The Straits Times says

Anchoring Malay culture in Singapore

The strength of Singapore's Malay culture lies in its inclusiveness. It is a special version of Malay culture that bears the particular imprint of Singapore's multiracialism. It is authentic because it represents the realities of everyday life in this country. In spite of being a minority, Malays (like Indians and Eurasians) have an equal stake with the majority Chinese in the preservation and flowering of the national identity. A good example of this glad coexistence is the typical Housing Board estate, where members of different racial groups live together, each true to its cultural and religious traditions but all participating in the common economic and social life of the estates.

Indigenous and migrant communities, however, might be influenced by developments in countries and regions to which they are tied by ethnicity or religio-historical provenance. Thus, the turmoil in the wider Muslim world today is being felt within Singapore, where an inclusive Malay culture nurtured over time has to contend with a radical alternative that seeks to replace local identities with a pan-Islamic one defined by the dominance of Arab history and old practices.

This threat represents an ironic twist to the challenge to Malay culture from Westernisation, associated with modernity. That could be dealt with by deploying the cultural resources of a Malayness rooted in family, language and religion. The threat from Arabisation now is insidious because it claims that global Muslims have to be more Arabic - in dress, behaviour and thought - in order to be true to their faith. The cultural appropriation of global Islam by Arabisation is inimical to the growth of cosmopolitan Muslim cultures that are anchored in inclusive national traditions. Singapore is no different.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli flagged this danger when he called on Malays in Singapore to preserve their unique culture. External influences could erode that culture as some local traditions come under attack by extremists. "Extremists know they must first supplant our confidence in our identity, both in our religious practice and culture, before they can replace it with one of their own," he noted. The challenge is for Singapore's Malays to remain confident in the legitimate link between religious precept and their cultural practice.

The politics of religious and racial identity is the means by which extremists seek to sow discord within and among nations. Exclusivism is the thin edge of the sword of radicalism which could lead ultimately to even terrorism. As Malay Singaporeans resist siren calls to adopt an imported identity, they depend on the understanding and support of other Singaporeans. Each community that is anchored in Singapore must take sides with other groups in a common struggle against the divisive politicisation of race and religion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Anchoring Malay culture in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe