‘Malaysia, truly Asia’, declares the advertisement for the Malaysian airline. We could also add that racially diverse and multi-religious Malaysia is truly obsessed, for example, with ‘saving face’. This means Malaysians are exceptionally polite and well-mannered, and, on the whole, prefer compromise to confrontation in social relationships. It also means they never ask questions or voice disagreement because it can cause ‘loss of face’. This makes Malaysia truly conservative. It also means that Malaysians, particularly the Malays, seldom make a direct request; it would be impolite. Instead, they talk endlessly around what they intend in the hope that someone, somewhere, will understand what they are trying to say. This can lead to serious problems, say when one intends to ask someone’s hand in marriage. The traditional Malay custom requires the proposal to be made in verse, which may not be easy to interpret or indeed understand. If one is lucky, the proposal, always made by the parents of the man, may go something like this:
It has come to our knowledge that you have
a beautiful flower in your garden, lah.
Would it be possible for us to pluck the flower for our son, lah?
Has anyone owned that flower, lah?
That Lah is yet another Malaysian obsession, irrespective of ethnic background. It does not mean anything. It is simply an appendage added at the end of every sentence to confuse the innocent, Lah! Here is a list of some of our favourite Malaysian obsessions, Lah.
1. Nasi Lemak
When two Malaysians meet they don’t greet each other with ‘How are you?’ They say: ‘Have you eaten?’ What they actually mean is have you eaten nasi lemak, the gooey, glutenous rice Malaysians eat day and night, often accompanied by anchovies, peanuts, egg, vegetable and lamb curry. It’s as ubiquitous as the mucky air in Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is affectionately called). They eat it on roadside stalls, on public transport and even riding a motorcycle. And they wash it down with sirap bandungi, a milky rose syrup served cold, or teh tarik, which is tea with heaps of sweetened condensed milk pulled to make it frothy, or kopi, which is coffee with gallons of condensed milk – all in a small cellophane bag, with straw, and a string to carry it around with you. They talk endlessly about nasi lemak; while, perhaps, trying to say something completely different. You will find nasi lemak sellers in every nook and corner: the general rule being the dingier the establishment, the better the nasi lemak!
Malaysian are highly status conscious; and nothing gets them going more than titular aggrandisement. Titles are widely available for a modest fee; and not having one is a declaration that you cannot afford the modest fee, and better find other ways of ‘saving face’. There are titles like ‘Dato’ (fem. ‘Datin’), the higher level ‘Tan Sri’ (fem. ‘Puan Sri’) and the highest level ‘Tun’ (fem. ‘Toh Puan’) which all Malaysians aspire to. The ‘Dato’ is the most coveted because it’s the cheapest. ‘Tan Sri’, a bit more expensive, is largely reserved for high fliers with a bank balance to match. ‘Tun’ is the most difficult to obtain; and is usually reserved for politicians with access to ministerial funds. There are thirteen opportunities for a person to become a Dato as there are thirteen kings of thirteen Malaysian states which hand out Datships at every opportunity. Tun is normally conferred by the Agong, the king of kings, selected democratically for a five year term from amongst the kings. He lives in a magnificent new 258 million- dollar palace in KL that puts Buckingham Place to shame.
It is important not to confuse Dato with Tan Sari or Tun, lah. Hierarchy has to be maintained; otherwise it could result in ‘loss of face’ with terrible consequences.
The tagline ‘Size Matters’ from the old Renault Clio ads must have been written by a Malaysian. Malaysians love BIG things! And we don’t just mean bigger cars, bigger shopping malls, and bigger television screens. We also mean longest, highest, and broadest. There is the longest flag pole in the world right in the centre of Merdeka Square in KL. There is the longest bridge in the world – the Penang Bridge. The longest serving prime minister in history – Dr Mahathir Muhammad, now Tun, or rather the Tun. The longest and widest rule by a single party – United Malay National Organisation (or UMNO), which has ruled the country since its independence in 1957. Then, of course, there is the Petronas Twin Towers, also known as KLCC (KL City Centre), the tallest building in the world. Sadly, since 2004, the towers have lost this moniker. No doubt the intrepid Malaysians will build something even grander.
4. Multicultural Holidays
Malaysia has more public holidays than any other nation. There is Hari Raya Puasa, known in other Muslim countries as Eid Al-Fitr, the celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan; and Hari Raya Haji, that celebrates the Hajj. In Malaysia they can last a week. Then there is the Chinese New Year, the Hindu Deepavali and Thaipusam, the Buddhist Wesak Day, the Hari Gawai of the Iban, and of course, Easter, Christmas and New Year. Plus ‘National Day’, ‘Malaysia Day’, ‘Federal Territory Day’ and ‘Labour Day’. And let us not forget Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday and the Agong’s (king’s) Birthday, celebrated nationally; and the birthdays of all the other kings who mercifully limit their festivities to their particular states. Throw in an odd harvest festival, ‘Declaration of Meleka as a Historic City’, ‘George Town World Haritage Day’ and a few anniversaries, and you have two months in a year of public holidays celebrated with commercialised gusto.
During the public holidays, there is mass exit from Kuala Lumpur as everyone heads for the kampung. The Malaysians talk endlessly about their kampungs, the Malay hamlets, with Malay houses on stilts, and their own chiefs, traditional healers and a local mosque; and where everyone shares the ‘joint bearing of burdens, lah’. The young urban Malays still see the old kampung way of life as a mythical ideal, and talk about bathing in rivers and eating nasi lemak fresh from the fields. You can take the kampung boy to KL, – a place seen by many kampung Malays as a milder version of Sodom and Gomorrah – but you can’t take the kampung from the boy! The adventures of kampung boys looking for work and love in the metropolis are well illustrated by the national cartoonist, Dato Mohammad Nor Khalid, known by his pen name Lat. In his own distinctive style, Lat satires the clash between modern, urban existence and traditional kampung life. You can buy his characters, always drawn from real life, in brushed metal pewter from countless souvenir shops.
Kampungs are full of hantus – ghosts, spooks, spirits. The Malaysians are obsessed with the supernatural. There are different varieties of hantus. The supreme one is known as Hantu Raya, the master of all ghosts, who makes regular appearances in Malay horror flicks. Hantu Bungkus, a cross between a vampire and an Egyptian mummy, can be deadly if you cross its path. Hantu Tinggi is a status-conscious spirit suffering from the lack of a title; it morphs into an extremely tall entity when it sees human beings and looks down upon them. The most popular hantu is the Pontianak, ‘the woman who dies giving birth’ and is resurrected by an evil shaman for nefarious purposes. Every village has a story of the Pontianak terrorising innocent villagers. The only way to counter this horror is to hammer a nail into the back of her neck, which turns her into a beautiful woman whose sole purpose is to serve your every need. But hantus are not limited to villages and forests. They have moved into cities. Almost every apartment building in Kuala Lumpur has a resident hantu and a story to tell, usually about a teenage girl who killed herself for dishonouring the family. On the whole, hantus prefer residential schools, located out of cities and towns and built on abandoned sites – ideal ground for the walking dead! Search YouTube for cerita seram (horror stories) and see for yourself!
Where there are huntus, there will be bomohs. The kampung shaman was originally an expert in herbal medicine and Malay geomancy, a traditional healer, but nowadays he is a master of magical spells (jampi), potions and mantras to ward off evil spirits. And, given the regular epidemic of spirit possessions and huntu attacks, they are much in demand for cleansing rituals and exorcisms. But you need to choose your bomoh carefully: they have different variety of expertise. There are bomoh politik who specialise in sorting out political problems; bomoh seks, who deal with sexual and love problems; and bomoh nombor, who help out with lottery and gambling issues. The most powerful bomoh in the hierarchy of bomoh (yes, they are just as status conscious as any Malaysian) is bomoh ilmu hitam who is a master of black magic. No self-respecting politician, businessmen, or lover is without a bomoh.
8. P. Ramlee
Tan Sari Datuk Amar Dr P. Ramlee is the only singer, actor and film director of international repute Malaysia has produced. No wonder he is a national hero, invoked at every opportunity. He thrived during the 1950s and 1960s; and generation after generation of Malaysians, of all ethnic backgrounds, have grown up watching his outstanding comedies. And his films are not just mindless entertainment. There is always a deep message and sharp social commentary behind the comedy. Labu dan Labi (1962), for example, is ostensibly about two hapless servants, Labu and Labu, of a high class Malay businessman. Constantly ridiculed by their master, they are forced to sleep in the foyer of the house. They dream of high powered jobs, and marrying their ideal partner – the businessmen’s daughter. The film highlights how the Malay elite treat those lower down the social status ladder as well as articulating the Malaysian dreams of the post-independence era. P. Ramlee made around seventy films, most of which he wrote, directed and starred in, with many containing his own score and songs. There is always a P. Ramlee film on Malaysian television, which is the only good thing that can be said for the broadcasters on the Malay Archipelago.
P. Ramlee’s films are also probably the only movies shown in the country and on television that are not censored. Indeed, if a film is not censored, cut or otherwise butchered, it is a cause for national celebration, and another public holiday. The rare event will be marked by the declaration: ‘In cinemas now! Absolutely zero censorship!’ – which means that the film actually makes sense, no one need ask ‘what just happened there’, and your head does not spin from jump cuts. The Censorship Board even censored the film Babe (1995), the story of a pig on a farm. The pig, the Board suggested, was offensive to sensitive Muslims who should not watch films where haram (forbidden) food is served as the main star. Glum looking officials from the Censorship Board and special officers responsible for banning ‘politically sensitive material’ sit in newsrooms of newspapers and television. Consequently, Malaysians are treated to a constant stream of Blatant Propaganda and White Lies (and we are not talking about the band from London, formerly known as Fear of Flying – they represent ‘counter culture’ which is forbidden in Malaysia, lah), reminiscent of the Gulag Archipelago.
When Malaysians are not eating nasi lemak, hiding from huntus, consulting bomohs, and watching P Ramlee films, they are eating Durian, lah! It has to be the ugliest and the foulest smelling fruit in the world. It looks like a dead hedgehog. The word ‘durian’ means possessing thorns; and the thorns are big and lethal. You have to negotiate the deadly outer shell to get to the creamy flesh inside, which tastes like blue cheese. Needless to say it is an acquired taste, a fruit best eaten away from civilisation. The Malaysians also eat it with rice, coconut milk and sugar; and even make durian ice cream. Some even ferment it and use it as a pickle. The ingredients are so active that sealed bottles have been known to explode under pressure!
Eating exploding durian could be one plausible explanation for why Malays sometimes ‘run amok’. Amok, meaning ‘mad with uncontrollable rage’, is widely seen as the only Malay word in the English language. Scientists say it is a ‘cultural bound syndrome’. The Malays say it is caused by hantu belian, an evil tiger spirit that takes over your mind, drives you mad, puts a kris (Malaysian dagger) in your hand, and urges you to go out and kill people, lah!
The last word on Malaysian obsessions belongs to a well-known Malay proverb: ‘When you enter a cow’s barn, moo, and when you enter a goat’s shed, bleat’.