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.