MALAY FAMILY VALUES
Strong family units can be formed, if members of society were to fall back to traditional family values, and to continuously realize their importance in family lives. In Malay society, these traditional family values, among others, emphasize solidarity, authority, fidelity, love, companionship, respect, rights, duties and obligations, and mutual help. It is believed, strong socio-psychological basis for a unified and stable society can be provided for if these values were firmly held by family members, and were constantly instilled into the young minds right from the early years of socialization.
This paper discusses dominant family values in Malay society which are expressed and manifested in the various aspects of the family life. These may include subjects pertaining to marriage, family structure and family functions, the roles of family members, family relationships and a myriad of others which involve the family as the basic institution in society.
MARRIAGE AS THE BASIS FOR FAMILY FORMATION
No civilized human society allows illicit sexual relations outside the family or outside marriage. Pre-marital sex, adultery and extra-marital activities are always regarded as taboos, and to some cultures as sinful activities. These taboos are still operative in eastern societies. Any deviation from the established norms of sexual behaviour is subject to contempt and ridicule.
In Malay society, it is always despicable for couples to engage in sexual activities outside marriage. If they are caught, they will be compelled to marry with or without their families’ consent. The religious authority in every state will monitor and subsequently will take appropriate action on any case that involved illicit sexual affairs between unmarried couples. In the cities, raids are often made on massage parlours, hotels and private houses, and those found guilty will be fined.
Malay parents will theoretically disown their children who bring shame to the family by their act of sexual misbehaviour. Such misbehaviour by the children is expressed in a saying, “menconteng arang ke muka ibu bapa” (to scribble charcoal on the parents’ faces). As a result of which, the family will be in disgrace. It is even worse if an unmarried girl ever gets pregnant for its effect could never be kept away from public knowledge. As the adage says, “bangkai gajah tidak boleh ditutup dengan nyiru, ” which literally means ” the corpse of an elephant can never be hidden under a sieve”.
In the past, a newly solemnized marriage will end in divorce for the married couples if the husband, on the first night of their being together, finds out his wife is no longer a virgin. He can also claim for the dowry to be fully returned to him. If the marriage is prolonged, his social standing and honour would be at stake.
To the Malays, a girl who has lost her virginity by way of having sex before marriage is regarded as “kelapa telah ditebuk tupai” (A coconut which is spoiled by the squirrel’s bite). Such a “spoiled” girl is no longer worthy to be taken as a wife by any man of virtue. In view of this, parents are always on the alert of their daughter’s whereabout, for it has been the general opinion that “to take care of a daughter is a much harder task than to take care of a herd of buffaloes” (menjaga anak gadis seorang lebih susah daripada menjaga sekandang kerbau). The boh-sia phenomenon which is prevalent in the major cities of Malaysia today emanates partly from disorganized family units where parents are too preoccupied with their day-to-day affairs leaving little or no time at all to be with their children, and what more, to check on their activities.
Like in most societies, incest and sex outside marriage are regarded as taboos by the Malays. They are against the teachings of Islam and Malay customs which form the core elements in Malay culture. A person who committs adultery is bound to put his or her marriage on the rock. Most likely it will end up in divorce. A husband is considered “dayus” (not man enough) to have an unfaithful wife around. Nevertheless, the society is less stringent on the husband if he were found out to be the guilty partner. This is probably linked to the idea that males by nature are more promiscuous than females.
CHOICE OF MARRIAGE PARTNERS
Traditionally, the Malays prefer their sons or daughters to choose their life partners among those group of people who share with them many similar characteristics on the bases of status group, economic position, religion, customs, ethnic group, and state of origin. The popular adage, “pipit sama pipit, enggang sama enggang” (birds of a feather flock together), is taken seriously as an important beacon in choosing partners in marriage. To the Malays, a marriage is not only contracted between two individuals, but also between two family groups. Here, compatibility and suitability of the marriage partners is of equal importance to that of compatibility and suitability of co-parents or of two family groups.
It is believed, if couples come from different family backgrounds , they would have nobody to fall back to for support, especially in the crucial years of marriage. To rely solely on the strength of their romantic love, however, is not really a guarantee for a stable marriage. The support system provided for by parents and by family groups from both sides, is just as important as the marriage itself. On this account, therefore, it not is surprising to find that, elements of intervention by parents in their children’s love-marriage families do occur, sometimes even in delicate family matters.
AGE AT MARRIAGE
The relatively longer time taken by a person to equip himself or herself with the necessary qualifications and relevant skills required by the job market, would lead to the situation where marriage is postponed. Young Malay men and women today, seldom marry before they could secure jobs in the labour market. The marriage age is normally between 25 and 30 years old for males, and between 23 and 27 years old for females.
In the past, a girl who reached the age of 25 years old and was still unmarried, was branded, “andartu” (old maid). To Malay parents, there is always a cause for worry if they have daughters of marrying age, who are still single. To have an “andartu” in the family, is a burden, or most appropriate, a psychological burden for the parents. An “old” unmarried daughter is often labeled “tak laku” ( literally, not salable). This is reflective, either of the girl herself, who is really “old” to the extent of her being labeled as such, or of her character, bad enough to shun potential suitors.
A point to ponder here, is a report by The National Population and Family Development Board, Malaysia (LPPKN), which shows that in 1991, more than 60,000 Malay females around the age of 30 were unmarried, 10 percent of them belong to 30-34 years age cohort. The writer believes, if these “andartus” were to get married, there is always a tendency for them to break other marriages, or to shatter the lives of other families by their act of “stealing” other peoples’ husbands or fathers away. The idea of their marrying younger husbands is quelled, as it is very unlikely for any parents to allow their young sons marrying “andartus”.
CHILDREN IN THE FAMILY
Contraceptives and abortion are the inventions of the 20th century to avoid unwanted pregnancies resulting from sex (outside marriage). But as mentioned above, illicit sex in eastern society is sinful and it is very much to be despised. In Malay society, children born outside marriage, theoretically, have no family to turn to for emotional support and companionship, and have no legal right to any property belonging to their biological parents. It is thus through legalized sexual union and within the family institution that children are to be born and raised up.
To the Malays, children are the most valuable assets to the family. The more children a family has, the more they are cherished for, as children are “gifts” from God. A family with many children is a “prosperous” family, though poor economically. Thus, family planning practices and the use of contraceptives which is prevalent in other communities, is less practised by the Malays.
On the other hand, a marriage without children is doomed to shatter. A man will always have the excuse to divorce his wife or to marry again if his wife fails to bear him children. A childless family is subject to all kinds of gossips and comments, the popular one being, “seperti rambutan jantan, orang berbunga dia berbunga, orang berbuah dia tidak”, (Like a male rambutan tree, others flower, it also flowers, but others bear fruit, it bears nothing). This shows how important it is for a family to have children, which by their presence, will not only provide at atmosphere of familiness in the home, but most importantly will strengthen the marital bond between the spouses.
The Malays, generally prefer to have big families, gauged by the number of children born in the family units. A Malay male, normally prefers to marry a much younger wife who could bear the most number of children for the family. It is then, very unlikely, and at the same time, very risky for any woman to fulfill the family’s dream of having a big family, if she happens to be married at the very late age of 35 or so. There are reported cases of divorce on account of wife’s rejection to the husband’s request of marrying a second wife, most probably for the purpose of having more children in the family.
The Malays place a very high value on proper upbringing of children. Instilling good and acceptable cultural values to a young child is not the responsibility of the immediate family members alone, but it has been the shared responsibility of other kin members. An obedient and well- behaved child is openly praised both by his own kinsmen and by neighbours and friends. He is a “budak baik” (good child). (Djamour, 1965:104).
Traditionally, Malay parents have a lot to rely on other kin members in raising up their own children. Normally, the children are looked after by grandparents or by unmarried aunts when their own parents are out working. The services rendered by these relatives are, however, free of charge.
In the Malay villages of rural Malaysia, the process of socialization within the family also involves the teaching of basic practical skills to prepare the children to take over adult male and female roles. The later is of great importance if the children were to continue staying in the villages and inherit their parents occupations.
As one would noticed, in an agricultural community, fathers gradually teach their sons how to tap rubber trees and collect latex from them, as well as how to roll the latex into sheets. They also teach their sons how to prepare fields for the planting of paddy seedlings and how to harvest the ripened plants (Banks,1973:131). The transition of women to adulthood involves a comparable transmission of responsibility from the mother. She also gradually teaches her daughter to work in the fields, doing the lighter tasks. But most importantly, she teaches her daughter how to be a good homemaker who would be able to take up the tasks of a wife and a mother when she later marries.
While agreeing to the fact that formal secular education is an effective means to socio-economic mobility, as it would help secure outside jobs for their children, some of the Malay parents feel that sons should be better educated than daughters. The majority of the Malays still cling to the idea that women should fully assumed the role of homemaker upon marriage. Much of the family problems with regards to child upbringing and management of family affairs could be effectively solved, if the wife-mother is always at home.
In conjunction to this, there is a growing trend among Malay women today to stop work, or to go for early retirement when the demands from the familial sector become stronger. Abdul Hamid Arshad (1988) points out, 44.1% out 943 Malay women interviewed, stopped work upon marriage on the basis of their husbands’ objection for them to continue with their jobs. 26.7% did so on account of taking care of the family, and 10.5% stopped work because of the pressure of child care.
THE POSITION OF WOMEN
Women occupy a subordinate and subservient role position in Malay society. Tendencies of their being discriminated by their menfolk are more prevalent in traditional (rural) families. There are cases when husbands mistreat their wives and singled them out in important family matters. There are also cases when parents give better preferences to their sons than to their daughters, for example in matters pertaining to education and job opportunities outside the home.
Generally, a woman is economically dependent on a man – an unmarried girl on her father, a wife on her husband, and an elderly mother on her son. A divorced woman or a widow seldom lives alone with her young children, but will move to stay with her parents or with her married brothers for a period of time until she is able to be on her own, or until she remarries. If she has grown up sons who can take over the role of adult males, then she will continue staying with them, and help raise her grandchildren when the sons have a family of their own, later.
Women’s economic dependency on men is prevalent in the rural society, particularly in situations when economic activities require heavy utilization of manual labour. In Malay society, it is quite improper for a woman to be seen involving herself actively in the occupational sector doing the heavy tasks specifically reserved for men. By so doing, she is often regarded as being “rough”, and “manly”. Her feminine image is affected. A woman with masculine character is often subject to ridicule and contempt.
The role of women as homemaker is almost universal, particularly in traditional cultures. Household chores like preparing meals for the family, cleaning, washing, ironing, and taking care of babies and children have always been regarded as women’s responsibility. The Malays regard the wife as “ibu rumah” or the nucleus of the family. The nickname of “orang rumah” or the person who manages the house given by the husband to his wife explicitly explains the expected role position a woman should undertake when she gets married.
Malay parents also give the nickname of “orang dapur”, or the person who manages the kitchen to their new-born baby girl, as opposed to the nickname of “orang balai”, or the person who sits in the hall, given to their new-born baby boy. It has been the society’s perception that a woman’s place is in the home. The notion, “no matter how educated a girl is, she eventually ends up in the kitchen’, had, at one time, greatly influenced the minds of the Malay parents, to the extent that daughters were deprived of their chances of getting good education. Only after Independence that more educational opportunities were extended by the Malay parents to their daughters.
When a married woman assumes the role of homemaker, it does not mean that she is solely held responsible for the management of the family or of the house the family lives in. Tasks such as repairing the house, painting, fixing roof tiles, etc., still fall under husband’s responsibility. He is to be blamed if the house he and his family live in, is in a dilapidated state. In the eyes of the general public, it is a disgrace to see a woman climbing up to fix roofs, or taking up the tasks of house repair, even though help from her husband, or from any male member of the family is not readily available.
In Malay family system, the husband is the head of the family, a position which is sanctioned by both religion (Islam) and customary law (Adat). The wife, though occupies a subordinate position, also has her conjugal rights defined. The authority vested with the husband is not to be calibrated as absolute authority, to the extent of him being allowed to treat his wife as a servant, or at worse, as a slave.
Major family decisions are usually made by the husband, though, in real situation, such decisions are not made without prior consultation with the wife. David Banks (1983), for example, points out that, Malay women, through their passive role, have the prerogative of criticizing bad decisions made by their husbands, although they never do this in public.
The duties of a homemaker undertaken by the wife also includes management of family budget. In most cases, she acts as the banker for the family. This is pointed out by Rosemary Firth in her study (1966) among Malay housewives in a fishing community in the west coast state of Kelantan. Firth shows that, in any economic transaction, the husband would always refer to the wife. Djamour (1959), also points out, bitter conjugal quarrels occurred if a man spent a large share of his earnings without his wife’s approval. Husbands who attempted to cheat by keeping some money for themselves were severely reprimanded by their wives for deceit and selfishness.
Though the Malays generally recognize the women’s position in the family, they still subscribe to the idea that a woman should not take over the role as the family head from her husband. With a social system inclined towards the patriarchal type, the Malay society still uphold the dominant position of the husband. A hen-pecked husband is always despised by the society, inasmuch as the society despises a woman who assumes the role of a matriarch in the family.
ROLE OF ELDERS
Among the Malays, age and seniority are two important factors which determine the nature and patterns of their family relationships. The elder and senior members of the family are very much respected, and it is the elders who normally handle all important family matters. They are the source for advice as well as the place for the resolution of family conflicts. Major decisions will not be made until the senior members of the family were consulted.
Respect shown to the elders and senior family members may take various forms. They include, non-intervention in adult discussions, obedience, deference, proper manners and body positions in the company of adults, and the usage of low-toned language. It is always expected from the younger family members to make the first move in any form of interaction with their elders. For example, a nephew though occupies a high position in society, is the one who should first pay courtesy calls to any of his uncles and not wait for the later to do so. Within the family circle, a person is respected not on account of his standing in society, but on the basis of his social positions in the family.
FAMILY COOPERATION AND SOLIDARITY
Cooperation among family members is one of the most cherished values in Malay society. It can be in the forms of mutual help and services, collective ownership of property, sharing of family income, maintaining a common budget, and financial support and remittances. Basically, these are, but some of the integrative elements found in the Malay family system which help to bind its members into cohesive units.
Production process in the peasant economic system of rural Malaysia until today relies heavily on family labour (Kuchiba et. al, 1979). Every adult member contributes to the manpower needs of the family and shares the family income. However, economic cooperation of this nature can be sustained when family property such as land is still collectively owned, or when the ownership of the property is still held by the parents.
In Malay society, economic cooperation and interdependence is more obvious or more prominent among the married couples. They involve all kinds of economic activities and processes taken up by the family. Any form of property acquired after marriage will be regarded as joint property, although the husband is the only contributor. When they divorce, the “harta sepencarian” (acquired property after marriage) will be equally divided among the spouses.
However, the nature of economic relationship and economic cooperation between husband and wife in modern Malay family today, is not the same as it was years ago. When the spouses are both working, they tend to have separate budgets and maintain separate bank accounts. Besides, they could no longer help one another at work as both are involved in different occupations. Even if they are engaged in the same occupation, their respective role positions would not be the same. In cases like these, then it is worth pondering, whether the changing conjugal roles in today’s family, will lead to a better conjugal relationship between the spouses, or to something that weakens their marital bond.
Modern families, particularly those found in the cites, are mostly conjugal nuclear families. Since they are quite detached from extended family members, these family units have to be self reliance, meeting most of their needs by themselves. Help and assistance from extended family members who are mostly staying in the rural areas, is hard to come by. In addition, the nature of urban social structure, characterized by heterogeneity, individualism, indifference, and impersonal relationships, also exert great pressure on these “detached” family units. Cases of child abuse, child neglect, and in extreme situation, family dissolution would likely be the resultant effects. In Malaysia, between 1985-1995, a total of 1,440 cases of child abuse were reported. These include, physical abuse (735 cases), sexual abuse (284 cases), and neglected children (421 cases). A majority of these cases were committed by natural parents. [New Straits Times, March 30, 1995].
Apart from the above, emotional attachment, love and a host of other family obligations between members of conjugal nuclear families and their relatives seem to erode and weaken over the years. Grandparents have little chance to talk, to cajole, or to express their love to grandchildren. Slowly, grandchildren tend to regard their grandparents and other extended family members whom they seldom meet, as strangers, having little respect, and harbouring little or no feeling of love and affection towards them. The absence or the loss of love to and from grandparents, as well as to and from other close relatives is one, but the biggest price members of the detached conjugal nuclear family have to pay under the name of development.
FAMILY CHANGE: A THREAT TO TRADITIONAL VALUES
Unfavourable events and developments with negative value standards occurring in the West, which are exposed and transmitted to us through the media, have impinged upon most of our family values. These negative value standards with damaging effects have slowly taken roots in the minds of our young populace.
A good example is the changing role of women which resulted to a major change in the family system and to a conflict in family values. When women are found to be actively involved in the labour market outside the home alongside with men, the outcome of which would be as follows: the husband is no longer the sole breadwinner of the family; there is an increased voice of the wife in the family on important family matters; the husband’s dominant position in the family is being challenged or lessened; the wife is no longer financially dependent on the husband; there tends to exist an element of competition between the husband and the wife; and, the family has to surrender some of its major functions, particularly the economic and the educational functions, to relevant agencies outside the family.
In as much as the women have achieved their “freedom” by taking up employment outside the home, and not to continuously succumb to performing their oppressed role as wife-mother, very likely, there is bound to arise a conflict of values and a crisis of expectation among family members on important family issues. This is congruence with a statement made by Aida Tomeh (1983) which says, “Real barriers continue to exist for women in extra-familial roles because society still assigns them the primary activity for child care (and management of family affairs), and offers few available alternatives. Some families are designing their own adaptations by adopting marriage styles where husband and wife share home responsibilities and attempt a flexible approach to their occupational activities. However, translating egalitarian attitudes into behaviour poses a strain on the family in view of the stringent demands of the occupational sphere. Strain has also risen from the ambiguity created in men and women who are in the process of exchanging role expectations related to their own and others’ roles”.
For the Malays, it is their culture and religion, that assign their womenfolk, the primary responsibility of child care, or the expressive role of homemaker. If a woman is not neglectful of these duties, or she has reliable household help available to look after her children and relieve her some of her domestic work, while at the same time she needs an income to supplement her husband’s earning, there is no objection in Islam if she goes out to work, but only with the consent of her husband. However, the jobs that she undertakes to do must be lawful from the point of view of Islam. She must not work as a dancer, a model, a barmaid, a waitress, a film actress, a musician, or a prostitute to sell her femininity in order to make money, even with the consent of her husband. (A. Rahman I. Doi, 1990:147).
There are many instances of Malay women quitting their jobs to meet the demands of the family. Abdul Hamid Arshad (1988) reported that, out of 943 women that he interviewed, 44.1 percent of them stopped work upon marriage at the request of their husbands, and another 36.7 percent did so because of the pressure of child care.
Household chores including child care are likely to be carried out by hired maids when both the husband and the wife take up jobs in the labour market. There are instances when parents seldom have the chance to spend quality time with their children. Under these circumstances, the tendency for the children, particularly the youths, to go out to be in the company of their peers, is strong. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Malaysian youths loitering and loafing around in small groups after school or during weekends at the supermarkets and department stores in the cities. But, most alarming is the increased number of youths involving themselves in various anti-social activities which are detrimental not only to the family stability but also to national development.
On similar ground, there exists a section of the population, particularly the proponents of Marxist-feminist movement in the western countries, who regard the family as oppressive and repressive institution for women. Their stand is based on three major accounts, namely: the family’s regulation of women’s labour through the housewife role; the control it gives men over women’s sexuality and fertility; and its structuring of gender identities (Elliot, 1986:126-127).
It is argued, the priority the family gives to household role over other roles for women, limits their participation in paid work outside the home. Subsequently, it cuts them off from opportunities for self-realization and self-fulfillment, makes them economically dependent on men, and denies them a say in the allocation of public resources. The family is also accused of denying women’s right to control access to their own bodies, as well as, to control their own fertility. Women’s sexuality is said to confine only to heterosexual marriage, and as such, will always haunt them by the ever-present risk of pregnancy and motherhood. Lastly, the family is regarded as containing and sustaining within it, ideas of female nurturing and male bread winning which imprison both men and women in particular gender identities.
The proponents of feminist movement are of the opinion, that the psychological identification of women with domestic world, denies them the needs, activities and relationships that are apart from, or may conflict with, their traditional role as wife-mother. As a way out for women from the oppressive and repressive situations in conventional family system, radical proposals advocate that marriage be superseded by a range of options. These include, free-love-unions, co-habitation, same-sex pairing or homosexual relationships, celibacy, and that, the family as a child care unit, be replaced by communal child-rearing and professional parenthood. (Elliot, Ibid: 130).
Specifically, the range of marriage or family options listed above, contradicts the teachings of Islam that underlay Malay family lives and values. In Malay society, it is strictly prohibited and despised for men and women to engage in sexual activities outside marriage. Parents will theoretically disown their children who bring shame to the family by their act of sexual misbehavior. Children born outside marriage, also have no family to turn to for emotional support and companionship, and have no legal right to any property belonging to their biological parents.
The prevalence of the numerous social problems and anti-social activities, particularly among youths, is but only a small reflection of value conflict in the family system. The young generation, being vulnerable, is easily influenced by the negative development in the west, and with adoption of new (western) values, they feel they are in confrontation with their parents who still cling to the set of traditional values. The nature of this confrontation is translated into, or is expressed by the youths getting themselves involved in a variety of anti-social activities mentioned earlier.
The present trend of development among youths in Malaysia, as it was pointed out, is a matter of grave concern not only to parents and the general public, but also to the government. All quarters feel that, problems among youths should not be taken lightly, but have to be redressed before things get out of control. On that account, the government has empowered Ministry of Youths and Sports, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Social Welfare, Ministry of National Solidarity, as well as National Population and Family Development Board, and Parent-Teacher Association to plan development strategies for youths, and to take positive measures to address some if not all, of the social problems that involved youths. If left unchecked, these problems will bring pernicious effects to national development and national security.
To the pro-family proponents who feel that family institution be maintained and family values strengthened even in the present era of rapid social change, such earnest effort by the government to address social problems and a variety of anti-social activities that directly affect the family, is much to be appreciated. The writer is also of the opinion, irrespective of the pace of development, the family institution has to be strengthened, its values have to preserved and instilled, and the justifications for its existence as a functional unit in society, have to be constantly upheld by society members. The bad experience the family encounters in the West, which leads to its “demise”, is a lesson to be learnt by all members of society who still place a high value on love, affection, companionship, sense of self, fidelity, chastity, cooperation, mutual help, family protection, and a host of others which no other institution can provide, except the family institution.
As for the Malays in Malaysia, they are aware of the changes that occur around them, and of the negative impacts such changes have on their family system. However, as devout Muslims, they always fall back to their religion for guidance. The writer feels, the majority of the Malays are not easily influenced by anti-family movements with their radical proposal for family alternatives in the west. They are also not easy to fall prey to modern western family values, which are mostly in contradiction to the teachings of Islam.
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