… We Muslimahs know that we do not have to wear form-fitting clothes… There are many kinds of exercise that we can do outside the house such as brisk walking, aerobics, aqua aerobics and so on. It is a personal choice whether or not one wants to exercise… but reflect on it, because at the end of the day, you will be ill [if you don’t exercise].)
(Hart Mohd: We must make an effort, and not simply leave it to God.)
(FudEye VII: [Some people] Only read the headline, and then comment. That is also a disease.)
Osman Sidek’s article affirms government and mainstream media’s “problematic minority” narrative of the Malay community in Singapore?
Noorainn binte Aziz opined in her 2009 thesis Malay Stereotypes: Acceptance and Rejection in the Malay Community that “the PAP government has to date, unfailingly accentuated the problems” that have been plaguing Malays as a result of the prevalent portrayal of their culture as being a “deficient” one.
“This is most prominent during the Prime Minister’s speeches at National Day Rallies,” added Ms Noorainn.
She cited Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech in 2005:
“Mereka tiada kemahiran atau kerja tetap. Mereka berhenti sekolah sebelum tamat pendidikan menengah. Ramai yang menganggur, dan mempunyai anak-anak kecil yang tidak mampu mereka tanggung… Ia menjejas masyarakat Melayu lebih daripada India atau Cina kerana lebih ramai pasangan Melayu yang berkahwin muda dan bercerai awal… Kita perlu bantu keluarga-keluarga ini supaya dapat berdikari… tetapi lebih penting memberi bimbingan untuk mengubah sikap dan cara hidup mereka.” (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong)
(Translation: They have no skills or permanent employment. They quit schooling before completing secondary education. Many of them are unemployed, and have young children that they are not able to support… It affects the Malay community even more than the Indian or Chinese communities as there are more Malay couples who marry and subsequently divorce at a young age… We must help these [Malay] families in order for them to be independent… but more importantly, [we must] offer guidance in terms of changing their behaviour and way of life.)
Ms Noorainn highlighted that while such “problems” are “largely common to those at lower income levels,” Malays in Singapore as a whole group are “disproportionately” affected in comparison to other races “as more of them have low incomes (Li, 1998:166)”.
“The problems are labelled as a “Malay problem‟, fitting the PAP government‟s espoused rationale of a Malay “cultural deficiency‟.
“This resulted in the equation of these social problems to the Malay community (culture) instead of highlighting the socio-economic structural hurdles faced by peripheral communities and acting on them,” she observed.
The Malay-language mainstream media, particularly Berita Harian, Ms Noorainn found, “perpetuates” what she branded as the “Malay ‘cultural deficiency’ ideology” by producing articles with titles such as “Mencari punca teras masalah orang kita” (“Seeking the core problem of our people”).
The 2009 article in particular, she added, “triggered a slew of responses from the public joining in the Malay-disparaging campaign even to their genetic-makeup (BH, 7th & 10th October 2009)”.
“The root problems faced by Malays (e.g. financial constraints) were not reported in these articles. Instead, the problems quoted in such articles were mostly consistent with those highlighted by the government.
“This kind of reporting only spells disaster for the Malay community, as it perpetuates Malay “cultural deficiency” ideology,” warned Ms Noorainn.
She added that such articles, and generally the “espousal for Malay ‘cultural deficiencies’ among intermediate and service class Malays”, which includes journalists and editors in the media, and university-educated professionals, highlight their “conviction of their superiority to their ‘less successful’ kinfolk”.
The constant policing of Malays who do not fall within a socio-economically privileged stratum by “elite” Malays, interlaced with internalised racism and what Ms Noorainn labelled as “self-hate”, reflects “the desire to see a development of the Melayu Baru (New Malay)”, or Malays who are deemed to have “progressive” traits.
“These ‘progressive’ characteristics are in tandem with those promoted by the government to suit Singapore’s capitalistic economy,” argued Ms Noorainn.