Interview with Hidayah Amin – a writer from Singapore

Stefano Romano


  1. Hidayah Amin, present yourself to our readers.

I am the Founder of Archipelago Consultancy, a Singapore-based consultancy providing high quality services in the areas of Research, Heritage, Education and Creativity. I am also the publisher of indie publishing house Helang Books. A daughter of Kampong Glam in Singapore, I was educated in Singapore, France, USA and England. I obtained my masters degrees from Lehigh University, USA and the University of Cambridge, UK. Iwas also the recipient of several awards such as the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, Alpha Delta Kappa International Teacher Education Scholarship and the Tan Kah Kee Postgraduate Scholarship.


I am an award-winning author who have also written several academic articles and presented at international conferences. I have also produced more than 70 documentaries, audio resources and short films.

I actively volunteers in community and humanitarian projects in Singapore and overseas. My motto in life: “There’s no mountain too high: Just Climb!”


  1. Before we talk about “Malay Weddings don’t cost $50”, can you tell us something of your previous books?

Gedung Kuning: Memories of a Malay Childhood

The book is a collection of 28 short stories revolving around my childhood home, Gedung Kuning which was home to the family of Haji Yusoff ‘Tali Pinggang’ from 1912 to 1999. The Singapore government in August 1999 under the Land Acquisition Act acquired Gedung Kuning. What used to be a family home from 1912 is now preserved as a historic building. Through the short stories, readers get a historical narrative detailing the lives of people living in Gedung Kuning and the Malays of Singapore from 1850s to 1999.


ISBN 978-981-08-4756-2

Genre: English non-fiction

Published: 9 January 2010

When Gedung Kuning (Yellow Mansion), my childhood home was acquired by the government, I felt lost. It was as if a piece of me was taken away. Hence I decided to write the book to preserve those precious memories. Content of the book ranges from family traditions to social life at Kampong Glam, from education in the 1900s to Bussorah Street being the Pilgrim Hub of Southeast Asia, from entrepreneurial spirit to white magic versus black magic, and from traditional Malay medicine to Palladian architecture.


The Mango Tree

Everything has a story, even the knotted tree. Besides bearing fruits and providing shade, what is so unique about the mango tree? Why does it have a special place in a little girl’s heart?

The Mango Tree is a touching story about family relationships, appreciation for nature, and having a rooted sense of identity that transcends time and space. The Mango Tree is the winner of the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award 2015 and the Grand Prize winner of the Samsung KidsTime Author’s Award 2015. It was also shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2014 (English non-fiction).


Genre: Children’s picture book, non-fiction

Format: Hardcover

Published: 16 March 2013

ISBN 978-981-07-5134-0

Braille ISBN 978-981-09-1050-1

eBook ISBN 9789674450816

*The Mango Tree story is based on true story that happened to my tree in my childhood home (Gedung Kuning).


  1. How did you come idea of writing “Malay Weddings don’t cost $50”, and how long did it take you?

“Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50 and Other Facts about Malay Culture”

A collection of 42 articles about Malay culture and heritage, lifestyle and personas, customs and practices, including controversial issues such as circumcision, supernatural beings, determining of virginity, and the infamous ‘$50-Malay-wedding’ remark that triggered a heated debate on racism in Singapore in October 2012.


ISBN 978-981-09-1051-8

Genre: English non-fiction

Published: 18 October 2014

The stimulus for the title of this book stems from Amy Cheong’s racist rant on Facebook in October 2012, about Malay weddings in Singapore. What surprised me was that Amy, a Malaysian citizen, had, for years, been living amongst the Malays. Yet she mocked us for what she perceived to be ‘low-cost void-deck’ weddings. Her “How can society allow ppl to get married for 50 bucks?” remark went viral and drew social media backlash from Malays and non-Malays alike, who deemed it to be racially offensive. Amy was issued a stern police warning and subsequently fired from her job in the labour movement, a move that emphasised the firm stand taken by the Singapore government against seditious remarks.


The ‘Amy Cheong’ episode highlighted how a lack of understanding of another’s culture could result in intolerance in our Singapore communities. I believe the engagement of minds is important, as only then, can we begin to gain a meaningful understanding of one another. It was with that spirit in mind that I agreed, some years back, to write the “Let’s Lepak!” (Let’s Chill!) column for, a website of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). I wrote 47 articles about Malay heritage and culture from July 2009 to September 2012, and was heartened by the good response received. When SIF closed down the website, I decided then to compile my writings so that others could continue to enjoy reading the stories.

I edited most of the stories and wrote new stories once I received news that I was awarded a grant from the National Heritage Board to publish the book. Seven months later, the book was completed and launched.


  1. You were born in Singapore, surrounded by the Malaysian culture, but you also talked about the Indonesian culture (I think to the chapter about Gamelan and Wayang Kulit), how do you describe the similarities between these two nations so close?

I am a fourth generation Malay Singaporean, born and raised in Singapore. Singapore was a part of Malaya (Malaysia) before Singapore gained independence in 1965. Singapore is situated in the Malay Archipelago or Nusantara. Hence, it is inevitable that our cultures are closely linked. The Malays of Singapore understand the Malay language spoken by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. We have ancestors from those places. To the Malays, moving between the countries in the Archipelago is akin to moving rooms in the same house. Hence, the Malays have always feel part of the Archipelago regardless where they reside. We are not only bound together by cultural heritage but by oceans.


  1. Do you think that young Malays are loyal to their culture or your book is also a warning not to forget their own origins? Do you think the sense of history of the nation is being lost among the younger generation?

I believe that younger Malays (in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia) are still loyal to the Malay culture. Globalisation and industrialisation may have impacted the younger Malays who might be more conversant in speaking English rather than their mother tongue. There are some who feel ashamed of identifying as Malays for various reasons.

As per the words of my cousin Faizah, “If we don’t know where we come from and how we came to be here, then how do we know where we are going and who we really are? We become less as a person.”

Knowing one’s heritage will keep the person rooted. One can travel the world, be a world citizen but he would still be rooted and grounded if he possesses a sense of identity, of who he really is.

A wise man once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” The younger generation must be made aware of the importance of knowing our heritage and who we really are, our family stories and history. We must not be rootless, lest we disappear from the world’s narratives.


  1. By hearing the cultural disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia, I think we should always strive to praise those who are defending their cultural heritage; Indonesia and Malaysia are really like sisters, and they are part of the cultural basin that includes the south of the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as a common cultural area. I think your book is also useful for this. What do you think about it?

Yes, countries in the Malay Archipelago are like siblings who share one common heritage and culture. Just like real siblings, sometimes we argue about things like variations of culture, which country ‘owns’ a particular aspect of culture, meanings of culture etc. At the end of the day, the unique cultural understandings and nuances of each country enhance and enrich the Malay culture as a whole.


In Singapore (and some parts of Asia), there are many books about Malay culture written in the Malay language, but very few in English. Hence, I thought it was timely to publish one in English to reach out to the non-Malay speaking readers. I think there is one other book about Malay culture in Singapore written by non-Malays. However, I believe it would be more authentic that Malays write about our own culture.

I hope readers who have picked up the “Malay Weddings don’t cost $50 and Other Facts about Malay Culture” book will enjoy the stories, and at the same time, grow to understand the Malays and learn about our rich heritage. Even though I am Malay, I too, sometimes take my customs for granted and forget the essence of their existence. To me, this book is not just an aide-mémoire of Malay culture; it also seeks to serve as a bridge of friendship between people of different communities and cultures.


  1. Can you say something, before before closing, about your new projects you’re working on?

I recently launched a children’s picture book:

Hang Nadim and the Garfish

(A Little Kids, Big Ideas book)

With print text in Dyslexie Font, Braille and digitally enhanced tactile elements, the retelling of Singapore folktale – Hang Nadim and the Garfish, a story of a young boy doing good with his bright idea – in this innovative One-for-All book seeks to integrate the needs of differently-abled children.


ISBN 978-981-09-4899-3

Published: 20 June 2015

*In the Malay Annals, it was recorded that Hang Nadim was a very young Malay boy of great ingenuity who saved Singapore, from attack by shoals of a species of garfish (todak); attacks that cost many Malays their lives.

There will be another children’s picture book to be launched in September:


Mina meets Cambridge

Mina is excited to visit her elder sister, Zara, in Cambridge. Mina has heard so much about Cambridge University from Zara and longs to visit. As Mina spends time with her sister, she discovers many interesting facts about Cambridge. However, she wonders why Zara does not seem to notice the charming characters they meet along the way…

Mina meets Cambridge is a whimsical story of an imaginative girl’s adventure in Cambridge. There, she learns that in order to be successful, one needs to work hard, persevere, and have the courage to dream big.


ISBN 978-981-09-4282-3

Braille ISBN 978-981-09-4898-6

*I am also working on several non-fiction books. One of them is about the history of Kampong Glam (where Gedung Kuning is located). Kampong Glam (old name: Campong Glam, also known as Kampung Gelam) is an area in Singapore that once formed the Muslim quarter. Kampong is the Malay term for village. It can also be translated as ‘quarter’ or ‘compound’. Since the 1900s, Kampong Glam was a cosmopolitan town – a centre of trade and commerce, home of the publishing world of the Malay Archipelago, as well as a religious, intellectual and social hub for the Malays.



About Stefano Romano

An Italian-born, by faith and destiny embraced Islam and passionately love Indonesian rich culture. His shots are extra-ordinary, as people say: pictures worth thousands words.

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6 Comments to "Interview with Hidayah Amin – a writer from Singapore"

  1. Handoko Widagdo  17 August, 2015 at 09:23

    Terima kasih Stefano. Saya belum pernah kenal dengan penulis ini dan belum pernah membaca tulisannya. Tetapi melalui artikel ini saya menjadi tahu bahwa Hidayah Amin adalah penulis bagus yang produktif.

  2. Lani  15 August, 2015 at 08:10

    JAMES : mahalo

    STEFANO : Thanks, for sharing…….nice article

  3. Stefano Romano  14 August, 2015 at 16:27

    Terima kasih untuk semua! Always happy to share the culture from every country!

  4. djasMerahputih  14 August, 2015 at 16:19

    Hadir bang james…
    Nice interview with good author…
    Thanks Stefano…

  5. James  14 August, 2015 at 15:45

    mengabsenkan para Kenthirs untuk interview

  6. J C  14 August, 2015 at 14:55

    Very nice and interesting interview, indeed! Thank you, Stefano…

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