Unpacking the Last Malay Woman

By Nurul Fadiah Johari

It is pretty common to hear the term “perempuan Melayu terakhir” in popular usage and every day parlance. One who is modern yet rooted to Malay traditions, one who is open-minded yet behaves demurely and dresses modestly, and so on. There is a film by that same title, which describes the female protagonist as a Malay woman who chose to engage in traditional Malay arts in rural Terengganu, despite her urban upbringing. The local Malay daily, Berita Harian, published an article in 2013 entitled “Enam Cara Jadi Perempuan Melayu Terakhir” (6 Ways to be the Last Malay Woman), giving tips to Malay women on how to achieve that ideal. We see images of a poised woman who smiles coyly – not laughing heartily, but just a slight smile to indicate her pleasure. She does not express too much of a personality, but enough to let people know that she is pleasant and unthreatening. She is composed and devoid of negativity, for she is an ideal – transcending the binaries of east and west, modern and traditional, religious and secular.

The term “akhir” which means “last” or “final” seems to suggest a nostalgic yearning for a past lost, where women were somehow simpler and more pleasant. Women today lack the gentle and mild-mannered courtesy that women of the past used to have, some would say. It is a quest for authenticity, the quest to find the remaining Malay woman who is true to her Malay roots and unfazed by the demands of modernity, Westernization and all other elements foreign to the Malay culture. She is the last one, amidst all others, to stay rooted and not compromising on her authentic Malay femininity. As such, she stands out as being able to achieve “the best of both worlds”.

This idea, to me, not only seems like a fantasy, but is also inherently ideological and problematic. Yet, it is rare to find people challenging this notion. This idea fundamentally reflects societal expectations of women and the privileging of certain aspects of femininity that are seen as authentically Malay. It is based on a selection of romanticized images of demureness, as well as the emphasis on purity and modesty — sexually, emotionally and materially. The ideal Malay woman is not only chaste, but also holds back when it comes to asserting her full personality and expressing her deeper and sometimes, darker desires. She is thus made into an image, or a representation of certain concerns and anxieties in society. The bigger questions that we thus need to ask are: who projects these ideals or images and for what reasons?

Monolithic ideals of femininity: “The last Malay woman”

Any idea in society becomes monolithic when it goes unchallenged and supported by the status quo. Monolithic notions of femininity in the Malay society reflect the deeply embedded patriarchal order which casts judgment and imposes certain standards upon women. Our ideal notions of femininity are thus not neutral, since they privilege traits of submissiveness and docility in women, which protect the patriarchal values and structures in society. The last Malay woman, as an idea, perpetuates the very same notion that a woman is not complex, and does not have her own historical and political agency. She does not assert her own values and aspirations, but is subjected to the aspirations of others, especially those who have the power to shape her according to their wishes. She is made into a simplistic representation of how a good Malay woman should be, based on clear-cut binaries, and is thus lacking in her full agency as a person. She does not speak for herself in these images, and sometimes internalizes and perpetuates this fantasy.

The fetishization of submissive and docile traits in a woman, above all else, is a tool of power and disciplining of women. A woman is judged for laughing too loudly in public, for that is unbecoming of a good woman. She is shamed for dressing in a way that does not conform to certain dress codes, and it is often women who bear the brunt of bodily and sexual shaming. In other words, she has to hold back. She has to tamper her public presence with reservation, often reduced to physical modesty. She cannot assert her bodily and sexual agency, for that would upset and threaten the patriarchal order. She is only allowed to be sexual within the legalistic confines of a marriage, and perform exceedingly well at that, because her sexuality is ultimately tied to the approval of her husband.

The last Malay woman as the embodiment of social anxieties over rapid social change

In the projection of the last Malay woman, the Malay woman is made into a bastion of culture and morality. The essentialist and unchanging notions of the Malay woman, while encapsulating the best of both worlds, straddling comfortably between the dichotomies of east and west, modern and traditional, rural and urban – are very much tied to essentialized notions of what it means to be Malay. The notion of Malayness and authenticity is thus put into question. At the same time, we do not have the same idea of “the last Malay man” being trumpeted constantly in popular culture and everyday parlance. The man is able to change with the times, being modern and economically contributing. The woman, on the other hand, while also modern and economically contributing, is at the same time still “traditional” and somehow unchanging. As such, the last Malay woman should be able to reap the benefits of modernity, but without its excesses, and in a way that is unthreatening to the existing patriarchal order.

The gentle and smiling face of the last Malay woman becomes a source of familiarity amidst the anxieties of rapid social change. Because she remains steadfast to “authentic” Malay values and is unchanging, she becomes a balm to the pain and collective shame from colonialism. The desire for authenticity is a post-colonial reaction, especially by middle-class Malays who have been disconnected from rural communities, and experienced upward social mobility and rapid modernization. The Malay woman thus becomes a bastion from such anxieties. The binary that the projection of the last Malay woman seeks to overcome is based on ideas perpetuated by the colonizers about how the colonized Other is unchanging, simple and traditional. So the modern Malay, while having adopted Western institutions and cultural forms, still remains authentic by being inwardly traditional and conservative. Such ideas still go unchallenged and are often retained and perpetuated by the political and cultural elites, most of whom are male.

Neither first nor last: The many facets of a Malay woman

We have to thus go back to the question of who imposes certain ideals in society and for what purposes. What sort of ideals are we casting upon Malay women? What constitutes as traditions, and what constitutes as an ideal? As argued earlier, the idea of the last Malay woman is a kind of ideal that does not threaten or disrupt the social order – where a woman is constantly smiling and does not express her discontentment. She works hard, but for her family. She beautifies herself, but also modestly. It is always a matter of tampering her presence by making her hold back her full personhood.

But what about women who do not fit into the mould? What about those who asserted themselves publicly? What about those who struggled for the dignity of their community and nation? Who gets selected to fit this ideal? What about women like Shamsiah Fakeh and others who took arms to fight for independence of the nation and women’s emancipation? Would these women fall into the image of the last Malay woman? Some of them even trained to use rifles while wearing baju kurung. If we look at Malay literature, we also see diversity in the portrayals of various types of female protagonists. Faridah Hanom, in Hikayat Faridah Hanom for instance, is a modern woman who asserts her desires for independence to choose her own partner and calling in life.

And why last? Why not first? Why not become the harbingers of a new era or mode of being? Malay women are also active agents in carving out our histories, and are not passive beings, unlike what some would like to believe. We have been engaging, participating and resisting against various forms of cultural, patriarchal and imperialist impositions. Such histories and narratives thus need to be made to the fore. And perhaps, what we seek is not to be the first or the last, but to transcend such a simplistic and monolithic understanding of how we ought to be.


Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee

Nurul Fadiah is currently a research assistant with the Social Service Research Centre in NUS. She recently graduated with an MA degree in Malay Studies. She also volunteers actively under AWARE’s Gender Equality is our Culture (GEC) programme, which aims to promote gender-equitable interpretations of religion and culture within the local Muslim community. She started a support group for women who grew up in Muslim households called Penawar, which addresses problems of trauma based on religion, through problems such as patriarchal religious interpretation, religious coercion and body shaming/moral policing, sexuality issues and mental illness.