Apa salahku?: Unpacking Narratives around Domestic Violence in the Malay-Muslim Community (Part 1)

By: N.H. Rahman

This article is part 1 of a 2-part series that critically examines how the problem of domestic violence within the Malay/Muslim population is imagined. Please read part 2 when it is released! [Part 1 of 2]

Content Warning: This post discusses domestic violence and institutional understandings and responses to domestic violence. This includes mentions of victim-blaming, retraumatisation and procedures utilised by social services and the criminal justice system.


Almost a decade ago, I handed my mother brochures for an anti-violence campaign I was involved in. “Mama, tengok (look), these are the workshops I’ve been helping to run. Nak ikut (Want to join in)?”. She glanced at it. Perhaps the word ‘empowering individuals’ was on the brochure, perhaps it was how I sold the message. Either way, her response was, “Kenapa? Apa salah ngan Mama? (Why? What’s the problem with me?)”.

I remember being struck by this, but its gravity did not hit me fully until much later. Her reaction makes sense. The solution you are continually offered shapes the limits of how you imagine the problem. 

Conventional studies accept policies as neutral, rational solutions to social problems. But policies – everything from community campaigns to laws – have the power to influence and shape definitions, frameworks and representations. If the solution to end domestic violence (DV) is empowerment, the problem suggested is  that you are too disempowered. You are framed as the problem.

This is part one of a two-part series summarising my study on DV policies in Singapore. I used an approach called ”What’s the problem represented to be?” to explore how the problem of DV within the Malay/Muslim population has been imagined (and its limitations). I interviewed professionals who work with families going through DV, and, later, analysed policy texts. Throughout, I argue that Malay/Muslim women’s experiences of DV are shaped not simplistically by what has been imagined as the problem (often assumed to be violence related almost solely to “cultural” or religious beliefs, practices, customs or laws). Instead, I argue that it is manipulated by capitalist, patriarchal, authoritarian and colonial governance that violates and restricts safety and health, through housing, welfare and social service policies that, together, uniquely affect the Indigenous population. 

Examining the environmental and historical context

Domestic violence cannot be fully understood without looking at the greater environment it sits within. We need to consider not only Malay/Muslims’ racial, religious and economic positions in Singapore, but also the Singapore State’s governance. More significantly (and often ignored in the discussion of DV), we need to recognise Malay indigeneity, the intergenerational repercussions of historical colonisation and the ongoing colonialism that continues to shape our experiences in the country.

Having said that, there are many who consider colonialism a thing of the past, something Singapore left behind when we became an independent republic. But while colonisation can be seen as an event or a period (like the period of British colonisation that Singapore went through), colonialism in contrast, has been defined as a process or a movement that endures “beyond the life-span of the colonial situation”. The impact of both colonisation and colonialism on Indigenous populations’ social, political and health outcomes have been well-documented internationally. Indigenous peoples had—and in many cases continue to have—their land dispossessed and their traditional social, welfare, healthcare and political structures eroded. Colonisation expanded capitalist systems and Indigenous populations in many colonised states were economically disenfranchised and forced into low-waged labour. 

As Indigenous people of Singapore, Malays were similarly affected by colonisation, which brought to our shores a racial pecking order that relegated Malays to the bottom rungs of economic growth. The racist myth of the inferior or “lazy” native persists in modern Singapore’s political discourse, eugenicist policies, and cultural memory, tracing its genealogy back to a colonial depiction of Malays. But coloniality is not just about the endurance of stereotypical beliefs, or even belief systems. It cements its dominating power in structures and institutions, such as our legal, healthcare and social organisation systems. Today, it maintains Malay marginality in economic, political and educational realms, manifesting in poorer health outcomes and driven by policies such as the Ethnic Integration Programme, that minoritise Malays, and splinter and reduce their electoral force (Rahim, 1998). 

How can we understand the links between colonialism and experiences of domestic violence? There are many ways to approach this complex relationship and many Indigenous researchers have offered us maps to trace the connections. For instance, it is often said that for women to leave violent relationships, there has to be environmental or material conditions that make leaving a possibility. We often hear of how women who experience violence in the home do not have strong social systems to support them, and to help remove themselves, whether temporarily or permanently, from violent situations. But colonialism changed these conditions for Indigenous people dramatically. Researchers have argued that, by weakening Indigenous peoples’ relationships with their land, neighbours, and families, colonialism caused a loss of autonomy and disrupted the ability to practice self-determination, thus disintegrating the systems of accountability necessary to end DV. 

I wrote my study in Aotearoa New Zealand, a settler colony where the British Crown continues to dominate, with devastating consequences on the Indigenous Māori population. One Māori researcher (Cavino, 2017) wrote about intergenerational sexual violence and whānau (Indigenous extended family), exploring how the process of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand had changed Māori traditional systems of organisation and, thus, social control. The whānau was transformed “from a public collectivity of inter-related family members raising children and caring for the elderly in concert—to a private family: a mother, a father, and children contained within four walls”. In other words, the erosion of traditional family structures into private, nuclear families also disintegrated traditional ways of accountability and recovery. To summarise, I quote directly from her paper where she succinctly and powerfully described this relationship between colonialism and DV:

While there are obvious differences between Singapore and Aotearoa that should not be flattened, there are also many connections. Although my study’s framework did not allow for a detailed examination of DV experiences, it began with the recognition that coloniality is very much present in Singapore’s governance, and that, in turn, creates assumptions about what the problem of and solutions to DV are within the Malay/Muslim community.  

My findings

I interviewed people who worked with DV survivors because I wanted to learn about how they understood the “problem of DV”. Their representations of DV were then mapped against the environmental context DV sits within, which I laid out above. Below are the major themes that were identified in my analysis.

Patriarchal violence, religious authoritarianism and the State

In all my interviews, participants named how gender roles are fundamental to women’s experiences of DV. DV was discussed in terms of expectations of women’s subservience, a male head of household, and as a gendered phenomenon. Discussions on obedience to the male head of household sometimes use the legal term ‘nushuz’ (Administration of Muslim Law Act). 

But in Singapore, deference to (male) authority is not limited to the household. The State, too, upholds elitist and hierarchical social structures, using the refrain of pragmatism, meritocracy, and traditional ‘Asian values’ to defend patriarchal authoritarianism (E. Tan, 2008). An everyday example can be seen in Singapore’s “head of household” policy concept. We also see this in draconian legislation, which has been used to crush dissent and political criticism (Jaipragas, 2019), and the continued use of corporal punishment, which disproportionately affect minorities and legitimises State violence. 

In my interviews, one participant shared how egalitarian interpretations of Islamic text (where gender justice is concerned, this may include ideas like Islamic feminism), face resistance from the community because there is widespread acceptance of traditional gender roles. But we also need to explore this lack of acceptance within the context of the State’s restrictive laws and policies surrounding race and religion, which act as a “coercive instrument” that “castrate(s)…alternatives in civil society” (K. Tan, 2017, p.68). The presence of MUIS, a largely conservative statutory board which relies on predominantly male leadership (Jamil, 2016), may also act as a barrier in the expansion of religious discourse into more progressive arenas. It is not unreasonable to see the trickle effects of coercive State control resulting in the inability for progressive religious ideas to gain traction and thus, both directly and indirectly endorsing religious and patriarchal authoritarianism.

Housing and income in a patriarchal and capitalist economy 

Economic and housing insecurity are major barriers to safety for women facing DV. With Malay/Muslim couples being overrepresented in divorce statistics in Singapore, the population may be disproportionately affected by economic and housing policies (“Marital Status, Marriages and Divorces”, 2020). Single parents face rampant housing discrimination and there are no known housing or financial assistance policies that specifically support those experiencing DV. 

Neoliberal policies, which centre self-reliant individuals, sometimes with families as the “first line of support” (Jagdish, 2018a) is at work here, valuing “individual initiative, enterprise and responsibility” (Ishkanian, 2014, p.334), and encouraging individuals to be self-sufficient. In other words, even though the State’s social services are touted as a major intervening and preventative instrument in the eradication of DV, State support and housing, in reality, only comes in as a last resort.

Moreover, the role of EIP (“Ethnic Integration Policy”, n.d.) must be recognised for what it is: an imposition of racial quotas on ethnically minoritised population to maintain a Chinese majority.  Ethnic minorities have fewer opportunities than the Chinese population to have their application for housing in their preferred estate accepted (“Written Answer”, 2021). EIP also has a ripple effect on the day-to-day lives of ethnic minorities (Lim, 2021).


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The choice of women to stay in abusive marriages becomes a reasonable strategy in a society where safety, housing, livelihood, and overall welfare are not public goods, but relies on private capital from nuclear patriarchal families.  


Friends, family & religious community

Participants discussed women’s social support systems which are inadequately equipped to support them. I am reminded of the links Indigenous scholars have made between colonisation, fractured communities and weaker systems of accountability. Poor social support does not simply happen because of stigma surrounding “broken marriages”, but also material constraints. Under-resourced, weakened, materially poorer, ethnically minoritised communities are more deeply and directly affected by divorce. It is not unreasonable to recognise family and friends’ unhelpful advice for women to work through abusive relationships as a response, whether overtly or subconsciously, to material constraints that are a result of neoliberal policies. 

Moreover, women who reach out to religious leaders are often given unsupportive advice, prioritizing ‘patience’ and ‘endurance’. Some participants felt that public education by MUIS has not been adequate, that it does not trickle down to asatizah’s teachings/advice, and that MUIS should take on a more decisive role in challenging patriarchal family structures. However, we need to first acknowledge that MUIS itself functions within a patriarchal and authoritarian State. An expansion of MUIS’ powers would simply mean an expansion of the paternalistic reaches of the State.

Police, PPOs and criminal justice system 

In my interviews, participants discussed the lack of powers and sensitivity that the police have in terms of DV intervention, and the limitations of a Personal Protection Order (PPO). However, any push to rely on a stronger, supposedly more empathetic or progressive system of police, prosecutors, courts and punishments – a.k.a. “carceral feminism” – assumes that violence is a problem of individuals’ behaviour, and that the problem to fix is within those individuals (Kim, 2019; Sweet, 2016). It ignores the systemic nature of DV, and silences the State as a perpetrator of violence. Furthermore, criminal justice punishments disproportionately impact ethnically minoritised groups (Ganapathy & Lian, 2016) and this demands a more complex undertaking of the problem with policing. 

Yet, despite these realities, few participants spoke about barriers or discrimination Malay/Muslim women face when making police reports, accessing PPOs and criminal justice remedies. One said, “I’ve never seen outright discrimination because someone is from the Muslim community.” But “discrimination” cannot only be simplistically recognised as overtly unfair or unequal treatment against particular groups. To recognise systemic discrimination, one has to be conscious of the existing and historical social stratification of society. Malay/Muslims are “Othered” in ways that are normalised, as well, including through the legitimisation of discrimination against Muslim workers who wear the tudung, the framing of it as an issue of Muslims who do not make an effort to “compromise and integrate themselves” (J. Tan, 2014), and the narratives of the ‘disloyal’ and potentially dangerous Malay/Muslim citizen in nationalist discourse (W.M. Tan, 2020). This “Othering” changes the shape of both policing, and the ability to see the police as a source of support or help. 

Social services & shelters


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Women more often than not have to have been physically harmed recently before crisis shelters become an option, given that admission policies do not account for experiences of coercive control. Crisis shelters function only to support women who are not “at risk” of physical or mental illnesses, and excludes disabled people, showing a shocking lack of care for the impact that violence has on women’s bodies and lives. 

One participant spoke about how some women may fear institutionalisation, based on a case where a DV victim was once, in her youth, institutionalised through a juvenile home. This is consistent with research which criticises shelter systems for being modelled after prison systems: women are monitored, policed and isolated, mimicking abusive patterns of control that further remove women from their communities.

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(Star Shelter, 2020)

Keeping women safe from violent relationships should not rely on social and organisational methods of monitoring and controlling women’s lives, as it reproduces paternalistic forces of subjugation. Participants also spoke directly about the struggles that Muslim women face in the social service system as religious and racial minorities. 


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Yet very few participants who work in service settings shared any relevant “cultural competence” training they have received. Most had to rely on their own immersion into the culture or religion. Knowledge of culture and Muslim personal law are “othered” to minority workers, rather than something inherently woven into working with DV survivors


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Text, letter

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When something is assumed to be “unique” to the Malay/Muslim population, it tends to be contextualised within spiritual abuse, Islamic law or conservative Quranic interpretations. Not enough is discussed about the Malay/Muslim population’s unique social, political and economic marginality. The imagined “sameness” of violent experiences across all ethnic/religious demographics flattens Malay/Muslim women’s realities. This has a damaging effect on the options women are given and in the trust that minoritised groups have of social services. Rather than demanding that women be accountable to institutions that monitor their behaviour, we have to ask: how are our social services accountable to minoritised communities?


The patriarchal and authoritarian State paternalistically governs the options for women going through DV, seen through neoliberal housing, welfare and social service policies. Women are presented with two broad options: either work through abusive relationships through State mediation or leave violent relationships but face structural and material consequences. This has a particularly damaging effect on Malay/Muslims whose social, economic and political outcomes are negatively shaped by colonisation and continued colonialism. In the second part of this series, I turn to policy texts, to interrogate how the State has imagined the problem of DV, based on what it offers up as “solutions”.

[Full thesis with a complete reference list can be found here]


Nabilah is a researcher, writer, and artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington). Currently, she is doing research on how Asian migrants participate in Treaty of Waitangi justice efforts and movements in Aotearoa New Zealand. She makes art at nebula.art89.

Illustration by Elisa Tanaka