Their marriage mess
A big reason, the women fall in love too easily, marry too quickly without enough regard for the man's financial responsibility, writes Muhammad Ridzwan Rahmat
Nov 8, 2006

In my first year of secondary school, a teacher made a very racist comment that I will never forget. Stepping into class one morning, he asked: “Boys, do you know what's the difference between a Chinese lady, an Indian lady and a Malay lady?”

The whole class looked at each other, puzzled beyond comprehension. What has this got to do with Geography? The teacher looked around for a minute or two, anticipating a glimpse of anyone who might put up his hand. But none did so he went on,

“Well boys, listen carefully. A Chinese lady, will not care if her man is handsome or does not have a good character. As long as he has money.

An Indian lady, will not care if her man is handsome or has no money. As long as he has good character.

A Malay lady, will not care if her man has no money or character. As long as he is handsome.”

In Victoria, the Malay student population then was comparatively small, especially so in my class. All four of us Malay boys looked at each other nervously after that short remark, shrugged it off and just got back to work.

We didn't bother to protest because the teacher's known to skilfully repel any opposition to his words. He's after all, a grand old man of 65 at that time.

The teacher has since passed on. But his words linger in my mind to this very day. Not because they were extremely racist, but because till now I still wonder if there just might be some element of truth to what he said 13 years ago.

Could my teacher's short parable be the answer as to why so many of our Malay marriages are doomed right from the start? Well, I wouldn't know. I may be Malay but I'm no woman. Only they have the answer to that.

What I do know is that the Malay matrimonial scene is in a wreck. Percentage wise, we have the highest divorce rate here in Singapore – yet another notorious title. If you have four Malay wedding invitations on any given Sunday, you can be sure that one of them will end in a divorce. It is that bad.

So what is it that Malay couples are doing wrong that other races are getting right? Is it because of the lack of religion knowledge, like so many of these 'Ustazs' are claiming?

If the answer lies in appreciating Islam, why then are non-Muslim couples fairing better than us?

The answer is more universal and less cryptic. Malay Marriage Mess is happening due to these three main reasons.

Standards set by Malay women

I will most probably come under heavy fire for this, but I will say it anyway. One of the reasons why our marriages fail is that most Malay women fall in love way too easily.

Although I would disagree with my late teacher about the “as-long-as-he's-handsome” part, I do admit that most Malay women will develop a liking for a guy as long as she finds him “nice”.

The process in which a Malay woman falls in love is noticeably less complicated than that of other races and is due mainly to our culture. Malays are generally brought up and trained to never look at a person's wealth or status as a measure of a man.

We have been told since young that this is wrong and that a person should only be judged by how polite, religious and respectful he is towards his folks. That, according to our elders, is the key to happiness.

The cultural stigma remains till this very day. When a Malay girl brings home a guy to meet her parents, little is asked of his financial position and education.

The focus will be on how religious or polite he is. It does not matter very much if the guy has been an academic failure all his life or does not hold a very stable career. As long as he is “nice”.

This criteria would have been fine for choosing a wife. But the fact is, a husband – leader and main breadwinner, has to be chosen with a more stringent criteria other than just being religious or “nice”.

Too many families have collapsed because of economically dysfunctional husbands whose salaries cannot keep up with the changing times. Being “nice” will not pay the bills nor tuition for the kids 15 years down the road.

Be like the weaver bird. The reason why male weaver birds are such strong agile creatures is because the females of the species demand a lot from the males. Before a female would agree to mate, she will demand to look at the nest which he has built.

If the nest is not up to her standard, she would simply fly off in search of another mating partner. As a result male weaver birds evolve strongly and are one of the most revered birds in the animal kingdom.

Similarly, Malay women must collectively set a much higher standard for their men. For when they do, the heat will be upon us to improve economically and socially. As a result, the entire community improves. It just takes that change of mindset.

But for now, plenty of Malay men are still slacking and taking their future very lightly. Why bother? They know they will be able to find a wife one day anyway. All you need to be is just “nice”.

Short courting period

The issue of Malays marrying early is not an alien one. It has received special mention by a very concerned Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew quite some time back. The concept is actually very simple – young couples are simply not equipped to handle a family. Everyone understands that.

But I would like to zoom in on the definition of “marrying early” from another perspective – courting period.

Malay couples generally make the decision to get married very early on into the relationship. Usually within a year of knowing each other, a commitment would have been made to start a family.

I personally know of a friend whose gotten married to a man she's known for only eight months! Needless to say, that marriage is now on the rocks. I pray that they ride out the storm.

Once again, it's a cultural phenomenon. Malay elders frown on long courting periods and marriage is usually pressured upon once a man and woman is known to like each other.

The derogatory term that they use for couples that have been long together without marrying is “pengantin basi” (stale newly-weds). Having a “pengantin basi” in the family is considered to be a social embarrassment and should be avoided.

I am a strong believer in the concept that a person's true colours can only be seen either after 12 months or after a major quarrel – whichever comes earlier.

Before this period, not everything you see is what you will get as initial pretences will take a while to dismantle. There will probably never be any hard data to conclude this theory. But then again, life's most complicated concepts are usually built on none.

Malay couples must extend their courting time longer and get to know each other better before making that big decision. This is essential to avoiding any bad surprises long after the wedding drums have fell silence.

After all, “differences in personality” is cited as the number one reason why Malay couples divorce. Perhaps they should have just waited that 12 months.

Financial delinquency

I am not sure where it comes from, but it seems that more Malay women today are demanding that their men be driving cars.

Has it not occurred to them that everybody can drive a car today? It's just a matter of whether you want to or not ever since the $0 down payment rule was implemented.

Any chap who can make the monthly payments will have the “luxury” of a vehicle in his hands – even someone who earns $800 a month sweeping the roads.

A car does not equate to being successful anymore. It just means that you are having a hefty debt . Unfortunately a lack of financial intelligence in the Malay community has given rise to misconceptions such as these.

Middle class symbols such as cars, cards and fancy electronic goods are now a must-have to show people that you “have arrived”. Most cannot wait to pay for it in cash, taking huge loans in the process.

Needless to say, this financial attitude has given rise to a host of social problems within the Malay community.

According to a recent statistic from MUIS, applicants for “zakat” (alms given by the public) this year has risen dramatically – most of them coming from young males in their twenties. How are males like these supposed to raise happy and contented families?

The matter of fact is simple. You marry someone who is financially delinquent, you will bear the consequences. You insist on a man who drives, you build a family saddled with debt right from the start.

Remember well that “money problems” has been cited as the second leading cause of divorce amongst Malays. The awareness of financial delinquency is essential to keeping our Malay families happy.

I am glad to say that all my university friends, despite commanding the salaries that they have, are still sticking to public transport or using car sharing services like those offered by NTUC when a vehicle is needed.

It is better to be flush with cash rather than one who drives but counts every penny like a pauper. Perhaps this is the attitude that we need to emulate. Else it could just make us another digit in the divorce statistics.
posted by Muhammad Ridzwan Rahmat

Comments (excerpts)

The Legal Janitor said,
Very thoughtful and perceptive commentary. Thank you.

blokeman said,
I agree somewhat with your points, but I'd like to add another.
From the little I know about Malay women, is that a lot of them are not mature in their views of love.
They have a very idealised and romanticised idea of love in their heads and they cling to this. Most of people stop like after the souring of their first love, but Malays as a people seem to be unable to get over it. Love does not conquer all.
They say that language reflects the society that speaks it. Supposedly, the Inuits have a hundred words for snow. If this is true, then we're really one very emotional people. My old Inggeris-Melayu kamus lists 4 words for love, 4 for sad, 4 for happy, 3 for angry and God knows how many other older words that aren't listed.
You can see this emo-emphasis on TV and a lot of Malay dramas. I've said it since VS, why is almost every Malay drama explicitly about love? It's not so bad if the love story is woven into the fabric of the larger story but it seems like in most Malay dramas, the whole driving point of the story is about love. It isn't as if there aren't a hundred others story archetypes that scriptwriters can't follow.

Anonymous said,
Dear Ridzwan,
I am a non-Malay Singaprean. It has been quite brave of you to confront, what you consider the causes of marital break down in the marriages of Singapore Malays.
I am not engaging you on the success or failure of marriages as I myself if trying to make mine work. But, I would like to suggest that you should not look at issues from a racial angle...

Farmercee said,
Aiyo, I'm a Chinese and I enjoyed reading this post because I'm really new to the Malay culture. but this article seems to suggest the Malay females should carry the blame more than their male counterpart. Will some Malay girls give their take on this matter?

Anonymous said,
After almost half a century of independence under a so-called "multi racial government", which advocates meritoracy and which provide a common educational policy to all Singaporeans.
It is sad to see a fellow Singaporean like Ridzwan continue to look at issues from racial angle.
Fellow young Singaporeans, let's break away from the racial politics originagted by the colonial government, our own government and etc.
If I happen to .. meet Ridzwan, I will see a Singaporean Ridzwan, I will not see him as a Malay, Indian or Chinese..

Anonymous said,
I really applaud this article of yours. we need more thinkers and writers like you in the malay community who are bold enough to confront issues like this.
The fact that Malays have the highest divroce rate shows that this is a MALAY problem unique to things that people of our culture do (I'm Malay like you)
It will take someone daring enough to actually confront it. Too many in our world are too concerned with being politically correct but ignore issues.


I don't know what you said is true, but I have attended many Malay weddings where the bride has higher education than the bridegroom. Some working in the same place where the bride is at a higher position than the bridegroom. This is less common in the Chinese.

Sign of the times - the Malay like all other communities, is subjected to the same thing called 'progress'...
Nov 8, 2006