Faris Joraimi: A History of Malay Singaporeans in Ten Objects (New Naratif)


New Naratif

A History of Malay Singaporeans in Ten Objects

AUTHOR: Faris Joraimi
PUBLISHED: 09 Sep 2017

In an attempt to provide an accessible introduction to the collective experience of Singapore’s largest ethnic minority, Alfian Sa’at and I put together this presentation, as part of a lecture series organised by Future of Singapore (FOSG), which we delivered at the Agora on 15 July 2017. It was not easy. The history of the Malays in Singapore seems short, but is actually vast, multifaceted and diverse, and thus challenging to distil it into just ten objects. Furthermore, in constructing any historical narrative of a community, there is always a risk of viewing it in monolithic terms. This is where the importance of the indefinite article comes in: I am not trying to present the definitive account of Malay Singaporeans’ past, but rather my interpretation of it, which is necessarily subjective and limited. Nevertheless, I have tried as much as possible to bring attention to the major themes and milestones in an attempt to provide a sufficiently comprehensive overview.

The upcoming Presidential Elections reserved for Malays has led to much ink being spilled — both physically and virtually— over what constitutes Malay identity. However, many aspects about Malay identity, and the historical processes that have shaped it, remain obscured. In the official narrative of Singaporean nationalism and identity, Malay cultural and intellectual activities receive scant attention. It barely alludes to Malay nationalism beyond UMNO’s right-wing, racially-exclusive ideology. Singapore is presented as being separate from the Malay world, rather than being an important part of it. The perception of Malays in Singaporeans’ popular imagination continues to be informed by racialised health and education statistics , and ethnic stereotypes, as well as a failure to understand the legacy of events and policies that influence Malays’ outlook on institutions like the Singapore State or ‘multiracialism’. Even Malays ourselves, as a result of rising Islamic conservatism, tend to overlook key facets of their identity that are not usually associated with being ‘Malay/Muslim’.

It is for this reason that we begin, 700 years ago, with our first object.

1) Kala Armlet

Photo courtesy of National Heritage Board, Singapore Photo courtesy of National Heritage Board, Singapore

In 1926, an excavation at Bukit Larangan (Fort Canning Hill) unearthed several crucial finds, among which was a golden armlet which dates back to the 14th century, around the time when the fabled Kingdom of Singapura flourished on the island. An account of Singapore’s Malays will not be complete without reference to our pre-colonial history, when Singapore was inextricably linked to the culture of the Malay world. This is reflected in the armlet’s visual aesthetic. Its most striking feature is the Kala motif: the face of a mythical creature that finds expression in many ancient structures throughout Southeast Asia. Farish Noor, in Spirit of Wood: the Art of Malay Woodcarving, recounts the mythological background of the Kala motif:

“In Hindu mythology, Kala was a disobedient being who had been ordered by Siva to eat himself as a punishment. Fortunately, Siva relented halfway and Kala was established in the pantheon as a guardian figure. His likeness – a truncated head with protuberant eyes, leonine nose, gaping jaws often spewing luxuriant foliage, and occasionally two arms – can be found guarding the entrances of most early temples in Cambodia and Thailand.”

The Kala is also found across the Malay Archipelago, looming over portals at the temples and palaces of Java.


Faris Joraimi is an undergraduate at Yale-NUS College. An enthusiast of classical Malay literature and history, he has written for a number of platforms including, ‘Karyawan’, Mynah magazine, Budi Kritik, as well as ‘S/pores’ (s-pores.com), an online journal exploring new directions in Singapore studies.

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