Monthly Archives: March 2012

Snapshots – 5: Where is Home?

Home is a place where people understand what they see when they look at you, because when they look at you, they are seeing a reflection of themselves. In a foreign land, this doesn’t happen. In a foreign land, the people become confused by something as simple as your cheekbones. What sort of cheekbones are those, you see them silently wondering, as they scrutinise you with friendly curiosity?

My earliest memories are of my parents, of devouring the leg of a roasted duck, and the dark expanse of Malaysian sky overhead with its shimmering stars. It is warm, and I feel safe. I run around the garden singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, the first song I ever learnt. I look up at the sky and wonder how far the stars really are, if I can ever visit one of those stars.


The voices were already there.          “Dengan itu pendatang-pendatang Cina yang mulanya menetap di Melaka…” “With that, the Chinese newcomers who at first settled in Malacca…”

“…perubahan yang paling nyata dalam kehidupan orang Melayu ialah kemasukan secara beramai-ramai pendatang-pendatang Cina.” “…the most notable change in the lives of the Malays was the mass influx of Chinese newcomers.”

(Quotes from ‘The Malay Dilemma’ by Mahathir Mohamad, a book banned in Malaysia until he became Prime Minister).

 The voices haunted us.


In Malaysia, no one is confused when they see me. They can tell at once that I’m Chinese, and not a Muslim. These are the simple facts about my life which mark me out, as if I wore a yellow star on my head.


Her name was Puan Asny (Mrs Asny). For me, she is forever in her thirties, this Malay teacher with curly black hair, a long face and thin lips that curved into the most welcoming of smiles. She came from a village house near Ipoh, but it was at the Methodist Primary School in Petaling Jaya where she taught me. Though the images have become fuzzy with time, the kindness Puan Asny brought into her classroom has lingered inside of me, never to be forgotten. 

Puan Asny didn’t cover her head with the Muslim headscarf (tudung). None of my friends or their mothers did. The only person at my mission school who wore the tudung was a religious woman with bad breath who taught us the Arabic alphabet. I tell you this to make you aware that things haven’t always been the way they are today, in the home I once had.

I was in Standard Six when Puan Asny became my teacher, old enough to understand what the voices were saying. “The government’s policies aren’t fair,” I said one day. “But Selina,” Puan Asny said, looking at me with her large brown eyes which in my mind, were tinged with green. “The Malays are not like the Chinese. They need help.” We disagreed animatedly, she and I, but that didn’t stop our mutual respect.

Once, after my family moved back to Ipoh and I had left the school, my mother took me to wish Puan Asny a happy Hari Raya Puasa (the end of the fasting month) at her family’s village home. She was so happy to see us that she let out a scream, while I too rushed eagerly forward. We went inside to be received by her family, who enveloped us within their warmth. The memory of that feeling, that warmth, has stayed somewhere in my head as well as my heart.

The next year, I left for England and never saw Puan Asny again.


When I left Malaysia, part of my soul stayed behind, the part which I am only now beginning to rediscover. It creeps up on me at unexpected moments, giving succour to the Malayan family story I am busy polishing.


The voices have since become louder and more insidious. “Orang Cina cuma tumpang disini sahaja.” “The Chinese are only squatting here.” (Remarks made by Ahmad Ismail, Malay politician, at an open meeting on 23 August 2008, as reported by Li Weihua of the Guang Ming Daily).

The politician was banned from his political party for three years, but rank-and-file members received him as a hero, even awarding him a traditional Malay dagger.  


Learning how to be at home in a country which doesn’t welcome you is an art for which I lack the patience. Perhaps if I had no choice, it would be different. I would then, like my compatriots, pretend not to care, and learn somehow to block out the chattering voices. As it is, I hear their high-pitched whispers everywhere. 

Sekiranya tidak puas hati, pelajar Cina disuruh balik ke Beijing, Cina, atau pun Sekolah Foon Yew.  Beliau mengatakan pelajar-pelajar Cina tidak diperlukan. Bagi pelajar India, tali sembahyang yang diikat dipergelangan tangan dan leher pelajar India ianampak seakan anjing dan beliau mengatakan hanya anjing akan mengikat seperti itu.”

“In case of dissatisfaction, Chinese students were told to go back to Beijing, China, or to the Foon Yew School. She said that Chinese students are not needed. As for Indian students, the prayer strings they wear around their wrists and neck make them look like dogs and she said that only dogs would be tied in that way.”

(Taken from a police report on remarks made by a Malay headmistress during morning assembly at a multi-racial school in Johore, Malaysia, on 12 August 2010).

The headmistress was never dismissed, only transferred to another school.


To stay or to go, that was once the question. To stay put or to go back, that is now a question. If I go back, which part of me will I regain? If I don’t, which part of me will remain lost? 

Kerana Malaysia ialah tanahairku. Because Malaysia is my homeland (usual translation), my soil and water (literal translation), land which nourishes my soul (own poetic translation).

(Taken from personal notes which I jotted down during a recent visit to Malaysia, February 2012)

Below, I share an excerpt from my unpublished novel.

I had loved Ipoh’s hills from the moment I set eyes on them. On cool rain-soaked afternoons when everything outside smelt fresh, the trees covering the hills became so dark, they looked almost black, as if that were the only way they could retain the moisture from the heavens. Light mist would occasionally drift in, its white veil like the strokes of a brush on a perfect Chinese painting. On hot mornings, I could see the exposed rock more clearly and would marvel at the shapes which had been created …narrow pendants stretching down like long teardrops along the sides of many cliffs…and in the opposite direction, fat mounds that rose up from beneath, seemingly without effort…sculpted by years of the rain and wind which lashed down over the Kinta Valley.”



Is it possible to feel at home in a country which doesn’t want you? Yes, but only because you know it so well that it’s like an old shoe, wrapping itself around the contours of your feet and carrying you effortlessly onto familiar terrain. To survive as a non-Malay in Malaysia today, you must bury yourself in concrete to block out the echoing voices.

 “Orang Cina Malaysia, apa lagi yang anda mahu?...Berikut adalah senarai 10 orang terkaya di Malaysia. 1. Robert Kuok Hock Nien…10. Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun.”

“Chinese of Malaysia, what more do you want?…The following is a list of the 10 richest people in Malaysia…(a list follows of whom 8 are Chinese, 1 Indian and 1 Malay)”

(Extract from an article by a Malay journalist in the Malay newspaper Utusan Malaysia dated 28 April 2010)


Can I block out the hissing whispers? I ask myself this repeatedly, and wonder about the cost of such effort. Where is home?


Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia

Snapshots – 4. Truly Malaysia: The Wetness of Toilets

Imagine a global survey of public toilets in every country. Think of a survey which ranks all toilets in a cross-section of venues, based on predefined criteria. Criteria such as: general cleanliness, appearance, odour, relative dryness/wetness, does the flush work, are all ancillary facilities (toilet paper, water in taps, soap, hand dryer or hand-roll) available?  

I’ve imagined such a poll, and asked myself where Malaysian public toilets would rank.

Why is this important? For the simple reason that a country’s public toilets provide a telling comment on attitudes and habits. They say a lot about its citizens. They’re a gauge of where a country really is in its development, and tell you more than tourist board advertisements, which generally deceive. Toilets can’t lie: they’re great, indifferent or terrible.

On this simple measure, Malaysia fails. Its toilets are not what you would expect for a relatively wealthy country. This, after all, is the home of the Petronas Twin Towers , at one time the tallest building on the planet. The country isn’t poor: according to the 2012 CIA Worldbook, the Malaysian per capita gross domestic product (i.e. the country’s economic output per head of population), adjusted, was US$15,000 in 2010, which placed us in the upper bracket of middle-income countries.

Yet, every time I come here, I find myself dreading our public toilets. I do my utmost to avoid them. To paraphrase from a well-known Malaysian campaign: “Malaysia Tidak Boleh.” (Malaysia Cannot)

Admittedly, it’s hard to find attractive public toilets anywhere in the world. But there’s a huge difference between toilets which aren’t great, and toilets which are dreadful.    

The average toilet here smells, is wet (a point I’ll come back to), and doesn’t have paper. And I’m referring to the toilets in major shopping centres. I wouldn’t dream of going into the back of coffee shops or hawker stalls, so I’ll have to leave those to your imagination.

Of course, there are places in Malaysia with excellent public facilities, more than equal to those in other countries. The toilets at the Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur are better than any I’ve seen in the US, Japan or the UK.

It’s also true that public toilets here are getting better. For example, facilities along the motorways have improved dramatically since the late seventies when I left. Actually, in those days, there weren’t motorways, only single carriageway trunk roads which passed little one-street towns along the way. There would be a row of shop-houses lining the road on either side, which housed coffee shops at which you could stop for refreshment and ‘facilities’. These usually comprised some fetid dark room at the back, with a wet and thoroughly unwholesome floor, cleaned once a week, if at all. As a result, I never drank much before travelling. Unfortunately, there were times when I had to visit such places, so it’s no surprise that I became an expert at holding my breath. This is a skill which has never left me – I can still hold my breath for a very long time if need be.

Today, there are motorways in Malaysia, dotted with ‘rest’ places along the way where refreshment and public facilities can be found. The facilities are certainly not fetid. Many are even quite clean, with a choice of squat and Western toilets. While there’s not always soap, there is always running water. Large rolls of toilet paper are usually found outside but this is not always available, so it’s best to carry tissue with you.

Now, we come to the toilets themselves. Here’s my problem with them: they are nearly always wet. I loathe wet public toilets – they remind me of my worst childhood nightmares. Also, if a toilet is never dry (as in some Malaysian toilets), the dankness accumulates and before long, the whole cubicle smells like a wet fish market. If I wanted to buy fish, I would put up with the smell. But when all you’re trying to do is relieve yourself, the last thing you need is to be reminded of uncooked fish.

It appears that I’m not the only person who hates wet public toilets. With my own eyes, I’ve seen tourists wait rather than enter a toilet with a wet floor. If Tourism Malaysia were to carry out a survey asking visitors whether they preferred their toilets dry or wet, I’ll bet they would find a resounding vote in favour of dry toilets.

If they don’t believe me, they should run a google search. There are plenty of complaints, an oft-recurring one being the wet state of Malaysian toilets. In fact, there’s even a link with the question ‘Why are public toilets in Malaysia always wet?

Here’s a quote from AlisonR on “If you are a Westerner and used to clean, dry, sitting down toilets, you will not like Malay loos very much…even the ones that are in the major shopping centres have water all over the floor.”

There are also Malaysians complaining about this same issue. Just one example:  “One of my top pet peeves about the Malaysian public toilets would be their extremely wet environment.”

Now, for the interesting part: why Malaysian public toilets are so wet. The reason is usually mentioned only in passing, because this is deemed a ‘sensitive’ issue. (Many things here are sensitive; if we adhered to the list, we would never talk.) Since there’s no way to write this without being explicit, I might as well be blunt: our toilets are wet because Muslims here wish to wash themselves with water after using the toilet. Therefore, public toilets in Malaysia are provided with a tap to which a hose is attached.

Result: wet toilets. If you’re lucky, it’s only the floor which is wet; often, everything in it is wet: seat, floor, paper (if there’s any).

Let me say that I have nothing against anyone wishing to hose themselves down. What I object to are wet toilets.

I don’t understand why every toilet in the country has to be of the ‘wet’ variety, when only a fraction (roughly half) of the 27 million people who live here wish to wash themselves after using the loo. We have consumer choice in most other areas, why not toilets? I know there are other issues on the public toilet front, but if we could achieve some dry toilets, that would make a good start.

How about the following simple solution: wherever there are public toilets, designate half as dry toilets? These should be western-style sitting toilets which are not equipped with that blasted tap and hose, and which are completely separated from the wet toilets i.e. there are proper walls between them, so that they remain dry. That way, anyone who wants to use a dry toilet can do so. Is that too much to ask?

There are other possibilities, such as installing French-style bidets. But they would probably cost more, with no guarantee that toilets with bidets would remain dry. On the other hand, if Malaysia started to lead the world in toilet technology, this could be worth trying.

Unless people stopped visiting the country because of our toilets, I doubt whether anything would change. But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to make one thing clear: not all Malaysians hose themselves down after using the toilet. In fact, many of us are appalled by the wet state of our toilets. We want toilets which are odourless, clean and dry.

Having written this post, I’m now curious to know what you think, so I’ve embedded a poll here. All you need do is answer the question below. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Malaysian or otherwise, whether you’ve been to Malaysia or not. 

Thank you.


Filed under Malaysia

Snapshots – 3. Day with a Special Chef

I held my breath. On turning the bright pink mould upside down and giving it a gentle tap, I could barely believe that what I had just fashioned with my fingers would fall out. Yet fall out it did, plopping into my open palm without fuss, its shape intact. You can see the look of utter surprise on my face.

I had finally made my first angkoo.

If you’re not from south-east Asia, you may well ask what angkoo is and why on earth I would want to make it.

In the photograph on the right, angkoos are the orange-red mounds resting on the tray at the bottom. Each angkoo comprises a glutinous rice skin, coloured orange-red and filled with steamed mung beans. Not your cup of tea? You may change your mind once you’ve tasted one: angkoos are sweet and delightfully aromatic, with lots of thick coconut milk and sugar.

Why this interest in angkoo? Well, angkoo is a well-known type of ‘cake’ or kueh made by the Nyonyas. It also has symbolic significance, because angkoos were traditionally given by a Nyonya couple to their family and friends when a new baby reached its first month. Angkoo features at key moments in my novel because of this symbolism. It has additional import for my main character, because it is while making angkoo one day that she finally realises what being a Nyonya actually means for her.

Because of the role angkoo plays in my novel, I’ve had to follow its recipe in detail, trying to imagine what it would have been like making angkoo in a sweaty olden kitchen. This week, I decided it was time to consult an expert.

Who better than my aunt Lorna, who comes from multiple lines of Nyonyas? My aunt’s grandmother was my Great Grandmother, a fierce Nyonya woman, and my aunt’s mother was also a Nyonya descendant of many generations. Aunt Lorna runs Sri Nyonya, one of the best-known restaurants in Petaling Jaya specialising in Nyonya cuisine. (Petaling Jaya, PJ to locals, is close to Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur).

I was nervous before we started, uncertain how the day would go. Everyone had told me beforehand what hard work Nyonya cooking was, especially the ‘cakes’ or kueh I wished to learn.

For the first few minutes, I stood watching my aunt in awe. By the time the photograph with my stunned face was taken, I had relaxed, because most of the arduous work had been done. I call it arduous, yet it was easier than in the days when my main character was making her angkoos. She would have had to grind her own glutinous rice flour by hand; we bought ours in ready-made packets. She would also have had to chop firewood for the stove and use bellows to control the strength of the fire.

Despite our modern conveniences, I can’t say the work was easy. There was much mixing and kneading and steaming. Even though aunt Lorna had steamed and crushed the mung beans the day before, it still took us a couple of hours to make thirty two angkoos. Each angkoo has to be made individually, which means that the amounts for every skin and ball of filling have to be separately weighed. Only thereafter could the fun begin: the shaping of each angkoo into its mould and the ‘knocking out’ of the angkoo.

From the photographs, it’s obvious I had to concentrate hard. Aunt Lorna showed me how to flatten the orange-red angkoo skin on my palm, making sure the skin became thin but at the same time, was thick enough to hold its filling. When the skin was properly prepared, I placed a ball of the mung bean filling onto it and slowly pulled at the sides of the skin to close the wrapped ball up. Then, I pushed the ball into an intricately designed mould. The traditional moulds were wooden, but we used a bright pink plastic mould with the characteristic tortoise pattern inscribed. I was told that if I coated the mould properly with glutinous rice flour, the angkoo should simply drop out when the mould was turned over and given a soft tap. Although I understood the theory, it still felt like a small miracle whenever an angkoo fell out with no problem. I always breathed a sigh of relief.

My angkoos tended to have wobbly sides, not the clean lines of my aunt’s expert hands, but that didn’t matter, because they all tasted wonderful once they had been steamed. They were a perfect shade of orange-red too – thanks entirely to my aunt, who had mixed in the colouring in judicious proportions.

It was only afterwards, in the quiet of the night, that I became aware of the emotions I must have carried during the day. I remembered the joy I felt as we, my aunt and her helper Theresa and I, chatted happily while knocking angkoos out. I imagined my main character doing the same a hundred years ago in her old-fashioned kitchen. She would also have been standing with other women, surrounded by the sound of chattering and familiar aromas, of garlic frying and pandanus leaf steaming. It was in the midst of such activity that she learnt to appreciate her heritage.

For me, what began as a research adventure turned into an intense, highly personal event. Making angkoo with aunt Lorna was a privilege, an experience I will never forget.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya, Research

Snapshots – 2. The Taxi Drivers and I

The taxi had just dropped a passenger off at my hotel in Kuala Lumpur when I jumped into it. It was an old car, not one of the swankier blue ‘executive’ taxis I had seen.

The driver, a Chinese man, asked in English: “Where you want to go?” Without thinking, I replied in English – a mistake, because my accent was a dead give-away. The guy probably thought I would be easy prey.

After I explained where I wanted to go, I noticed the meter at the front whirring rather rapidly. It was then that I decided to switch into Cantonese. The following conversation ensued.

Me: “Your meter is going too fast isn’t it?”

Driver: “Oh, you know how to speak Cantonese ah?”

Me: “Of course! I’m Malaysian. Your meter!” I pointed towards the continuously flickering number. “Why is it going so fast?”

Driver: “You don’t like it, you can get out.”

I did. He stopped the car and I walked back to the hotel. Fortunately, we hadn’t travelled far. Unfortunately I was staying at the Mandarin Oriental, a wonderfully plush place but where no taxi comes cheap. The next car I hopped into was somewhat better, but the driver couldn’t find my destination. For what I ended up paying, I could have taken a return journey from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh on the electric train (205 km) with change to spare.

Then, a few weeks ago, my partner and I encountered the neurotic driver. This one was Malay, allocated to us at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by chance. He too, was unable to find our destination – despite specific instructions over his mobile phone from my cousin. It was when she tried to give him directions that the driver lost his head. He announced that he couldn’t think; instead of listening to my cousin, the driver stormed into every garage we saw, in search of directions! In exasperation, my cousin told him she would come in person to pick us up. At that point, the driver’s panic reached new heights. “I have three children!” he cried. “If you complain, they will suspend me for three days! How to feed my children?”

I looked at the man in astonishment. Neither my partner nor I had said anything to warrant such an outburst; in fact, complaints were the last thing on our minds. When we climbed out of the car to wait, our conversation took an even more bizarre turn.

Neurotic driver: “Get back inside.”

Me: “Sir, my cousin is coming to pick us up. Please take our bags out of the boot.”

Neurotic driver (screaming): “No!”

Me (incredulous): “You mean you won’t give us our bags?”

Something in my voice must have shaken the man, because he finally lifted our suitcases out. We were so relieved to be rid of the guy that we paid the fare and gave him a healthy tip.

These incidents blighted my experience of Malaysia. I dreaded getting into a taxi, knowing we would have an argument either at the beginning (if, despite the meter, you agreed the fare upfront) or at the end (if you hadn’t agreed a fare and weren’t going to pay what the meter purported to show). If I could be treated so abominably, what hope would there be for visitors who don’t speak our local languages?

Just as I was ready to give up hope of ever finding a decent taxi in Malaysia, we discovered a ‘local’ taxi company. ‘Local’ just means they’re not the blue ‘executive’ taxis favoured by tourists. Local taxis may not look as nice, but they are clean and air-conditioned. The drivers are polite, they come on time, they know their roads and most importantly, their meters appear to work as they should.

There’s only one problem: their rude back-office – the people who take your calls. Alas, Malaysian hospitality doesn’t seem to have infected its taxi services. When I called Super Cab yesterday afternoon, the woman on the other end of the line told me, “No taxis at the moment. You have to call back in ten minutes.” When I protested that I only wanted a taxi in thirty minutes, I could hear her sigh as if she were speaking to a belligerent child. “Like I said, no taxis now,” she resumed, her tone weary. “Call back in ten minutes.”

I was the customer, yet I was expected to call them back. Obviously a case of too much demand, not enough supply. I resorted to calling my hotel and asking for an executive taxi. It cost twice as much as Super Cab would have, with no discernible difference in quality, but it saved me much aggravation. Sadly, it seems this drama entitled The Taxi Drivers and I, is set to continue running.


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia