Imagining Tarian Melayu in Singapore: Curating Bodies of Malay Dance

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis examines the historical development of tarian Melayu or Malay dance from its late colonial period of the 1900 to its present-day practice in 2020. This thesis posits that Malay dance in Singapore is a product of cultural confluences shaped by colonial misconceptions; popular cosmopolitan entertainment practices; national aspirations embedded in performative representations of a multicultural island nation-state; and impacted by evolving neoliberal market demands.


Framing the research to ask how tarian Melayu is a performance of historic care, the introduction of curating bodies as an investigative lens facilitates a dialogue between history and ethnography. Through an interdisciplinary endeavour which draws upon methodologies from critical dance studies, anthropology and Malay studies, the analysis re-enacts and reconstructs comprehensive narratives of dance history, bringing to the fore often obscured voices and divergent practices. In addition, the marginalised positions of the practitioners of tarian Melayu which the researcher calls  “model Malay minority dancer-citizen,” reveals the paradoxes they experience as Singaporean citizens in the 21st century and their intimate relations with the wider regional affinity that is the alam Melayu (Malay world).


Using archival sources and oral history records, the thesis traces the eclectic roots of Malay dance in the Bangsawan (popular Malay language theatre), urban amusement parks, Malay films and cultural organizations. It discusses the impact of a Malay nationalist agenda in the 1960s and the advent of multicultural national bodies in the 1970s such as the National Dance Company (NDC) and People’s Association Dance Company as agents of change who perpetuated the practice of Malay art dance in Singapore.


In addition, the researcher’s insider perspective as an active practitioner since the early 2000s and his ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore and maritime Southeast Asia since 2014, provide pertinent perspectives on existing issues in the field which include the intergenerational contestations regarding tarian Melayu’s authenticity, posterity and the creative tensions on what constitutes as Malay art dance in multicultural Singapore.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Purkayastha, Prarthana, Supervisor
  • Tan, Shzr, Supervisor
  • Cohen, Matthew Isaac, Supervisor
  • Blanco Borelli, Melissa, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Oct 2021
Publication statusUnpublished - 2021


  • Malay Dance
  • Malay
  • Singapore
  • Race
  • Minority Issues
  • Maritime Southeast Asia
  • Multiculturalism
  • Choreo-Curate
  • Reenactment
  • Historical Fiction
  • Neoliberalism

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