Category Archives: Cultural Identity

Ruminations on Food 1: Malaysians & Food

Hello again, it’s great to be back! I know I’ve been away for a while. I promise I’ve been busy! At one point I was writing so many publicity articles that everything blurred, and I didn’t know my right hand from my left. In between radio interviews – the highlight of which was my appearance on the BBC World Service – and speaking engagements, I was mad enough to carry on writing my third novel.

Thankfully there was a spurt of rest, when I took a short trip to Malaysia for a family celebration. That’s where the idea for this series of blog-posts came from – because as usual, I ate copious amounts. And with the trip lasting only 10 days, the eating was intense.

In fact, after 6 nights of dining out like crazy my partner announced: ‘You haven’t seen drama until you’ve watched a group of Malaysian-Chinese discussing menu choices.’

When I thought about it, I realised she had a point. There’s always a kerfuffle at the start, when we’re still trying to decide what to order. In a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant you don’t place your order with an ordinary mortal, such as a waiter or waitress, no! You summon the head waitress herself. This head waitress is usually a middle-aged woman who has worked her way up the ranks. She knows everything about the menu and how things should be cooked, and makes recommendations accordingly.

Of course, diners around the table – who are invariably food connoisseurs – will have their own ideas. The result is operatic drama, lasting a good 10 minutes on average, during which we talk about which soup to have, which type of poultry, what fish, should we order another seafood dish or another meat dish, what about vegetables and which ones – all before we’ve even come to the finicky point of how each dish should be cooked.

The discussion takes place in one or other Chinese dialect, in our case Cantonese. This means that the conversation is loud: we Chinese are noisy when we’re excited, and we’re always excited where food is concerned. Everyone around the table chips in, sometimes all at once. Ideas are tossed about and there’s much to-ing and fro-ing, especially when it comes to cooking methods, since the conversation often gets down to precisely how the fish will be steamed. In the heat of those moments, the difference between silver pomfrets and black pomfrets seems a matter of life and death.

It Took Us a Long Time to Choose You!

The conversation is always full of passion, it’s never a competition of egos. Everyone truly wants the best possible version of any dish we’ve ordered – that’s what we’ve gone for, after all. And because there is so much outstanding food in Malaysia, people have lots to say.

Apparently, the two groups who spend most time talking about food are the Malaysians and the French. (A verbal anecdote I heard somewhere.) The French, I’m sure, regard themselves as foodies, but having spent a good chunk of time in France I have news for them: we Malaysians are even bigger foodies. And we love all food – not just Malaysian food.

We’re totally obsessed, you see. I believe that this obsession, for Malaysian-Chinese at least, must stem from some primeval fear of famine. Not so long ago – as recently as my childhood – we would greet one another with ‘Have you eaten yet?’ instead of ‘How are you?’ If you had a full stomach, it was assumed that you were well; how could it be otherwise?

A Queue for Moon Cakes

For us, fear of hunger is ingrained. Even though we now live in Malaysia, a country so fertile that a seed only has to drop to grow, and despite having lived here for several generations, we still behave as if we might starve tomorrow. Because who knows, there might just be a war, right, as happened in When the Future Comes Too Soon?

Therefore, we go to great lengths to discuss what to have for lunch while munching our breakfast, what to eat for dinner before we’ve finished lunch, and so on. Our meals are mapped out days in advance. We will battle traffic and thunderstorm; we will drive miles for the sake of the juiciest mangoes, the freshest fish and the best moon cakes. In case you’re wondering what these look like, the photos below were what the people above queued for.

Moon Cakes: Were They Worth the Wait?

Some street food vendors have become so wealthy, they’ve sent their children to study overseas. This is what my protagonist does in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. One American reader who reviewed the book was sceptical that this could ever happen – she obviously doesn’t know Malaysia.

Potential famine aside, food is wonderful because it’s safe. There’s nothing controversial about satay or fried chicken or soupy noodles. No one will criticise you for posting photos of your lunch on Facebook; in return, you can comment on your friends’ dinner meals and everyone is happy.

Delicious Noodles: Soupy and Safe!

There’s little doubt that Malaysians love food, but there’s also little doubt that we prefer avoiding conflict. Who doesn’t? It’s a question of the lengths to which we will go.

If our talented cartoonist, Zunar, stuck to drawing happy scenes of Malaysians chomping through plates of nasi lemak, he wouldn’t be suffering from a travel ban today. At present he can’t even come to London for an upcoming exhibition at the Westminster Reference Library, one that has been organised by the UK’s organisation of professional cartoonists and suitably called Gagged – all because he dares lampoon our esteemed Prime Minister.

Zunar’s Tweet: He’ll be on Skype

Of course, strong democratic societies were not built by avoiding inconvenient discussion. Sometimes, conflict will result – this can’t be helped. There’s no other way. Democracy is about speaking up and trying to reach accommodation, especially if we disagree with one another. If we don’t find our voices, food itself could become a political tool.

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I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King once began: ‘I have a dream…’

I, too, have a dream. In my dream racial discrimination in Malaysia is a thing of the past. In this dream my homeland, Malaysia, has transformed into a country known for good governance. In my dream Malaysia is a beacon: a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country in which I, though largely of Chinese descent, am treated as an equal citizen.

With each passing day this dream recedes further into the abyss. Racial discrimination in Malaysia is now entrenched. The country’s governance gets from bad to worse. And its list of scandals grows longer.

When it comes to corruption, Malaysia competes well with the likes of China and Mexico – a staggering feat for a country of only 30 million. According to Global Financial Integrity, the developing countries with the largest illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 were China, Mexico and Malaysia. No surprise, then, that US$1.2 billion found their way into the Prime Minister’s personal bank account in the scandal known as 1MDB. How such an astounding amount arrived there is something which Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has still not explained properly, yet the man remains Prime Minister and looks unlikely to be deposed!

Hand-in-hand with corruption have come increasing Muslim fundamentalism and concomitant attacks on religious freedom, the latter always carried out under the guise of ‘protecting Muslims’. Several years ago the word ‘Allah’ was proscribed for use by non-Muslims when referring to God. Emboldened by this poisonous atmosphere, extremists have attacked churches, cast aspersions on the adherents of other religions, and routinely made racist comments that would not be tolerated in a civilised country. These disturbing trends date back years. The culprits behave with impunity and with the connivance of the ruling political party – the United Malays National Organisation – or UMNO. This party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, uses Islam as an electoral tool with which to acquire the Muslim vote.

A new low was reached recently. Now activists have begun to disappear. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finally took note and placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 list, alongside such luminaries of religious freedom as Afghanistan, Cuba and Turkey.

How did Malaysia, a once tolerant and moderate country, get to this point?

First, if we strip everything away, I believe the crux of Malaysia’s problems lies in something we are not supposed to discuss: its racist policies. The country’s descent has been gradual. But the slide actually began a long time ago – with the principle that not all Malaysians are created equal.

The idea that some Malaysians, namely, those of us who are ethnically Chinese or Indian, are somehow ‘squatting’ on land that rightfully belongs to Malays is pernicious but long-standing. I first heard the idea expressed in Mahathir Mohamad’s infamous book ‘The Malay Dilemma’. In the blog-post Where is Home? I describe how being called a squatter made me feel. By 1973 when I learnt about Mahathir’s book, the concept had already been codified into so-called affirmative action policies with no time limitation. The beneficiaries are a special breed of Malaysian, one who deserves extra rights, not through merit or because of need, but because the ancestors of this type of Malaysian arrived in the country earlier. The logic is so spurious that a special term had to be invented: bumiputera, or the prince/princes of the earth. (See The Malaysia We’ve Lost.)

Imagine the first pilgrims to the United States calling themselves the ‘princes of the earth’ and giving themselves and their descendants ‘special rights’, over and above those enjoyed by all the other waves of immigrants who helped build America. Bumiputera ‘rights’ in Malaysia are eye-watering; they include: entitlement to a disproportionate share of university places, discounted property, quotas in government departments, 30% equity stakes in companies and government scholarships. At one point, there were even universities reserved for bumiputera! This has been the situation in Malaysia since the 1970s, when the concept of the bumiputera was written into government policy.

The question of who is a bumiputera is a minefield, because there are people who are truly indigenous to Malaysia. Even in the Malay language they are called Orang Asli, or the original people. Naturally Orang Asli have bumiputera status, though this is more lip service. The crucial point is that Malaysians of Malay ethnicity, who are believed to have come to Malaysia from Yunnan in southern China and more recently from India and Indonesia, are all deemed to be bumiputera.

Why is this important? To start with, there is the issue of moral dubiety. In Malaysia it’s well-known that part of Mahathir Mohamad’s own family came from India. Ergo, the man who calls me a squatter in The Malay Dilemma is himself squatting on land which belongs to Malaysia’s original people, the Orang Asli. Then, there is the groundswell of resentment which the creation of the bumiputera has caused. How can you have a unified nation with such blatantly racist policies? The answer is that you can’t. A million Malaysians have left. I am part of that exodus. I left with a heavy heart – and anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will know that my love for Malaysia remains strong.

What do you think happens when a government tells one section of its populace – the bumiputera – that its members have rights over and above others? It’s almost inevitable that those who are mollycoddled become spoilt. They start to feel as if they’re above the law and can do whatever they want.

Worse than that, dishing out special rights anaesthesises those who are privileged – in this case, the bumiputera population, the Malay recipients who form the country’s majority. UMNO, the ruling party, has been purchasing their acquiescence for decades and in so doing, has fundamentally distorted the democratic process. For as long as a majority in the electorate is numbed by handouts, UMNO can do whatever it wants.

Except… it’s now harder, even for UMNO. After nearly sixty years in power there is discontent, especially among urban Malays. UMNO’s excesses have become so electrifying, they’ve hit world attention. Part of its electorate is restless. Some bumiputeras recognise the harm which Malaysia’s racist policies have done. A columnist, Wan Saiful Wan Jan (a bumiputera), with two friends (also bumiputera), began the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) several years ago. In a recent article, Wan Saiful pointed out the immorality of Malaysia’s bumiputera policy. ‘Why not then steal from the rich and give to the poor?’ he wrote rhetorically.

Wan Saiful should be applauded. No one else has had the guts to be as blunt. He and groups like IDEAS and Bersih (the group that is fighting for clean, fair elections) – and all the people campaigning for an open, progressive Malaysia – must be supported.

And here’s the second part of my answer: Malaysia did not arrive at this point by accident. We Malaysians have allowed it to happen. We have allowed it through our collusion and our silence, and by our refusal to venture outside of our comfort zone. When I was growing up, how many times did I hear a fellow Malaysian-Chinese say, ‘Ai-yahh, why bother with politics? Let’s just make money-lah…’

Fast forward to 2017, when we can see where such attitudes have led us. Malaysia is poised at a crossroads, and what I hear now is a lot of grumbling. Mutterings too, along the lines of, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do anything. I’m not bumiputera.’

In this way, all blame is passed on to the bumiputera, as if we do not bear collective responsibility for the state of our country. As if our national obsession with food, gossip and shopping, to the exclusion of much else, is not a contributory factor. I know I’m guilty, too. I took the easy option and left, instead of staying on to fight. I now do what I can, by supporting Bersih and IDEAS and all the people who are willing to stand up for a better Malaysia. I also write. Both in this blog and in the novels forming The Malayan Series, which will carry on after the second book, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is published this summer. Fiction is a powerful tool, one which I intend to use. (Foreign readers don’t need to know anything about Malaysia. The Malayan Series is first and foremost an epic family saga, a story about people. What happens will be experienced through the characters themselves.)

There are plenty of Malaysians who tell me, ‘Malaysia is still a good place to live.’ And then they ask what I can find elsewhere that I can’t have in Malaysia.

Here are a few of the things I enjoy in the West. Equality in the law. The chance to compete on merit. A vote which counts. And when things aren’t right, I have the ability to protest, to get things changed. Anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will understand that I have not been brainwashed by the West. No human system is perfect; both Britain and America have flaws.

Within the cracks of their flaws, however, lies a gem: the cliché known as freedom. In the West, I have the freedom to be whoever I want and to live my life exactly as I choose. This is so precious and priceless that once experienced, is almost impossible to give up.

To those who say that Malaysia is still a great place to live in, I have the following questions.

  • Do you think this is the country our predecessors fought for in 1957?
  • Is today’s Malaysia really the country you want to see?
  • Does this Malaysia make you proud?
  • And what are you going to do about it?

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Ipoh is Among Top 10 Places to Visit in Asia!

Last year Lonely Planet, the world’s largest publisher of travel guide books, discovered my hometown. And its reviewer was charmed. Ipoh, the town in which my debut novel – The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds – takes place, was duly placed 6th in the publisher’s Asian destinations to visit in 2017!

There was special mention for Ipoh’s food, which has long been a favourite with Malaysia’s many foodies. One of Ipoh‘s specialities is bean sprouts and yes, I do mean that quirky-looking vegetable with a whitish stem and yellow head! Ipoh’s bean sprouts are special: fatter and crispier and therefore tastier.beansprouts

I’m told that this is because they are fed the limestone-infused water from the hills which my heroine, Chye Hoon, loved. Whatever the reason, Ipoh’s bean sprouts are so good that I once wrote a blog-post about them. Naturally, I was thrilled that Lonely Planet mentioned bean sprouts and good old Lou Wong, one of my favourite coffee shops.

lou-wong-from-outside

Lou Wong is an institution, a bit like the town’s Padang (the large field around which our British occupiers built their administrative offices. I had to explain this to the copyeditor when he tried to reduce ‘Padang’ to a small ‘p’). Like some of Malaysia’s best eating places, Lou Wong doesn’t look like much from the outside. But they serve delicious food! In case you doubted it, they have a sign telling you what they specialise in.

It’s not as if you need it, since the only things visible are barrels of bean sprouts (I kid you not) and arrays of chickens strung up, ready for the cleaver. a-tub-of-bean-sprouts

The chicken is steamed, the bean sprouts blanched, both are then doused in plenty of soya sauce and sesame oil, garnished with finely chopped spring onions and eaten with aromatic steamed rice or in a noodle soup. Simple and stunningly good! Lou Wong remains an old-style coffee shop, cooled only by ceiling fans and with relatively clean, tiled floors of light blue octagons interspersed with darker blue squares. The waiters move around in casual T shirts, sometimes fat-splattered, adding up your bill in their heads. I invariably eat more than I should. Once, the waiter who was totting up the bill stared in astonishment. ‘Wahh!’ he cried out, not believing his luck. ‘Three persons, eat so much!’ The same waiter is still there, and he smiles each time he sees me.chickens-being-chopped

Ipoh has more than food, of course. It was built on tin and is one of Malaysia’s most historical cities. Therein lies the rub: the town, created to serve British colonial interests, was built largely through Chinese effort – a fact which the Malaysian government does not like acknowledging. For years the most historical part of Ipoh, called Old Town, was left dormant. Beautiful shophouses became dilapidated and decayed. Ipoh’s recent renaissance – through private initiative, not the government’s largesse – is one of the reasons why the town has been noticed by Lonely Planet.

This is heartening to see. I would love for Ipoh, especially its old historical quarter, to thrive again. The limestone hills are still there, of course, fluffy as ever, as are many of the places I wrote about in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds: the cave temples; Concubine Street, the narrow alley where the towkays, the business bosses, kept their mistresses(which has a real name of Jalan Panglima, or Panglima Road); the sturdy missionary schools; the Padang (large field); the railway station and other colonial buildings.

In my last post, I said that I would be putting up images of old Ipoh on my website www.siakchinyoke.com. I’ve now done this: if you’d like to have an idea of what some of the above places looked like in Chye Hoon’s day, go to the Chye Hoon’s World page of my site and click on the top left window. The images there are from vintage postcards given to me by my highly imaginative partner.

One of my dreams with the Malayan Series – as my publisher Amazon Crossing has called this historical fiction series – is to help put Malaysia and my hometown of Ipoh on the map. Many readers have said that they knew nothing about Malaysia before, and now they feel they’ve been there. One even wrote that “if I ever make it to Malaysia, this book will be a huge reason why” (referring to The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds). My message is simple: visit Malaysia! And make sure you go to Ipoh. If you’d like, you can ask me what to see! Who knows, there may eventually be tours around the places which Chye Hoon haunted.

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My New Website

Hello everyone! As promised in a video message late last year, I’ve had a website created – www.siakchinyoke.com – to give you more information about me and my books and also to (hopefully) answer some of the questions you’ve asked. There’s a page – Chye Hoon’s World – which is intended to help you explore the world my protagonist inhabited. As I’m continuing work on the Malayan Series, I’m afraid I’m only going to be able to populate this page very gradually; please bear with me…

Over time, I hope to include

  • Images of old Ipoh, with a focus on places mentioned in The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds;
  • Information about the cooking ingredients Chye Hoon would have used;
  • Photographs of the other mouth-watering Malaysian dishes she prepared;
  • A look at Nyonya attire, jewellery, shoes, practices and anything else you want to see!

Please take a few minutes to browse through the pages that are already up and let me know what you think! You can send a message via the website. I’d love to hear from you!

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Video Messages to Tempt You With!

In this short blog-post I’ll share two videos of me. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or my Facebook Author Page may already have seen these – they were shot in my home library. The first video is a simple but heart-felt Thank You to people who’ve already read and loved The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, my debut novel (Book #1 in the Malayan Series) which follows the life of a courageous woman in British Malaya.

In the second video, I read a short excerpt from the book. Family, food, friendship and identity are key themes and this video contains pictures of the delicious kueh (or cakes in Malay) that are integral to the story, as well as images of old Ipoh, the town in which the story is set. Thank you to Cafe Rasa in Stratford, London, for supplying the kueh shown and to Dr. Ho Tak Ming for allowing us to use images from his book about Ipoh, When Tin Was King.

If you haven’t yet read The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, I hope these videos will spur you on!

Order now at:

Amazon USA     Barnes & Noble USA     Amazon UK     Waterstones UK     Kinokuniya MY     Kinokuniya SG

Thank you for watching and for reading!

NB At the time of writing, all the above stores have my book in stock.

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Proud to Announce …

My debut novel, The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds, has been selected by Amazon Publishing’s editors as one of their 6 hand-picked book choices for the Kindle First programme during this month of October. In case you’ve not heard of it, Kindle First is an invitation-only programme for authors. It allows the many book lovers who are also Amazon Prime subscribers to read books on their Kindles a month before their official release dates. This means that Prime subscribers can already download my novel and read it on their Kindles!

Here’s what Amazon’s editors have to say about their selections. If you prefer, you can watch the following video: there are previews of all 6 books. And if clicking on a link seems too much like hard work, below you’ll find the front and back covers of my novel. The overview on the back cover provides a good feel for the unfolding story and its key themes.

front-cover

 

back-cover

I will also be doing two readings in Malaysia this month (October 2016). The first will take place in Ipoh – the town which provides the setting for my novel – on Saturday 15 October. Full details will be posted on my Facebook Author Page, which has just gone live. If you happen to be in Malaysia then, I’d love to see you!

Meanwhile, there are fewer than 30 days to the official worldwide release of The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds. There’s still time to pre-order your book! Click on any of the links below:

USA Barnes & Noble

UK Waterstones

Australia Booktopia

Malaysia Kinokuniya

Singapore Kinokuniya

and, of course, on all Amazon websites

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An Unexpected Discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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