A Malay schoolgirl’s chronology of class and race

by Sya Taha


In Secondary Two, after sports training, a friend said she could give me a lift in her father’s car. When I got in, I looked at the driver – it was not her father but a middle-aged Malay man.


In Primary One, I was called to see the English teacher. “Did you write this composition yourself?” I had written, as the last sentence of a short essay introducing myself, “I am very clever.”

In Primary Two, I was so bored in class that I was given assessment books to complete by myself while the girl behind me kept falling asleep in class and was getting 10/100 for a mathematics exam.

In Primary Three, I was selected for the ‘gifted’ stream and had to transfer to a school that offered the programme. The nearest school to my home in the east was a bilingual (read: Mandarin) independent school, but the principal explained that the school did not offer the Malay language by saying, “We don’t accept Malays.” I went to a school in the west instead, where I was one of two girls in the class who studied Malay.

In Primary Four, I was the only one in the class who did not know that C came before A – in music, at least. Since I was the only one who could not sight-read music, I had no choice but to pretend that I did and learn it as fast as I could, struggling in my own time. It turned out that everyone else was learning piano or violin (this was rumoured to be especially good for improving one’s math skills) and had been, for years.

Halfway in the year, the day before a project report was due, I went to a nearby shop in the neighbourhood to print and bind it. When I submitted it the next day, I saw that one girl had printed her report at home, in colour, with a laser printer.

In Primary Five, the entire level was in the afternoon session, except the ‘gifted’ students. Since the Malay students from all classes normally met in one classroom for the mother tongue lesson period, this meant that the two of us were not enough to warrant a teacher. So, for this year, we joined the students from Primary Six – we were two ‘kids’ amongst the kakak-kakak.

In Secondary One, as the number of ‘gifted’ Malay girls in my cohort increased by 50 percent to three, we were given the task of representing our community. This time, we had to prepare a presentation on Islam, and we did a reasonably safe, uncritical explanation of the Five Pillars and Six Articles – whatever we had received in our weekend religious education.

My classmates had lives I could not conceive of. Compact discs (CDs) were a coveted luxury, and one girl used to buy singles – imagine that, just one song on one CD! Another girl lived in a hotel suite where her father was a manager, and another girl’s parents brought us once a week to a country club, where we ate fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. They had birthday parties, with music and dancing and cupcake-decorating. It was all fascinating but strange to me.

For them too, I was probably just as strange. Was I possibly the only Malay person they had known, outside of their drivers and gardeners? A friend of one of my classmate’s parents once asked, as they drove me home, “When Malays say ‘Maaf Zahir Batin’ during Hari Raya, do they really mean it?” At 10 years old, I suddenly had to take on the task of simultaneously representing an entire community and defending insinuations of their duplicitous character.


Even though I was raised to make polite conversation with makcik and pakcik, I did not say a single (Malay) word to the Malay driver in my friend’s car. As he drove, the social class between a teenager and her elder never felt as unbridgeable as it did at that moment.


Sya Taha is a PhD candidate researching on obstetric violence in Singapore. Her interests include decolonial theory, intersectional feminism and medical anthropology. She co-founded and co-runs Crit Talk, a safe discussion space for Muslims.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu