The colonial origins of racism towards Malays in Singapore


We guard our racial and religious harmony zealously, but racism still exists. What are the origins of racism? Racist attitudes towards the Malays can be traced to their colonial-era roots. There is strong evidence to suggest that these tropes were a product of local and empire-wide processes at work in the 19th century. This article aims to discuss and examine the roots of racism towards the Malays.

Singapore is no stranger to race-related violence, such as the 1964 Race Riots, which we are reminded of every Racial Harmony Day. We all know the value and values of racial harmony, and as a society, we have made serious compromises to maintain it. We have housing quotas to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming, even at the expense of damaging the cultural fabric of traditional quarters such as Eunos. The Sedition Act further prevents hate speech towards any ethnic group. Most importantly, Singaporeans do agree with these compromises – or we at least recognise their importance and effectiveness.

However, what we often forget to discuss, are the historical roots of racism that are baked into our society. Most Singaporeans have likely come across racist comments targeted at the Malay community. These problematic and false remarks parades around racist tropes that often includes an accusation that the Malays are predisposed to ‘laziness’. I hope to dive deeper into the origins of these racist ideas, and look at the way these ideas originated, and were disseminated in Singapore and Malaysia, because ignoring these will only allow such ideas to perpetuate, while understanding their origins may help us understand their artificiality, and how they have come to influence they way we think.

Attitudes towards the Malays: Year One

In terms of attitudes towards the Malays on the island, things were off to a good start. Sir Stamford Raffles was an admirer of Malay culture, and was well-versed in the language and the history of the region. He was also the first to translate the Malay Annals into a European language. Furthermore, he made the active choice to name the island “Singapura”, after the legend of Sang Nila Utama in the Malay Annals, rather than choosing a European name.[1]

Fig 1. ‘Jackson’ Town Plan, prepared in 1822 by Lt. Philip Jackson at the request of Raffles.

The 1822 Jackson Town Plan of Singapore placed the Malay quarter next to the European one – a clear symbol of a co-equal partnership. When the Singapore Institution was founded, there was an explicit decision to create an Anglo-Malay College within it, teaching both English and Malay classics and languages to the children of the Malay elites. Singapore was far from being founded on racist contempt.[2]

However, despite these promising signs, perceptions of the native Malays deteriorated through the 19th century, and is best summed up by George Leith’s 1883 remark:

“They are incapable of any labour apart from the cultivation of paddy fields.”[3]

A 19th century statement that is eerily reminiscent of current racist narratives.

Shifting Attitudes towards the Malays – Education, Policing, and Labour

In 1839, the Singapore Institution circulated 500 printed appeals to notable Malay families in the region, calling for them to send their sons to be educated at the Singapore Institution. This endeavour led to the creation of 5 classes of 25 students each in 1840. However, by 1841, there was only one class left, and some parents even asked for compensation from the school’s funds for the loss of their child’s services.[4] The failure of the Anglo-Malay College gave rise to the idea amongst the colonial elite that the natives in the region did not want to be educated, or at least could not see the value of a modern education. These attitudes were further reinforced when the Hokkien classes remained full. The archetype of a ‘lazy native’ was gradually taking shape at this stage.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 6.24.38 PM.png
Fig 2. Letter of Commission to establish an inquiry into the police of the Straits Settlements, signed by Governor Cecil Clementi Smith (Clementi, anyone?). Administrative documents provides a unique window into the developing frame of British racist ideologies.

By the 1870s, the British administration was clearly placing the Malays at the bottom of their racial pecking order. This is evidenced by 1879 Commission Report into the Police of the Straits Settlements, which summed up the British opinion of the Malays in recommending which racial group to recruit for the police:

“Mr. Braddell … prefers the latter [Klings] to Malays as being more intelligent and more active, and better disciplined as a body.”[5][6]

It is to note that the Klings originally referred to Indians, but later also meant those with half-Malay heritage. It is telling that an Indian and a person of half-Malay lineage were deemed a more suitable candidate for the police than a Malay. Also, more disturbing might be the manner in which policies were made based on broad generalisations of the Malays, the Klings, and the Chinese, as explored in these documents.

Furthermore, we can also see the solidification of such ideas in the labour policies of the Straits Settlements and Malaya. As tin mining and plantation agriculture was taking off in Malaya in the late-19th century, there was an increasing demand for labourers to perform these back-breaking jobs. The obvious source of labour would be the local population. However, by 1910, most plantations were staffed by migrant labourers from India or China. A 1882 report from Sungei Ujong is representative of the concerns and attitudes of the colonial government and plantation interests:

“But this [Malay] labour is too expensive, and is very uncertain, as frequently at a time when the planter wants as much labour as he can get, he finds himself without a man to do the necessary work on the estate, the whole of his labour force having gone off to squander their small savings in their own country.”[7]

Similar sentiments pertaining to the Malay population’s lack of interest in engaging in the growing modern industry was echoed by a tourist, Miss I. L. Bird who wrote:

“The Malays won’t work except for themselves.”[8]

The end product of such perceptions was the creation of labour policies that encouraged migration from southern China and India. This was achieved either through coercion as in the case of Indian penal labourers, or through the provision of better working conditions. For instance, the Indian Immigration Ordinance allowed Indian labourers to be paid in their native rupees, while the welfare of the Chinese immigrants was looked after by the establishment of the Chinese Protectorate. [9][10]

What is important here is the interpretation of these records left behind by the British. These writings reflect the developing racist opinion that the British held towards the Malays, but do not represent an objective statement of fact about a community – despite the sources being packaged as ‘objective’ and ‘official’, in the form of government reports, and first-person accounts.

They are manifestations of a common problem in 19th century colonialism, and the people who created these records are part of that frame of mind. When the British entered the region with their notions of wage labour, free market, and the value of education, and took them for granted that they were inherently universal values. In order to reconcile these supposedly ‘universal’ values with their subjects’ unwillingness to engage in the labour market, the archetype of the ‘lazy native’ was developed.

What we can conclude here with reasonable confidence is that the British perceptions of the Malays in Singapore and Malaya deteriorated through the 19th century, and this deterioration was a product of a British inability to comprehend the local situation, and an imposition of their own values on the native population. Beyond looking at internal sources of racist ideologies, there is also a need to examine the global context that influenced the manner in which people in Singapore understood their surrounding.

The Sun never sets on the British Empire

Singapore was a product of a globalising 19th century, and by virtue of being a part of a larger British Empire, we were subjected to global trends and ideas conceived elsewhere.

The British colonisation of Singapore and Malaysia unfolded in the aftermath of the ‘failure’ of slave emancipation in the British Empire. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, yet by the 1840s, voices in the British Parliament and other notable writers such as Thomas Carlyle started arguing that the abolition of slavery was a mistake. That some people were better in subjugation as they were incapable of making decisions for themselves. The idea that some races were not predisposed to free labour gained currency by the 1840s. [11] To illustrate the mentality of many British officials of the time, we shall look to Jamaica.

Jamaica, before the abolition of slavery, was one of the largest producers of sugar, and African slaves were the primary workforce of the sugar plantations. By 1840, Jamaica ceased being a significant exporter of sugar, and many sugar plantations fell into disuse. [8] It reinforced the idea that: first, former slaves were not capable of seeing the virtues of hard work; second, the British and other select groups were more predisposed to and capable of the effective use of land and resources; and therefore, that some peoples were better off under British protection and guidance. This train of thought is extremely similar to what occurred in the plantations in Malaya, though certainly not unique to Malaya.


It is clear that many of the racist tropes about the Malays have colonial origins – but before we jump on the bandwagon to blame the British, let us not forget that what was a British ideology was adopted and normalised by the people in Singapore – especially those within the Chinese community. If blame must be attributed, it must go both ways – but that is not the crux of this article.

More importantly, what we can see here is a society that are shaped by the forces beyond its own control. Colonialism and the global flow of ideas shaped Singapore to become what she is today. It is therefore easy to forget that the current ethnic make-up of Chinese and Indians in Singapore is a direct result of the policies that the colonial government implemented in order to pursue the objectives of developing (or exploiting) the colony. To a more disturbing degree, the immigration patterns were, to some extent, a product of the ‘lazy native’ trope of the 19th century.

By highlighting and demonstrating these processes at work, I hope that we can add a more nuanced layer to our fight against racism, and address the problems we face as a society. This historical baggage can either be a burden we continue to bear, or be relegated to the textbooks – and it all depends on what we do moving forward.

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[1] Turnbull, Constance Mary. A History of Singapore, 1819 – 1975. 1977. p.1.

[2] The Singapore Institution would later be renamed Raffles Institution in honour of its founder.

[3] Leith, George. A Short Account of the Settlement, Produce and Commerce of Prince of Wales Island in the Straits. 1935. p. 50.

[4] The Singapore Institution. 8th Annual Report. 1842/1843.

[5] Mr. Thomas Braddell was the Attorney-General of Singapore between 1867 to 1883 – Braddell Heights? Braddell in Toa Payoh, anyone?

[6] Read, William Henry. Report of the Police Commission to the Governor of the Straits Settlements. 1879. p.11.

[7] The Straits Settlements Gazette. 1883. p. 1180

[8] Bird. The Golden Chersonese. 1883. p. 357

[9] Jackson, R. N. Immigrant Labour and the Development of Malaya. 1965. p.109.

[10] Government of the Straits Settlements. The Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings. 1876. Appendix 22, p. ccxlvii.

[11] Carlyle, Thomas. Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question. 1849.

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