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What’s with Malays and Cats?

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • November 18, 2004

By Alfian Sa’at

In the 80’s and early 90’s, both Malay as well as English programmes were screened on what was then known as Channel 5, and Mandarin and Tamil programmes on Channel 8. This was before both the Malay and Tamil programmes were later relocated to the channel Prime 12 in 1995. These media enclaves were conclusively delineated when a dedicated Malay channel was established in the year 2000, called Suria. Thus, we had three channels on what became known as the Television Corporation of Singapore, and later Mediacorp, each one catering exclusively to a certain language stream: Channel 5 for English programming, Channel 8 for Mandarin, and Suria Television for Malay. Tamil programming, however, had to share transmission space with Kids Central and Arts Central on the station known as Central. This reminder of the lack of clout of a numerical ethnic minority was somehow alleviated by designating a name, Vasantham Central, for the Tamil offerings, thus creating the impression of an autonomous pseudo-channel.

I think mentioning this background is important because I believe that the ghettoisation of these television channels has led, inevitably, to a certain polarisation. Previously, one could glimpse traces of the Other, access the self-representations of a community, by watching a single channel.

A prime example of this was the show Mat Yoyo, later known as Aksi Mat Yoyo, a Malay children’s programme that was screened in the mid-80’s and which ran for 12 years. Many non-Malays I have spoken to remember this particular programme, for various reasons. Firstly, it was a programme featuring predominantly child performers, who were nurtured under a children’s talent workshop known as the Bengkel Kanak-Kanak. They were often instructed on the finer points of singing, dancing, storytelling, and sometimes, modelling sponsors’ clothes, like those from 2nd Chance or Cerisi. Secondly, for many of these non-Malay viewers, the show was some kind of appetiser, before the main course of the English cartoon which was screened at the 6:30 time slot. Thirdly, few of them could forget the main protagonists of the show, mainly a pair of cats who were known as Yoyo and Yaya.

Yoyo was played by a Malay child actor who was dressed in a cat costume, complete with a headdress with ears, as well as shoes and gloves in the shape of paws. He also wore suspenders. Yaya, his female counterpart, wore a skirt instead of pants. Both of them had their faces painted with greasepaint: the noses would be blackened, whiskers etched in, the philtrum of the maxilla would be exaggerated, and most interestingly, black rings would encircle their eyes, which made them look more like raccoons than cats.

There was also an adult presenter on the show, called Mat Sentul, who wore a fez. It was never clear to me the relationship between Mat Sentul and the two cats. I was not sure whether they were his pets, or whether he treated them like his own children. The very idea of this ambiguous relationship is triggered, of course by the notion of humans dressing up as cats. I wonder what it was that I saw in them through my primary school eyes. How does a child relate to anthropomorphic representations? Did they seem analogous to cartoon characters, the likes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck? Why do I sometimes wonder why Donald Duck wears a cap, a top but not pants, his little duck tail wagging almost obscenely? What semiotic registers are operating in such instances?

Perhaps one of the most arresting questions that strike me today, while reminiscing about Mat Yoyo, is: do animals have ethnicities? There are cats, for example, whose given breed names carry loaded ethnic and even nationalist connotations: offhand I can think of the Persian, the Burmese, Balinese, Bengal, the Egyptian Mau. These are all ripe for some very essentialist tropes. But these are merely names which also might describe the cats’ habitats and places of origin. The desire for anthropomorphic violence is greater when you have human beings, with very definite ethnic markings (from the language they use, for example), putting on animal costumes. I am wondering how much of this animal hide interacts with the melanised human skin; resulting in a conflation of identities. Maybe I can sum up my space of inquiry with a simple question by a non-Malay friend of mine: what is it with Malays and cats?


Back to Aksi Mat Yoyo. I have mentioned human skin, the animal pelt, but a third layer should be recognised as well: the costumes worn by Yaya and Yoyo.

I remember very distinctly the fabric used for the cats’ costumes. For Yoyo, it was a kind of tartan design, which I associated with bolster casings. For Yaya, a kind of kitschy batik in rumpled brown, which I associated with tablecloths in dimly-lit one-room fiats. In both cases, I had the distinct impression that the material used was poor, probably scavenged from second-hand castaways. Somehow, this filled me with a certain sense of shame. These were working-class rags that somehow betrayed the skin that could have been masked by the costumes. It made me wonder if these cats would have worn fancier costumes if they were not played by Malay actors. And then, a slippage: if these weren’t Malay cats, they could have had more classy attire: perhaps a Donald Duck sailor suit, or a Minnie Mouse frock. In trying to indicate some degree of cultural inflection on the cats, the show’s producers had inadvertently exposed the demographic stereotype of the Malay in Singapore: rooted in the working-class, whose aspirations towards the prevailing capitalist-oriented economy are often marked on fabric: elaborate and garish designs on ultimately cheap cloth.

But back to the question: what is it with Malays and cats? Why did Aksi Mat Yoyo choose this particular animal, even if they were not aware of how it could represent a particular community on a predominantly English channel? First of all, we’ll have to examine the animals which are taboo to Malays, most of whom are Muslims. These would be the pig and the dog. According to Islamic jurisprudence, contact with either animal is haram, or forbidden. Greater leeway is given to contact with dogs; for example some hadiths claim that a dog can be touched if it is dry, or if its muzzle is avoided, and that it can be employed to guard one’s house. However, most Muslims err on the side of caution and avoid dogs entirely. Given the injunctions against contact with these animals, it would not be surprising to note that two of the worst insults in the Malay language are ‘babi’ and ‘anjing’, which respectively refer to the pig and the dog.

Secondly, even as there are many animals that appear in Malay folk tales, most notably the mouse deer and the tiger, I suspect that these were considered to be too exotic for the urban viewer. Furthermore, the realm of folk tales seemed to connote a community steeped in both superstition and nostalgia. I believe it was important that the chosen animal was one that was visible in an urban space, perhaps to counter the invisibility of a community in media spaces. The animal could thus be harnessed as a signifier of presence.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the cat is the pet of choice for many Malays. I am not ignoring those who keep songbirds, aquatic organisms, and other animals. But when it comes to keeping a small mammal quadruped, one is left with the choice between a cat or a dog. But the choice is not merely a matter of default, one that has arisen from an ultimatum. There is a traditional folk story, possibly apocryphal, which describes the Prophet Muhammad’s affection for cats. Apparently, one day, his favourite cat, Muezza, fell asleep in the sleeve of his robe. Careful not to wake the cat, the Prophet cut off his sleeve so as not to disturb the cat’s rest, and proceeded to perform ablutions for his prayers. It is interesting to me that a parable demonstrating the Prophet’s compassion for another living creature has been interpreted as the elevation of the status of the cat in the Muslim world. However, this is not surprising in places where Islamic exegesis has been founded on notions of authenticity and a Utopian past, where the actions and words of the Prophet are taken as the prototype of ideal behaviour. Some instances of this anxiety to reproduce this prelapsarian state, based on literal mimicry rather than adherence in principle, would include the keeping of beards and the wearing of Middle Eastern robes.


So, in answering the question ‘what is it with Malays and cats’, we enter a field where one starts to admit the possibility of a racialised discourse. The cat becomes a signifier of race, but an unstable one, vulnerable to contestations and counter-claims. Many of these significations actually arise from a particular dialectic: when we ask what it is about Malays and cats, we also have to address the question: what is it about Malays and dogs?

The polarities between these two animals have often been made analogous with the polarities between two races: the Malays and the Chinese. Here I’ll rehearse some of the tropes that come from the identification of the Malay community with cats, attempting to locate specific strategies of empowerment, resistance and self-­definition.

One of the qualities of the cat, much valorised by the Malays, is its cleanliness. The use of the tongue as an instrument for self-purification marks the cat as an animal that is not only fastidious, but almost neurotic about hygiene. In positive self-representations of themselves, Malay-Muslims often refer to their tendencies for personal sanitation, a claim that sometimes borders on chauvinism. The pious perform ablutions before their prayers, the clearing of the waste orifice is by water and not toilet paper, and the myth persists that people of other races do not take showers in the morning, despite living in a humid environment (this latter stereotype also compounds the status of the non-Malay Other as the immigrant settler who has yet to acclimatise himself to the colonised tropics). The dog, on the other hand, displays diametric traits – discharging its faeces on pavements, sniffing them with scatophiliac curiosity, peeing on posts with the uncouth gesture of the raised hind leg. For the cat: hygiene, discretion, privacy. As for the dog: filth, gaucheness, and disrespect of public spaces.

As I have mentioned, attributing an animal with certain racialised qualities often invites contrary readings. The dog, compared to the cat, is considered to be a more intelligent animal. It can be taught to perform tricks, to obey instructions, to respond to its master’s voice and presence. It is considered loyal, where the cat is temperamental. The dog’s stable affiliations are contrasted against the cat’s mercenary unpredictability. When one proposes significations such as these, the cat as effigy becomes disabling: we are reminded of certain stereotypes with very real ramifications. The marginality of the Malay community in Singapore is often described as due to the disability to conform to the demands of a Confucianist state. Dogs would make the most perfect Confucianist citizens because of their instinctive tendency to imprint on another party the status of a pack leader, to whom the dog offers unquestioning obedience. On the other hand, cats, by nature solitary and independent, represent the feral elements of society which require rehabilitation and institutional correction.

Similarly, the cat’s inability to recognise a master is evoked in the discourse on Malay loyalty in the army; Malays are believed to find themselves in conflicted positions when confronted with the scenario of a war with neighbouring Malay-Muslim states. The cat’s obdurate refusal to be tamed also echoes the anxieties of the State in ‘integrating’ Malays into the rest of Singaporean society, a prescription that is often pro-assimilationist in tone. When such equivalences between the feline and the Malay reach a state of inextricability, I am reminded of the uproar when the Housing Development Board decreed that it would be against the law for cats to be kept as household pets. The policy was described by certain quarters as ‘racist’. On a surface level, the policy seemed to privilege dog-ownership, and hence the default owners of dogs, namely, non-Malays. However, on a deeper level, grim resonances were evoked: of the State’s various resettlement policies (such as the de-settlement of the Malay-dominated Southern Islands) and forced housing quotas (based on race, where Malays are not allowed to occupy more than 15% of a block’s units). These policies, as have often been argued, were instrumental in eroding the electoral clout of the Malay community in Singapore by depriving them of a viable voting bloc.

Of course, the polarities between cats and dogs also take an unfortunate turn when media images perpetuate the belief that these two animals are natural enemies. Simply by watching cartoons, you will be able to conclude that mice eat cheese, elephants have a phobia of mice, and cats and dogs are constantly trying to outwit each other. In this instance the danger does not so much lie in losing control of a spectrum of significations, as demonstrated above, where it is obvious how these significations can often be appropriated in the service of certain agendas. The danger here is in designating two identities (cats vs. dogs, Malays vs. Chinese) as not only being irreconcilable, but in perpetual antagonism. The violence in this case is not simply that of an epistemic arrest, or of anthropomorphic fantasy. The spectre of ‘natural’ conflict has the potential to spill over into real, physical violence. An image lingers: that of ex-Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim appearing in public after his arrest, with a bruised left eye. Yoyo and Yaya came to mind, their black eyes staring at me from the past. The injury to Anwar was sustained during his incarceration; the blow was administered by former Inspector-General of the Police, Tan Sri Rahim Noor. What triggered this outburst of violence was when a seething Anwar first saw Rahim and remarked, “ini dia, bapa anjing” – “here he is, the father of a dog.”


Alfian Sa’at is a Singaporean playwright (Asian Boys Vol I & II), poet (One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia) and fiction writer (Corridor).

First Published: 18.11.2004 on Kakiseni