Fitting In

by Mahina Shareef


In 2000, my parents migrated to Singapore from a conservative rural town in India with three young kids in tow. While the Indian Muslim community here has a long history, I want to explore my experience as a first-generation immigrant in relation to the Malay community. The presence of the Malay community here had given my parents reassurance that they could raise their kids with religious values in a westernized society. It gave them the strength to go against the tide of their relatives with conservative attitudes who had warned my parents that raising a girl child overseas was wrong. One can earn in any country but to raise a family required more.

Life overseas was perceived as wrong because it supposedly exposed a child to immoral behavior and thus encouraged such behavior; a girl child had to be protected. They stood firmly on their moral high ground. This was the circumstance under which we, as a family, migrated to Singapore, but the solidarity and Muslim brotherhood that welcomed us was complicated. Firstly, the religious sphere in Singapore is dominated by Malays with less consideration for Indian-Muslims. To my parents, the option of Madrasahs meant they could raise their daughter with both religious and academic schooling and the long, covered uniform Madrasah students wore appealed to them.

However, Madrasahs here only had Malay as a second language and so, much to my parents’ disappointment, I had to eventually enroll in a mainstream primary school. This was their first experience of realising religion was more Malay-centric here. As I grew older, the pictures of me receiving awards in school clad in a shirt and skirt stopped reaching the eyes of my relatives back home for the uniform was considered immodest. The influence of family back home extended into our lives despite the physical distance and more intensely so because of my gender. My father was considered an arrogant man for dismissing relatives’ advice so there was an increased pressure to conform to modesty, to continue religious practices, and more importantly to succeed and prove my father had made the right choice. I had to win, be it in school, exams or getting a good job while conforming to a strict sense of religion and tradition held by our extended family. My family played a game of hide-and-seek, only revealing our success and concealing our everyday life that was normal to us but unpalatable to relatives.

Indian Muslims’ religious practices were also considered inferior and less holy. There was thus the opinion that the higher and more pious practices of the Malays should be followed. For instance, I was told by my Malay Quran teacher that I had an Indian tongue that had to be corrected, that I was lucky to be taught by a MUIS accredited teacher and that Indian-Muslim asatizahs were not good enough to be recognized by MUIS. Presently, the rise of religious teaching in English has opened doors to religious education that had been restricted previously. The asatizh recognition scheme (ARS)’s requirements can be completed via either English or Malay courses as far as I have understood.

Personally, I have been introduced to evening and weekend religious classes in English by university friends so perhaps level of education is also a factor in these English classes. Secondly, there was a strong desire and necessity to emulate the Malays physically to integrate into this country. The CMIO categorization did not recognize Indian-Muslims. Integrating meant fitting into one of the categories so that the majority of Singaporeans could identify us as part of a race and part of the social fabric. The black abayas (and the dark skin tone) which had coined the slur, crows, by some Malays, was shed. Baju kurung and maxi-dresses were worn to the mosque. The loose shawl draped over the head was replaced by the tudung (hijab) which most people in Singapore recognized. If you had fair skin, you were lucky and you could pass for a Malay. If I wanted to be seen as a Singaporean, I had to look the part of the Malay. This was important to a first-generation immigrant who wanted to be seen as a citizen and to espouse the loyalties their parents had for their home country.

While Indian Muslims have integrated into the country’s fabric, we remain independent of the Malay community. There is little mixing between the two communities. Having Malay friends is the same as having Chinese friends in that the bonds are forged only at a certain level. These are unlike bonds of marriage which are complex and a sign of welcoming another fully into the family and community. I personally have seen very few marriages between the two and it can be attributed to two reasons. Firstly, Indian Muslims are very vested in their culture and language. There is pride and identity associated with the native places/cities that their family originated from. We have great grandmothers who spoke of the war against the British, of grandfathers who sailed to Ceylon. Our history in Singapore is short and our roots in India deep. Such a strong sense of identity runs in us which is so distinct that we do not expect Malays to understand the big importance we place on the cities we come from. This contributes to Indian Muslims preferring those who speak their own language, who follow their own customs and importantly, those who are willing to keep the connection to home alive.

The second reason for the low rate of inter-racial marriages, I am ashamed to admit, is the belief in the lazy Malay myth. We are fed the same assumptions and prejudices as other Singaporeans. To some extent, Indian-Muslims have faced less discrimination compared to Malays because of the cushioning effect of economic wealth. The young are more aware of these biases and have been more discerning which is heartwarming.

However, the truth remains that these poisons against Malays had been repeated and ingrained in the past. Intentional efforts to understand the Malay community are still lukewarm because a grudge remains among Indian-Muslims that they are a mere afterthought in matters of religion. Having to forsake a part of their own identity in exchange for belonging is a sour spot. The lack of organic interaction between the two communities might be due to a brush of egos and not seeing a tangible benefit in having deeper bonds with the other. Yes, our place in Singapore might be rocky but there is no threat. Therefore, there is no need to step out of our comfort zones to do more, we Indian Muslims reason.

However, I hope we realise we do not lose out by giving in, by going out of our way and by helping our Muslim brothers and sisters. This was the Muslim brotherhood my parents had anticipated back in 2000. Finally, I hope readers understand the crux of the issue extends beyond engaging the Malays to the bigger picture of being identified, acknowledged, understood, valued and simply seen as a distinct identity in our own rights in our home, Singapore.


Mahina is a medical student who credits education for giving her the strength to go against patriarchy and to stand up for herself. It took her time to accept that there are multiple facets to one’s identity. She writes fiction and poetry in Tamil and expresses her occasional anger in English.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu