Are Filipinos Malays?
Image Credit: Flickr (alexdstewart32)

Are Filipinos Malays?


If asked about their race, most Filipinos would identify as being Malay. Filipinos are taught in schools to be proud of their Malay heritage and encouraged to strengthen their ties with other Malays in Southeast Asia.

But Filipinos wishing to migrate in Singapore have to deny this fundamental identification because the Singapore government rejects the classification of Filipinos as Malay. But if Filipinos are not Malay, what ethnicity are they? Officially, Singapore recognizes immigrants from the neighboring Philippines as part of the racial category referred to as “Other.”

But why refuse the Malay background of Filipinos in the first place? Perhaps it has something to do with the special privileges accorded to the Malay minority in Singapore. Article 152 of the Constitution of Singapore states that the government “shall recognize the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.”

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Some legal issues could arise if new immigrants from the Philippines are identified as Malays. They could be given special privileges as well. If this were to happen, the indigenous Malays in Singapore might not be in favor of it.

In fact, the recent publication of the government’s population strategy triggered a parliamentary discussion on the race status of Filipinos. Zainal Bin Sapari of Singapore’s Pasir Ris-Punggol district and a Malay-Muslim member of parliament asked for a clarification on the official race category for immigrants from the Philippines.

He said: “There are those who said that citizens from the Philippines (who are) accepted as Singaporean citizens will be categorized as Malays because historically they are considered to have the same roots as Malays. Is this true? If it is true, this would mean that even though the percentage is maintained, the identity and the meaning of the label ‘Malay’ will change.”

Singapore’s Immigration and Checkpoints Authority immediately replied: “This is not true. New Singapore citizens of Filipino origin are not classified as Malays. They are typically classified as ‘Others’ under the race category.”

Indeed, this was affirmed by Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim who wrote on Facebook that Filipinos are classified as “Others” and not as Malays.

For Filipino immigrants, it must come as a shock for them to be told by Singaporean authorities that they are not Malays. To avoid immigration troubles, perhaps it is more convenient for Filipino workers to shade the “Others” category when filing paperwork than to insist that they are Malays. 

But in fairness to Singapore, some scholars have also rejected the claim that Filipinos are Malays. They argue that ethnic Malays reside in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, but not in the Philippines. These scholars blame colonialism and erroneous Western ethnography for the inaccurate classification of Filipino as Malays. 

Yet Philippine hero Dr. Jose Rizal is often called the “pride of the Malay race.” Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, for instance, has recognized Rizal as the “greatest Malayan,” calling Rizal an “Asian Renaissance Man.”

And what to make of the racial status of residents of Sabah? This territory is officially part of Malaysia but is also claimed by the Sultanate of Sulu, a local kingdom in southern Philippines. The people of Sabah belong to the Malaysian Federation. What would happen if the state became part of the Philippines? 

Singapore’s racial politics may efficiently manage the influx of foreign workers, but they can also lead to confusion and incorrect assumptions. This is especially true in the case of their neighbors from the Philippines who are categorized as coming from the “Other” race. 

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