Tag Archives: Malay

So You Think You Know Your Mother Tongue

Near my house in north London there’s a Belarusian church made of wood. The Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church is the only wooden church that has been constructed in London since the great fire of 1666. Next to the church is a double-storey house – Marian House – where the priest lives. Marian House also serves as a community centre. By now you must be scratching your head, wondering why I’m telling you any of this.

The Beautiful Church Interior

It’s because I was at the Belarusian community centre last week, at a literary event to honour mother tongues. The concept of mother tongue is incredibly important to Belarusians, whose language was widely spoken in the region until they were Polonised and then Russified by conquering Polish and Russian empires. First things first; where is Belarus? For the answer, see the map below.

Where is Belarus?

The above comes from the BBC’s country profile. Belarus is a landlocked country in northern Europe, stuck between Poland to the west and Russia to the east. In the south is Ukraine, while Latvia and Lithuania lie north. The region has a fascinating history. I’m no expert (for a summary here’s a Wikipedia link), but the point is this: Belarusians in Belarus have been discriminated against for speaking Belarusian, their mother tongue.

Language shapes perception, and when those perceptions don’t accord with what an authoritarian regime wants them to be, the solution in that part of the world has been to crack down on language. This happened under Soviet rule.

Although Belarusians are now allowed to speak Belarusian, their language suffered years of decline. Even their Nobel Prize-winning author, Svetlana Alexievich, writes in Russian. It’s thus fitting that the Belarusian centre in London should host an annual event marking UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day.

And so we gathered, on the sunny afternoon of 23 February, to read poems in our mother languages. I, for one, had to think hard about which language to read in.

The first language I ever heard was Cantonese – which isn’t really a language, it’s a Chinese dialect. My parents also speak English, Malaysian-style English (known affectionately as Manglish), and up to the age of 10, I could not make head or tail of Western accents. When I started school, a third language – Malay – was thrown into the mix. Malay was the medium of instruction for us. By the time I left for England in my teens, I spoke and wrote Malay and English fluently while also using Cantonese in daily conversation.

What, then, is my mother tongue?

When someone asked the question after my talk at the 2018 London Book Fair, I fudged. I didn’t know. I’ve never consciously thought of Cantonese as my mother tongue, in the same way that China is not my homeland. I’ve visited China only once, and I left feeling eternally grateful that my ancestors went to Malaysia. English is now my first language and I write in it, but mother tongue? My mind just couldn’t get there. I also speak and read French, which I had to learn at my British boarding school; in fact, I speak English and French now better than either Malay or Cantonese.

In the end I reverted to the comfort of Malay. I read a couple of poems. Not my own, I hasten to add. My repertoire doesn’t yet extend to poetry.

First, though, I had to introduce Malaysia. People know the country for downed jetliners (MH17 ) and corruption (1MDB), but Malaysia is so much more than that.

The Excitement of Malaysia

You can see how animated I get when I talk about Malaysia. I made no bones about the profusion of languages in my life. These comments challenged some of what the two invited Belarusian poets of distinction, Uladzimir Arlou and Valiantsina Aksak, had said. They kicked the event off with beautiful poetry in Belarusian (their own). One of them then expressed the view that a person cannot exist without a mother tongue. Given Belarusian history, I understand this perspective, even if I disagree with it. Here they are below, listening graciously.

In multicultural Malaysia, some of us exist happily with no mother tongue or with more than one. Or with a present-day mother tongue that is different to our childhood mother tongue. Or a mother tongue our ancestors never spoke.

Distinguished Poets Uladzimir Arlou and Valiancina Aksak

The poems I read come from the Malay tradition of pantun. Pantun are verses in groups of four which have both rhythm and rhyme. I used to love pantun at school. The verses are witty, amusing and evocative: real, living poetry that people use in conversation. Here’s one:

Pisang emas dibawa belayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.”

(Source: Soscili)

Below is my attempt at a rough translation:

Golden bananas are carried on voyages,

One ripens on top of a chest,

Debts of gold can be repaid,

Debts of kindness are carried to the grave.

For me, the lines above distil the essence of old Malay culture, where human kindness was valued above riches. A far cry, in other words, from what Malaysia became in recent years.

Elsewhere, I have mentioned how poetic Malay is as a language; pantun conveys this so well. At the same time, a lot of the poetry reveals the gentleness inherent in Malay culture. For instance, verses can be used to give someone a telling-off (without really telling them off). The audience giggled at the idea of poetry as admonishment.

They were surprised by the absence of titles. Pantun don’t need titles because this isn’t a high-faluting verse form; on the contrary, pantun is down-to-earth poetry anyone can make up. Yet, even in the eight lines I shared, people were moved by the beauty in its cadence.

The audience must have liked my presentation – they voted to give me first prize!

The prize was none other than a bottle of what will surely be a memorable Belarusian speciality. See that number at the bottom: 40? That’s the alcohol content. I kid you not. Apparently this is medicinal alcohol, a balm, I’m told. We shall see. (In fairness, the label does declare 20 herbs.)

The Highly Alcoholic Prize!

I know that my hosts are waiting anxiously for feedback on Balzam Belaruskii. For the moment I’m afraid I must disappoint them. Each time I look at the 40%, I shake my head. I’ll have to be very sick before I dare open this bottle.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the Anglo-Belarusian Society for a great event. Special thanks to Karalina Matskevich for her energetic organisation, Father Serge Stasievich for generous hosting, Aliaksandra Bielavokaja for her photography and to everyone else who was there, too, the young as well as the not-so-young. We departed into a glorious evening and I’d like to leave readers with an uplifting view. Here’s London’s Belarusian church at night, all lit up.

London’s Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church at Night

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Modern Life, Writing

An Unexpected Discovery

A few days ago, when I told a Frenchman that I came from Malaysia, he said, ‘Ah, you have a simple language.’ It was not the first time someone had told me that s/he thought Malay “simple”. The sub-text, albeit unarticulated, was usually: “simple language, simple people”.

I felt it again with this Frenchman, a European condescension towards my Asian culture. I thought to myself: what does he even know about Malay?

Malay was a language of my childhood, one of three. My family spoke English and Cantonese at home but I was taught in Malay at school – part of the first intake of students to be educated exclusively in the Malay language in what had previously been English-medium schools.

I learned the language, but failed to appreciate its poetic beauty. This was partly because in Malaysia, Mathematics and the Sciences are more highly regarded than the Humanities, and partly because of the political context in which the switch from English to Malay took place.

It occurred in the aftermath of May 13 1969,  a day on which Malaysians of Chinese origin were targeted for slaughter at the hands of mobs of Malays in Kuala Lumpur’s streets. The killings occurred after UMNO – the political party which has ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957 – and its allies lost the popular vote and many parliamentary seats in a general election.

The period afterwards was a time of radical change. Within about a year, Malaysia had a new Prime Minister; within two years, a raft of racially discriminatory measures was put in place. It was then that Malay was imposed as the medium of instruction in previously English-medium schools.

Language, of course, is not only a means of communication: it is also a political tool. In Malaysia certainly, language and religion are used adroitly by UMNO. UMNO understood early on the power of language. It has been uncommonly adept at choosing emotive words and at using these words to craft an insidious political narrative.

Thus I grew up hearing that I was pendatang yang tumpang sahaja di Malaysia, a newcomer who was only squatting in Malaysia. This was the backdrop in which I was taught Malay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I never stopped to think about what a beautiful language Malay actually is. If French (which I speak) is romantic, then Malay is poetic. It was only when I started writing a novel and began filling my landscapes with characters who ran around speaking different languages that I was struck by just how poetic the Malay language is.

Take for instance the simple concept of homeland. The Malay equivalent is tanahair, literally translated as “soil (tanah) water (air)”, in other words the earth and water from which you come. I hope you will agree that the expression “my soil and water” is much more evocative than “homeland”.

Or take that well-known beast, the “orang-utan”. In truth, the latter is a bastardisation of the words orang, meaning a person, and hutan, meaning forest. Orang hutan is actually “a person of the forest”. The phrase, if you think about it, is immensely inclusive; it says, “Here is the forest, we share it with this creature which is not so different from us – a person of the forest.” For me, orang hutan captures the essence of traditional Malay culture, which was at once utterly respectful of others and very gentle towards them.

Even that wonderful political creation, the bumiputera – the prince (putera) of the earth (bumi) or son of the soil, a person who by dint of race or religion is privileged in Malaysia – has a certain ring to it. From a purely linguistic standpoint, the word bumiputera is really rather beautiful.

There are many other examples, and yet poetic beauty is not what people think of when they mention the Malay language. Instead they say what the Frenchman said to me: Malay is “simple”.

What he and others don’t seem to realise is that Malay was written using the Arabic script, a form known as Jawi, until quite recently. I discovered this for myself while carrying out research for my second novel (for which incidentally I have completed a first draft). Most of this research took place at the National Library of Singapore (whose generous opening hours of between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. allowed me ample time to work). There, shivering in the ultra-cold air-conditioning which Malaysians and Singaporeans seem to favour, I found that the Malay language newspapers I wanted to read had been published solely in the Arabic script. On further digging, I could not find a single Malay newspaper which had not been printed in Jawi up to the Second World War. I was of course unable to read any of them; the Jawi which we had been taught in school was rudimentary, because Jawi was already not in everyday use by the time I went to school.

If Malay were still written today the way it used to be – in the Arabic script – would people go around denigrating it as a simple language?

I grew up hearing and speaking Malay every day but I took the language for granted, in the same way Malaysians assume they will see the sun every day. Only recently have I rediscovered Malay. At the same time, I began to appreciate the richness of Malaysia’s multilingual environment. I can easily recall the distinctive sounds of my native country: Malay, with its elegant smoothness; the no-frills brand of Cantonese I grew up with, rough and ready, a far cry from the haughty Hong Kong version but more in tune with the go-getting entrepreneurs who spoke it loudly and merrily; and the energetic, tongue-rolling Tamil used by our Indian friends, full of indecipherable syllables at which I could only shake my head.

We in Malaysia are fortunate to have this wealth as our heritage. But I have yet to hear a Malaysian adoring any of our languages the way the French adore theirs. The French are happy to debate the intricacies of their language for hours and will happily tell you how wonderful French is. This is something I wish Malaysians could also do, starting with our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. I would love to see Malaysians not only owning Bahasa Malaysia and learning it with enthusiasm, but also acknowledging its inherent poetry and being proud of it.

 

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Research

The Story of Great Grandfather Chin Choon Sam and a Mosque

There is a road in the Greentown area of Ipoh, Malaysia, which is named after my maternal great grandfather Chin Choon Sam. He was the husband of the woman who inspired my first novel.

ipoh_on_malaysian_map1[1]

Chin Choon Sam was also the father of (among others) the late Chin Kee Onn. Chin Kee Onn in turn was the author of Malaysian classics such as Malaya Upside Down – the first non-fictional account of life in Malaya under Japanese occupation (from December 1941 through September 1945) and Twilight of the Nyonyas – a fictional tale of a Nyonya family in the early twentieth century, a period of decline for this mixed-race community (of which more below).

Not much is known about Chin Choon Sam other than that he was an educated man who came from a Hakka village in southern China. Great Grandfather arrived in Malaya at some point towards the end of the nineteenth century and apparently set himself up as a roving accountant to Ipoh’s first entrepreneurs. He didn’t become a millionaire but he did well for himself, so well that he decided to settle in Malaya.

By all accounts, my great grandfather loved his adopted home. He already had a wife in China, but Chinese immigration policy was such that women were not allowed to leave the country in the same numbers as men. In order to put roots down in Malaya, Chin Choon Sam took a local woman as his second wife. He chose a woman from the mixed-race Nyonya community who was shrewd, blessed with a fiery tongue and who delighted in feeding him eye-watering, spicy dishes.

Who exactly were the Nyonyas? Unfortunately, many people today, even in Malaysia, don’t know the answer. This is in large part because the Nyonyas (and their male counterparts, the Babas) do not fit into the political narrative which the Malaysian government and its ultra-zealous supporters would like us to espouse. The dominant narrative in today’s Malaysia holds that the country was “first” inhabited by the Malay people who, by dint of having arrived “first”, deserve “special privileges” – first priority in the civil service, education, public scholarships, land purchases and financial hand-outs. Protection for the rights of this privileged class is enshrined in the country’s Constitution (which incidentally, was generously agreed by our wonderful British rulers prior to their departure).

Moreover, because the Malays converted to Islam sometime between the twelfth and the fifteenth century – a religion brought by traders from India and the Middle-East – it necessarily follows that all Malays born today in Malaysia are Muslim. It must be so, how could they possibly be anything else?

There are some who would like us to believe that it has always been this way in Malaysia: that every person of Malay descent has been incontrovertibly a Muslim since the twelfth century.

Alas, the Nyonyas are thorns in the above narrative. Here were local Malay women marrying immigrants from China and then proceeding to adopt some of their husbands’ customs, including, crucially, their religion. Instead of practising Islam, the Nyonyas adopted Buddhist-Taoism.

Worse, Nyonya and Baba communities were established along the coastal parts of Malaya from the fifteenth century onwards. In other words, a sizable Chinese community began settling in Malaya six hundred years ago – a very long time ago by anyone’s standards. If it were not so, Nyonyas and Babas would never have come into being.

The existence of Nyonyas and Babas is rather inconvenient. Should their descendants (people like me) not also deserve “special privileges”? For how many generations do your forbears need to have been around before you enjoyed such privilege? This question is best avoided, otherwise Malaysia’s racial policies would be shown up for the poisonous, antiquated trash they are.

Therefore, instead of celebrating an interesting part of our heritage, the Malaysian government chooses to ignore it. Evidently, parts of Malaysia’s history cannot be publicised – it would give the citizens ideas. The Nyonyas and Babas point to a time (not even that long ago) when Malaysia was actually liberal, when the Department for Islamic Development (JAKIM) did not exist and there were no officials lurking to poke their noses into people’s daily lives.

It was in that age that Chin Choon Sam married a woman from the Nyonya community. They had nine children together: three girls and six boys. To cement his position in Malaya, Great Grandfather invested in seven plots of land in Ipoh, my family’s hometown. He would have bought them sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century, when Ipoh comprised barely more than a few streets.

Of all the places in Ipoh, Chin Choon Sam chose to buy his land in Greentown. Greentown then was not the thriving metropolis it is today. It was actually a bit of a wilderness – far from town, full of rubber estates and mosquitoes. To say that Greentown had uncertain prospects would have been generous. Most people must have thought Great Grandfather mad or very foolish, which is why he probably acquired his seven plots for a song.

Why only seven plots, you may ask, when he had nine children? Because my great grandfather, as typical of any Chinese man of the time, was thinking only of his sons. Each son would need to build his own house, while it was assumed that his daughters would marry and be provided for by their husbands.

But there was one extra plot. This, Chin Choon Sam donated to the Malay community specifically so that they could build a mosque. The only mosque in the area is the Masjid Muhibbuddin Shah (Masjid meaning Mosque in Malay) on Jalan Abdul Jalil. It’s close to where my family used to live and is very likely to have been built on Great Grandfather’s seventh plot. In those days, gestures of friendship between non-Muslims and Muslims were uncontroversial. My great grandfather’s donation was welcomed and a little road in Greentown was named after him.

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

The Author on Chin Choon Sam Road

Contrast that with what happened in Malaysia last week, when plans by the Democratic Action Party (DAP), an opposition party, to build a mosque, were condemned as an “insult” to Muslims because funds for building mosques had to be “halal”. The DAP, despite having Muslim members, is conveniently branded a political party of and for Malaysian-Chinese, who are of course not halal.

My great grandfather’s desire to pay homage to his adopted country was natural and highly laudable but I  wonder: would his gift have been accepted now? In the sorry state that is today’s Malaysia, I suspect not.

To Malaysian Readers: I do know that Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution safeguards the position not of Malays per se but of “Bumiputras“. The definition of Bumiputra – a Prince of the Soil, a protected class of person in Malaysia – is convoluted though, and not relevant to this blog-post. Article 153 is a minefield in Malaysian politics which would require separate discussion.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

One Small Step, A Giant Leap

In the course of writing my novel, I had many opportunities to compare the Malaysia I knew with the Malaysia of today. I have already shared my sadness, disappointment and worry elsewhere (The Malaysia We’ve Lost; Where is Home?; Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year).

This past week has been markedly different. On May 17, 2014, my country finally took a step in the right direction, and raised my spirits in the process.

On that day, a brave young woman of Malay ethnicity became the Opposition candidate in a predominantly Chinese town. If this sounds trivial, it is not. In Malaysia, race and religion are used as political weapons, and Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud’s story marks a water-shed.

As it happens, I had already been thinking about Teluk Intan, the town where Dyana is standing for election. My agent Thomas Colchie (see previous blog post), had asked to see the synopses of my entire trilogy of books, and I had been pondering Teluk Intan because the town will be mentioned in my second novel (where it will be called by its colonial name of Telok Anson). I am still at the planning stage for this second work: jotting down ideas, looking at maps, dreaming… But I digress; my purpose here is to share why Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud has given me such hope.

She is a lawyer from a family of active government supporters. In Malaysia, this means that Dyana could enjoy a good life by not rocking any boats. Instead, she joined an Opposition political party. Not only that, but she chose a party that is widely regarded as “Chinese”.

Why did she do this? Here is a quote from her: “Malaysia needs a new form of politics and to drop the old race based politics. I choose to forge a path towards a better Malaysia.” Bravo, absolutely spot on.

In truth, the party which Dyana joined – the Democratic Action Party or DAP – welcomes all races and religions, but because it has historically appealed more to Malaysian-Chinese voters, the incumbent government likes to stick it with a “race” label. The fact that Dyana chose this party was a courageous step, demonstrating an independence of mind and a willingness to go beyond her comfort zone to further her ideals. How many of us can say we have done that?

Almost at once, the backlash against Dyana began. She was wolf-whistled at her own nomination. Photographs of an actress who looked like her but was dressed in a bikini floated around the Internet. There were whispers about her age: too young at twenty seven, apparently. Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister was only twenty three when he was handed his seat on a plate. Did anyone complain about his youth? I doubt it. One rule for men, another for women. Same old, same old.

The great and the good of Malaysian politics have come out in force to denounce Dyana as a traitor (to her race), to bait her on religion, even to scold her mother for not sufficiently indoctrinating her! This, unsurprisingly, came from our former Prime Minister, an expert in the gutter politics of tribe. All kudos to Dyana’s mother for standing up so publicly for her daughter: “As a mother, I will support my daughter. I will campaign with her because she is my daughter.” Quite. But when so many have so little to say about so few, you know that something momentous is happening.

And what is happening is that the old politics of tribe are being challenged in highly public fashion. A young Malay, Malaysian-born and bred, has stood up and said NO to the race-based politics that have held sway since the 1970s. She is too young to know the Malaysia which I knew, and I have always worried about what would happen to Malaysia when those of us who remember what it used to be like, pass on from this Earth. Now I have glimpsed the answer: just because you have not experienced what Malaysia once was, it does not mean that you will be blind to injustice when you see it.

Dyana is a tangible challenge not just to Malaysia’s old politics but also to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, and strong forces are lined up against her. They do not want her to succeed. They do not want her to win, and if she wins, they do not want her to do a great jobs, and if she does a great job, they do not want her to remain with the DAP. Because if she succeeds, she will be living proof of exactly the sort of progressive, modern, inclusive Malaysia which many in my country are terrified of. If she succeeds, more may follow her. If more follow, what would become 0f vested interests? What would be the raison d’être of single-race and single-religion political parties? Heaven forbid, we may actually move forward and build the truly embracing society we are capable of building together, the real One Malaysia, not the slogan-bound 1Malaysia the government likes to trot out for tourists.

For all these reasons, I wish Dyana and the DAP the very best on 31 May 2014 and beyond. (For the record, I am not a DAP supporter).

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Novel

Blame the Chinese!

I enjoy hearing from readers. Even when they express views I find disturbing.

Just before the last Malaysian general election, I wrote a blog-post about the corrupting influence of unfettered power (see Malaysia’s Election Eve). The article focused on corruption in Malaysia, not race. But as with most things Malaysian, race is never far behind.

In recent days, a reader picked up on this blog-post and delivered a simple message: you Chinese in Malaysia are the cause of our corruption. We Malays were innocents until the British ‘let’ you in to the country (my emphasis). Stop complaining, since it is your corrupting influence that is coming back to bite you. (To see the comment for yourself, scroll down along the comments section  below Malaysia’s Election Eve.)

Leaving aside the historical point that there were Chinese in Malaysia long before the British arrived, forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious: corruption in any country affects all its citizens. Corruption in Malaysia (which the reader appears to accept) affects Malay, Chinese, Indian and Orang Asli (the indigenous peoples of Malaysia) equally.

Blaming minority races in Malaysia is not new. The day after the recent general elections, when the ruling party lost the popular vote but nonetheless kept the majority of seats, the incumbent Prime Minister explained his performance in terms of a ‘Chinese tsunami’. Utusan Malaysia, a leading Malay-language newspaper, regularly publishes incendiary material which deliberately stokes racial feeling and attributes all kinds of evil to the Chinese. An infamous article with the heading Orang Cina Malaysia – apa lagi yang anda mahu? (Chinese of Malaysia – what more do you want?) listed Malaysia’s 10 wealthiest people, 8 of whom were Chinese. The message? You’re already rich, what more could you possibly want? Equality? This provocative title was repeated after the recent general election results, in yet another twisted article.

But let us put all this aside. Let us assume for a minute that what the reader contends is true – that palm-greasing is a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon. How does this explain Singapore, a country within spitting distance of Malaysia?

Singapore has a Chinese majority in power, yet it is consistently ranked amongst the least corrupt countries in the world. On the Tranparency International Index, where a lower number is better, Singapore is ranked 5th while Malaysia shares 54th place with the Czech Republic, Latvia and Turkey. Why the difference? What does Singapore have which Malaysia lacks?

The answer seems pretty clear to me: good governance.

I suggest that it is the absence of good governance – the absence of sufficient checks and balances to the wielding of power – which has put China, Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Russia in the top 5 in terms of illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010. Power corrupts, and in Malaysia, fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. There is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese, Mexicans, Malays, Arabs and Russians are intrinsically more corrupt than anyone else on the planet, despite the staggering numbers in this report.

It is easier of course, to find a scapegoat than to face up to the real issues at hand. Why bother, when all you need do is point your finger at the successful minority groups in your midst? Malaysia today is nowhere near where it should be in this world, given the extent of its natural resources. Its tiny neighbour to the south, an island so small you need a magnifying glass to see it on the map, has left Malaysia far behind. How could a former mosquito-infested swamp which has to import everything, even drinking water, have raced ahead of a land as bountiful as Malaysia?

That is the question Malaysia’s ruling party and its acolytes should be asking. With the rise of China and India, Malaysia could benefit handsomely from home-grown ties, but instead of embracing its Chinese and Indian minorities, Malaysia treats its minorities as second-class citizens, forever fearing that the Malays will not be able to make it in this world unless they receive special help.

In blaming minority races for a host of travails, the ruling party and its acolytes are following a well-trodden path. When propaganda triumphs over reason, the consequences are stark, and the examples in other countries do not bear thinking about.

Malaysia is still far from such extremes, and I truly hope it remains that way. But I fear more and more for my country. It is already no longer as tolerant as the home I once knew, and I worry Malaysia will lose its way even more. Instead of the different races coming together, we may be pulled further apart. If we are to build the country we all want, we must…

I don’t have the answers, but one of them must surely be: stop blaming the Chinese.

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What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

I have now been writing my novel for 580 days. How many hours would that make? I haven’t counted, but given that there are 13,920 hours in 580 days, a rough estimate must yield a number in the thousands. A sobering thought…

With my business background and Chinese heritage, I can’t help thinking about what people in business call ‘the opportunity cost’. In other words, what else I could have done in that time, and how much more income I might have generated.

In a year and a half, the total package garnered by a senior manager working full-time could come to a few hundred thousand pounds (if we included bonuses, healthcare and pension contributions). I chose to leave the corporate world, and I don’t for one nanosecond regret that decision. Not because I hated it, but because in my time, I survived two life-threatening illnesses. Writing was integral to my recovery (see blog-post The Miracle of Writing), and I believe I need to continue telling stories for my well-being.

While I would love to be commercially successful as a writer, I have to be realistic: I’m writing historical fiction, not Harry Potter. My aim is to be both accessible and literary at the same time. In the process, I hope to entertain many, and to touch a few. Although my novel is historical, it carries themes of contemporary interest, such as the invisible cost of cultural assimilation – what it means to lose a heritage, and the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition.

It took me twelve months to write the first draft of this epic drama. That is fast, I’m told, for 150,000 words. (In comparison, the average book now has 100,000 to 120,000 words). Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked like a fiend. It helped that I could work at my second job from home, which gave me plenty of flexibility to write. I also had a wonderfully supportive partner who agreed not to speak to me before 3 pm each day. Although this was the subject of constant jokes amongst our friends, I can happily say there is no substitute for discipline.

At that whirlwind speed, I expected to be finished in no time. But my editor shook her head after the second draft. Nope, not ready yet, she told me in no uncertain terms. It is only now, well into my third draft, that I fully appreciate how much work has to go into polishing each and every word. I sit thinking about tenses and grammar. I stare at commas and semi-colons, the presence or absence of which could subtly change a sentence.

When I gave the second draft to a book-loving friend for a lay-person’s opinion, the work had grown to 170,000 words. I’m very grateful to my friend for her patience and her many comments. But what is a writer to do with wildly opposing feedback?

The bone of contention: the fact that my characters talk like Malaysians. (By that, I mean the dialogue between characters, not the narrative flow itself). Here’s an example. Instead of saying “How can that be?”, a Malaysian in real life might say, “Like that, how can-ah?”

To me as a Malaysian, the words written in that way simply jump off the page. I can hear the sentence, “Like that, how can-ah?” in all three of Cantonese, Malay or Malaysian English (Manglish). While creating the dialogue between my characters, I realised that when Malaysians speak English, we often just translate from our own languages.

By changing the order of the words on the page, I hoped to convey some of the cadence and intonation of Malaysian speech. It would have been easy to stick to the tried and tested Malaysian favourites: ‘lah’ and ‘ah’ and even ‘ai-yahh’; I wanted, perhaps ambitiously, to capture more of Malaysia’s atmosphere in my novel. If you haven’t been to South-East Asia, this may be lost, and the speech could seem trying. This is why I’ve restricted ‘Malaysian-isation’ to only the dialogue between the characters in my book. A matter of style, but it has already proven controversial. My editor loved it, and my friend hated it. Their reactions told me that other readers were also likely to fall into those two camps. As the writer, I will have to make the final decision.

Writers are always encouraged to read as widely as possible. Yet, while writing my first draft, I found that if I read any work written in a style dissimilar to mine (a story-telling style à la Isabel Allende), my own writing became affected. The sentences would cease to flow. In that period, I was forced to read and re-read Isabel Allende. Not a hardship, since I love her writing. In contrast, reading widely has helped me with my second and third drafts. I’ve read a string of novels recently, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a sad story set in Japan in the late 1700s, in which David Mitchell displays wonderful techniques with dialogue.

Latterly, I’ve discovered a trick I wish I had used earlier. Now that my work is nearly ready to be more widely exposed, I have a number of readings planned. While preparing for them, I began to read passages of my work aloud to myself. That was when I realised I could use reading aloud as a tool to weed out unwieldy sentences. If my tongue couldn’t get around a sentence first time, it was usually because the sentence didn’t work, and I had to change it.  Reading aloud also helps when you’re trying to spot repetition. Gillian Slovo had mentioned this at a writing workshop at the Faber Academy, but once I arrived home, I promptly forgot her advice. She was spot-on though.

Soon, it will be time to think about how to get my work published. I’m not looking forward to the process; why that is the case deserves another blog-post. To return to the question I asked at the outset: what does it cost to write a novel? Answer: many years of a writer’s life. And what does it take to get to the finish line? Discipline, determination and an insane belief that you have a worthwhile story to share with the world.

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An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

August 31 is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. On this day fifty five years ago, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new country was born.

Malaysia (then called Malaya). 

She was to be a powerful narrative for multiculturalism. A place where many races – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Orang Asli (native indigenous people) – would live together, work together, as one, to move the country beyond the shadow of colonisation.

Malaysia remains a powerful idea. It’s one I believe in. But it has gone badly wrong. That’s why today, I’m writing this open letter to my Malay family and friends. I believe Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad; where it goes next will be determined by you, my dear Malay friends. And where Malaysia goes is important to the world – because it remains one of the more tolerant Muslim countries.

First though, I want to say a big thank you. On this Merdeka day, I want to thank you, my Malay family and friends, and all fellow-Malaysians of Malay descent, for your historic generosity. Your ancestors welcomed mine when they arrived. You have shared the land with us, and this in turn, gave us opportunities we wouldn’t have had on mainland China. You provided us safe refuge from the turmoil of China. When I learn what happened there in the past century, I am so grateful my ancestors left. And that they found shelter in the beautiful land now called Malaysia.

My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from other places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country. They treated my ancestors with that gracious hospitality which I myself have experienced countless times. All this I acknowledge, and thank you for.

But now I need to move on to something else: why I left Malaysia, and why I won’t be returning any time soon.

You may already know that 2 out of 10 Malaysian graduates live outside Malaysia. This is an astonishing fact for a middle-income country like Malaysia. It was revealed in a detailed study on Malaysia’s brain drain, carried out by the World Bank.

My Malay family and friends, do you not care about this exodus of talent? This isn’t just an abstract number: in our family, half those of my generation live abroad. We are the graduates this World Bank report identifies. We compete happily in the world economy and have no need to return.

Perhaps, my Malay friends, you think the brain drain irrelevant, since most of the people who have left are of Chinese and Indian descent? Certainly, this is what many Malays think, as Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, has alluded to. (If you haven’t heard her speak, I recommend you watch this youtube clip. The opening is in Malay; the rest in English). 

“For me,” she says, “one Malaysian regardless of race, who has left the country…is a loss to us. They should be here celebrating, to improve the economy. I detest many people trying to singularly find out whether they are Malays, Chinese or Indians.”

My sentiments entirely. This fixation on race, race, race, in Malaysia is strangling the country. Yes, 88% of the one million Malaysians estimated to be living abroad are of Chinese and Indian descent. So what? My Malay friends, I ask you: does our race matter more than the fact that we have taken our talents elsewhere?

Yet, should I expect anything else? How could any Malaysian not be fixated on race, when you, my Malay family and friends, are accorded ‘special’ rights solely because of your race and religion?

Imagine if the United States had given ‘special’ privileges to the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers and their descendants. Special rights to land, schools, gold mines and everything else – all because they sailed first; yes, just imagine! This is exactly what your special rights equate to. If the US had adopted such a policy, do you think it would have turned into a magnet for talent and skills?

Tell anyone about a Malaysian university reserved for people with ‘special’ privileges based on race, and you will see the reaction. What? People stare in disbelief. You must be kidding!

I’m not. And there have been demonstrations against opening the institute up to other Malaysians. Yet, Malaysians are so used to these oddities that we don’t bat an eyelid. We no longer notice the strange ideas plaguing our country.

Your ‘special’ rights, my Malay family and friends, alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome, unwanted and second-class. They are why I left. They are also why I won’t be back. Rights are a zero-sum game: for you to have more rights, others must necessarily have fewer. TalentCorp (the agency set up to attract Malaysians back) completely misses the point.

And when I see the culture of entitlement your ‘special’ privileges have led to, and the increasingly racist rhetoric this culture generates, I fear for Malaysia. Outrageous remarks are now commonplace, as former US ambassador John R. Malott outlined in his Feb 8 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Malaysia has once again been called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malay Land was given airtime by none other than Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister and rabble-rouser extraordinaire, who is himself from a family with Indian immigrants. Malay Land is more than just a name. His is a supremacist concept: a land for Malays, where Malays will be Lords, everyone else their subjects.

Some people say Mahathir no longer matters, but actually he does. I feel less welcome now in Malaysia than at any time in the past. The attitudes of Malay Land are creeping in, and Malay Land is completely the opposite of Malaysia. Malay Land excludes, while Malaysia embraces and includes – a country for all races.

My Malay family and friends, which is it you want: Malay Land, or Malaysia? You cannot have both; you must choose.

On this Merdeka Day, I urge you to think about that choice. Because you, my dear Malay friends, are the only people who can truly change the direction Malaysia takes. Know that we, your fellow-Malaysians who have voted with our feet, are rooting for Malaysia. We are no traitors. 68% of the Malaysians abroad who were surveyed by the World Bank expressed a strong sense of patriotism/attachment to Malaysia. I am among this 68%. I may have been away for thirty three years, but Malaysia continues to be in my dreams. I left with regret, and I stay away with sadness. I hope Malaysia will prevail. Assalamualaikum.

The above blog-post was published in its entirety, but without video or links, on Malaysia Kini on August 31 2012 (http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/207623).

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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.”

COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012

 

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?

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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.

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The Malaysia We’ve Lost

My novel, set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) is multi-layered. I’ve written it in such a way that a reader can enjoy it without knowing any Malaysian history. Of course, the story would be richer for those with some knowledge of the country. Malaysians will see more to the story than Westerners…perhaps even controversy and criticism of present-day Malaysian racial politics.

It’s not intended as such; I simply wanted to tell a powerful and entertaining story. Yet, there’s no denying that at the time the story begins, Malaya was more truly one country than it is today. Which is ironic, because the current Prime Minister has initiated a campaign called “One Malaysia” – 1Malaysia, supposedly to ‘preserve and enhance the diversity which is our strength’. I will explain in this blog-post why the slogan 1Malaysia is farcical when used in today’s Malaysia. Below, I write from my personal experience and understanding.

First, I have to tell you more about Malaysia. Let’s start with where it’s situated. The map below should help. Malaysia is coloured orange and comprises two parts: a western peninsula, and the northern part of Borneo (the island on the right, which belongs mostly to Indonesia). The point to note is Malaysia’s strategic position. India lies to the north-west, China to the north and north-east. Siam (now Thailand) neighbours it to the north, while Indonesia lies directly south. That narrow bit of sea which separates western Malaysia from Indonesia, known as the Straits of Malacca, provides a sheltered channel for ships and is still famous for pirates.

Because of this fortuitous position, Malaysia has been at cultural cross-roads for centuries. Malays themselves are thought to have come from Yunnan in southern China. Traders from as far as Arabia also came, as did Indian princes and of course, some of my ancestors, the Chinese, who arrived in their junk-boats. Nearer home, Malays from neighbouring Indonesia migrated in regular waves, not to mention the south-bound Siamese (modern Thais) on the backs of elephants.

Many of these early immigrants settled in Malaya, which is not surprising – the land I come from is glorious, its people hospitable. It has everything: stretches of sand where palm trees sway, pristine waters always warm to the touch, but also mountains crowned in luscious green.

It’s a piece of paradise on earth. As a result, new communities grew, including mixed-heritage peoples like the Nyonyas.

Then, the British came. (Though there were other Europeans before – Dutch, Portuguese, they’re not important to this narrative). The British arrived in the late 1700s, but their influence reached its nadir during the late 1800s where my novel begins. Under British rule, the waves of migration – which had happened naturally in Malaya until then – were disrupted by the large-scale organised import of labour from India and China. The new workers were needed for the rubber plantations and tin mines which the British opened up.

With all this migration, you might have thought that nobody lived on these lands until the waves of immigrants arrived. Not so, because there are indigenous peoples in Malaysia– the Orang Asli (which incidentally means the ‘original people’ in Malay).

The racial composition of modern Malaysia is: Malay (50%), Chinese (24%), Orang Asli (11%), Indian (7%), others (8%).  As with many multi-cultural societies, each community is famous for certain things – except for the Orang Asli, who have been marginalised. Malays have a refined sense of beauty; just look at their traditional dresses and houses (picture on right, below).

Indians are entrepreneurs and professionals, especially in law and medicine. As for the Chinese, well, shrewd business people who work hard, with many self-made millionaires from among the coolies who arrived during the tin years. In fact, the Chinese diaspora in Asia are called the Jews of the East, our priorities being family, children’s education and business. I know quite a few who say, “Let me do my business. I don’t care about politics”.

With such rich heritage and diversity, Malaysia must be the perfect place to live, right? Just like in that world-famous song from the Malaysian Tourist Board ad campaign – Malaysia, Truly Asia  –where people of different races dance and smile happily? Unfortunately, not quite.

In the late 60s just after I was born, a series of Chinese pogroms happened. Many Chinese were murdered. Actually as soon as I was born, I had to flee Singapore: my grandmother and her maid took me away from my parents to a safer place (near Ipoh), many hours away by train at the time. For two women travelling alone in that time of calamity, it was heroic, and I am so grateful…

And then, on the infamous day 13 May 1969, I remember my father returning early from work. He rushed up, shouting in Cantonese, “They’re killing us!” “Who, who?” my mother asked, and when we heard that Malay mobs were attacking Chinese with scythes and knives, we could hardly believe it. We’d had Malay neighbours, Indian neighbours, all sorts – people who came to our house and drank from the same glasses. In fact, we were living in a predominantly Malay area then, and almost all our neighbours were Malay. We were terrified: if a mob had come to our house, we could have been killed….

No one really knows who caused the incitement which led to these so-called ‘racial riots.’ However soon after – in order to ‘manage racial tensions’ (i.e. to make Malays as rich as Chinese were), racially discriminatory policies commenced which are still in place today. Note that these policies are supposedly justified on the grounds that the Malays arrived in Malaysia before the other immigrants did. Therefore, they are entitled to ‘special rights.’ They’ve even invented a term to enshrine this quality of specialness: bumiputera, which means the Princes of the earth. (Obviously, they couldn’t call themselves Orang Asli, since there were already indigenous peoples.)

These discriminatory policies have been sold as a programme of ‘positive discrimination’ to allow the Malays to catch up economically with the Chinese and Indians. Policy examples:

  • Any listed company to have at least 30% of equity ownership in bumiputera hands.
  • University places reserved for bumiputera, regardless of the academic performance (now modified, but still a two-tier system).
  • For a limited period, a certain percentage of new housing in any development reserved for bumiputera buyers, with developers required to provide a minimum 7% discount to these buyers.

There are plenty of others, but I’ll be restrained here.

Such blatantly race-based policies are bound to have consequences. They have changed Malaysia – and not for the better. Races have become more separated, less friendly to each other, with a cultivated list of grudges. Nyonya culture – that colourful mix of Malay and Chinese traditions, values and beliefs which emerged through centuries of living together and inter-marrying– could never happen in modern Malaysia.

Policies based solely on race are unjustifiable for other reasons.

First, they de facto assume that Malays would be incapable of competing on merit. As a person with Malay blood somewhere down the line, my Great-Grandmother being a Nyonya, I find this insulting (as no doubt do my mixed Malay-Chinese cousins).

Secondly, who cares whose ancestors arrived first on our shores? Surely what is more important is what we can each contribute to building up our country.

Thirdly, it creates the indescribable reality that not all Malaysians are equal. Which is sad, but true. This has played a large part in making it hard for me to come to terms with being Malaysian-Chinese (evidently, though I have Malay blood, I don’t have enough of it).

In the face of all this, how can we even talk of 1Malaysia?

There may well be Malaysians reading this who call me unpatriotic. Some may even say that if I don’t like it, I should go ‘home’. I don’t know where they think my home is; China? My response would be that if they can’t be criticised, they should stop pretending we have a democracy.

Especially for those who question my patriotism, I describe here what it was like for me being back in Malaysia after seventeen years away. I remember the moment well. It was afternoon when we landed. As soon as I stepped outside the airport, a blast of humid air hit me, and I felt the heat seep into my bones. It was such a familiar feeling, even after so many years, that if feelings could be painted, then that moment is forever engraved in my memory. I knew instantly that I had come home.

That moment made me realise my visceral connection with this land in which I grew up. It’s my country too. I will always have this connection, no matter where I live in this world. And no matter what racist policies remain in place in Malaysia. Policies which make me feel unwelcome and unable to live here to the full. Where is home for me?

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