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2007: Would the Financial Habits of Malays Land Them in Financial Disasters?

I can’t say I didn’t notice it, but perhaps the trend I see is widespread not just among Malays. I just came back from in-camp not too long ago, and while my days have been busy in there, I sort of noticed something very eye-catching.

I am the MINORITY that does not drive into camp! and most of my unit is aged younger than me!

Among my 10 brothers from secondary school, half of us own cars directly or indirectly. This middle-income luxury group is becoming very easy to own with full installment and zero downpayment car financing.

I would say I do my budgeting quite well, and I have absolutely no idea how they can afford a car and maintain savings for retirement, giving to parents and servicing mortgages. Unless I am bloody underpaid.

Interestingly, Chong did asked me if I will be buying a car soon yesterday night. I told him that I considered it and never think its a good idea. The convenience premium is just too much for a low earning boy like me. That day, I chat with my Auditing Consultant Corrinne and asked why her husband and her don’t own a car.

Their funding is mostly channeled to their 2 children’s education and learning needs. Now that is a different way of spending disposable income! Enriching your children is much more fulfilling then convenience. She would rather squeeze with commuters on a Tibs bus to Yishun and Take the MRT to Woodlands then forgo their children’s education. (The education, not cheap loh! $2000 bucks per month!)

Learn what fulfills you, live a frugal life.

This article was first posted on 29th Dec 2007. It was written on but as of Jan 2020, the site is offline.

By Ridzwan

Do this simple experiment when you have the time: stand by the side of a busy road in Singapore. Now count the number of cars that drive past and note down the driver’s race. You will soon observe that most of the time, 2 out of 10 cars will be occupied by a Malay family.

There may never be a proper poll on Malay car “ownership” but one cannot deny that lately there has been a surge in its number. Things like these are simply noticeable.

2 out of 10 is a very alarming statistic even for a straw poll, considering the race’s population makeup and socioeconomic status. Malays make up only about 14% of our population, most of whom are not within the high-income brackets. But “buying” a car seems to be the latest craze among Malays today.

Junior government officers, dispatch riders, clerks, traffic wardens, and even security guards – just some of the typical Malay professions who are now discovering that they can suddenly “afford” the ultimate middle-class symbol.

It used to be that Courts Superstore was the only place where Malay men would chalk up huge installment plans on their frivolous purchases. But ever since the enactment of the $0 down payment allowance for cars, the Malay man’s obsession with installments now includes his dream set of wheels.

The Money Habits of Malay

Malays have had dubious money habits since time can remember.

Commerce and economic aspirations were never a regular feature of our culture. Accumulation of excess wealth is generally frowned upon as it’s considered avaricious and evil.

Any excess that one has should be shared with the community.

Malays are, after all, a very communal society.

But the situation changed as time moved on.

Realizing the importance of success, a handful in the Malay community advanced themselves well socially and economically. They found good jobs and good positions in society. The quality of their lives improved and they soon could afford bigger homes and other symbols of the middle class like cars and fancy home interiors.

Inadvertently, the growing affluence of this relatively small group of Malays bred silent resentment among the rest. Pressure grew among the majority members of the Malay community to keep up with their well-to-do relatives and friends.

They too wanted the middle-class symbols like cars and fancy home interiors. Materialism slowly becomes part of the Malay culture in Singapore. It doesn’t matter if people had to borrow money to get these symbols, as long as they kept up.

Today easy credit is available wherever you go.

The booming economy is seeing Malays happily lapping up symbols like cars, home renovations, and fanciful weddings – on credit.

I personally know a poly grad friend who recently took out a $30k loan to fund a lavish wedding reception complete with a live band and a famous DJ. And yeah, a car loan is on the way for him too.

Chaps like him are not uncommon today. Many of our youngsters are indiscriminately taking on numerous credit cards and needless car loans. If the situation is left unchecked, the community will be self-destructing financially in the near future. Already the signs are there. According to a figure by the credit bureau, Malays now make up the biggest chunk of personal bankruptcy rates percentage-wise.

All it takes is for the economy to go into another prolonged recession before the rest check into the poor house. This will have serious implications for all of us as Malays are a relatively poor community to start with, struggling to build even our mosques and madrasahs. Something needs to be done and it has to be done soon.

Four “I”s of the Malay Money Habits

Malay Money Habits are characterized with the following 4 ‘I’s. They are namely income impairment, imperative to impress, inclination to credit and imprudence in financial matters.

1. Income Impairment

It is well known that Malay workers do not earn as much as their counterparts due to their education level. The majority of our young professionals enter the workforce with only an ITE certificate or Polytechnic diploma, drawing mediocre salaries with nominal yearly increments.

On top of that, our community is still dealing with a large number of premature school leavers. Most have no impetus to neither carry on studying nor improve their earning capabilities and are set for a life of perpetual mediocrity.

However, the need to feel like a member of the middle class runs high and meager income earners bridge this disparity by taking on loans. Today, more and more meager income earners are proudly driving around in brand new cars clouded by delusions of grandeur.

In a retirement survey conducted by AXA, it is discovered that a large percentage of Singaporeans will NOT have enough to retire on, despite the government raising the minimum CPF level to $120,000 by 2013. Needless to say, those in debt today will find themselves in a very grave situation tomorrow. Sadly, most Malays have not woken up to this fact.

2. Imperative to Impress

There is a very old but notorious motto that a lot of Malays live by. It goes “Biar papa, asal bergaya”. (Let me be broke, as long as I look good).

This need to look good is a powerful force indeed. It is the same force that drives many Malays to breaking their banks every Hari Raya. Spunky clothes and accessories, classy interiors and the latest home entertainment system are a must when friends and relatives come over to visit. To most Malays, debt is something that you can think about later, what is most important is to look impressive in front of others now.

If you head down to a public car park opposite Jalan Afifi on any given day, you will find a stable of about brand new cars – all belonging to CISCO security guards from the HQ building opposite. I’ve been observing them for quite a while now as I pass by the car park on trips to the swimming complex.

Right here where I live at Eunos Road 5, we have two Malay parking wardens who issue parking summons– in their own cars. I find it hilarious though that when they park their vehicles, they themselves do not display parking coupons but yet go around issuing summons for it.

I’m singling out these security guards and parking wardens not because I am demeaning the professions. But I feel that having an entire platoon of Malay security guards and Malay traffic wardens who drive around in their own cars; it’s a sure sign that ours is a community heavily laden with debt. Trouble is brewing.

3. Inclination to Credit

When I was ten-years-old, I had a religious teacher that really hated me. One day, she unwittingly whined that the class shouldn’t demand a children’s day treat from her as she has not paid her car installment for the month.

I knew very well that Islam forbids both the taking and payment of interest. That was the reason why I quizzed her innocently about the interest that she’s paying on her car loan. Needless to say, she made my life in class miserable from that day onwards.

It’s menial but true.

Most Malays’ definition of “affordable” applies to the monthly installment figure. As long as the monthly installments can be made it is considered “affordable”, ignoring a very specific injunction in Islam to avoid paying things on installment if interest is involved.

I’m not sure exactly how this culture came about but this is the exact mentality that most Malays adopt when they step into places like car showrooms and furniture stores. It is the same mentality that has put so many Malay families in dire consequences.

This mentality has to change. It is a culture that has been around for so long that other communities are making fun of our living-on-installment ways. Malays must train themselves and their next generation to stop looking at the monthly installment figures when making a purchase. If you cannot afford a liability in cash, you cannot afford it, period.

4. Imprudence in Financial Matters

People who understand financial matters are still few and far between in the community. Despite being university graduates, I have seen a few friends who got themselves trapped in negative equity situations while buying property. Worse, many still are not even aware of what terms like “negative equity” means.

In today’s complex economic climate, it is not enough to just be highly educated. It is more important to have sound financial knowledge. The average leader of the household must be able to tell the difference between a bad debt and a good debt, the different types of mortgages and its pitfalls, and basic mechanics of the world’s financial markets.

Not only will these skills make Malays less susceptible to moronic money decisions that could lead their families into trouble, but they will also find themselves in a better position to benefit from it.

Action Now

Malay financial delinquency is an issue that has not received enough attention from the community.

Perhaps they think that it’s an issue that needs no immediate arrest as compared to other more pressing dilemmas. Already our leaders are battling a host of social problems such as teenage pregnancy and single parenthood.

But the irony is, a financially dysfunctional community is the perfect breeding ground for more of such social problems in the future. More resources must be devoted to educate Malays, especially the young men, on financial responsibilities and sound spending habits.

A local newspaper reported not too long ago that there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of Malays applying for Zakat (alms), most of whom are young Malay men in their twenties. If that is not a wake-up call for the community, I do not know what is. If we let this problem go unchecked, a majority of our Malay families in the future could be led by a Bankrupt Mat as the head of the household


Being in the twenties myself, I understand the temptation to be behind the wheel sometimes. Yes, it pretty swells to drive up your date to a nice romantic inaccessible-by-public-transport beach after dinner for a nice chat under the stars. Yes, having a car at your command does have its perks. But being plagued by debt and liabilities should not be one of it.

An alternative that I personally use is the automated car-sharing services. Using your mobile phone, you can activate one of many cars all over the island with just one SMS. The cars are new, clean and come in a wide variety of models to choose from. You get to drive all makes and brands while a car owner would usually have to be contented with the one he “bought”.

But best of all, you worry nothing about the monthly installments, road tax, insurance, maintenance, breakdowns, etc. Though I drive most weekends, my car bill rarely exceeds $100 a month. With the money you saved, you will soon find that a car is within your means, cash, by the time you’re 35 – if you really need it.

On a more interesting note, women seem to make much more financial sense than their male counterparts. In casual conversations, most of the tertiary-educated Malay ladies I know have told me that they do not admire men who drive. (The same cannot be said of the lesser-educated ones though).

According to one, starting a family with a car-bearing male is equivalent to starting a family saddled with debt, right from the start – a very dangerous concept indeed. It just takes one unforeseen disaster such as a serious illness, an accident or a retrenchment, before the entire family descends into a total financial shamble.

Maybe Malay men should drop their ego and listen to their ladies more.


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Monday 31st of December 2007

Hi Masindi, its good to hear your side of the story. When i first saw that posting somewhere else, the first thing that struck me was that it is something i noticed as well!

Which begs the question why don't you get one?

Regards and thanks for visiting,



Sunday 30th of December 2007

I am an Indonesian living in Singapore. I could not agree more with what you wrote. Even the secretary in the company that I work for (a Malay woman whose husband is an express courier) is considering to buy an economical KIA or Hyundai. Some of the older Malay staff that I know apparently have big cars (Poly graduates from early 1990s).

A few months ago they asked me why I don't buy a car.

PS: Three of my Chinese colleagues are going to change their cars. One has a 7 year old Nissan, one 4 year old Toyota and another had decent looking model. Peer pressure at work is seriously damaging their finances.

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