Thursday, August 16, 2018

Arabisation and the threat to Singapore culture

By Norshahril Saat

14 August, 2018

In Indonesia, there is an ongoing movement that promotes Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam), a localised brand of Islam.

The country’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, is championing the discourse. Recently, the West Sumatra chapter of the Ulama Council of Indonesia openly voiced its displeasure with Islam Nusantara, declaring that Islam is already perfect.

Promoters of Islam Nusantara are clear of its objective: to prevent the excessive borrowing of foreign ideas into the Indonesian Islamic discourse.

Their top concern is rising radicalism and the importation of Middle Eastern culture at the expense of local norms, a phenomenon referred to as Arabisation.

Unfortunately, the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore does not seem interested in this whole Islam Nusantara debate, even though a trend towards Arabisation is evident.

A segment of the community is relegating its own culture and heritage while opting for Arabic culture and lifestyle. Malays are evidently more comfortable wearing Arabic-style garments compared to their traditional baju Melayu.

More Malay women are putting on the niqab, the head dress that covers the face, revealing only the eyes.

Arabic phrases are preferred by some over their Malay equivalents: For example, hijab to replace tudung (headscarf), Eidul Fitri rather than hari raya (a day of celebration after the fasting month of Ramadan), and syukran instead of terima kasih (thank you).

Should we be concerned that Singapore Malays are losing interest in their culture and gravitating towards the Arabic lifestyle? Yes, but only if it leads to exclusivism.


Singapore Malays have always been known for being inclusive.

Unlike how race has been commonly understood in Singapore—the CMIO model, which represents the Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others categories­—a Malay is more than a racial category, it is also a cultural one.

Thus, the community accepts Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese as Malays if they choose to live their lives as Malays and find an attachment to their language, values and cultural practices.

In 2017, in a survey of 2002 Singaporeans conducted by Institute of Policy Studies, 96 per cent of the Malay respondents ranked the ability to read, write and speak Malay, converse in basic Malay, and celebrate Hari Raya Puasa as important identity markers.

The majority of Malays also consider Islam a core element of their identity. In the same survey, 93.3 per cent of Malays believed that it is important or somewhat important for them to be Muslims.

In this modern day and age, no community is free from external influence.

For example, some netizens have expressed unhappiness at the state of Bazaar Geylang Serai, which is held every year during the fasting month. Traditionally, the bazaar is attended mainly by Malays in preparation for the Hari Raya Puasa festival, including buying traditional Malay clothes, cakes, and furniture.

But in recent years, the bazaar has featured “hipster” dishes and drinks which are alien to the community.

Some examples include meatballs, churros, a fried dough treat of Iberian origin, and raclette, a variety of cheese that is usually melted. The sale of these products in what has traditionally been a bazaar featuring Malay dishes, clothing and trinkets, among others, has drawn flak from the more conservative segments in the community.

Still, there is no way to stop society from following contemporary trends and fashion. Singaporeans have adopted foreign cultures - Korean music, Japanese cuisine and Western dress, among many - and the Arabic way of life is no exception.

Following Arabic trends and fashion is not a concern unless it is equated with the level of piety. For example, one should be concerned if someone says you cannot lead prayers in a mosque if you do not put on an Arabic-style garment.

Nevertheless, the real threat is not Arabisation per se, but how it may lead to exclusivism.
Over the years, Malay culture has evolved and adapted to meet contemporary needs. Islam came to the Malay world as early as the 13th century, and the religion was neutral towards many Malay cultural practices.

For example, rituals conducted during Malay weddings, such as the merenjis (sprinkling ceremony to bless the couple and ward off evil spirits), might have originated from Hinduism, yet the religious elites of the past did not censure them simply because they were not found in the Quran or hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

However, these days, there are some who view Malay music, dress, dance, and arts as not conforming to Islam, by which they are referring to its Arabised form.

For example, the baju kebaya is not commonly worn by Malay women anymore. Instead, many are opting for the abayas worn by the Arabs. Increasingly, more women are also wearing the niqab. Such outfits, alien to Malays 50 years ago, are now a more common sight.

This cultural erosion was cited as one of three challenges faced by Singapore’s Malay/Muslim community by Minister Masagos Zulkifli earlier this year. It is a theme he has spoken of before.

Radicals who espouse violence are not the only threat - non-violent exclusivists are, too.

For instance, groups which promote the way Islam is practised in Singapore - which stresses tolerance and harmony in a multi-cultural society - are openly criticised by exclusivists. Such criticisms are especially common on social media.

There have also been instances in which groups actively discussing Western philosophy, theories, and development models are publicly castigated.

To be sure, there are arguments to be made over whether Western ideals and ideas ought to be adopted by Asian societies, but that is a subject for another debate.

Countering exclusivism is pressing issue that needs to be discussed by the community before its heritage is erased in the name of religion.


Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and Tradition and Islamic Learning: Singapore Students in the Al-Azhar University. This article is based on a recent talk he delivered at Forum on Ethnic Identity and Culture.

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