Singaporean Malay teen girls from disadvantaged backgrounds: between feelings of unfulfillable responsibility and self-stereotypes?

During my 3 years of research in Singapore, as part of a wider research on Malay youth in Singapore, I studied the social identity formation of Malay teen Muslim girls from socially and economically disadvantaged families. Methodologically, not only have I conducted in-depth interviews but also, thanks to organizations such as Clubilya, 4PM and Petrapis, had the opportunity to engage in participant observation of several group activities involving these girls. Facebook has furthermore provided a level of access that years before would have been imaginable to an anthropologist studying youth. There is no need to summarize here the number of newspaper articles dealing with the issues that some of these teenage Malay girls face in Singapore, such as gang membership, involvement in fighting, underage sex and pregnancy. The problems are well known, and although they are scarcely discussed in the academic literature (Rahman, 2009; Zhang, et. al. 2009), they are the focus of some Honours and Masters theses in NUS, Sociology. Unsurprisingly, being that the mass media is the main voice discussing the troubles that some of these girls may face, stereotypes are easily developed.

In this short contribution, I wish to instead focus on more positive elements. The majority of the teenage girls I have met, some of whom were residents within welfare homes, are not passive recipients of ‘re-education’ models, but rather extremely active in rethinking their position as an agent in their own lives (Grobe et al., 2001). During my research, however, I noticed two main risks, if not obstacles, within this positive process. Briefly, I shall address them here.

The first element is linked to ‘expectations’ and the second to ‘self-stereotypes’. Singapore is a multiracial country in which what Goh has called the ‘racial grid of state multiculturalism’ (2009: 217) maintains the ethnic and religious harmony that this city-state enjoys and strives for.

Yet as I have highlighted elsewhere (Marranci 2011), it inevitably brings the state and the society to compare and contrast communities, and consequently the individuals within them, against one another, with the most statistically successful, the Chinese, being the point of reference. Meritocracy is the instrument that Singapore adopts within the ‘racial grid of state multiculturalism’ to avoid that one particular community may be advantaged (Tan, 2008).

Surely meritocracy has social benefits yet there are also risks and ‘side effects’, as any social cultural tool. One of these is the facilitation of utopian expectations, or the discussion about the ideal, perfect system, the ʻwhat-should-beʼ vis-à-vis the ʻwhat isʼ. In other words, social meritocracy cultivates a rhetoric of ‘achievers’ versus ‘nonstarters’.

Malay teen girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, like many other young Singaporeans, use what I call an epistemological framework to make sense of their social and cultural environment and to position themselves within it. Part of this framework is the idea of continuous individual progress and improvement as a contribution to the development of the community at large in the ‘competition’ of social meritocracy.

Hence, personal ‘failure’ in these girls’ epistemological framework is perceived as equal to failing their community, in this case the Malay Muslim community, which although improving overall, is still struggling according to the statistical measurements applied to the ‘racial grid of state multiculturalism’.

This process, my research suggests, facilitates a feeling of unfulfillable responsibility in many of these Malay girls, more so than in the case of teen boys in similar situations. The reason is that, as my research has shown, the Malay community perceive these girls as the future mothers of ‘must-be successful’ Malay generations. This gender specific pressure is uneven and clearly underestimated in the scarce academic literature but also in social intervention initiatives.

Another important phenomenon, linked to the above, which has a rather negative impact, is self-stereotyping. My research has suggested that Malay teen girls from disadvantaged backgrounds employ self-stereotyping more than other teens. Gordon Allport (1954) has noticed that one consequence of prejudice is that people often apply cultural stereotypes to themselves (i.e. self-stereotyping).

Research has suggested that self-stereotyping results from cognitive associations and social-identity salience (Sinclair et al. 2006: 529). George Herbert Mead (1934) has suggested that self-concepts are formed and regulated by adopting otherʼs perspectives on the self. Hence Sinclair has been right in observing that ʻbecause stereotypes about the groups to which one belongs represent commonly shared perspectives on the self, self-evaluation may be influenced by the stereotypes associated with oneʼs most salient social group membership, consistent with popular contemporary theories that implicate cognitive accessibility in self- understandingʼ (2006: 530).

I will not go into detail here, but self-stereotyping was particularly evident among teenagers and young adults (aged between 13-22 years old). The stereotypes were used to read themselves not only as individuals but also as a part of Singapore. Many of the stereotypes–based on well known and unfortunate representations of ‘the Malay’–  helped to justify the difficulties they may have encountered both at work or at an educational level.

Family problems, or in certain cases even explanations of criminal behaviors, were often read through stereotypes frequently projected onto the Malay/Muslim ʻcommunity.ʼ The main issue is that some of these young people seemed to be unaware that they were actually employing stereotypes and accepted them as part of a supposed ‘Singaporean’ epistemological framework.

It is important that when addressing educational needs, planning activities and assistance, social workers and youth educators, as well as politicians, are familiar with these often hidden negative dynamics. Indeed, they may explain the recurrent and pernicious difficulties that some of these girls have in their path towards a successful adulthood; difficulties which too often are instead judgmentally blamed upon the character of the girl.

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