Book Review: Hidayah Amin’s Sang Nila Utama & Tun Seri Lanang: Singapore’s Last Malay Schools

Sang Nila Utama & Tun Seri Lanang: Singapore’s Last Malay Schools by Hidayah Amin is a narrative about Singapore’s last Malay schools, Sang Nila Utama Secondary School (SNU) and Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School (TSL). The book shares more than just the history of the two schools. It includes the experiences, feelings and stories of students who had attended the schools and how their time there had shaped them to become who they are today, including the challenges that the schools faced. Both of the schools obtained their names from Southeast Asia’s historical personalities. The book was published to retain the memories of Singapore’s last Malay secondary schools and aid past students and future generations in revisiting the lost world of the Malay schooling experience.

The author has nicely put the structure and sections of the book together. The first section, ‘Education for the Malays’, uncovers how education had evolved throughout the years. The book also discussed the events that led to the opening of Malay schools. Before this, the Malay community received informal Islamic education from the Arab and Indian Muslim traders and missionaries. However, when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived, he sought to formalise the learning of the Malay language and provision of education for the Malays. Originally, he wanted to set up a Raffles’ Malay College, where one of the objectives was “to collect the scattered literature and traditions of the country with whatever may illustrate their laws and customs and to publish and circulate in a correct form”[1]. However, due to mismanagement and other related events, the opening of the college was suspended. Nevertheless, it had significantly impacted the establishment of Malay schools. With that, Protestant missionary Reverend Benjamin Keasberry paved the way by setting up a Malay school that he financed with his own money. Consequently, more schools were established and the education system was influenced by the British primary and secondary school system. The book also explained how the education experience and the significance of the Malay language impacted the community. It was also through the acceptance of Malay as the national language of Singapore that brought the opening of the first Malay secondary school, Sang Nila Utama Secondary School.

The following four chapters bring forth the accounts of past students, teachers and workers who had attended SNU and TSL. The chapters are structured in a way whereby the historical personalities, Sang Nila Utama and Tun Seri Lanang, were shared first before bringing forth stories of the schools. This is also a learning point for many who might not know Sang Nila Utama and Tun Seri Lanang. Moving forward, the stories shared on SNU and TSL mainly surround the challenges and conflicts faced: how the students and teachers overcame the lack of Malay secondary-level textbooks, scarce materials and no official guidelines from the Ministry of Education’s curriculum department. Apart from sharing the challenges faced, the chapters also included the visitation of notable personalities and personal anecdotes of both the students and teachers that described how the schools benefited and shaped their lives.

The next chapter, ‘The Southeast Asian Connection’, discussed how SNU and TSL became educational bridges connecting Singapore to Southeast Asia. Both SNU and TSL were popular amongst Malays in neighbouring countries like Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of those who studied in SNU or TSL would return to their home countries and became key personalities or held significant positions, such as becoming a member of the Singapore Cabinet, Singapore’s First Gentlemen, former President of the Muslim Missionary Society (Jamiyah) Singapore, and those who represented Singapore at the International Quran Recital Competition, among many others. Moreover, about 80 percent of the Bruneian students completed their secondary school education and pursued their tertiary studies in Singapore, the UK, the US, or Egypt. This reflects how SNU and TSL played an essential role in nurturing students. One heartwarming factor about this chapter is that the author did not forget to include the international students’ experience in SNU or TSL and shared that some of them had gone out of their way to search for long-lost friends across borders, even after decades had passed, showing how much they treasured the friendships they developed back then.

The last two chapters of the book, ‘Malay Schools: Of Demise & Destiny’ and ‘The Grand Reunion’ share the factors and events that led to the closure of the schools, and the reunion of SNU and TSL alumni. I like that the author included the momentous event of the reunion of SNU and TSL students, as it acknowledged SNU and TSL as vital institutions that have contributed to shaping the Singapore’s education system.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. Not only did I learn about the extensive history of Malays’ education development in Singapore, I got to read how impactful SNU and TSL were to not only the students but also the teachers. Personal excerpts, challenges, and conflicts made me reflect on the efforts people in the past had to make just to receive an education. Meanwhile, students today may not have to overcome similar challenges to get basic education in Singapore with the many assistance schemes available. The book also shared that some TSL students had to take a small boat to reach the school, which students today cannot relate to as schools are often located within walking distance from their homes or accessible by public transport. However, they were never once late as all of them were eager and enthusiastic to learn. One more thing that caught my eye was the inclusion of mysterious events that occurred in SNU. The book shared that there was once a female student studying alone at the third floor of the school, quite a distance away from her friends, when she suddenly screamed loudly. When her friends rushed to her, they were shocked to see that her face and hands were scarred by cuts and covered in blood. When asked what had happened, the student said that she had fallen asleep and woke up like that. After an investigation was conducted, it was concluded that it was unlikely that someone had hurt her. The event remains a mystery.

The book is also a light read. It contains elements of humour as the alumni shared their experiences and views on a few of the challenges they encountered. I believe that this is also a suitable book to quickly understand the extensive history of Malay education in Singapore. The author also inserted a comprehensive yet straightforward timeline on Singapore’s education system. Additionally, I particularly like how the author arranged the chapters of the book, where before the two schools are introduced, the history of Malay schools, Malay education, as well as the history of Sang Nila Utama and Tun Seri Lanang are explained first. This definitely helps in understanding the importance of both the historical personalities and schools.

Finally, the book’s publication is also timely, especially in the era that we live in today where the use of the Malay language amongst children has decreased significantly. In an article published by The Straits Times in 2021, Dr Maliki Osman, Second Minister for Education, said that  compared to decades ago, more young Malays do not use the Malay language as their primary language of communication. The percentage of Malay children aged between five and fourteen using English at home has risen to 63 percent in 2020. The Malay language symbolises a form of identity, culture, and heritage amongst the Malay community. Dr Maliki said, “When you lose a language, you lose a community.” This worrying issue has also been highlighted by both Malay teachers and Malay community leaders[2].

Not only that, with the increasing importance of the English language and the varying levels of Malay language competency amongst students, Associate Professor Roksana Bibi Abdullah from the National Institute of Education’s (NIE) Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group said that it is a challenge to teach the Malay language as some cannot speak or write in Malay[3]. Hence, I hope this book can serve as a reminder to the Malay community that the Malay language is just as important as other languages.

If you have stumbled upon this review, I strongly recommend you read this book. With the current primacy of English and Chinese languages, it will be helpful to revisit the sacrifices and challenges that the Malays faced in upholding the language. Moreover, the book also included a list of past Malay schools. Personally, I think it would be fun to ask your parents or grandparents if they attended any of those schools! ⬛

1 Amin, H. Sang Nila Utama & Tun Seri Lanang: Singapore’s Last Malay Schools. Helang Books. 2021. p. 34
2 Elangovan, N. As English becomes the dominant language in more Malay families, some are reversing course. TODAY. 2019, October 25. Retrieved from:
3 Ng, C. Efforts to be intensified to improve bilingual abilities of Malay children: Maliki. The Straits Times. 2021, July 10. Retrieved from:

Zuriati Zulfa Roslee is a final year student majoring in Psychology at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).

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