Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I *heart* Malaysia

There’s an air of pessimism regarding the state of Malaysia that’s really palpable this time around, and it’s not without its grounds. It's not merely in the spirit of Merdeka however, but more importantly, as someone who self-identifies as a Christian, that hopelessness, bitterness and despair should never form the lens that funnels my vision, although the line of sight itself will likely be murky. In this respect, Wai Nyan’s been trying to get people to engage in an exercise akin to polishing our telescopes: brainstorming on why we love Malaysia. Here’s some of my stuff.

What exactly is a nation? Benedict Anderson once famously defined it as an “imagined community”. In other words, l will naturally feel that I share in some form of communion, a shared kinship, with other Malaysians even though I will never meet every single Malaysian out there. I set some form of boundary which differentiates me from non-Malaysians. And this is true, as far as it goes. I was born a Malaysian, I have particular experiences and memories from having been raised there, and I regard it as "home". The Malaysia I know best is the part situated on the island of Borneo, and my list will inevitably reflect the limitedness of my experience. At the same time, the Malaysia I love does not remain confined by those limits. I’m happy to accept mamak stalls as uniquely Malaysian, even if most of my fellow countrymen forget that mamak stalls is actually a West Malaysian thing. I’m not fussed at all if you drop the adjectival "West".

Having had the opportunity to meet many people of other nationalities, I also know that in one sense, we are not all that different. We speak fondly of Malaysian time, i.e our capacity to be late for any and every function, but Mexicans (and many other Latin American cultures) speak of Mexican time in exactly the same terms. South Africans call everybody "mama" and "papa" the same way we refer to everyone as "uncle" and "aunty". Jamaicans have their own colloqualisms - "mon" - like we do. And so on and so forth.

Still, I do love Malaysia, hence this post. This list isn’t original or imaginative in the very least. I think everybody else has nicked mentioned what I wanted to say. It was actually really difficult to come up with! Food, unsurprisingly, is a prominent theme. It’s also not ordered in any way.


1. A multiracial society. This is an obvious one, and we sometimes downplay it as an expertly stage-managed Tourism Malaysia charade. Nonetheless, it’s easy to take this for granted. Having had to explain the makeup of Malaysian society to countless friends, you begin to realise the rich mosaic of people we have that is hard to find anywhere else. It means we have quite unique problems as well, but I don’t think I’ll trade this for anything else.

2. Manglish...which is actually a very sophisticated language. (I even managed to squeeze in a mention of it in one of my Finals papers on literature and language!) The versatility of the suffix "lah" never ceases to amaze me, its applications ranging from emphasis ("Comelah!") to suggestiveness ("Trylah!") to dismay ("cannotlah..."). And where are you going to find a translation that can capture the essence of "perasaan"? So how do you learn Manglish? Aiyah, this kind of thing very hard to teach one you know! Just talklah!

3. As Deb has pointed out, many Malaysians are at the very least, trilingual. That’s cool. Even rubbish me can speak more than one language: English, Malay, Hokkien, and errr..Spanish (I took it for 6 months a couple of years back and even passed an exam!). My sis-in-law is the queen of dialects: Hokkien, Foochow, Cantonese, Hakka and who knows what else...

4. No one else can quite put his finger on the pulse of Malaysian society like Lat and Kampung Boy. And his caricatures of Malaysian politicians are laugh-out-funny too, especially Sami Veeeeelluuuuuuuu......

5. Kolo mee. Really, all you non-Kuchingnites are missing out...

6. Heading to the interior of Sarawak on a longboat and seeing longhouses with

7. Astro...which I also miss – it’s as good a cable TV provider as anywhere! (Aiyoh, my worldliness is showing...)

8. My halo is slipping! Fine, fine, I also love SIB. Is it back in place yet? But seriously though, I have huge affection for the church I grew up in, a truly Malaysian denomination with a rich heritage and which gave me most of my non-Chinese friends. Hudson Southwell’s Uncharted Waters is the most comprehensive history of SIB at the moment, while Shirley Lees' Drunk Before Dawn and Ray Cunningham’s Longhouses Open Doors are good introductions. From a Malaysian's viewpoint, try Solomon Bulan's The Bario Revival.

9. The many, many public holidays! (Bank holidays to you Brits.) I’m such a bum.

10. The various kuih-muih and other such delicacies which I never know how to describe in English.

11. Fruits. Ironically, I’m actually not that keen on durians, rambutans, and lychees, but hey, where else are you going to find them?

12. It’s winter and the chill is setting in. You’re a struggling overseas student without much money to spare. Foraging around your room, you throw away last week’s laundry and put aside those chocolate fingers you’ve been nibbling on all week, only to spot that packet of Maggi Kari flavour hiding in the corner. You become a theist faster than I can say: "Free Will Defense!"

13. “The air is wet, soaks / into mattresses, and curls / in apparitions of smoke. / ...the damp linen covers / of schoolbooks... / Drinking Milo / Nyonya and Baba sit at home / this was forty years ago / …by clouds and rolling darkness / …listening to the down-pouring rain…”
Those are lines from Shirley Lim’s poem Monsoon History, and does a great job of capturing the associations I have with milo-drinking. The early mornings when it’s still relatively dark and I’m drowsily catching bits and pieces of mum’s pearls of wisdom on the wonders Milo does for my bones, subconsciously tugging at my school uniform while trying to figure out if I have Kimia or BM first thing in the morning, which will radically affect my attitude to being late for class.

14. This is replicated in many places all over the world, but you know that nice buzz you get when you’re at a pasar malam or open air makan area, like in say, Guerney Drive in Penang? I miss that. Pubs are NOT AT ALL the same.

15. It’s quite nice to know that animals like proboscis monkeys, pelanduks, hornbills or orangutans are quintessentially Malaysian.

16. And to know that Malaysia has great natural beauty too, from coral reefs, gargantuous caves to Rafflesia flowers (Ok, they’re smelly, but still, when else will you be scared of a flower?). Ever seen those in Hull?

17. Back to food. How about them kampua mee? Yes, I can see West Malaysians scratching their heads now. Ask a Sibuan, they’ll be more than happy to regal you with lavish descriptions of their signature dish.

18. Like the English football/rugby/cricket teams, our badminton teams always make it to finals of majors but choke. Still, I’m glad that we can call Eddy Choong, the Sidek brothers, Foo Kok Keong, Cheah Soon Kit, Soo Beng Kiang, Yap Kim Hock, and latterly Wong Choong Hann and Lee Chong Wei our own.

19. I like the idea of an open house, and being able to welcome and feel welcomed by others.

20. Belacan, another thoroughly versatile ingredient! Now I’m craving kangkong...

21. Is it nerdy to think that the infamous dawn raid on Guthrie in the London Stock Exchange in 1979 was cool? I’m always picturing a bunch of swashbuckling pirates making away with bucketloads of treasure!

22. Bata shoes! Ok, this was an unabashedly nostalgic pick. But don’t you just love them Bata?

23. I have to confess, I find it extremely entertaining when Malaysian politicians put their feet in their mouths. I say this non-maliciously; they’re better than any soap opera! Latest example: Nazri Aziz to YouTube: I'll sue you!

24. The liveliness of the Malaysian blogosphere. I really enjoy the diversity found there, from humour to socio-political to the personal.

25. I should include a towering Malaysian figure, and how about Lim Kit Siang? He is indefatigable, and there’s no doubting his impact on Malaysian politics. This guy, after Tan Seng Khoon, is Mr. Opposition. Devalued as it is, give the man a Datukship!

26. Teh C Peng. My staple drink for many, many years.

27. Being able to sit in Twin Otters (that's those 20-seaters) and peek into the pilot’s cockpit! We used to fly these whenever we balik kampung to see my (now deceased) grandfather.

28. I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this, but it seems to me that we do have very good human resources. Anecdotally speaking, it always seems as if a lot of the talented people in the world have at the very least, some sort of Malaysian connection. Probably ‘cause I only notice if it’s mentioned that they’re Malaysian, so this is a flimsy reason. But I’m still sticking it in!

29. Cheap! Cost of living in Malaysia is decent, and I really wish I could go out to eat without any qualms.

30. I think I should pay tribute to all those roti-men, Paddle Pop ice-cream drivers and butchers on cycles that tirelessly come around with their wares.

31. Char kuey teow. Mmmmhmmmm...
32. Satay. MMMMMHMMMMM.....
33. Kaya. MMMMMMMMMMMMMHHHHHMMMMMMMMM.........

34. OK, let me stop thinking about supper and get more local. The Sarawak Museum is actually really good and for those of you who’re in Kuching, it’s worth dropping by. And the (world's only?) Cat Museum is another place I find myself revisiting...

35. Ah well, I know MAS gets tons of brickbats, but having travelled on quite a few airlines, from BA to KLM to Qantas, MAS is still really good. It just needs to be free from political interference and duit kopi stuff. And of course, it’s nice to lay claim to Airasia in terms of its entrepreneurship.

36. I may as well pay tribute to some great Malaysian academics, including Prof. Ungku Aziz and Syed Hussein Alatas. Social scientists seem to be our strong points, even with the enforced nuzzle placed on them.

37. Funny that I don’t actually know anything about finance, but I’m fairly sure I’m correct in thinking that our securities market has some of the best (legal?) frameworks in place, and that of course, we were pioneers in Islamic banking.

38. I haven’t mentioned it yet in this list, and I’ve only been to one 4 or 5 times, but mamak stalls are great for food and late night chats! I expect more people dragging me to one when I drop by the Peninsular.

39. The Sports Days in my school were always one of the highlights of my calendar (my favourite being that time when I decided to play to the crowd, and taking the lead too early in the final lap of the 1500m, only to run out of steam at the end. (Strategy, boy, strategy...). It probably isn’t uniquely Malaysian, but it gives off a whiff of Malaysianness, to me anyway.

40. How about those old adverts for Tora dating lagi! Or Dindang? Oh gosh, I’m laughing just remembering them right now. Adverts here in the UK are so sophisticated, I wonder what the Brits would have made of those?

41. I’m going to plagiarise from a t-shirt I own (see how low I’ve stooped?) How about them Malaysian sign language? You know, think about those unique gestures when you need to ta-pao something, or the puking thing.

42. The legend of Bujang Senang and Jong’s Crocodile Farm. The latter was owned by the grandpa of one of my ex-classmates. Don’t know the former? Shame on you ignorant West Malaysians! I know Sang Kancil after all! Although BJ was the exact opposite of SK, being a real, enormous crocodile that terrorised the Sri Aman area back in the early 90s.

43. There must be quite a few World Music festivals out there, and I don’t actually know what standing the Rainforest Music Festival has, but I’ve always enjoyed my time there.

44. Another place I usually enjoy is the Sunday Market, where my mum likes to drag me to after church. My favourite is that guy who got into a shouting match with a rival to see how many superheroes they could name: "Superman lelong! Superman lelong! Batman lelong! Spiderman lelong!" I'm guessing Superman pineapples are better than Spiderman starfruits...

45. Wow, no food for the last couple of items. Time to rectify that. Kueh chap is great!

46. I just remembered, and I almost wish I hadn’t because there’s no way I can ever satisfy this craving – my mum’s angzhou bak.

47. It’s number 47 and I’ve only realised I haven’t included an obvious one! It’s the cultural uniqueness of Malaysians. Malaysian culture is really, really complex, and I’ll leave it to the anthropologists – but the whole campur-campur of East, West and everything in between means that it’s difficult to pin down characteristics. The best word for it: Rojak.

48. What about the Section 2 of the Star? I miss Star2 (with the exception of the Sunday incarnation, which for some reason is always poorer than the weekday editions), which I would always thumb through whenever we get it. Section 1 isn’t that great though.

49. Wai Nyan, you have no idea what a service you were rendering when you showed me Along Along Bukit Beruntung all those years ago. Only two other people (and one of them could possibly be reading this) truly understand what a lifesaver this was when we were all stressing out for Finals 15 months ago. Sorry if this is a bit of an insider's joke. Malaysian humour at its best.

50. And I guess the obligatory ending, because I’m Malaysian. I suppose it’s possible to engage in sophisticated discussions of social constructions of identity and psycho-analyse everything to death, but still – that’s what I am. Malaysian by birth, and Christian by new birth through grace. The two come together and engineer a love for Malaysia.


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