I recently had the pleasure of answering some questions from fellow blogger Worriless Wanderer (check out his blog here). He has been working on an ambitious project to interview people from every country around the world, in order to get insights on how life is where they are from. And guess who got to answer for Malaysia? 😛
You can read the post here, or scroll down where I’ve copy and pasted the answers below. Hopefully it’ll also give you, my dear reader, a glimpse of the Malaysian way of life, from food to religious and cultural practices, as well. 🙂
Thanks a lot WW!
What is your name and where are you from?
Hello! My name is Eris, and I come from the beautiful metropolis of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! The name literally translates to “Muddy Confluence”, since KL is the point where two rivers meet. Unglamorous name aside, it’s a bustling, chaotic city, filled with modern buildings and glitzy shopping malls, but there are loads of charming nooks and alleyways to explore, if you know where to look.
Malaysia is probably best known for that catchy “Malaysia Truly Asia” tagline that our Ministry of Tourism ran for several years. It’s an apt one, because there’s a bit of everything here ! We are a diverse country made up of different races and religions living together in relative harmony, and it reflects in our culture, from the food to customs, beliefs and practices. We also have some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the region, from mountains to tropical jungles and sandy white beaches.
A little about yourself?
I’m a travel and lifestyle writer for an in-flight magazine. It’s a wonderful job where I get to go around, meet people and do awesome things! I don’t think I could ever sit around at a desk job. I love to read in my spare time. Before the advent of Youtube, books were what opened up worlds for me and the habit has stuck well into adulthood.
How do you define success?
A lot of people define success through material means, like how large their homes are or how expensive their car is. For me personally, success means that I’m happy, able to sustain myself and my family, and living a meaningful life. That could mean being surrounded by great people, having supportive family and friends, and doing a job that I love. It doesn’t necessarily mean I have to live in a mansion or be a CEO of a company.
What are some of the major achievements by your country?
Malaysia has always touted itself as a moderate and progressive country, and we are blessed with abundant natural resources which makes us a lucrative place for foreign investments. In the 90s, our former Prime Minister successfully put Malaysia on the world map through the building of the Petronas Twin Towers, as well as through events such as the 1998 Commonwealth Games. We were also one of the founding countries of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
What is the most important meal of the day?
Every meal is an important meal for a Malaysian! Food plays a big part in Malaysian culture, so much so that right after “How are you?”, the next question that comes is ‘Sudah makan?’ (have you eaten?). You can literally have food at 3AM, since we have eateries that are open 24/7. Unfortunately, this reflects badly on our health – recent studies show that we are the fattest country in Southeast Asia!
Do you eat foods that are indigenous to your culture? Why or why not? If you answered yes, name some of the foods that you eat. If you answered no, what types of foods do you eat?
That’s a tough question! Unlike many Southeast Asian countries which are homogenous, Malaysia has a long history of immigration. It’s difficult to pinpoint foods that are ‘indigenous’ to Malaysia, because its diversity means that the cuisine has blended and evolved to include elements from all the different races living here. The three major ethnic groups in Peninsula Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian, while East Malaysia is home to many indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Iban, Kadazan-Dusun, Murut, Dayak, Kelabit and Melanau.
I’m fourth-generation Malaysian Chinese, so I eat mostly Chinese food on a daily basis. But the best part about being Malaysian is that I get to enjoy dishes from other cultures as well. For breakfast, I could have nasi lemak (a Malay dish of rice cooked in coconut milk, served with chicken curry, sambal and other condiments), followed by Hainanese chicken rice for lunch. Teatime could be a plate of kuih muih (traditional Malay desserts) and for dinner, a plate of roti canai (Indian flat bread) with dhal and curry dip.
How can you communicate effectively in your culture?
Malay (or Bahasa Malaysia) is our lingua franca, and most people are able to speak it to some degree, if not fluently. Again, owing to our diverse ethnic makeup, many Malaysians are bilingual or trilingual. Those in urban centres should also be able to speak good English. I speak fluent English and Malay, in addition to my mother tongue, Cantonese Chinese, and a smattering of Mandarin Chinese. If someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying in English, there are at least two other languages to choose from so there are no problems communicating!
There is also this thing called ‘Manglish’, an amalgamation of different dialects mixed with English. It is used in informal situations or everyday conversations – sort of like a local ‘creole’ version of the language. ‘Gostan’, for example, is a commonly used term which might leave foreigners scratching their heads! It comes from the English term ‘go astern’, and is used to describe the action of reversing one’s vehicle. Malaysians also have this habit of adding sounds like ‘lah’ to the end of the sentence, for emphasis.
Is punctuality important to you? Why or why not?
Punctuality is important to me, because I think the most precious commodity that one can give to another is their time. Unfortunately, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most Malaysians, as we are notoriously tardy. When a friend tells you they are ‘on the way’ to a meeting place, it’s most likely that they are still at home getting ready!
Why should people visit your country?
Come for the awesome food, great experiences, beautiful travel spots, and warm and friendly people (for the most part).
What is the best thing about living in the your country?
The diversity. Malaysia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures and experiences. I think we have a good balance of modernity and old school charm. I can be working in a modern office in the city with all the creature comforts, but I can also travel to the islands for a weekend getaway and just soak in the chill vibes. And of course, we have the best food in the world! 🙂
What is the worst thing about living in the your country?
Corruption and politics. Many Malaysians are jaded with the way things are run and how much of the country’s coiffers we are losing to corrupt politicians. That, and rising costs of living.
Best “unknown” places in your country?
I personally think East Malaysia is extremely underrated. There are so many remote places to explore! I was recently on a trip to Bario in Sarawak, which is a small town in the highlands, smack in the middle of nowhere. It can only be accessed by a small plane or a 14-hour drive through logging trails. Life is so idyllic, the villagers are extremely warm and hospitable, you wake up everyday to beautiful nature and with no worries about the rat race.
Best way to get around? Ex: Car, Bus, Plane
Credit: Flickr, Jason Thien
It’s fairly easy to get around big cities like KL, as there are LRT and MRT trains, commuter trains, buses, taxis and in recent years, ride hailing services. That being said, infrastructure in smaller towns is less developed, and a car is still needed to get to most points. Travelling is much more complicated in East Malaysia due to its sheer size and remoteness; if one is lucky, there might be planes servicing the route; if not, you’d have to ride in a four wheel drive through river crossings and logging trails, and the journey could take hours or even days.
Best local places from the city/place where you live?
The Bangsar neighbourhood in KL is a hip and trendy spot with the best bars and chic eateries. For a touch of green within the concrete jungle, I suggest the KLCC Park to cool off from the heat. The neighbourhood around Petaling Street/Chinatown is a good spot to get authentic street food and observe the locals going about their daily lives, as is Little India in Brickfields.
Is it “cheap”?
Living costs are on the rise and it’s getting harder to make ends meet, but if you’re a tourist from a Western country, I would say things are still relatively cheap, especially food. However, properties are unaffordable to most people and rent is quite pricey in the city.
What is the nightlife like?
In major cities like KL there is a small but thriving nightlife scene in areas such as Changkat Bukit Bintang, where you’ll find loads of bars, pubs and clubs. Alcohol is not permitted for the Muslim population but it’s quite easy to find it in shops or convenience stores.
You can also go to a night market, which is an open-air market held on the street where pedestrians are free to walk about and browse for cheap imitation goods and street snacks.
Is it safe?
As a tourist, you should note that snatch thefts and pickpockets are particularly prevalent in big cities, so avoid wearing flashy jewellery, keep your bags close and be aware of your surroundings. It is generally safer in smaller towns, but my advice would be the same wherever you go – be vigilant and keep out of trouble.
What would you say is, from your perspective, the most commonly held misconception about people of your culture?
That we can’t speak English well or that we live in some backwater hick town. But then again, I think that’s the perception most people have of Southeast Asia.
What is your definition of “culture?”
Everything that encompasses an identity. The language that one speaks, the clothes that a person wears, the food that they eat, their customs and practices, their spiritual beliefs.
What religious or spiritual beliefs are influential in your culture and for your family?
The constitution of the country upholds that Malaysians have the freedom to practice their own religions, although this only applies to those who are non-Muslims.
The main religion in Malaysia is Islam, and all ethnic Malays are automatically Muslim from the moment they are born. There are two sets of laws in Malaysia (confusing, I know!): constitutional law and Shariah law, which applies to Muslims. By the latter, apostasy is an offence.
For the rest of the non-Muslim population, they are free to practice whichever religion they choose. About 20% of the country are Buddhists, myself included, while roughly 9% are Christians, 6% Hindus and the rest practice other faiths.
Being in a multi-religious community also makes us more aware of one another’s beliefs and sensitivities. For example, when hosting an event where there would be Muslim or Hindu guests, there would not be pork or beef served.
Another great thing about our multi-faith setup is that we get so many breaks! Major festivals for each of the religions are designated holidays, so apart from the Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday and Eid-Al-Fitr for the Muslims, Buddha’s Birthday (Wesak Day) is also a holiday, as are Deepavali (or Diwali as it is known in India) and Christmas. It’s 10x the fun as there is a general festive atmosphere in the air, even if you’re not actually celebrating a particular festival.
How is physical contact viewed in your culture?
Like many Southeast Asian/Asian cultures, Malaysians are generally conservative and overt displays of affection in a public sphere may be uncomfortable for some. In a formal setting, handshakes are typically fine if you are introducing yourself for the first time.
Your country’s most famous and personal favorite artists? Authors? Etc..
I wouldn’t call him an artist per se, but my favourite personality is the shoe designer Jimmy Choo. Many people do not know that he is Malaysian, and his rags to riches story is a truly inspiring one. He’s also very humble, down-to-earth and always classy.
I don’t have a favourite literary author from Malaysia, but I do have a few favourite comic book artists, like Billy Tan and Tan Eng Huat, both of whom have worked with Marvel Comics.
Main sport in your country?
Badminton is almost like a religion here! When the Thomas Cup or any major badminton tournament rolls around, you’ll find everyone gathered in front of their TVs at home, or at the local Indian restaurant where they usually have large TV screens hung up against the walls. It’s much more fun to cheer together.
Many Malaysians are also fans of football, although our national team is not exactly up to par.
How do you define “family?”
I would define family in the traditional sense – a nuclear unit of parents and children. Extended family would include aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins.
Who holds the most “status” in your family? Why?
I wouldn’t call my family a very traditional one, but they still subscribe to some conventional practices. Being Chinese, the hierarchy is patriarchal, so my dad is the one who makes most of the important decisions in the family, while my mother tends to matters relating to the household.
Did you ever live with your grandparents or extended family? If not, is it common?
My parents moved out to the big city in search of better opportunities, while both sets of grandparents stayed in their hometowns. When they were still alive, we would return on festive occasions to visit. I think the same applies for many of the people I know.
What are some of your family customs and roles of members within your family? What is your role in your family ?
A lot of the old customs have been lost over the years, because my parents do not practice them anymore and have not passed it on to the next generation. Take for example the Chinese-Hokkien practice of praying to Tian Gong (a Buddhist/Taoist god) on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year. It was a big thing for my grandparents, but my dad did not practice this when he moved to KL, and my brother and I are even more clueless on how the rituals go. I think the same can be said about many other practices, some of which have been done away with for convenience.
Roles in my family are somewhat traditional. In a Malaysian Chinese family, the father is usually the breadwinner, while the mother takes care of the household. We live in a modern age, so both my parents work and contribute to the family, but my mother also plays primary caregiver and takes care of things in the house. As the older sibling, I am expected to be a good role model for my younger brother. As children, we are expected to be filial to our parents.
What is your government like? Is it a democracy? A dictatorship? Kings? Queens?
Malaysia (then Malaya) was ruled by the British for close to two centuries, so many of our customs, laws and practices reflect the British system. Like the UK, we are a constitutional monarchy, so we have a King (called the Agong), but the bulk of the political power lies with the Prime Minister and the Parliament. Candidates for the parliament are fielded by their respective political parties, after which they are voted in by the public.
Have you ever experienced racism? In what form?
I think racism exists in every country, including Malaysia. Despite our relatively peaceful coexistence, a lot of things are still race-based, from policies to politics and business. Unscrupulous parties tend to stoke this up for their own gains. There might not be outright racism, but there are many instances where covert racism can be found. An example would be housing, where landlords would prefer a certain race as tenants, or educational policies where there are ‘quotas’ on entry to institutions of higher learning, based on race rather than merit.
What can be done about racism and prejudice, in your opinion?
Malaysia is a paradox – on one hand, different races are able to live together in relative harmony, on the other, race is always something we are obsessed about and still divides us. Personally, I would do away with race-based policies that champion the ‘privileges’ of one race while sidelining others.
Malaysia has lost a lot of talent over the years due to unfair policies, which overlook merit in favour of race. It also creates a ‘spoon fed’ mentality where politicians deliberately play into the fears of the people, a typical ‘divide and conquer’ approach. This creates a mentality among the people that they are unable to progress on their own without political support, because there is always an Us Vs Them rhetoric. 61 years after independence, we still have a long way to go.
Tell us a funny travel story?
I was in Phuket, Thailand, with a friend. We had budgeted for our taxi ride to the airport, and my friend said that she had enough Thai baht for the trip. Imagine our horror when she took out the ‘money’ and realised it was actually Cambodian riel! We dug through all our luggage, and managed to scrounge up just enough to pay the taxi guy. The funny thing is there was no money changer at the Phuket airport, and we were left with 70 baht (about 2 US Dollars) to last us until we got onto the plane. We could only afford to share one bottle of water between us and had to go hungry until we got home to Malaysia!
What are some of the best places you have visited?
I think every place has a unique experience and beauty to offer. If I had to choose one, I’d go for Bali in Indonesia. I just love how charming the place is and how laidback life is there. Within Malaysia, I’d pick Bario in Sarawak for the warm hospitality of the locals and the beautiful tropical jungles it has, as well as KL, my homecity.