Zulfikar Shariff: Malays’ Non-Confrontational Attribute Prevents Them From Raising Discrimination Issues More Frequently

When we raise issues of discrimination in Singapura, one common response from non-Malays (usually Chinese) is that…

“It cannot be true. Why have I not heard of this before? I know some Malays and they did not tell me this.”

There are several obvious reasons.

1. You may know them but you do not really get to know them. They do not share with you.

2. You are actually not interested to know. You just want to defend the system.

3. You do not understand the culture and interaction style of the Malays.

The Malay culture seeks to avoid conflict. They do not like confrontation.

If saying something may make someone else uncomfortable they will rather keep quiet.

Some accuse Malays of “Tidak apa” attitude. This attitude is actually born out of their desire for peaceful relations.

Two of the main characteristics of Malay interaction are musyawarah and muafakat, usually translated as consultation and consensus building respectively.(Haacke, 2003, p. 4).

However, while these words are translated into English, what they mean have not been fully understood.

They mean much more than their translations.

They miss the subtleties of musyawarah and muafakat as social and political traditions.

Muafakat, which is a desired outcome of musyawarah, exists in the Malay social interaction as part of budi(Chong, 2012, p. 34). Budi in turn, is a key concept of Malay culture, and forms “part of the ethnic “self-image” of the Malay “bangsa, nation, race’”(Goddard, 2000, p. 87).

Wan Norhasniah Wan Husin(cited in Chong, 2012, pp. 10-11) identify budi as a social norm that encompasses the Malay world from the Peninsula to Sulawesi, Borneo and the Malay groups in the Philippines.

It refers to the Malay mode of social interaction that emphasizes harmony, good treatment of others, kindness and peaceful relations(Chong, 2012, p. 10; Goddard, 2000, p. 87).

According to Dahlan, ‘‘budi is composed of virtuous qualities such as hemah tinggi (generosity), hormat (respect), ikhlas (sincerity), mulia (righteous), timbang rasa (considerate), jaga hati (caring), budi bicara (discretion)…’’

He further notes that ‘‘the budi thinking man is never direct and forthright in his ways: his ways are subtle…to be blunt, direct and forthright especially if the end result is negative…is considered rude and out of tune in the Malay polite system…

Hence a budi thinking man is by nature polite and conflict-avoiding’’(cited in Paramasivam, 2007, p. 95) .

Muafakat can then be understood as the outcome of a social tradition that forms the Malay self-image which emphasizes virtue, subtlety, discretion, harmony and peaceful relations. It is not simply consensus building. Decision making has to lead to contentment and peaceful acceptance of every party involved.

Muafakat, musyawarah and budi are part of the Malay identity. It is so strongly held that it is one of the most defining attributes.

And the Malays expect a similar response. They expect those they interact with to similarly show these characteristics they hold as important.

And when they stop showing these characteristics, it is a sign that for them, the relationship may be over.

And do not expect anymore muafakat or budi from them.


Acharya, A. (2003). Democratisation and the prospects for participatory regionalism in Southeast Asia. Third World Quarterly, 24(2), 375-390.

Chong, J. W. (2012). ” Mine, Yours or Ours?”: The Indonesia-Malaysia Disputes over Shared Cultural Heritage. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 27(1), 1-53.

Goddard, C. (2000). ” Cultural Scripts” and Communicative Style in Malay (” Bahasa Melayu”). Anthropological linguistics, 81-106.

Haacke, J. (2003). ASEAN’s diplomatic and security culture : origins, development and prospects. Richmond: Routledge.

Paramasivam, S. (2007). Managing disagreement while managing not to disagree: Polite disagreement in negotiation discourse. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 36(2), 91-116.


Source: Zulfikar Shariff

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