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Communication Issues: Stereotype and the Media

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Stereotype is common and prevalent in today’s society. It is defined as a simplified and common image of a group of people “regardless of the actual degree of variation within the [group]” (Jones & Gerard, 1967, p.719). “Once a person is identified within that group, his own individuality tends to be overlooked, and the characteristics of the group are attributed to him with little qualification” (Raven & Rubin, 1976, p.517).

The term “stereotype” is closely linked with the terms “prejudice” and “discrimination (Refer to Appendix 1). Prejudice is a negative attitude felt towards an out-group; discrimination is a negative behaviour carried out towards the out-group. “Being prejudiced shows both negative beliefs and attitudes about an out-group and allows individuals to reject groups of people categorically” (Romero & Roberts, 1998, p. 641).

Whether it is done consciously or not, stereotyping happens because of many reasons. Although stereotyping can be offensive and disrespectful, it can create both a negative and positive social identity; a major factor contributing to stereotype is the media’s portrayal of these certain groups of people.

Examples of well-known stereotypes include racial or ethnic stereotype, gender stereotype, age stereotype, stereotype against people with physical disabilities and stereotype towards people from a certain income group. In this research paper, the group will be focusing largely on ethnic stereotype (i.e. against Malays or Indians) and age stereotype (i.e. against the aged or the “yuppie” group). The first portion of this paper will cover how these groups are represented in the local media and how these representations are superficial.

A superficial representation of two minority groups

” A superficial representation of ethnic minorities produces and reproduces superficial understandings of ethnicity that, though instantly gratifying, may lead in the longer term to serious problems in ethnic relations”

– Assistant Professor Kenneth Paul Tan (2002). “Ethnic Representation On Local Film and Television,” paper presented at the Institute of Policy Studies Research Forum.

In local sitcoms, Malays are often depicted as being lazy; not well-learned; hold low-paying jobs; have a tendency to indulge in vices like taking drugs and drinking alcohol; coming from broken families.

To substantiate some of the above points, a few examples will be drawn from Singapore’s popular sitcom Under One Roof. Two characters that will always be fondly remembered by Under One Roof fans are Yusof and Rosna – the Malay couple who are close friends of the Tan family.

The character Yusof is played by local actor Zaibo while his on-screen wife Rosna is played by Salim. In the sitcom, Salim is portrayed as a “typical” housewife who loves to gossip and complain. Her command of English is far from good and very frequently punctuated by common Malay terms. Zaibo’s character sells mee rebus at a hawker centre and, like Salim’s character, is incapable of stringing more than two sentences without using Singapore colloquial.

Irrefutably, the portrayal of Yusof and Rosna served its purpose in injecting humour to the sitcom, however, at what price? There are many Malays out there carving a name for themselves and holding managerial positions. Likewise, there are also members, though a small number, from the Malay committee holding positions in the Parliament (e.g. Dr. Mohamad Maliki Osman, MP for Sembawang GRC). These representations of the Malay committee are never portrayed in sitcoms for obvious reasons that they are no cause for humour.

Superficial generalisations of Malays will not only enforce but also strengthen the perceptions of members from other races that Malays are what they are perceived to be – lazy people who are incapable of earning themselves higher paying jobs. These generalisations will cultivate a mentality among non – Malays that goes against the government’s constant preaches of racial harmony and cohesiveness.

Another group of people that is often stereotyped is the “yuppie” group. This is the term given to twenty-something Singaporeans who converse mainly in English. This group of people are perceived to be “loose” with both their money and their morals; have little regard for traditions; have a tendency to adopt all things American for example colloquial, attitude and dressing; have a liking for cafes and clubs.

Examples can be found in the characters of MediaCorp 5’s Oh Carol. The story and episodes revolve around the main character, Carol, starring Hong Kong veteran actress Carol Cheng. Carol is portrayed as a single in her late twenties working for an advertising company. She stars alongside co-stars like Kumar who acts as her good friend and fellow advertising colleague. The characters converse in well-spoken English occasionally spiced up with American colloquial like “Oh please!” or “This/That is so gross!” There was one episode where one of the actresses showed how she used her body to win clients’ approval (i.e. bending down and conveniently revealing her cleavage or suggestively biting the tip of a pencil). This portrayal showed that the character had no qualms about using her body to gain advantage of a situation.

Likewise, in MediaCorp 8’s drama serials and sitcoms, characters in that particular age group are portrayed in a similar fashion – wearing fashionably figure-hugging clothes; hipster jeans with designer sunglasses perched stylishly on their heads. These dressing styles are very alike the Hollywood stars that grace our movie screens and magazine covers.

However this group’s inaccurate and over generalised portrayal in the media has led to the society “expecting” certain behaviours from them. For example, a twenty-something female executive who rises to the top will be accused of sleeping her way to the top because this “loose” behaviour is expected of someone like her who belongs to a certain age group and generation. Similarly, if a brawl were to take place between a man in his twenties and a man in his forties, the finger would be pointed at the former because it is believed that today’s men in that age group are impetuous and irresponsible.

For various reasons, the media will portray and stereotype certain groups of people. However, each individual should remember that race is but a biological category that is mostly manifested in the way a person looks (Romero & Roberts, 1998, p. 642) and that age, is just a number.

The emergence of stereotype

The social phenomena of stereotyping will never cease because more and more stereotypes will emerge to fill the gaps of society’s diminished stereotypes. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to eradicate the existing stereotypes as well as to stop society from stereotyping. However, before both ideals can be executed, one must first comprehend the processes, which gave birth to the formation of stereotypes. They are social categorization and the in-group and out-group theory. These two processes will consequentially reflect the other factors that contribute to the emergence of stereotyping, with reference to the macro aspects like historical, socio-cultural, social- psychological, and political and economical factors.

Social categorization refers to the process of classifying people into various clusters based on common traits. Like biologists who perceive animals as species and scientists who divide time into different eras; people sort each other into groups according to one’s gender, race and other common characteristics. In a local context, one of the social categorizations within the Malay community would be the “mutts” and the “meenas”. “Mutts” refer to a typical Malay male, whose age lies in-between his early teens to early twenties. Although most mutts have gone through schooling and can speak English well enough, most of them prefer to converse in Malay. Mutts are usually active in sports and take a lot of interest in many different genres of music. In short, mutts are said to be the Malay versions of “Ah-Bengs”. Similarly, “Meenas” are generally perceived as promiscuous, well-endowed Malay females with a penchant for dressing up in tight-fitting attire. They are simply the Malay version of “Ah-Lians”.

The immediate result of social categorization is what sociologists and psychologists term as the in-group and out-group theory. Although the process of classifying humans is likened to the process of sorting out objects, there is a major disparity. “When it comes to social categorization, perceivers themselves are members or non-members of the categories they use. Groups that you can identify with – your country, your religion, your political party, even your hometown sports team – are called ingroups, whereas groups other than your own are called outgroups.” (Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2001, p.134) In Singapore, the in and out groups within the different ethnicities are portrayed rather visibly. To the Chinese, the Malays would be considered the out-groups, while the former occupies the title of the in-group.


The word “stereotype” originated from the combination of two Greek words, “stereos” and “typos”. “Stereos” means solid while “typos” means model. Thus the existence of the word “stereotype” means “solid models”. Such a term would probably result in at least two combinations: rigidity and duplication or sameness. The term was employed as early as 1824 and was also called formalized behavior Soon, these terms were described as inflexible, recurring, often rhythmic behavior configuration.

Apart from the origination of the word “stereotype”, the origins of stereotype is said to have sprung from historical events. For example, “it can be argued that slavery in America gave rise to the portrayal of Blacks as inferior, just as the sneak attack on Pearl Harbour in World War II fostered a belief that the Japanese cannot be trusted” (Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2001, p.133). Similar to these events, the caste system in India could also have played a part in shaping society’s perceptions.

Initially, the caste system was created to facilitate the management of India’s population. The population was categorized into the different castes according to their profession, academic ability and social status. The purpose of the caste system then, was to “include it in the census if the census was to serve the purpose of giving the government the information it needed in order to make optimum use of the people under its administration” (“The Indian Caste System and the British”, par 8, n.d.). However, the social repercussion was that the system also restructured India’s culture drastically. The caste system simply modified according to the introduction of the British systems. As such, “the census became not simply an accounting of what existed but an active participant in the creation and modification of the society” (“The Indian Caste System and the British”, par 11, n.d.). With response to this transformation in society, many Indians strived to secure their status.

Within the caste system, there was a subdivide amongst the Indians. These subdivides soon snowballed into “the contention that one can determine the character of people based on their physical appearance . . . to the type of work that individuals were seen as being fit for” (” The Indian Caste System and the British”, par 37, n.d.). That “contention” is simply a mere reflection of stereotyping.

Moving on to a local context is the history of ethnic stereotyping of Singaporean Malays. Little is known about the history as to why Malays are being stereotyped. One of the plausible reasons could be the culture and way of life practiced by ancestors of our Malay community. Majority of the Malay community’s ancestors’ homelands were in Malaya, Sumatra, the islands that constituted the Indonesian Archipelago and Java particularly.

Back then, the Javanese “had a significantly lower standard of living” (“The Malays”, par 1, n.d.). After World War II, “many Javanese migrated to Singapore . . . [and] often occupied the lower reaches of the economic and social order” (“The Malays”, par 1. n.d.). According to the 1931 census, “18 percent of the Malays . . . [were] fishermen and 12 percent [worked as] farmers; the remaining 70 percent held jobs in the urban cash economy, either in public service or as gardeners, drivers, or small-scale artisans and retailers” (“The Malays”, par 1. n.d.).

Apart from that, history has it that Malays had a “higher crime rate than other groups and in 1987 accounted for 47 percent of the heroin addicts arrested” (“The Malays”, par 3, n.d.). Perhaps it was their ancestors’ history that propelled the stereotyping of Malays as being poor, rural, uneducated and not trustworthy. As such, society eventually grew to believe that the above-mentioned attributes were innate in every Malay individual.


Many believe in the theory of “kernel of truth”. The theory states that there is a certain truth among stereotypes, which results in the category of “rational stereotypes”. The theory assumes that the human mind processes information with the help of categorical characteristics. This has been proven to be accurate in certain aspects. Therefore, this has led to the belief that stereotypes do encase a “kernel of truth”.

As mentioned before, society tends to view Malays as underachievers. It is an unfair statement but there are surveys and findings that support the fact that a sizeable number of Malays’ highest level of education is either an ‘O’ level certificate or an ITE certificate. This is an example that supports the “kernel of truth” theory.

Another reason for the emergence of stereotypes is the conviction that the world relies on stereotypes to guide society. The function of stereotypes is to shorten the process of analysing information. With so many things to pay attention to in our social worlds, we can save time and effort by using people’s group memberships to make inferences about them (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Sherman, 2001, cited in Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002). The book further defines the role of stereotypes – which is, [to provide] “an oversimplified picture of the world . . . that satisfies a need to see the world as more understandable and manageable than it really is” (cited in Brown, 1986). This would then allow stereotypes to help enforce stability and regulation onto the complicated world we live in.

Another contributing factor includes “how [the] different groups are portrayed by the media and how parents, peers, and schools promote particular ways of dividing people” (Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002). In this aspect, the role of the media and one’s parents and peers would be crucial and highly influential. This is so because “people learn stereotypes and prejudice through role models, group norms and the culture at large” (Devine, 1989; Guimond, 2000; Lipton, Pettigrew, 1958, cited in Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002). For example in Under One Roof, Yusof, is contrasted starkly with Tan Ah Teck, the lead Chinese character who owns a mini-mart. Fulfilling the social expectation theory, the local media depicts the norms by portraying most Malays occupying unskilled or lowly positions in many sitcoms or dramas.


The social-psychological perspective examines the social cognitive theories that assist in the formation of stereotypes. Social cognition is the “mental processes associated with the ways in which people perceive and react to other individual and groups” (“Social Cognition”, par 1, 2001). Therefore, social cognitive theories are the immediate types of responses that follow the social cognition process. Some of the social cognition theories that would be illustrated in this paper are: self-schemas, the ultimate error attribution and illusory correlation.

Schemas are also known as knowledge structures. Self-schemas are “cognitive frameworks that help us to categorize, store and remember information that consist of more or less prototypical features” (“Social Cognition”, par 1, 2001). Take birds for example, one of the most prototypical features of a bird would be its feathers. Therefore, applying the schema theory in this context, one can conclude that since birds have feathers, they can fly. This would then bring us to the proverb, “birds of the same feathers flock together”. Similarly, applying this concept to Malays, many non-Malay Singaporeans in our society would think that Malays have low moral values because many of them are lowly educated.

The ultimate attribution error theory comes from the word “attributions”. Attributions mean “explanations of behaviour; the process people go through to explain causes of behaviour” (“Social Cognition”, par 7, 2001). The three factors that support attributions are consensus, consistency and distinctiveness. The ultimate attribution error means that negative out-group behaviours are attributed personality traits whereas favourable behaviours of out-group members are simply ignored. An example would be if a Malay student fails his exam, many would attribute his failure to the fact that he’s Malay and that Malays tend to be lazy. It would never cross the minds of these people that the Malay student might have problems in that particular subject albeit studying and trying hard for the exam.

“The illusory correlation is the phenomenon where people tend to overestimate the coincidence of rare events (“The Illusory Correlations, Baseball Announcers and Stereotyping”, par 3, 1999). From this concept, two different processes are developed. The first being shared distinctiveness. This occurs when two unusual events are noticed taking place at the same time. Because both the events are deviant, they tend to attract attention. Hence, people perceive both the events as being associated with each other.

To elicit this point is a comparison between the Chinese and the Malays. Within both individual communities, there are some people who behave negatively. Assumed that the number of people who execute negative behaviours in the two communities are the same, those in the Malay community would unquestionably be subjected to harsher scrutiny. This is because Malays are seen as a minority group as they make up only 14 percent of the population compared to the Chinese who populate Singapore with 77 percent.

Despite the fact that group Y [the Chinese] are no more likely than group X [the Malays] people to behave negatively, observers tend to overestimate the association between the minority group and minority behaviours. Therefore they perceive group Y people as more likely to behave poorly than group X. (Hamilton & Gifford, 1976 cited in cited in Sharon, Saul & Steven)

Secondly, people seem to “overestimate the association between variables [or events and already have the presumption] that they … [are] expect[ed] to go together” (Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002). These constitute the basis for the stereotyping of Malays, for example, “Malays are [more] prone to committing crime and taking drugs”.

Political & Economical

Perhaps one of the major reasons why stereotypes are formed with reference to the political and economical aspect is because those who were of elevated and prominent status wanted to secure their influential positions in society. As Goodwin states, “people in relatively powerful positions in society may be motivated to categorize others in ways that help them maintain the status quo and justify their feelings of superiority” (Goodwin et al., 2000; Jost & Banji, 1994; Operario & Friske, cited in Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002). This statement then directs us to the notion of power relations.

Applicable in this essay would be the power relations between the dominant or majority and the minority. Further dissection of these two categorizations would lead us to explore the power relations between the Chinese (the dominant or majority) and the Malays (the minority). For a long time, the Malays filled the security positions in Singapore because they were thought of as loyal people. However, after Singapore gained her independence from Malaysia in 1965, many were threatened and felt disturbed by the fact that there were many Malays holding on to the country’s police and armed force positions. They regarded the Malays’ predominant occupations in these government jobs as a possible threat to Singapore’s security. Furthermore, many felt that these security posts were an unfair representation of the society and as a result, the Chinese substituted many of the Malays.

This could have been a contributing factor leading to the emergence of power relations between the Chinese and the Malays. Power relations means that if members of stigmatised groups are led to conform to the negative stereotypes created by the dominant members of society, the latter would then be able to preserve their prestigious positions. Given that today’s economy is rather unstable, many Chinese would continue to discredit and stigmatise the Malays so that they can maintain their high-ranking positions. Some forms of passive power relations that take place between the Chinese and the Malays are, the racial jokes and comments and the act of favouritism towards the Chinese.

To date, “there are only a few token Malays serving as cabinet ministers . . . [and] the Singapore Air Force has yet to have any Malay fighter pilots” (“The Role of Dominant Ethnicity in Racism” Reportage on Chinese Rule in Multi-Racial Singapore”, par 25, 1998). However, despite the fact that the Singapore government has tried to exercise more equality among races, the Malay “minorities who seek positions of leadership still seem blocked by a “glass ceiling”- a barrier so subtle that it is transparent yet so strong that keeps them from reaching the top of the hierarchy (Morrison & Glinow, 1990, cited in Sharon, Saul & Steven, 2002).

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