From Kampung to Crypto: Empowering our Malays in Tech

In the past decade, we have seen the world grow exponentially with technology. Our larger community has become increasingly dependent on smartphones and computers to power our fast-paced lives. Within Singapore, this has sparked a slew of government-supported tech skills training initiatives – from SkillsFuture-claimable tech bootcamps like those by Generation Singapore to government partnerships with tech employers like the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) TechSkills Accelerator (TeSA). Yet we find very few Malays working in the tech industry, an industry that has a lower barrier of entry while also paying relatively higher salaries than most others. Our Malay community is no stranger to the tech world, yet we seem less involved in building it.

Some critics argue that like many minorities, Malays could be unmotivated to work in tech due to a lack of exposure to tech careers, as well as a lack of representation in the tech space. Many Malays do not see themselves working in the tech industry, so they write off tech as a potential field they could work in.

To tackle the first factor on a community level, the Singapore government has implemented initiatives like IMDA’s Digital for Life programmes, and partnered with tech skills training providers to make tech careers more accessible. Malay community organisations like Yayasan MENDAKI and AMP Singapore, as well as ground-up initiatives like The Codette Project, have run annual programmes to promote tech career opportunities, spotlighting Malay tech professionals to share their experiences. Yet still few Malays enroll in tech training opportunities, be it for tech certificates or traineeships.

The truth behind the continued lack of Malays entering the tech industry is that we are often hesitant and afraid to stand out as the ‘first’ in our community to do so. We struggle to take pride in our success and set a precedent for the better of the Malays entering the tech industry after us.

The first problem lies in how our community tends to question showcases of diversity. We question whether an extraordinarily successful minority is disadvantaged enough or serves as a tool for institutions to showcase their commitment to diversity. We cry foul when our own communities are excluded from initiatives benefiting a specific minority group, rather than acknowledge the effort to close a significant opportunity gap. For the Malay community – which has commonly been perceived as being lazy and unambitious – we dread being seen as a symbol of diversity. When we do so, we expose ourselves to the scrutiny of being a worthy investment or being sufficiently disadvantaged to deserve acknowledgment.

The reluctance to be a minority advocate is also tricky, especially when one is in a toxic or hostile workplace. As a minority, we are often the first batch of people hired from our community. We somehow become responsible for setting the precedent of how other people at work perceive our community. At the same time, we are also expected to encourage a more inclusive and sensitive workplace, without being too demanding or provocative. In short, when we work in an industry as the minority, we have to take on the lofty duty to cultivate a more inclusive work environment for our successors. For many people, this is too big a task when we already have to keep up with our work and life commitments.

Our struggle with owning our achievements as a minority could also come from our Malay values of humility. Throughout my life, my elders have always reminded me to be humble and thankful because “our blessings can be taken away at any moment”. While humility and gratefulness are undeniably great qualities to have, many Malay professionals struggle to set different boundaries on our careers. We may be hesitant to ask for more as an individual, even if it could benefit our larger Malay community. What if we ask for too much, and destroy the chance to ever do so again while losing the privileges we already have?

In spite of these challenges, fostering a greater and stronger community of Malays in tech is crucial. As our world becomes more tech-savvy, the need to empower more Malays to pursue tech careers becomes increasingly urgent so that our Malay community does not lose out on the world’s progress.

When we have more Malays working in the tech industry, we not only encourage the creation of more inclusive tech products and services, we also empower a more diverse and inclusive community as a whole.

Most of us are familiar with how technology has made our lives easier and richer. With the internet, it is easier to find resources, stay updated on news, and communicate with others beyond geographical boundaries. Smartphones and their apps have made this even more accessible. With government initiatives like the Digital Access Programme that empower low-income households and the elderly with subsidised digital devices, our local community has and will become more tech-savvy. Therefore, it is also crucial to create more inclusive tech products and services that better reflect the needs of our diverse community.

For our Malay community, having more Malays in tech could encourage the creation of more inclusive tech catered to our increasingly tech-savvy Malay community. In the last decade, the Malay Language Centre published educational apps teaching the Malay Language (i.e. Pintar Kata, Pintar Peribahasa) and Malay culture (i.e. Legenda Singapura) to young Malay students in Singapore. Apps like these foster greater appreciation and access to our rich culture and history, without getting left behind in an increasingly tech-empowered world.

Having more Malays in tech careers would also encourage better utilisation of tech tools by our Malay community. When more Malays are encouraged to pursue tech careers, our community is better equipped to follow the world’s swift progress through digital technology. This would also inspire a more self-reliant Malay community that can initiate our own development programmes.

We cannot ignore the relatively higher earnings of tech employees. With a rapidly growing demand for digital builders, tech employees are some of the most well-paid people in our economy. For our Malay community, having more Malays working in the tech space would increase the resources we can spare to give back to our community. This could in turn lead to a snowball effect where money and other resources are continually reinvested into the Malay community, and further grow our network of Malays in tech.

On a community level, cultivating a more inclusive workplace for Malays would also open up similar efforts to welcome other minority communities as well.

To date, the government and Malay community organisations have done a great deal to digitally empower our community. However, we can still do more to get more Malays into tech careers, beyond equipping them with digital devices and expanding their interest in the tech industry. We can build an even more involved and active community of Malays in tech.

Think of pouring something through a sieve: a more viscous liquid would leak through the holes slower. When we apply this analogy to supporting Malays in tech, we need to not only encourage more Malays to enter the tech field (i.e. ‘pouring the liquid’), we also need to nurture our existing Malay tech workers to avoid losing our bright Malay tech talent (i.e. ‘liquid leaking through the sieve’).

Building and nurturing minority communities is crucial to continually address the lack of Muslims in tech. Beyond sharing learning resources and opportunities in the tech industry, communities like these serve as sources of hope and inspiration. Malay Muslims in Tech, MSOCIETY, and The Codette Project are great examples of how Malays with a shared passion for the tech industry can come together. Fostering support and active participation in such communities could include organising or simply attending community-organised events. More importantly, we do so to remind ourselves that our community exists and that we should keep nurturing it.

Another important approach is to have more open discussion forums featuring Malays in tech careers. Other than showcasing the bright Malay talents already working in the field, it allows our fellow Malays to seek advice and encouragement from other people with similar interests. Being more open with sharing our concerns and advice is pivotal to start exploring solutions to address opportunity gaps.

To expand upon the previous two points, it is also essential that we are genuine in sharing stories of Malay success in tech.

For better context, we often witness institutions capitalising on events like International Women’s Day and receiving diversity awards to showcase their diverse workforce. This could come off as ingenuine because diversity and inclusion require a long-term continual effort.

Therefore, both institutions and the community should be consistently sharing minority success and normalise doing so. For our Malay community, we can do more than highlight the impressive stories of Malay success in tech. We should also share stories of progress, where Malays share what motivated them to embark on their learning and career journey. Diversity and inclusion is more than having exemplary minorities, but being more welcoming of minorities at every stage of their career.

Finally, institutions must take responsibility for maintaining safe and inclusive spaces for minorities. Despite numerous programmes to increase new minority tech talent, our tech space still struggles to retain existing minority talents. In turn, the improvement in diversity and inclusion of minorities in tech is minimal. Often, this happens due to minorities feeling unsupported and disrespected, with instances of workplace harassment being downplayed. Institutions such as schools and workplaces must not only set policies that protect every member, but also ensure these policies and protocols are implemented appropriately. Every member should be well-informed of these measures in order to better protect themselves and their community, and be empowered to report unfair discrimination practices.

Instances of harassment against minorities must be taken seriously while protecting those who report them. At the same time, there should also be opportunities for institution members to collaborate and connect with one another. Policies and protocols should not make people feel constantly anxious or fearful of making unintentional microaggressions or offensive communication mistakes, but rather guide their behaviour for the better. In this way, minorities can contribute their talents with dignity and respect, without being forced under the spotlight as some symbol of diversity and inclusion.

Ultimately, fostering a bigger community of Malays in tech is no easy feat. Our diversity initiatives must go further than equipping our Malay community with easier access to digital skills. They must also empower Malays to get actively involved in the tech industry, knowing their career growth will be supported.

Our Malay community has always been an indispensable part of Singapore’s progress; our involvement in the tech industry is no different. Each and every Malay individual has the potential to build and influence our digital future. However, we must work together as a community and unite in our continual efforts to expand and sustain our community of Malays in tech for the long term.


Ainul Md Razib is an educational content creator (@AinLovesCode) in Singapore. As a full-time software developer at a global tech consultancy, she shares advice on coding and working in tech with thousands all over the world.

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