“Living the Lives of Hanyut” by Siti Hazirah Mohamad

“Living the lives of Hanyut”: The Construction of Malay Youth Delinquency in Singapore[1]
Siti Hazirah Binte Mohamad


In the 2005 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dedicated the Malay-language portion of his speech to addressing the rising problems of teenage pregnancy and dysfunctional families within the Malay community. Expressing his concern about the vicious cycle which these dysfunctional families get mired in, he stressed that although the issue also afflicts the Chinese and the Indian communities,  the Malays have a greater incidence of couples marrying and divorcing young.[2] The severity of this issue was later underlined by articles in Berita Harian (BH) and Berita Minggu (BM), scapegoating a highly sexualized and/or deviant youth demographic who are unable to control their physical desires. Concurrently,  a documentary titled Hanyut (“Adrift”) was screened on the Malay TV channel Suria, claiming to expose “the shocking reality of the Malay community” (“realiti mengejutkan”)

Berita Harian and the discourse of delinquency

As the only news titles serving the Malay community in Singapore, BH and BM (the Malay daily and its Sunday edition, respectively) conceive themselves as a “platform for the Malay community to voice their views on issues which concern them.  It is a paper that speaks with authority and understands the needs of the Malay community” (Singapore Press Holdings, 2009).

In its coverage of Malay delinquency, BH runs articles on specific youth activities which are deemed contrary to Malay cultural norms and values. This includes features on Clubbing,[3] Goth subculture,[4] and tattooing[5] as well as the sexual activities of Malay youths. BH’s coverage of these issues, particularly teenage sexuality, reveals a tendency towards stoking a moral panic.

A BH article of 18 October 2006 revealed that, according to a Ministry of Health report, Malay girls constituted 56.9% of the 853 teenage births that year,[6] which a counsellor called “a time bomb if not handled immediately”. This was followed by articles on Malay youths caught producing pornographic video, with headlines such as “An embarrassment: Youths record sex acts”[7] and “Malay cyber sex: Youths more daring in showcasing lewd acts on websites”.[8] The framing of these articles gave the problems of heightened sexuality a distinctive Malay dimension.

Coverage on court convictions of underage sex crimes, as well as commentaries on the “shameless” behaviours of Malay youths, further fed into the moral panic of sexually deviant Malay youths. The BH often portrays these youths to be beyond parental control and influenced by elements external (and seemingly opposed) to Malay culture (particularly in the case of clubbing and Goths) parallels “cultural productions about contemporary Malaysian modernity [which] have become critically centred in anxieties about the ‘family’, sexuality and the youth.” (Malia Stivens, 2002)

A case of “lost hopes” and the adrift: The youth of Hanyut

Produced through a partnership by the local media company Screenbox and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, Hanyut: realiti mengejutkan (Adrift: The shocking reality”, aired in 2005), its sequel Hanyut 2: Masihkah ada harapan (“Adrift 2: Is there still hope?”, aired in 2007) and the telemovie Hanyut: menagih dakapan (“Adrift: craving attention”, aired in 2006) aimed to showcase the “shocking reality” of Malay youth deviance. From the very first episode, titled Pengakuan Si Hanyut (“Confessions of a drifter”), a crisis narrative is developed. Statements such as “a number of Malay youth involved in drug activities and gangs, drinking and clubbing”[9] build the impression of an unfolding crisis that has to be averted lest it inflicts serious repercussions on the community.

The series garnered a lot of attention and received high ratings, winning an award for Best Info-Ed (Documentary) at the annual Suria awards. Hanyut comprised 11 episodes, while Hanyut 2 had 10. Each episode lasted  for 30 minutes, and was broadcast on Suria. The episodes were  a re-enactment of scenes extracted from case files, with voiceover narration, and interspersed with interviews with repentant youths profiled in the particular episode as well as with Malay youth workers.

Claiming to represent the unvarnished truth, the youths profiled in Hanyut were engaged in various acts of deviance such as consuming and trafficking drugs, having pre-marital and casual sex and running the risk of teenage pregnancies, being involved in gang violence, having tattoos, selling illegal video discs, drinking and clubbing. The Malay girls in the series were usually scantily clad,[10] evoking the BH’s “time bomb” of the sexualized Malay youths, while the boys usually had tattoos covering their bodies.[11] 

Figure 2 A scene from Episode 1 of Hanyut, with the youths drinking. The girl was later gang-raped by the boys.

The keluarga Hanyut (“adrift family”) and delinquency

Of the youths featured in 21 episodes of Hanyut, 11 have divorced parents, 7 are part of reconstituted families (where the parents remarried), and the rest have negligent parents “too busy at work”.[12]  The parents of a number of the youths featured were themselves delinquents or criminals, usually related to drugs and abusive marriages. In the episode “Keluarga Hanyut” (“The adrift family”), two brothers were incarcerated in the Drug Rehabilitation Centre at the same time as their parents.[13] The series featured youths with absent parents usually being taken care of by the grandparents, who are lax in their enforcement of discipline, allowing the child freedom to become engaged in deviant activities.[14] Such unstable family structures are seen as a factor leading a young person to the path of delinquency. “Nora” had to endure her womanizing father who brought his girlfriend home, and a mother who frequently came home drunk after her shift at the nightclub.[15] “Nora” was becoming increasingly materialistic, finally “becoming even more adrift”.

The inherent cycle of dysfunctionality that plague these families is also symbolized through the opening montage of Hanyut 2 (Figure 3): having witnessed his father subjecting his mother to physical abuse, a young boy walks along a void deck and “evolves” into a delinquent youth as he grows older, complete with orange-coloured hair and tattoos. In the last frame, he is joined by his gang members. His evolution into one of “the adrift” youths, stemming from the dysfunctionality of his family, is visually represented in the starkest terms.



Figure 3 Evolving from a small boy, into a tattooed youth, and eventually, the leader of a gang

With the popularity of the series, the term Hanyut soon entered public consciousness and usage as a label to describe wayward Malay youths engaged in delinquent activities, as seen in this excerpt in BH:

“…what we see now, a large number of our Muslim youth have become hanyut caused by unhealthy trends and social ills is spreading like a disease…”[16]

“…I also do not agree that our youths know how to differentiate between the good and the bad. Evidently, a large number of our youths are more inclined towards bad and hedonistic behaviour. Some cases like these have been exposed through that TV show, Hanyut.”[17]

The stigma associated the term is clearly evident as Malay youths themselves resist the perjorative label. In an interview with BH, a former gang member pleads with the public to “not consider us as hanyut”.[18]

Malay cultural traits and delinquency: the cultural deficit thesis

As evident in Hanyut and Berita Harian, there is a tendency to frame the socio-economic challenges of the working class in the Malay community as a distinctively “Malay problem”, or a cultural deficit. In Hanyut, the narrator occasionally drops the suggestion that a particular problem, such as teenage pregnancy, has become a crisis within the Malay community. The Malay youth workers featured in Hanyut also display signs of stereotyping the Malay community and its perceived cultural deficits, with one claiming that Malay parents have abandoned the important task of reiterating the importance of marriage to their children, and have instead chosen to pay more attention to the grandness of the wedding ceremony and how many guests to invite.[19] This remark was prompted in an episode on youths getting married as a way of hiding the fact that a baby was conceived out of wedlock, a practice seen as prevalent among Malay parents eager to preserve “face”.[20]

Another aspect of Malay cultural deficiency posited by the series revolves around the perceived lack of appreciation for education. Most of the re-enactments in Hanyut 2 were/are  of out-of-school youths and parents who failed to see the value of education for their children.[21] Parents of out-of-school youths are usually blamed for devoting too much time at work that leaves them little time to supervise their children. The industriousness of these parents in ensuring that they have sufficient income to prevent their families from falling into poverty is chided as a lack of concern for their children’s education.

Kisah Sebenar remaja kita (“the true tales of our youth”): Re-enacting reality

The Hanyut franchise presents a depiction of what Cohen describes as the “folk devil”, where Malay youth delinquents and their dysfunctional families have come to occupy a space where “in the gallery of types that society erects to show its members which roles should be avoided and which should be emulated, these groups have occupied a constant position as folk devils: visible reminders of what we should not be.” (Cohen, 2002, pp. 1-2). Youth delinquency has been configured as folk devils that symbolize the dysfunctionality that handicaps the progress of the Malay community, and which requires immediate rehabilitation.


Separated from the mainstream, “delinquent” youths are stereotyped and also demonized as “folk devils” – cautionary tales to be avoided. Locating them within the site of the dysfunctional family allows for a convenient framework through which the issue of delinquency can be understood.

Dysfunctional families are identified as the harbourer of social problems, a convenient scapegoat employed by middle class Malays themselves and imposed on other Malays, in order to justify the continued presence of pervasive “Malay problems” which informs the ‘cultural deficit’ discourse with regards to the Malays in Singapore.

Siti Hazirah Mohamad is a researcher whose interests revolve around issues of youth justice and popular culture. Her honours thesis explored conceptions of Malay youth delinquency among Malay youth workers. Her MA thesis interviewed Malay youths in various homes in Singapore. The narratives of these youths were then juxtaposed with images of “delinquent” Malay youth as reflected through a popular Malay local drama. She is also interested in issues surrounding gender and Islam and the ways in which they are connected in everyday life.

Other References

Cohen, Stanley. Folk devils and moral panics : the creation of the Mods and Rockers. 3rd Edition, London: Routledge, 2002.

Stivens, Maila. “The Hope of the Nation: Moral Panics and the Construction of Teenagerhood in Contemporary Malaysia.” In Coming of age in South and Southeast Asia : youth, courtship and sexuality, by Lenore Manderson and Pranee Liamputtong, 188-206. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2002.


[1] This study is a condensed version of an Honours Thesis submitted to the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore in 2011.

[2] Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Malay during the National Day Rally 2005. Retrieved from http://stars.nhb.gov.sg/stars/public/ on 27 March 2011.

[3] Berita Minggu 14 May 2006, ‘Clubbing’.

[4] Berita Minggu, 14 June 2006, ‘ Menjejak trend anak gadis Melayu ‘lari’ ke dunia suram’.

[5] Berita Minggu, 15 October 2006,’ Tatu di sana sini’.

[6] Berita Harian, 18 October 2006. ‘Ibu remaja melayu tertinggi sejak sedekad’.

[7] Berita Harian, 7 August 2005,’ Memalukan: Remaja rakam aksi seks’.

[8] Berita Harian, 5 July 2006, ‘Siber seks Melayu: Belia kian berani papar aksi lucah di laman web’.

[9] Hanyut,  Episodes 1 and 2.

[10] Hanyut,  Telemovie.

[11] Hanyut,  Episode 11.

[12] Hanyut, Episode 5.

[13] Hanyut,  Season 2 episode 8.

[14] Hanyut,  Episode 4.

[15] Hanyut,  Season 2 episode 9.

[16] Berita Harian, 16 December 2005, ‘Youths need a good sense of identity’.

[17] Berita Harian, 22 April 2007, ‘ If grandma can kiss Ari, can grandpa kiss Siti?’

[18] Berita Harian, 29 May 2006, ‘Still hope yet’.

[19] Hanyut,  Episode 6.

[20] Hanyut, Episode 1.

[21] Hanyut, Season 2 Episode 3.