Not Just Supporting Actors In A Real-Life Sitcom
That's me in the middle with the panda cap.
Growing up in a big family that used to live on an island called Pulau Semakau, we faced our fair share of social stigmas. Words like “Backward”, “Uneducated” and “Very Malay” were sometimes used to describe us. A big part of my life was spent questioning my place, identity and purpose in this country.
I was once told by an elder of my family that we had to adapt to this city, and the best education we could get was probably a GCSE ‘O’ Level with a passing grade in the English language. Paired with a Class 3 driving licence, we would be set for life. Set to work in a fast-paced country that will value someone like a driver who is able to speak English and understand conversational Mandarin.
For a period of my teenagehood, I believed that was the role of a brown kid like me. While I do not think this a non-valuable skill set, I wondered if we Malays were able to do more. Little by little, my young, wandering mind thought about the brown individuals I saw on television; like the characters played by a Malay man and woman as the Mee Rebus stall owners in the sitcom Under One Roof. I thought about what they must have done to get to where they were. To be supporting characters in a famous sitcom featuring a predominantly Chinese household—it must be nice.
I remember feeling extremely proud when Malay food was featured in Mandarin dramas on Channel 8, like the array of kueh-muih and the sarong kebayas in The Little Nyonyaa series about Chinese Peranakan families in Singapore. Then I remember feeling upset when I was told by my Chinese classmate that while the dishes may be similar, Peranakan food was perceived to be better than Malay food, because it was made by Peranakan women who learnt the art of cooking and kuih-making from their grandmothers.
But I thought, why did the Peranakans have Malay-sounding food dishes and similar recipes? Who did they learn it from? What about the kuih recipes that belonged to my great-grandmother, are they as good? What is missing?
Why are my non-Malay friends complaining about the cost of a plate of Nasi Padang, when a meal at a fast food chain costs them the same or more? Why is Malay food expected to be cheaper? Do they not see the effort that goes into cooking beef rendang? Do they not care about how these makciks wake up in the wee hours of the morning to marinate, make pastes, sautéing and cooking the food till it is perfect?
As I got older, I started to question my role as a Malay individual in Singapore:
Why is there a notion of the lazy Malays, when all I hear from my family members is how hard they work to make ends meet? Why does a Malay person have to work harder just to not appear lazy in society’s eyes? Are we Malays just supporting actors in a real-life sitcom?
If you are reading this, I would like to remind you that you are in a place of privilege. The privilege of being able to read the sentiments of another probably privileged Malay man who can take his time to pen down his frustrations about being a Malay man living in Singapore. It brings me great shame to know that while I whine, some Malays that I know are struggling to make ends meet. They do not not have the same luxury of time as us—to indulge in a book.
This compilation of brown voices is not only important, but timely. My deepest gratitude goes to the authors, contributors, editors and readers who have taken their time to share and elevate these voices.
Contributor to Brown is Redacted: Reflecting on Race in Singapore
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