Contesting Media Representations of Malay Youth Delinquency in Singapore

A book report by Transformative Justice Collective, adapted from the work of Siti Hazirah Mohamad

Hazirah analysed media representations of Malay youth delinquency for her Bachelor’s and Master’s theses, and conducted numerous interviews with the shows’ scriptwriters as well as incarcerated youth and social workers. Hazirah is also a member of TJC!

The shows she analysed were Anak Metropolitan and Hanyut.

Anak Metropolitan aired on Suria from 2002–2012. The show stereotyped Malay youth ‘delinquents’ as aggressive rioters and tattooed gang members engaging in illicit activities like drug dealing and theft.

The docu–drama Hanyut was screened from 2005-2007, featuring enactments of Malay youths committing crimes. It showcased interviews with youth workers to create the impression that it was based on reality.

Where do these stereotypes come from?

According to the sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas, it goes further back than we might think. He argues that British colonialism constructed and reinforced the image of Malays as economically and culturally backward, lazy natives in Singapore.

Lily Zubaidah Rahim, in The Singapore Dilemma, challenges the cultural deficit thesis, which suggests that Malay youth delinquency is produced by an inherent deficiency in Malay culture. 

This attitude pinpoints Malay culture as the source of the problem, rather than class and racial inequality. The Singapore state continues to perpetuate this myth to justify further control of the Malay community.

Tania Li writes that society portrays Malays as having cultural values “detrimental to economic progress”. Thus social issues like teenage pregnancy and youth delinquency are regarded as “masalah Melayu” (the Malay problem).

For example, starting from 2005, PM Lee Hsien Loong has used National Day rallies to raise the spectre of dysfunctional Malay couples who marry early and divorce young as a factor hindering the progress of the Malay community.

Suriani Suratman shows how the state constructs the narrative of the Malay community as “problematic”, unable to take advantage of opportunities and struggling to catch up with other ethnic groups.

The Malay-language media

The show Anak Metropolitan is a cultural touchstone for the Malay community in Singapore: many Malay people grew up watching it, and had their ideas of Malay youth delinquency influenced by its representations.

These images are further cemented in the Malay media, where youth delinquency is often presented as a ‘Malay problem’. Newspapers like Berita Harian blame delinquency on “keluarga pincang” (dysfunctional families). The word “pincang” suggests something deformed that must be fixed.

Malay newspapers often sensationalise “Malay problems” like youth delinquency, teenage pregnancy, clubbing, etc. They create moral panics so that even Malays think that there must be something wrong with being Malay.

To unpack these stereotypes and understand how they came to be accepted as reality, Hazirah analysed Anak Metropolitan, close-read newspaper articles in the Malay media, and conducted interviews with the show’s scriptwriters. She found that the scriptwriters used statistics that framed these social issues through the lens of ethnicity.

Several scriptwriters mentioned that they did “research” by watching YouTube videos and reading Malay newspaper articles. One said, “I fictionalise it to make it interesting.”

Youth delinquency, in Anak Metropolitan, became symbols reflecting the anxiety of the Malay community with regards to its perceived cultural deficiency.

But are these stereotypes true?

Hazirah interviewed six Malay youth aged 16–21 who all had Court Orders issued against them for crimes like physical assault, theft and drug use. She found that they all had diverse experiences that went against conventional stereotypes of youth delinquents.

Stereotype: “Keluarga pincang” and divorce are the main causes of youth delinquency

Lived Experience: Some parents remarried or entered unconventional family arrangements, and continued caring for children

Stereotype: Parents or caregivers of youth ‘delinquents’ are lazy and unwilling to work

Lived Experience: One single mother cared for three children and had to work multiple jobs just to get by

Stereotype: Youth ‘delinquents’ are influenced by bad company

Lived Experience: Youths had friends but made their own decisions, and took responsibility for their actions

Coming into contact with institutions

The youths were aware of media representations of Malay delinquency, and found them to be exaggerated and unfair.

Stereotype: Youth ‘delinquents’ are uninterested in school and try to negatively influence “good” kids

Lived Experience: Some were enthusiastic but not given the opportunity to return to school; one had a dedicated teacher who helped her return

Stereotype: Youth ‘delinquents” parents don’t care about their education

Lived Experience: All the youths’ parents sent them to school; some sacrificed the family’s financial betterment

Stereotype: Youth ‘delinquents’ view incarceration as a badge of honour

Lived Experience: Many youths had longer sentences due to lack of access to a lawyer, and were afraid to face the judge

Stereotype: Youth ‘delinquents’ become aimless after their release

Lived Experience: After their release, access to a probation officer ironically helped these youths gain access to resources they previously did not have because of their socioeconomic status, and to re-enrol in school

So what?

Hazirah’s study shows that media representations are one primary way through which stereotypes about Malay youth delinquency are produced.

We must ask, is Malay youth delinquency really a result of these stereotypes about Malay people and culture (e.g. laziness), or the deep inequality of a system that requires some individuals to go to such extreme lengths just to survive?

Understanding that these youths’ lived realities are much more complex than we might know, and tied to structural factors like race and class, enables us to shift the narrative. 

Instead of a cultural deficit theory that blames Malay culture and criminalises the choices of the marginalised, we can instead address people’s material conditions and lived realities that cause them to make the choices they do.

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