The digital reincarnation of a national bestseller by KIT LEEE (now known as ANTARES)

Monday, December 31, 2007

From the Archives...

Front Cover

Funniest Joke in the World

"My way of joking is to tell the truth.
That's the funniest joke in the world."
- Muhammad Ali


This book is dedicated to my late grandparents (all four of them) - and to the next generation of Malaysians (whether they like it or not).


December Archive

A Pseudo-Anthropological Introduction

The Mysterious Mamak
The Heavy Metal Kutu
The Sungei Wang Jinjang
The Sentul Soul-Brother
The Singhular Warrior
The Portuguese Connection
The Mat Salleh
The Illegal Immigrant

The Mini-Bus Hopper
The Yamaha Yahoo

November Archive

The Jaga Kereta Syndicate
The BMW Bunch
The Bushjacket Boss
The Elvis Fan Club Loyalist
The Professional Form-Filler
The Cari Makan Ethic
Gourmet's Glossary

A Condensed Glossary of Common Manglish Words & Phrases

What Is Junk?
The Video Junkie
The Newspaper Junkie
The 4-Digit Junkie
The Junk Food Junkie
The Mahjong Junkie
The Power Junkie
The 4-Wheel Drive Phenomenon

October Archive

The Born-Again Entrepreneur

The Club Med Casanova
The Aficionado of the Arts
The Angry Young Artist
The Pub Pundit
The Undaunted Environmentalist
The Selangor Club Loudmouth
The World-Record Breaker
The Hysterical Hostellite


The Black Marker Brigade
The Phantom Voter
The Human Rights Activist
The Quiet Emigrant




Will The Real Malaysian Please Shut Up!

Cartoon by Lat for Malaysian Business

A Pseudo-Anthropological Introduction

Whenever I leave the country I'm a Malaysian - my passport says so. Back home, I'm a Non-Ethnic. Come on lah, you must be either Chinese or Malay. Let's see your identity card. Actually I'm Tibetan. Yak-yak! Don't bluff lah! Wah... really ah?

It's true my grandparents migrated here from China. But my mother was educated by English missionaries and my dad used to play drums in a ragtime combo. I grew up on a very strange diet of Hollywood movies, Pontianak, P. Ramlee, Wahid Satay, Xavier Cugat and his Latin Orchestra, Irene Goodnight, nasi beriani, lontong, chee cheong fun, and Stravinsky. Which is what makes me, essentially, a Non-Ethnic.

But I don't mind being called a Malaysian at all. Everybody needs an operational base, a place to call home, and this is beyond doubt a deliciously heterogeneous and culturally complex environment. The influence of all the major and minor civilizations has been felt on these shores: the Khmer, the Javanese, the Chinese, the Indian, the Middle Eastern, the Western European - and, more recently, the North American and the Japanese. And yet we remain stubbornly, undefinably, unhomogeneously Malaysian. Where else on earth do people have a choice of chicken porridge, nasi lemak, or cornflakes for breakfast? (Well, in Singapore they do - but, then, Singapore was once part of Malaysia, so we do have a few things in common.)

Now, all this is well and fine if one is only interested in food. However, what can a well-intentioned pseudo-anthropologist do when faced with such a bewildering rojak of ethnic varieties? Apart from the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, the Eurasians, and the smattering of fully tropicalized Europeans, we have more than 50 distinct indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak.* To further complicate matters, the Malays can be sub-divided into regional groups: Northern, Southern, West Coast, East Coast, Urban, Rural, Maritime, Riverine, Inland, and so on. The Chinese come in a noisy assortment of dialect groups: Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Fookcheng, Hockcheng, Hockchew, Sianyou, and Whathaveyou. The Indians... well, this broad category encompasses Tamils, Malayalees, Bengalis, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Pakistanis, Singhalese, Jaffnese, Gujaratis, Godknowswhatelse. And the Eurasians - enough, enough! We haven't even mentioned the Babas and Nyonyas (Malay-speaking 'Straits-born' Chinese, found mainly in Malacca, Penang and Singapore, who constitute a community unto themselves). What more the original Sabahan and Sarawakian tribes - like the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kelabit, Penan, Bajau, Murut, and Kadazan?

From the purely pseudo-anthropological viewpoint, then, Malaysia could either be Heaven or Hell (especially with the tumultuous socio-economic and political developments of the last couple of decades which have spawned so many new subspecies overnight). And, of course, it's really a bit of both - just like the rest of the planet.

Nevertheless, it definitely won't do to declare that we're the same as everyone else. People might immediately stop travelling or reading about the inhabitants of other lands - and then what would become of our tourism and publishing industries? Books we can live without (a recent survey indicated that Malaysians on the average read only half a page of literature per annum, apart from textbooks, newspapers, and magazines) - but tourists?

Yes, Virginia, The Typical Malaysian exists. But only according to national cartoonist laureate Lat, who takes a kind view of everyone. Since I've long given up the search for 'the typical Malaysian,' you won't find him or her in this book.

What you will find in this book is a pseudo-anthropological (meaning highly selective, intensely personal and totally prejudiced) survey of Malaysian types and situations. To simplify the procedure I had to re-define my parameters - or, rather, confine my task of character defamation to a specific part of Malaysia, where a fairly representative cross-section of the total population could be studied with relative ease and without incurring a hefty travel bill which the publisher would have had to foot.

The Klang Valley was the obvious and inevitable choice as my research site. Sounds exotic, doesn't it? The Klang Valley. Actually, when people say 'the Klang Valley' they're usually just referring to K.L. and P.J. - Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya - the hectic, smoggy, soggy hub of almost all political, commercial, and cultural activity in Malaysia. This is the prime target of the Urban Drift; this is where the Bright Lights are to be found, where it all happens - never mind if tourists prefer Penang, Malacca, and the lovely islands off the East Coast.

While the majority of the 'types' found in the Klang Valley can also be found elsewhere, some are endemic to the Big City. A few are very new types; a few have long been among us; and a few others, one hopes, will do us a big favour and go the way of the dodo as soon as possible.

I will not pretend that this is by any means a comprehensive inventory of Malaysian types. A few specimens are quite impossible to describe, verbally or visually; and some are positively dangerous, far too dangerous to describe with any degree of truthfulness. With this latter category the intrepid researcher runs a very real risk of summary banishment, or incarceration, or mutilation, or execution, or all of the above. Don't you be fooled by all the beautiful golf courses - it's a jungle out here!

None of the Malaysian characteristics examined in this survey will be found in any literature issued by the Tourist Development Corporation.** This does not mean that the TDC is prone to fibbing or exaggeration. Malaysians, as a whole, are extremely friendly, hospitable, charming and helpful. They only turn nasty when a 'foreigner' criticizes them. Luckily, I am no foreigner. Indeed, by making my fellow Malaysians look a bit laughable, I hope to show the world how lovable we can be.

Pontianak - vampiress in Malay folklore; also a popular horror film series in the 1960s.
P. Ramlee - late great actor-songwriter-filmmaker; patron saint of the Malaysian arts scene.
Wahid Satay - Malay comedian of the 1960s.
nasi beriani - see Gourmet's Glossary in blogpost titled 'The Cari Makan Ethic'
lontong - ditto
chee cheong fun - ditto
nasi lemak - ditto
rojak - ditto

*Not to mention at least 18 distinct indigenous tribes of Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia, too often overlooked in our mad rush to "a fully industrialized future."

**Now known as Tourism Malaysia - but singing the same old songs of self-praise.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Mysterious Mamak

Just watch him tarik the teh to cool it for his customers. The tea-stall Mamak is a pretty cool customer himself. He could 'pull' tea in free fall without spilling a drop - while balancing a beedi on his lower lip and making a statement on Economic Determinism.

Without the Mamak there would be no teh tarik. And without teh tarik life would be impossible in Malaysia.

Why do people call him 'Mamak'? The most plausible explanation is that 'Mamak' is a corruption of 'Mohammed.' Among Indian Muslims there is a high incidence of names that begin with Mohammed - or Mohd. for short. Mohd This and Mohd That. Hence the generic nickname 'Mamak' (sometimes rendered as 'Mama').

One of the mysterious things about the Mamak is how he's managed to corner the market in teh tarik and roti canai. Now he's a real champ when it comes to making roti canai (called parotha in some regions). Chances are the Mamak invented these greasy wheatmeal pancakes that have become an absolute staple in the Malaysian diet. The roti making process itself is a marvel worthy of video documentation, with a visual fascination that's equal to glass blowing or fine pottery.

The Mamak lives for work. His idea of a holiday is going off to help an uncle start a beriani restaurant in Sabak Bernam or Subang Jaya. If he feels it's time for a change of scene he might work out a transfer arrangement with a cousin who owns a chain of coffeeshops in Fiji. A two-year stint in a provision shop on Christmas Island is his idea of a long rest. Yes, the Mamak is essentially a multinational mini-corporation. During the extraordinarily long hours he works the Mamak's only respite is when he takes a few moments off to update his accounts - meticulously kept in a series of 555 notebooks stashed away in a secret drawer.

The Mamak's mysterious vanishing act could also mean he's gone back to India to see his wives and kids and to keep an eye on some property over there. Over here, most Mamaks apparently have no real homes. Often, half a dozen Mamaks team up and rent a cheap room in some shophouse. No problem with congestion: they sleep in shifts.

Another subspecies of Mamak can be found along the five-foot-ways imperturbably manning their own 'hole-in-the-wall' drugstores-cum-newsstands where an unimaginable range of everyday necessities - from salted pumpkin seeds and preserved plums to anti-dandruff shampoo, prickly heat talc, flashlight batteries, condoms, toothpicks, and the latest issue of Movie News - can be obtained without fuss or embarrassment. No way will these indispensable sidewalk institutions ever be put out of business by the 24-hour 7-Elevens. Why, in an emergency, the Mamak will gladly accept foreign currency - since he has a couple of nephews who are licensed money changers.

Then you have the upmarket Mamaks. They don't have stalls - they own respectable stores - usually expanded, air-conditioned versions of the downmarket 'hole-in-the-wall' operations; but textiles, textbooks, and tapestries are also favoured items of trade. The upmarket Mamak is usually well-established enough to have bought a house or two in the suburbs - which means he's probably married and has school-going kids - but he's likely to have retained an instinctive distrust of banks (unless owned by him), preferring bullion instead.

What does the Mamak do for entertainment? He doesn't drink, doesn't womanise, is rarely seen at the racetrack or at the movies, doesn't dance, doesn't socialise much, so what does he do? No mystery: he gathers his loose change and sorts it into piles of different denominations which he neatly wraps in paper and takes to the bank to be converted into paper money. Then he goes home and plots world domination.

Occasionally you will meet a Supermamak or two. But don't you dare call them Mamaks. In their presence the endearing term 'Mamak' sounds like an insult. Preferred items of trade amongst Supermamaks: jewellery, armaments, scholarship, and political influence. Ordinary Mamaks send their earnings to India. Supermamaks operate numbered bank accounts in Zurich.

beedi - aromatic miniature cheroot sold in bundles.
teh tarik - literally, 'stretched tea'; cooled by pouring from one mug to another, an authentic art-form.
roti canai - pronounced 'cha-nai'; tasty wheatmeal pancake (see the Gourmet's Glossary in the chapter called 'The Cari Makan Ethic').
beriani - rice prepared with saffron and various spices.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Heavy Metal Kutu

'Kutu' sounds rather cute, doesn't it? Even though it means 'lice.' This refers to an entire sub-culture of Common Malaysian Street Kids - crawling along the pavements, clinging to the ungrammatical graffiti on the walls of alleys and public toilets, milling around shopping malls or the Central Market area, bumming ciggies off each other and the occasional passer-by.

They're a harmless, lovable lot, really - just a side-effect of rapid industrialisation and urban drift. Like everyone else, the kutu just wants to belong. Some of us are members of Diners Club. Some are members of the Lake Club or the Royal Selangor Golf Club. Some are members of Clark Hatch, the Mile-High Club, or a Platinum Partner of Tony Robbins. Every kutu is a member without a membership card. A member of what? If you have to ask you're obviously NOT a member.

The thing that kutus do best is relax. 'Relak, brudder!' they're always advising each other as they congregate at tea-stalls and cinema lobbies. (An expert on kutu linguistics claims that the more trendy kutus have dropped 'Relak, brudder' in favour of 'Jangan tension.') They love rock concerts at Stadium Merdeka, open-air concerts at Panggung Anniversary in the Lake Gardens, or at Central Market. If they don't like the show they can leave; and if they really don't like it, they can tell the performers to leave ('Hoi, balik lah!') in no uncertain terms. And that's why kutus tend to avoid potentially claustrophobic situations like: (1) a string quartet recital at the British Council; (2) Werner Schröter documentaries at the Goethe Institute; (3) a Malaysian Nature Society powerpoint presentation and talk on the Sleeping Habits of Arboreal Edentates at the Fakulti Sains, Universiti Malaya.

You see, the kutu is quite conservative when it comes to culture: if it ain't Heavy Metal, it's gotta be decadent. And I don't mean they're into perusing Perwaja Steelmill's annual reports. Heavy Metal means AC/DC, Twisted Sister, Slade, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Scorpions - especially the Scorpions, a German rock group known only outside of Germany. Now, the Scorpions are a sweaty, glandular crew - same as their fans who, as the living sex hormones of society, represent a vast reservoir of untapped libido - or Potential Creative Energy, if that makes you feel better.

Then the Bad Times began. In September 1986 the Home Ministry slapped a ban on open-air rock concerts (after a minor fracas broke out at a concert in Sungai Nibong): no more letting down the hair, ripping off the shirt, dancing in the aisle, leaping on the stage, hurling chairs at policemen, and wantonly grooving to Ella & The Boys, Search, Left-Handed or the Blues Gang.

A heavy situation all right, with despondent, out-of-work young rock stars singing the blues and turning to country-&-western. How was the kutu going to get his rocks off? Those who could afford motorbikes added to the sudden surge in the Nyamuk Nuisance. Others simply succumbed to hard drugs and swelled the ranks of the Jaga Kereta Syndicate - at least for a while before large numbers of them were hauled up and packed off to rehabilitation camps.

The kutu's kid brother initiated a short-lived outbreak of breakdancing in shopping complexes and kampong school canteens. But even this met with a stern rebuff from the authorities. It was definitely getting harder and harder to relak, brudder. Life, in fact, was becoming like real, sister.

I was pleased to learn recently that quite a few kutus have decided, if you can't beat'em... join the force and become a Mat Bond (a kutu term meaning undercover cop, after a well-known Ian Fleming character named James). Hey, brothers and sisters, there's hope yet! One fine day an ex-kutu will make the scene as Inspector-General of Police - and this country is really going to rock'n'roll.

Nyamuk Nuisance - see The Yamaha Yahoo.
Jaga Kereta Syndicate - see chapter on species of the same name.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Sungei Wang Jinjang

If you're not in the habit of tuning in to Radio Young Hong Kong, you're in no danger of ever turning into a Sungei Wang Jinjang.

For the uninitiated, 'Jinjang' is a more polite variation of 'ching-chong' (as in Ching-Chong Chinaman). Jinjang also happens to be a district just beyond the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur: a not-particularly-picturesque agglomeration of small factories and not-so-new villages giving way grudgingly to nondescript housing estates. The area was once notorious as a spawning ground for kidnappers, bank robbers, and secret society members. Later the term 'Jinjang Joe' came into common use as a description for someone desperately trying to be fashionable (especially if he had the misfortune to be a Chinese primary school drop-out and had nothing to look forward to except a lifetime of nightshifts in 24-hour coffee shops or life imprisonment in Simpang Renggam*).

Sungei Wang (literally, River of Money) is a mammoth shopping complex built over the legendary B.B. Park where, in the good old days, people could go for a little cheap cabaret - $2 dancing girls and all - or pig out at the open-air steamboat stalls. There was even a tiny cinema called the Rialto which was the closest we've come to having an 'art film' outlet (I saw Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail there in 1972!)

Anyway, all that's gone now - but folks still flock to the bright lights of Sungei Wang and the adjoining Bukit Bintang Plaza (probably because the two connected complexes offer the greatest strolling area in town that's centrally air-conditioned); in fact, Bukit Bintang Plaza and Sungei Wang are so intimately connected the only way you can tell which one you're in is by studying the floor tiles - red means you're in Sungei Wang, green means B.B. Plaza.

On weekends the gaudily decked out 'River of Money' is invariably inundated with young Chinese boys and girls - also gaudily decked out in the latest styles dictated by the Hong Kong 'New Wave' magazines. And that means a bit of bleach and lots of gel on the hair; floppy, oversized shirts; and amazingly voluminous 180-pleat pants. If the Heavy Metal Kutus with their stretch jeans are our die-hard Rockers, then the Sungei Wang Jinjangs have to be our New Generation Mods.

Hong Kong is undoubtedly the Jinjang's Mecca, the Hollywood of the East - and it's no surprise that the city's largest and most ostentatious disco (or Dance Factory, as it is billed) was at one time called Hollywood East. Saturday nights and the eves of public holidays, the Jinjangs used to take their girls to Canton where they'd disco all night to Alan Tam hits spun by Cantonese-speaking DJs (though these days you're more likely to hear a lot of Canto rap).

A good number of Jinjangs are probably school drop-outs - which accounts for the fact that the underground carpark levels at Sungei Wang are marked with pictures of exotic animals instead of letters. Nevertheless, the Jinjang enjoys far greater career opportunities these days. He can get nice respectable jobs in McDonald's or 7-Eleven; he can work in video rental shops or (to bring this account up to date) sell pirate VCDs and DVDs; manage an amusement arcade or internet cafe; or (if he doesn't mind a dash of the gay lifestyle) he can enrol in a hairdressing institute and dream of meeting a sugar daddy and becoming a partner in some swank unisex salon.

The more privileged Jinjang might have a businessman uncle or two who could offer him a study loan to Canada or Australia; in a few years he'd be back with a business degree and work his way to eventual ownership of a shopping complex like... well, Sungei Wang or the more upmarket Yow Chuan Plaza. And if that doesn't work out, he can always befriend the Chief of Police and fall back on kidnapping, bank robbery, and syndicated vice.

*Simpang Renggam is where a detention facility has been built for hardcore criminals, especially members of secret societies without a well-connected patron and protector in the Home ministry.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Sentul Soul-Brother

Sentul is one of those rambling, run-down districts of Kuala Lumpur that sprang up like riverbank moss along the railway line and just kept growing - even when the trains stopped running. Named after a fruit tree (Sandoricum indicum), the area teems with life and has a tenacious vitality of its own, tinged with a nostalgic sense of lawlessness. Sentul, after all, was Sherwood Forest to a Robin-style hood named Jimmy Nelson (a dark Eurasian, some say) whose criminal heyday was the 1940s. All the cops had a healthy respect for him, I'm told.

If KL were New York then Sentul would be Harlem - yeh, dis is da place where all da Soul-Brothers hang out. It's one of the few places left in the city, at any rate, where one might expect to see dancing in the streets. Only last Thaipusam, in fact, I witnessed an eruption of spontaneous dancing as the spectacular neon-lit juggernaut of Murugan was escorted to its ceremonial sanctum in the Mariamman temple. It was invigorating to see such exuberance and festivity. That's what SOUL is all about, when it comes down to it.

And if the young men of Sentul find it easier to identify with Bob Marley and Eddie Murphy and Prince rather than Samy Vellu, the reasons are quite obvious. For the Sentul Soul-Brother that whole estate-mandur routine holds little appeal. Being treated like a nigger is a definite drag - but being mistaken for a baaaaad-ass nigger is cool.

Some might think it's not such a good thing that these modern youth should forget their roots. Well, if you were a Brahmin, Ksattriya or Vaeshya (Scholar-Priest, Warrior, or Farmer-Merchant caste) there may be valid reasons to hang on to your cultural roots - but if you were descended from a debt-slave tradition of estate and railway labourers you'd understandably prefer Prince Rogers Nelson as an icon. Or even Alex Peters (the celebrated pub musician). I'm not sure if Alex himself hails from Sentul but I know he has a massive following there. A few years ago there was even a Sentul-based group of Soul-Brothers (and Sisters) who called themselves the Gravediggers. When they weren't following Alex Peters around as his unofficial entourage the Gravediggers would perform frenetic dance feats at parties or on the pavements. I wonder where they are now. A few, I'm sure, have become DJs. Disc Jockeys seem to have a fun deal - plenty of booze and broads, a dash of glamour. And you get paid to rap.

Others, perhaps, have got into disco party catering - you know, throw in some edibles with the decibels. And a whole bunch of Soul-Brothers are probably saving up to buy themselves some musical instruments - dreaming of the day they can quit their jobs at A&W and do a slot on Muzik Muzik. Why not? The Alley Cats have made it - and they aren't even from Sentul.

Thaipusam - annual Hindu celebration of Lord Murugan's birthday which attracts at least half a million devotees (and tourists) to Batu Caves; Murugan is also known as Subramaniam.
Samy Vellu - the most durable politician in Malaysia, cabinet minister since 1979, who worked his way to the top from very humble rubber estate origins; often called 'Semi Value' or The Highwayman because of all the toll roads he introduced.
mandur - Malay term for estate overseer, probably derived from 'commander.'
Muzik Muzik - popular TV programme of the late 1980s showcasing up-and-coming Malaysian musical talents.

The Singhular Warrior

In the old days you might have seen him steering a bullock-cart along the trunk road, oblivious of impatient hoots from motorists. Or, if you were up early enough, you might have heard the clink and rattle of his antique bicycle laden with milk bottles. These days you're more likely to find him wielding a shotgun outside some bank - or waving his hands in the courtroom.

Then again, you're just as likely to spot him in highly animated conversation with a clique of boisterous cronies, unwinding in some kedai kopi with an astonishing number of Guinness empties on the table (plus a few quart bottles of Sahip under his chair). And later you'd catch him snoring beside a warehouse on his charpoy (a well-ventilated bed with ropes stretched across a wooden frame).

You could also run into him in the mid-day heat and be forced to suppress a giggle, seeing his thick black beard so daintily cradled in a sheer nylon net. And, with a bit of luck, you could be witness to a positively breathtaking sight when he lets down his hair - all the way down to his knees (recalling some cryptic lines from the late great Beatle and honorary Sikh, Mr John Lennon, who told the world to 'Come Together' and 'Grrrrrow your hair.')

I remember, too, childhood tales of the Turbaned Terror: 'Now don't be naughty or the bai-ee will come and get you!' Indeed the fear would have been very real if you happened to be a civil servant who'd just received his pay packet. For there was a time when our Turbaned Terror was a dominant figure in the money-lending trade (and I still feel that our current debt crisis would never have occurred had we left the credit business in the strong, umbrella-brandishing hands of these Singhular Warriors).

And, to be sure, you must have heard the occasional Sikh (sic) joke or two, e.g.:

Name the Sikh who loves early morning swims. Kuldip Singh.
Name the Sikh who loves early morning swims but always stays underwater. Kuldip Singh Gill.
Name the Sikh who never accepts a hard drink. Jasbir Singh.
Name the Sikh who puts iced water in his brandy. Yam Singh.
How about the Sikh who sticks to packet drinks? Yeo Hiap Singh.
Who will be the last Sikh left on earth? Jaswant Singh.
Name the Sikh who pisses everybody off. Tuna Singh.

You see, the name 'Singh' is what distinguishes members of this hirsute breed from the rest of the world. It means 'lion' - and every young Sikh (or Singhlet, as the wags would have it) is raised as a potential Khalsa or spiritual warrior. Among other considerations, a Khalsa must wear a protective bangle at all times and carry a double-edged dagger (far more protective - though modern societies tend to discourage such a practice). Also, the Khalsa must never be shorn or shaved - but nowadays you'll find a growing number of 'renegades' who have undergone voluntary deturbanization in the spirit of ethnic transcendence (though I suspect it's more for convenience).

The first thing one notices about these contemporary clean-cut Singhs is that they are an exceptionally handsome race with well-chiselled features (hitherto concealed under those look-alike tribal turbans and heavy beards). And, as to be expected, Sikh traditionalists view this trend with alarm. All clans tend to be clannish, I suppose - especially when awesome, silver-bearded 90-year-old patriarchs still try to run the show.

But, with or without his turban, a warrior the Singh remains. Many are in the police force, some as top-ranking officers. Others are quite happy monopolizing the market for night watchmen. However, the warrior spirit manifests itself most dramatically in the realm of Law: some of our finest legal minds have emerged from the Khalsa fraternity.

As for Sikh women... well, very little is known about them except that they spend their days rolling flour to keep the menfolk supplied with their daily chappati. And they're all named Kaur, meaning 'lioness' - and they all seem to have at least five big brothers, each over six feet tall (which explains why I know so little about Sikh women).

There have been times when I really regretted not being a Singh. Like when I was forced to wear a short wig just to enter Singhapore (oops!) or when I had to give up riding a motorbike because I can't stand crash helmets.

kedai kopi - Malay for coffee shop.
bai-ee - Punjabi for 'brother' (usually spelt bha'i).
Yam Seng - what the Chinese yell when downing watered-down brandy.
Yeo Hiap Seng - well-known brand of packet drinks (and many other consumables).
Tuna Singh - sounds like a popular Chinese expletive meaning 'Up yours!'
chappati - unleavened panbread, a Sikh staple.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Portuguese Connection

History is a most amazing and unlikely thing. Who would have believed, for instance, that Portugal - a tiny nation of fishermen and grape-growers - would have the gumption and the gall to send a flotilla of galleons halfway across the world to capture Malacca? And not only erect a famous fort there but hold the damned thing for 130 years with just a few hundred men until the Dutch finally blasted them out of their stronghold in 1641. After which you'd imagine that would be the end of the Portuguese in these parts. But no... those hardy seadogs somehow managed to sow their wild Latin oats so vigorously that today - five centuries later - they've generated a closely-knit community of Eurasians with a nation-wide network nieces and nephews. And most of them are good-looking and musical to boot. Apparently, inbreeding hasn't quite got to them yet - but, still, they'd better be careful. I was passing through Salak village recently and had occasion to observe how a Hakka clan had been marrying among themselves since the time of Yap Ah Loy with disastrous results.

Just ask a Pereira or Moreira or a D'Cruz or de Silva or a Martinez or Fernandez how they got their family names - and hear all about some great-grandma who came here from Goa to marry their great-grandpa in 1842. Sooner or later you'll also be introduced to some great-aunt Esmeralda who raised 15 kids singlehanded; and even found time in the process to perfect her recipe for salt-fish pickle.

In Malacca there's an entire Portuguese village where the elders still converse in Cristao (pronounced 'Cristang') which, as it turns out, is really a species of 16th Century Portuguese spoken nowhere else in the modern world (except perhaps in parts of Goa). Today, they're still excellent fishermen and sailors - but it doesn't look as if they're ready to invade and colonise anyone (though, with the number of Eurasians who have moved to Perth, I wouldn't be too sure).

Of course, Malaysia's Eurasian community doesn't consist exclusively of the Portuguese Connection. The Dutch and the English left a few traces; and, more recently, our own royal families have contributed significantly to God's gene-mixing programme. These days, however, you don't have to be royal or part Portuguese: you only have to study abroad for a few years and, chances are, you'll be back with a bundle of potential foreign genes in tow. I, for one, am all for miscegenation. Especially after hearing a story about this impressive Turkish lady who migrated here to marry a local - and who wound up with a series of husbands, each contributing to a genealogy from which has emerged the Father of Malayan Nationalism, Dato Onn Jaafar; his son Tun Hussein Onn (our third prime minister); and a venerable pantheon of distinguished scholars (among them two former Vice-Chancellors of Universiti Malaya). But, then again, this story might also serve as a powerful argument for polyandry.

The Mat Salleh

If you're white and you're walking along the street and someone says something about Mat Salleh - he's probably referring to you.

The original Mat Salleh wasn't a white. In fact he was probably very, very tanned, being a notorious pirate and the scourge of the Sulu Sea and all.

Another notorious Mat Salleh was a Borneo Malay who stabbed to death a white 'Tuan' and became a cult hero. Even so, the epithet makes sense, since the first white men to appear in these waters were all Great Pirates, though they regarded themselves as traders and royal emissaries. Another explanation I've heard is that 'Mat Salleh' is a mispronunciation of 'mad sailor' - which also makes sense. At any rate the Mat Salleh has been on the scene for so many centuries we have to include this species in our survey.

In colonial times white people were reverentially addressed as Tuan or Mem. After Independence they were called orang puteh by the Malays and ang mo kwee by the Chinese. However, these names were too obvious and the whites quickly caught on. That's when the term Mat Salleh came into popular use.

For some reason the antics of the Mat Salleh have always been a source of awe and amusement to the Natives. Whether it's some well-heeled American heiress who breezes into a souvenir shop and charges up $5,000 worth of knick-knacks on her Mastercard (without even a feeble attempt to haggle); or a determined Danish backpacker who insists on drinking her instant coffee black ('I said no sugar, no milk, and no ice!') indignantly sending her order back three times, the Mat Salleh has solid entertainment value. Especially if she's young, buxom, serious about getting a suntan - and thinks she's just discovered a nice beautiful deserted beach all to herself.

Mat Sallehs in Malaysia fall into three broad categories - short-term, mid-term and long-term.

Short-term ones are mostly tourists, travellers, or fortune-hunters passing through: usually dressed in shorts and short-sleeved batik shirts or singlets emblazoned with a bold Chinese character. There's always a crumpled street map in their hands or else they tend to be conspicuously overdressed in white zoot suits lugging expensive attachè cases and rushing from one business meeting to another, handing out calling cards that proclaim their bearers as Directors of Import-Export Companies or some kind of Consultant.

The mid-term Mat Salleh will be found either in a diplomatic mission, an educational institution, or supervising some high-tech enterprise. He usually resides in Kenny Hill, Ukay Heights, Damansara Heights, or Mont Kiara - the high-rent districts where most houses boast a pool in the garden (although in recent days many opt for luxury condos with all the perks). Weekends he takes his family to Fraser's Hill or Cameron Highlands or else they have a barbecue on the patio. His cultural activities might include membership in the Liberal Arts Society* or the Selangor Philharmonic which gives him and his wife an opportunity to appear in local productions of popular musicals or operas; and attendance at events like a concert by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields or the première of a new work by dancer-choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Life for the mid-term Mat Salleh is, in short, quite idyllic. And it matters little to him whether he's in Malaysia or Sri Lanka or Senegal or Papua New Guinea. His only fear is being sent back to his home country.

Once you've attained the status of 'mid-term Mat Salleh' it's very easy to deteriorate into being a long-term one. The problem, as usual, is love. It's almost inevitable that the Mat Salleh will fall in love: with a person, with the people, with the place. They wind up getting married to a local and acquiring impressive fluency in Malay (or one of the myriad exotic tongues spoken here). Before long they become addicted to sambal belacan and rice. They get accustomed to eating with their fingers and, what's worse, develop a craving for the flavour and aroma of durian, the king of fruits. Once this happens, it's too late: the Mat Salleh is ready to be conferred honorary citizenship (or even a title, if he's acknowledged as an authority on Malay court traditions like the late Tan Sri Dato Mubin Sheppard) and, for better or worse, he's stuck here with the rest of us Natives.

Tuan - diminutive of Tuhan, Lord.
Mem - contraction of madam, Lady.
orang puteh - literally, white person.
ang mo kwee - Hokkien for 'red-haired devil.'
sambal belacan - a spicy, pungent dip made from dried, savoury shrimp paste pounded with red hot chilli peppers.
durian - an oval or globose fruit with a hard, prickly rind, a soft, creamy pulp, a heavenly flavour, and a hellish odour - according to Webster. It gets its name from the Malay word for thorn, duri.

*now defunct

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Illegal Immigrant

Locked out of your house by accident? Just call Illegal Immigrants Inc, the housebreaking experts. All it will cost you is a few packs of Gudang Garam... and maybe your brand new cellular phone.

Precisely who are we calling an Illegal Immigrant? It's those rough-and-ready characters from 'a neighbouring country' (as the New Straits Times, in the interest of good ASEAN relations, euphemistically puts it). Anyway, this whole affair is Clint Eastwood's fault. After the Jakarta police force saw Dirty Harry some of them took the law into their own hands and started exterminating every hardcore criminal in sight. Sure, that curbed the crime wave in Jakarta - but over here the crime rate soon shot up.

At least half the time, I'd wager, the poor Illegal Immigrant has been made a scapegoat. After all, he looks exactly like one of us. But there's no denying that these infamous foreigners have mastered a fascinating housebreaking technique called pukau. It's a closely guarded secret, involving the use of black magic to put prospective victims to sleep or paralyse them. If the magic fails the victims end up bound and gagged with their own bedclothes.

When the Illegal Immigrant isn't breaking into houses, he's building them. Most of them can be found crammed into makeshift barracks on construction sites, working on high-rise projects for very low wages. No wonder they get into bloody knife brawls so often. The ones that have managed to save some money or get married to a local usually set up small businesses as hawkers and petty traders. If the Illegal Immigrant is extraordinarily lucky and arrives a few weeks before a general election he might even be offered instant citizenship on the spot - on condition he helps canvass votes for the ruling party.

He's audacious and hotheaded in a tight corner - but hardy and resourceful when given half the chance. Just like all immigrants. The fact that he's here is an indirect compliment to the country: it obviously looked like a Land of Boundless Opportunity to him. I wonder if he's sending for the rest of his family. Not immediately, I should think. Who wants to see his kid sister beaten black-and-blue by a sadistic employer or raped while in police custody?

Anyhow it was inevitable that the Illegal Immigrant would arrive to fill the vacuum in the blue-collar crime market. Our own homegrown criminals have long graduated to more sophisticated forms of multi-billion-ringgit white-collar thuggery and skullduggery. But over here they don't use pukau, they employ the mass media.

The Mini-Bus Hopper

Alas, the Mini-Bus has become extinct in recent years. Instead we now have the Monorail and the LRT - and even worse traffic jams. Nonetheless I shall include this chapter for the historical record...

If a Klang Valley resident tells you she goes to work in a BMW, look out for the twinkle in her eye. She probably means a Bas Mini Wilayah - the Federal Territory's trusty mini-bus service - the most popular and economical way of getting around. But forget about comfort. As for safety... well, overloaded as they invariably are and piloted by daredevilishly exuberant characters, these mini-buses don't look too reassuring. Yet the drivers all seem to have guardian angels aboard, disguised as conductors, because I don't recall more than a couple of serious mini-bus accidents in all the years they've been operating.

Watching a crowd of commuters at a bus-stop, it's easy to tell the veteran Mini-Bus Hopper from the novice. The experienced one maintains an expression of absolute boredom, never showing the faintest trace of anxiety or anticipation. She knows all the routes and the peculiarities of each driver and his mini-bus so thoroughly that she can time her arrivals and departures to within 15 seconds - switching buses like a trapeze act. She has learnt how to board her bus at the traffic light and save herself a mad undignified rush to the stop, cleverly avoiding the usual stampede.

Most amazing, however, is the calm, efficient way she proceeds to pay the conductor, take her ticket, pocket the change, stay firmly on both feet while hanging by one hand in the lurching, shuddering, sardine-packed bus - and at the same time glare at the cheeky chap behind her, without losing her cool for an instant. And somehow she always manages to stand beside a passenger who will vacate his seat within two stops.

Now, the novice at the terminal will foolishly scamper aboard the very first mini-bus he spots bearing the desired route number; and he'll whip out his fare even before he's asked - and sit there sweating and swearing for the next 20 minutes while the driver holds out for more passengers. Just about then a second mini-bus, already quite full and bearing the same route number, rolls up from behind and pauses at the curb for a few seconds - just enough time for our veteran to hop on - before moving off again with an impudent toot-toot of triumph. Having parted with 50 sen for the fare, there's nothing the novice can do except be patient and pray that the Bollywood version of Michael Jackson won't accompany him all the way home on the mini-bus muzak service.

The Yamaha Yahoo

Along with other pestilent lifeforms such as the Suzuki Samseng, the Honda Hantu, and the Kawasaki Koboi, the Yamaha Yahoo forms part of a noisy and noisome phenomenon known as the Nyamuk Nuisance. This has nothing to do with the health hazards of living in glorified swamps like Lower Ampang and the Pantai Valley where a totally different species of nyamuk (mosquito) proliferates. Still, the mechanised variety of nyamuk constitutes a definite mental health hazard to peace-loving members of the public. It can give senior citizens instantaneous heart attacks; cause decent folk to use indecent language; make even the most highly evolved souls experience temporary loss of wisdom and go berserk.*

Who are these Yamaha Yahoos, these Suzuki Samsengs, these Honda Hantus, these Kawasaki Kobois? By day they masquerade as innocent despatch riders, mechanics, store clerks, and junior civil servants. By night - particularly Fridays and Saturdays - they swarm out upon the highways by the hundreds, by the thousands, buzzing through the concrete jungle like a barbarian horde of runaway chainsaws... like a plague of motorised locusts.

Nobody knows what these virulent creatures really look like because they keep their faces well concealed beneath their crash helmets. But everybody knows why they do what they do: a bunch of small farts trying to feel big through massive mechanical flatulence. They're nyamuks... listen to that high-pitched whine produced by puny pistons firing away into the atmosphere without mufflers and exhaust silencers. Where's the bug spray? Ffffft!

I like bikes, especially big bikes. Owners of big bikes tend to cruise along as silently as possible - testimony to the vast reserves of power between their legs. But these pygmy hell riders bring out the genocidal urge in me. They even make me applaud the forces of Law & Order. As far as I'm concerned, that's about the only redeeming feature of the Nyamuk Nuisance: they give the cops a chance to look like Good Guys.

When I grow old I want to be a totalitarian leader and legislate a programme of scientific rehabilitation for these fiends-on-two-wheels. I'll have them all rounded up and put in a detention camp where every morning for 60 days at 6 a.m. these malefactors will be awakened by a chorus of lawnmowers and chainsaws operating at full pitch outside their cell windows. They will have no access to earplugs and their hands will be bound.

Could it be true after all that self-righteous rightists have more fun?

samseng - hooligan, ruffian
hantu - goblin, ghost, evil spirit
koboi - vernacular for 'cowboy'
yahoo - excrement-slinging ape-like creature with hairy anus (described by Jonathan
Swift in Gulliver's Travels)
nyamuk - mosquito


*The Nyamuk Nuisance is quite indestructible, it would appear. Twenty years later, their descendants continue to wreak havoc on weekends - in big cities, small towns, even remote villages. However, they now go by the name Mat Rempit and the majority are rumoured to be on the Umno Youth payroll. Their secret mission is to harass women audacious enough to move around without male chaperones. Occasionally they'll snatch a purse or two. Well, at least they're contributing to nation-building by helping redistribute wealth and keeping the weaker sex in line.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Jaga Kereta Syndicate

Gone are the days of Free Parking, long gone! In the early 1970s the first uniformed parking attendants made their appearance. But it didn't take them long to discover the benefits of dealing direct with motorists, which significantly increased their take-home pay and cut down on paperwork. City Hall responded by replacing them with parking meters.

Suddenly deprived of a sense of meaning and purpose in life - or, more cogently, suddenly finding themselves out of work - a good number of these parking attendants decided to join the amateurs who, up to now, had been a raggedly disorganised bunch. With a newfound sense of professionalism thse unofficial parking attendants formed themselves into smoothly run syndicates operating throughout the Klang Valley.

Normally their shift begins when the parking meters go off duty but during patches of recessionary extreme the Jaga Kereta Syndicate can be found working their beats even during office hours. For a small 'donation' (the Syndicate bills itself as a charitable organisation) they'll help you locate a parking space; guide you in and out of it; open your door for you; clean your windscreen (unfortunately their dirty rags don't help); ensure that you won't be penalised in case the meter runs out on you; and protect your car against 'accidental scratches.' For a flat fee of $3 they'll wash your car on the spot.

The life of a Jaga Kereta isn't an easy one. You have to be constantly on the ball, be on the lookout for motorists sneaking back to their cars and scooting off scot-free. You have to dodge policemen in patrol cars who pick on you whenever they're bored. And nowadays you have to watch out you don't get robbed by some motorist who's even more desperate than you.

Some people call these Jaga Kereta boys a public nuisance. 'It's pure extortion,' they say. But, come to think of it, isn't everything? Only difference is that they don't have a licence, I mean, take Wilson Parking - whoever he is - is everywhere with his semi-automated car parking system: at all the cinemas, supermarkets, basement garages... but he's got a licence! Which is why you pay more at Wilson's. No arguments, no exceptions.

At least, with the Jaga Kereta Syndicate, you can bargain. Sometimes they let you off
with a respectable salute, if they like your style. Sometimes they'll be happy with a kind word or two in payment. If you don't have small change, they usually say, 'Never mind, next time, boss!' If you've been away for a while, they greet you with, 'Hey boss, long time no see!

When it comes to extortion I'd always rather deal with the freelancers.


jaga kereta - car watchman.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The BMW Bunch

BMWs (and their owners) are so boringly predictable. Shall we just skip this altogether? Let's.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Bushjacket Boss

Remember when Nehru jackets were all the rage in New York? Or when every Chinaman in China ran around in a Mao suit waving a little red book? Who remembers when the Bushjacket (otherwise known as the safari suit) first caught on in Malaysia?

I wouldn't state this as a fact but I think it was Ghazali Shafie (erstwhile Malaysian Home Affairs Minister) who introduced the bushjacket to the rakyat in the mid-70s. At any rate I'm fairly positive it was the politicians who popularised this eminently practical (but inherently predatory) sartorial concept. Originally designed to be worn by Great White Hunters on Safari in Africa, the bushjacket projects an image of action and adventure - yet it looks formal enough, in a paramilitary fashion, to be worn on ceremonial occasions. And there are so many other winning features of the bushjacket: (1) You don't have to tuck it in, so that tell-tale paunch won't be too obvious; (2) No need to wear a tie, which eliminates the bother of having to exercise good taste, not to mention the savings in time and money; (3) It somehow succeeds in looking efficient and egalitarian in its simplicity while the boldly placed pockets, when scrupulously buttoned down and kept conspicuously empty, help create an impression of incorruptibility.

Once the bushjacket found favour with the politicians, the businessmen quickly followed suit. Sales of neckties plunged. Fancy silk scarves saw a sudden revival. Many a Managing Director and even Chairmen of the Board were soon seen traversing the hot humid distance between air-conditioned company headquarters and air-conditioned company limo in the cool, dapper comfort of their custom-tailored, short-sleeved, open-necked bushjackets: free at last from the Colonial bondage of jacket-&-tie!

It wasn't long before every tailor shop in town boasted a bushjacketed mannequin in its windowcase. Prices became competitive and soon fell within the reach of every Chong, Nik and Samy. Office boys and junior clerks got into the act. Chauffeurs adopted the bushjacket as their uniform and began to enjoy a measure of deferential treatment from parking attendants. Now that it was so easy for anyone to look like a boss, some ground rules had to be laid down:
i) Chauffeurs can only wear olive-green or hospital-white bushjackets.

ii) Office boys and junior clerks must not wear matching trousers with their

iii) Maroon is reserved for security guards; dark blue is for technicians.
Gradually, shop assistants were trained to distinguish the status of Bushjacket Bosses by the quality of the material worn. The really big bosses always sported bushjackets made of thick, tweedy fabric: this showed that they hardly ever had to leave the comfort of their posh offices.

Variations on the theme emerged. A few radical conservatives gave pinstripes a try - but, fortunately, the idea never caught on. Some tried tartan and some did away with the epaulette straps (those totally useless things attached to the shoulders); others made do with only three pockets (to de-emphasise the paramilitary look). In reaction, a handful of mavericks took to wearing flak jackets on the field. The really individualistic ones went back to wearing jackets-&-ties.

And so passed the Era of the Bushjacket 'Boss'... but not entirely. If you keep your eyes peeled you can still spot a few of these fellows parading the corridors of power and the five-foot-ways of opportunity in their custom-tailored, crease-proof bushjackets. Most of them have given up trying to wangle a collateral-free loan and are now settling for a reasonable extension of their overdraft facilities. Some have even given up platform heels and have gone on a cholesterol-free diet.

rakyat - Malay word for 'public'; the masses.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Elvis Fan Club Loyalist

For a small group of diehards in Malaysia the King is not dead - long live Elvis! I'm not sure how all this weirdness began. For the full story you'll have to talk to a guy named William Honda Tan* - founder and president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club of Malaysia, and self-appointed Keeper of the Loyal - I mean the Royal - Archives. His video library includes, of course, every single film Elvis ever starred in; and I'm told his collection of Elvis memorabilia is worthy of a permanent museum.

The Elvis Fan Club first announced its existence in the late 60s. In its heyday there were regular meetings and lectures accompanied by the screening of Elvis movies. Once a year there'd be an Elvis Presley Look-Alike Contest with semi-finals held in small town cinema halls. Indeed, Malaysia can boast of a few classic Elvis impersonators who rose from obscurity to lifelong fame of sorts. Rocky Teoh, for example, won the coveted title 'Elvis Presley of Ipoh' - his prize included a roadshow contract that took him to every one-street town in the country, and even as far as Sarawak and Sabah.**

Many of us still remember Eddie Francis - dubbed Malaysia's Elvis Presley - who held the title year after year, enjoying an undefeated reign.*** Another character called HT Long has dedicated to his life to keeping the Elvis impersonator flame burning.

And we mustn't forget the Elvis Presley of Section 17, Petaling Jaya - otherwise known as Ricky Chan. He used to lurk in the Bier Keller on certain Saturday nights when the moon was blue, resplendent in his custom-tailored silver-studded all-white Elvis-in-Las-Vegas outfit. Ricky always knew the right moment to grab the mike and treat the pub audience to his incomparable version of Jay's-how Lock and Wooden Hut. When the crowd screamed, 'No more, please, no more!' Ricky would instantly oblige with No More (an Elvis evergreen). Yup, Ricky was a true-life phenomenon all right. (Wonder if he can fit into his Elvis costume these days. Indeed, I don't even know if Ricky's still thrusting his pelvis around - or if he's happily partying with The King in the Real Graceland.)

Not much has been heard from the Elvis Fan Club of late. 'Internal politics lah, you know,' a member confided. The membership is split into antagonistic camps: they can't agree on what rules to abide by when they organise an Elvis Sound-Alike Contest. One committee member will suggest that the contestants must dress exactly the way Elvis dressed when he sang that particular number in the movie featuring the song in question; while another will insist that points should be awarded according to the fidelity of the performance, per se, and not for the costume. Oh dear, first it was the MCA, then UMNO, then the MIC, and now... no wonder the country's in such a stste.

MCA - Malaysian Chinese Association
UMNO - United Malay Nationalist Organisation
MIC - Malaysian Indian Congress


*I went looking for William Honda Tan in the late 1990s and was told he had left the building to join Elvis. Guess you'd have to talk to Honda Tan through a medium now.

**Sadly, Rocky Teoh was killed in a car crash in 1990, a year after the publication of Adoi!
His daughter Ann maintains a website in memory of her colourful father.

***Don't think I ever met Eddie Francis - but his pretty daughter Connie did some back-up vocals for me and his son Derek (now my Facebook buddy) was audio engineer when I recorded my first solo album in 1984.

NEWSFLASH! While doing a bit of research to update this essay I stumbled on an item in The Star (dated 29 July 2006) publicising the appearance - at the Ol Skool Bistro in PJ - of the Elvis Trio comprising Frankie Fong, Aziz Daud, and Alex Wong, who represent a new generation of Malaysian Elvis impersonators. Apparently, this was part of a month-long tribute to Elvis. Well, who says The King is dead?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Professional Form-Filler

Somebody once defined Bureaucracy as a giant machine operated by pygmies. Well, with something like 800,000* people on the government payroll, Malaysia must have one of the world's largest bureaucracies. That's roughly 5% of our total population in the public sector (notwithstanding ongoing efforts to make it more private). In other words, for every 20 citizens there is an official pygmy assigned to making life a perpetual hassle. This procedure takes many forms (the Official Form, of course, being the bureaucrat's official form of expression).

So many forms, in fact, that in order to fill them correctly a special breed of Professional Form-Filler has arisen (and I'm not referring to the ones with law degrees). For a modest fee the Professional Form-Filler undertakes to fill in forms for members of the public who can't read or write Officialese - or who suffer temporary paralysis of the writing hand when confronted with formal documents. An extra dollar or two will ensure that your professionally filled forms arrive at their official destination in express time. Cari makan - we all have to eat, right?

The wonderful thing about Big Bureaucracy is that it's just like a coral reef (which is why I always pretend I'm wearing a face-plate and snorkel whenever I enter one of these government offices - it lends a touch of fascination to the experience): just beyond the humdrum hustle and bustle you'll encounter a certain timeless serenity, a vista of graceful inertia populated by generally benign varieties of clam and slug and polyp. But don't point your finger at the clams - they'll just put a 'tutup' sign in their window and snap shut. And watch out for the sea rambutans - otherwise known as spiny sea urchins - their tempers shorten in inverse proportion to the length of the queues. Above all avoid antagonising the occasional moray eel lurking maliciously within some plywood cubicle. Talk about uncivil servants! No use reminding them who pays their salaries; they'll just point at the PM's picture on the wall and smugly spout the current slogan about leadership.

Note: the Professional Form-Filler is not to be confused with the Orang borang (another distinct subspecies, recently identified by well-known marine biologist Rehman Rashid). While the Orang borang fulfills the vital task of keeping members of the public well supplied with Official Forms, the Professional Form-Filler ensures the smooth running of the system as an unofficial form-filling consultant. It's a perfect study of symbiosis.

tutup - closed
rambutan - hairy-skinned local fruit
orang - person
borang - form


*In 2007 the figure is reportedly over 1 million, making the ratio of bureaucrats to non-bureaucrats 1:25.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Cari Makan Ethic

As a symbol of the cosmic order the old Yin-Yang is a tough act to follow. You know the Yin-Yang, I hope? Two graphic tadpoles clinging together to form a circle: one black, the other white. And to make the overall design more thought-provoking, the black tadpole has a white dot where its eye should be, and the white one a black dot. But what does it mean? Without getting into a heavy discussion on relativity theory, how about: Every blessing comes with a tiny built-in curse? (And vice versa, naturally.)

Take the astounding variety of hawker food available in Malaysia. Most of it excellent, most of it inexpensive; and the gastro-ethnic spectrum represented is simply belly-boggling. Try shouting out this partial inventory:

Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak, Mee Goreng, Mee Rebus, Mee Bandung, Mee Jawa, Roti Canai, Roti Jala, Rojak, Curry Laksa, Asam Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Wan Tan Mee, Prawn Mee, Oyster Omelette, Tomyam, Sup Ekor, Sup Kambing, Sup Ayam, Chicken Chop, Pork Chop, Fish 'N' Chips, Barbequed Steak, Grilled Fish, Fish Balls, Beef Balls, Pork Balls, Bak-Kut-Teh, Dim Sum, Chicken Wings, Yong Tow Foo, Thosai, Chappati, Murtabak, Banana Leaf Rice, Pizza, Satay, Loh Bak, Chee Cheong Fun, Chap Faan, Charsiew/Roast Duck Rice, Chicken/Fish/Pork Congee, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Fish-head Curry, Turtle Soup, Iguana Soup, Claypot Rice/Noodles, Kangkong Sotong, Clams, Crabs, Cockles, Snails... and this menu sample was taken from just two hawker centres in town!

The only thing you can't get is a good salad. Malaysians have a pronounced carnivorous tendency. Plus the tendency to place EATING at the top of our priorities in life. Cari makan - we all have to eat - is the stock reply to any and every accusation.

In this respect the Chinese are the most shameless perpetrators of the Cari Makan Ethic. I don't have the exact figure but I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese have devised over 2,000 ways of preparing tofu (soya beancurd). They say that when the Chinese migrants arrived all they owned was their grandmothers' recipes. Only much later did they send for their ink brushes and papier-mâché lions. Perhaps a few people can fairly claim that they eat to live. You don't see too many of them in Malaysia - they must get so skinny they just vanish into thin air.

It's true, Malaysians mostly live to eat. Look at the Malays: during Ramadhan, the fasting month, they spend more time cooking than at any other period. Thousands of temporary food-stalls proliferate, and everyone spends the whole day looking forward to the reward awaiting the faithful when the sun goes down - and the ritual gobbling of mountains of choice delicacies begins.

So, blessed as we are with such a splendid spread of goodies, where does the curse come in? Well, consider this: our collective obsession with EATING has smothered our spirit with excess fat. Our national soul, as it were, has gone somewhat Garfieldsian - a state of being that doesn't seem to bother businessmen, bureaucrats and general office workers in the least, though it tends to foul up all our noblest and highest aspirations.

When the going was good we ate too much too fast. And now we find ourselves starved of pride - in our own essential competence, in our standard of craftsmanship. The Cari Makan Ethic made us favour profit margins over product quality and now mediocrity rules! How else could we keep on manufacturing cassettes that squeak after 6 months?* Churning out movies fit only for morons? Putting up with such a poor showing in public accountability?

But thank God for lean times! Maybe we'll now be motivated to 'cari makna' (look for meaning) and not just 'cari makan' (look for food). Maybe our children will finally be encouraged to work at what they do best - not just at what might make the most money.

I rest my case. Burp.


*To bring this up-to-date: DVDs that jam in the player? Flyovers that crack within six months? Houses that sink into the earth after two years? Ceilings that leak in government buildings and water tanks that crash into bedrooms almost killing folks in their sleep?


nasi kandar - mamak (Indian Muslim) specialty, literally, portable rice - food sold and eaten outside the home - usually consisting of rice with a wide choice of curries, vegetables and deep-fried chicken, prawns or fish. A variation of this, served by the Malays, is called nasi campur (mixed rice) or nasi padang (Sumatran style); sambal belacan (chillied shrimp paste) is optional but highly recommended.

nasi lemak - rice cooked in coconut milk and served with hot, spicy anchovies or savoury beef cubes or chicken curry or squid sambal; garnished with roasted peanuts, egg and cucumber.

nasi goreng - fried rice in a variety of styles: Chinese, Malay or Indian Muslim.

mee goreng - Indian Muslim fried noodles with egg, vegetables and squid or chicken; fiery but tasty.

mee rebus - steamed noodles in thick, spicy gravy, topped off with hardboiled egg slices - mamak-style or Johore Malay.

mee bandung - noodles in hot soup with floating egg and vegetables.

roti canai
- wheatflour pancakes, crisp and tasty, served with dhall (spiced lentil gravy), fish or chicken curry, or (believe it or not) a sprinkling of sugar. Other gourmet variations include roti banana, roti sardine, and roti bom (fried with extra ghee and a dash of sweet egg jam).

roti jala
- looks like miniature yellow nets (jala), tastes like mutated pasta - served with your choice of curries.

rojak - closest thing to a salad, available in three versions: Malay (similar to Indonesian gado-gado), mamak, and baba (with chillied prawn paste).

curry laksa - Baba (Straits-born Chinese) specialty; noodles in a delicious, creamy, prawn-flavoured gravy served with cockles, chicken or charsiew (sweet Chinese ham), fried beancurd, and fiery belacan and chilli paste.

asam laksa - Penang baba specialty: spaghetti-like noodles al dente, in a sinus-clearingly spicy fish soup, flavoured with dark prawn paste and garnished with raw onions and mint leaves.

char kway teow - fried noodles, Teochew-style, with eggs, cockles, chilli paste and loads of grease (which makes it temptingly tasty but a cardinal sin for heart patients).

wan tan mee - stringy egg noodles served 'dry' or in a tasty soup with Chinese ham, black mushrooms, green vegetables, and wan tan (Chinese ravioli).

prawn mee - just try it!

oyster omelette
- Hokkien/Teochew specialty: a mouthwatering concoction of tiny oysters embedded in greasy egg and starch, fried with fish sauce and arcane skill. The locals call it ho chien or oh luak - and the further South you travel, the better it gets.

tomyam - from the famous Thai recipe; extremely piquant soup with bits of seafood or chicken - but watch out for the devilish little chilli padi. First-timers should sit near a fire extinguisher.

sup ekor/kambing/ayam - otherwise known as oxtail/mutton/chicken soup- and no one serves it better than the mamak with his huge tin pots on a pushcart. For novices it's best to order your soup 'kurang pedas' (less chilli).

bak-kut-teh - invigorating herbal (reputedly tonic) soup with assorted parts of pig (ears, cheeks, trotters, intestines, stomach, ribs, rump, tail - it's all edible, you can take your pick) often served with side dishes of fried tofu, yu-charkway (rice-flour sticks) and black mushrooms.

dim sum - steamed goodies, Hongkong-style, kept warm in stacks of cylindrical trays. Wide range of delights from pau (stuffed dumplings) to har-kau (shrimp patties), pai-kuat (spicy pork ribs), ee-taan (giant fish balls), and lor-mai kai (stewed chicken with glutinous rice) - all served on dainty dishes.

chicken wings - crisp, barbecued, sensational. Colonel Sanders, go fly a kite!

yong tow foo - tasty assortment of beancurd variants and vegetables stuffed with chewy fish patties. Local gourmets will travel miles through lunchtime traffic just to eat the famous yong tow foo in Ampang.

thosai - a South Indian staple often eaten in lieu of rice; subtly spiced, slightly sour rice-and-lentil pancake, delicious with coconut chutney. Masala thosai comes stuffed with curried potatoes and paper thosai resembles a wizard's hat.

- heavy, hearty Sikh wheatbread, good eating every day at any hour. Usually dipped in dhall or curry.

murtabak - spicy minced meat with onions and egg, folded in flaky, roti-like crust. Another mamak favourite.

banana leaf rice - actually just a huge mound of rice served on a section of banana leaf, South Indian style. Usually vegetarian but most restaurants serve carnivores too. Subtle and exquisite servings of spicy vegetables, piquant chutney, pappadam (crunch lentil flakes), rasam (a very intense soup) - and perhaps a spoonful of fresh yoghurt will make the rice vanish quickly.

satay - everyone knows this one, right? Malaysian shish kebab served with steamed
rice cubes, cucumber, onions, and a titillating peanut-flavoured sauce.

loh bak - a difficult-to-describe side dish consisting of deep-fried spring rolls, crab rolls, fish fingers, beancurd squares, prawn fritters, etc. Set off with century-egg slices and pickled ginger.

chee cheong fun - literally, pig's intestine noodles - a reference to form, not content. Made of very fine rice powder, these tubular noodles are smooth and tender and taste great with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Often eaten at breakfast with yong tow foo and a sweetish savoury sauce.

chap faan - Chinese version of nasi campur: rice with assorted home-style dishes. Pick what you want and it will be heaped on your plate with the rice. Workingman's lunch - fast and cheap.

charsiew/roast duck rice - Charsiew is a sweet-savoury barbecued and smoked strip of pork (akin to ham), ecstatically delicious or slightly boring - depending on the chef. Combined with roast chicken or roast pork or roast duck, it makes a quick and simple but utterly satisfying rice-&-meat dish, garnished with fresh cucumber slices.

chicken/fish/pork congee - congee is just a fancy nmae for fine rice gruel - perfect for weak digestive tracts and easy on jaded tastebuds.

Hainanese chicken rice - chicken-fat flavoured rice and expertly steamed chicken, garnished with cucumber and parsley.

fish-head curry - you won't believe how fleshy the heads of some fish species can be - and how lipsmackingly tasty too. The use of fingers is recommended. Not a cheap item, however - best ordered when dining with at least a couple of friends.

turtle soup - not for the squeamish, but definitely not as weird as snake or squirrel!

iguana soup - mind if I skip this one? I've only ever seen it on menus but people tell me iguana tastes a bit like chicken.

claypot rice/noodles
- the claypot brings out a very special flavour. Rice is usually cooked with chicken, lup-cheong (Chinese sausage) and some saltfish. The noodles, with pork, prawns and vegetables.

kangkong sotong - pond-greens and steamed squid in a rich, savoury-sweet sauce, sprinkled with ground peanuts.

clams, crabs, cockles, snails - usually fried in a stimulating, spicy sauce; sometimes lightly steamed. Most stalls keep their stock alive and crawling till it enters the cooking pot.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Kamon-lah, Tok Manglish OK?

Aitelyu ah, nemmain wat deblardigarmen say, mose Malaysians tok Manglish. Bekoswai? Bekos we all shai oni to to spik prawper English - arfturds peeple ting we trying to ackshun oni. But Manglish is best-lah when you want to seemply tokkok like fren-fren, lah. Donkair you Malay or Chinese or Indian or everyting miksup. At the mamak stall, in the awfis, sitting araun in the kopi-shop, we Malaysians orways tok like dis wankain oni - got kick wat!

You want to tokkok osoken, no problem, we gifchan you forrin flers, lah. Seemply by-heart the following list of pawpular Manglish words and phrases - and very soon oridi you can go araun blarfing like tera oni.


ackchwurly – originally “actually” – used in Manglish as a sentence starter, e.g., “to be perfectly honest” or “frankly spikking ah.”

ackshun (oni) – derived from “action” – meaning “to show off.”

aidontch-main - corruption of "I don't mind" - the extraneous syllable 'ch' indicates that the speaker is well aware of the subtleties of the English language and is making an effort to sound the 't' in "don't." 

aisehman - contraction of "I say, man!" A totally meaningless utterance, most commonly used by those with absolutely nothing to say.

aiskad (lah) - confession of nervousness, as in "I'm scared, don't have the guts to do it."

aisodono - expression of ignorance, probably imported from India, originally: "I also don't know" (polite variation of "Damned if I know!").

arfturds – contraction of “afterwards” – often used to imply consequence or effect, e.g., “You don’t hit me ah, arfturds I tell my farder!”; also used in place of “later” (“We go and see pickcher first, arfturds can have sahper.”)

atoyu (wat) - gentle expression of triumph: "What did I tell you?"

 - ploy used mainly by Chinese shop assistants to promote sales: "If you buy one, you'll get one free!" 

barfellow - originally “buffalo” – a reference to bulk, usually signifying a clumsy oaf or plodder.

barger - corruption of “bugger” – literally, pain-in-the-butt or nuisance.

barsket - uncouth interjection; term of derision, often preceded by the prefix "bladi." Probably a mangled compound of "blasted," "bastard" and "bugger." An all-purpose expression of acute annoyance, as in "Goddamn" or "Blast it!"

betayudon - mild warning, as in "You'd better not do that."

bladihel - exclamation conveying intense irritation; corruption of "bloody hell!"

boh-sia - originally a Hokkien expression meaning “mute” but now loosely applied to teenage girls who hang out with, or put out for, sugar-daddies; frequently misheard as “Bosnia,” which arouses instant embarrassment, confusion, moral outrage or sympathy, not necessarily leading to charitable acts.

bollsdar - rude retort favored by Malaysian Indians, especially Sikhs; essentially a scrotal reference devolved from "balderdash" or "bollocks." (The deliberate slurring of the commonly heard vernacular suffix 'lah' imparts a more emphatic measure of vulgarity.

cari makan – popular Malay idiom, literally “looking for food” or “to eke out a living” – but usually employed as a rationale for selfish and myopic behavior.

cheh – expression of total disgust, usually indicating that the user finds the entire subject vile, filthy, contemptible and unworthy of further discussion.

chipsket - contraction of "cheapskate," somebody not known to be generous; also used to describe anything low-cost.

dai-lah - term of commiseration, usually mock, used in situations where an element of anxiety is present, e.g.,"Oh dear, now you've blown it!" or "Oh well, that's the end of that!" or "Shit! I'm in real trouble."

debladigarmen - contraction of "the bloody government" - widely used scapegoat for all of life's disappointments, delays, denials, and prohibitions.

defler - contraction of "that fellow."

(doan) tokkok) - playful insult ("Don't talk rubbish!"); the etymology of tokkok is uncertain but it probably derives from "talk cock" (as in "cock and bull" stories).

fatty bom-bom - a juvenile reference to bulk; synonymous with “fatso” - a jocular and universally understood description of obesity.

filim - mispronunciation of “film” - usually refers to movies, whether analog or digital.

fler - personal and/or impersonal reference, originally a contraction of "fellow" but frequently applied in neuter gender, e.g., "You flers better wochaut!" ("Don't any of you try to be funny!")

fraskes - noun applied to any individual caught in an unenviable impasse; someone whose case is frustrating; could also imply sexual deprivation.

gifchan (lah) - half-serious plea, as in "Give us a chance, will you?" Could also mean: "Please do us a favor."

gurfren – slurring of “girlfriend.”

hauken - another elastic expression applicable in almost any situation, e.g., "That's not right!" or "Impossible!" or "You don't say!"

ho-laif - adverb, meaning "perpetually" (contraction of "whole life").

huseso - "Says who?" or "Who says so?" (alternatively, hused). 

hutoyu - mild challenge, as in "Who told you?"

izzit - expression of mild unbelief: "Is that so?"

izzenit - from "isn't it?" but applied very loosely at the end of any particular statement to elicit an immediate response, e.g., "Yused you will spen me a beer, izzenit?"

kennonot - request or enquiry, contraction of "Can you or can you not?"; also used as "May I?"  or "Will you?" or "Is it possible?"

kenoso - affirmative, "can also"; in other words, "It's quite all right with me" (see osoken).

kopi money - unofficial commission; bribe.

lastaim - denotes the past ("last time"), though not necessarily in any specific sense: e.g., "Lastaim we orways see filim but nowdays stay home and watch dividi oni."

latok - corruption of “datuk”; (i) “grandfather” in Malay; (ii) a tutelary spirit residing in trees and sacred spots; or (iii) an honorific bestowed on individuals deemed worthy (e.g., Malaysia’s best-loved cartoonist Lat, who’s now a “Latok”). Latokship is a much sought-after status symbol (for which some are willing to pay handsomely).

mais-wan - possessive pronoun, meaning “it belongs to me” or “it’s mine.” Etymologically part of a family including yos-wan (“yours one”) and dias-wan (“their’s one”).

mebeken - contraction of “maybe can”: in other words, “It may be possible…”

nemmain - casual dismissal: "Never mind."

notshai-wan - from "not shy one" - meaning "shameless" or not standing upon ceremony.

nola - a dilute negative, used as a device to interrupt, deny, or cancel someone else's statement.

olafasudden - melodramatic variation on “all of a sudden.”

oridi - contraction of "already."

osoken - affirmative, interchangeable with kenoso ("also can"); in other words, "Anything goes!" or "Fine by me!"

ow-tah (punya) - temi of disparagement, meaning "utterly substandard."

owk-steshen - from “outstation” - a relic of Colonial days when officials were often absent from their posts doing field work; in other words, “out of town” or “abroad.”

podah - extremely dismissive term derived from street Tamil, as in "Go to hell!" or "Get stuffed!" or "Fuck off!"

rigadingwat - interrogative used exclusively by telephonists and secretaries when you demand to speak to their bosses: "What is it regarding?"

sahper - "supper," usually a major pig-out after a nocturnal shopping spree or pub-crawl.

seehau - mangling of "let's wait and see how it turns out."

shiok (oni) - expression of intense pleasure, etymology obscure.

sofanochet - meaning "it hasn't happened yet"; can also be shortened to nochet, a slurring of
"not yet.“

sohau - polite interrogative, usually used as greeting, e.g., "Well, how are things with you?" or "How goes it?"

so-poorting - expression of sympathy or condolence: "You poor thing!"

sorait - universal apology or palliative ("It‘s all right.")

tera (oni) - noun describing someone who inspires awe, "a real terror." Often has a positive connotation, as in "defer wankain tera ladykiller lah!"

tan-slee - corruption of “Tan Sri” - the equivalent of a knighthood.

tingwat - highly adaptable expression stemming from "What do you think?" May be used as a
challenge ("Who cares a hoot what you think!"); a rhetorical question ("Well, how about  that?"); or as a friendly insult ("Please don’t inflict your abysmal ignorance on us!") - depending on context and intonation.

wankain -(wan) - adjective denoting uniqueness, oddness, weirdness, extraordinariness: contraction of "one of a kind" (with "one" repeated for rhythmic symmetry). Sometimes rendered as wankain-oni (to emphasize the uniqueness).

watudu - rhetorical question: "But what can we do?" An excellent excuse for apathy.

weh-yuattash - polite question when introduced to a stranger: "Where are you attached to?" (in       other words, "What do you do for a living?")

wochaut - from "watch out" - an ominous threat favored by gangsters and polticians.

yala - non-committal agreement, liberally used when confronted with a bore. A string of "yalas" issuing forth from your hapless listener is a sure sign that he or she wishes to terminate the conversation as soon as possible.

yesa - general expression of interest, usually inserted as a question during conversations, as in "Oh, really?"

yu-a-yu - term of friendly accusation, meaning "You're really too much!"

yugifmisi — imperative indicating intense curiosity, as in: "Let me have a look!"

yusobadwan - expression of mild reproach: "Hey, that's not very nice!"


The Manglish Glossary was born of an evening of intoxicated jollity spent with two superb musicians and cunning linguists named Rafique Rashid and Julian Mokhtar, who both offered helpful suggestions, as did an expat English teacher friend, Jeanne M.C. Donven.