After leaving Hong Kong, one of the first things that caught me by surprise in Singapore was the accented English. Singaporeans and to a lesser extent Malays, speak English as native speakers with (to my ears at least) Indian accents complete with mannerisms such as the head wobble. The usage of the word “lah” here and there in a fashion that is impossible for the outsider to crack in a short amount of time, supposedly has its roots in Chinese. Given the colonial history of the region, this isn’t a huge surprise, especially with the large number of Indians who have made their homes here for well over a century. I was expecting to English to be swept aside in toto as soon as I crossed in to Malaysia but this did not happen. True, the primary language switched to Bahasa Malaysia but I was certainly surprised by the number of locals whose grasp of English was that of a native speaker or close to it.
Malaysia still bears the markings of its colonial past, and not solely that of it’s British past either. The peninsular has been settled and occupied by Indians, Han Chinese, Khmer, Siamese, Portuguese and finally Britain who stamped its flag down in the various states from Penang to Borneo. The British had primarily economic designs on Malaysia and so immediately set to earning stacks of cash from the fertile regions: first tin and then primarily rubber exports became huge money makers. To increase profits, workers were invited from other areas to build, harvest and develop the region and so a flood of Indian, Chinese and other nationalities arrived, forming the unique ethnic mixture that can be found even today.
More of a casserole than a melting pot, Malaysians are by and large three (or four if you include the white interlopers) main ethnic groups even now: the Chinese primarily speak Mandarin while Indians retain their use of their local languages. The Chinese have risen to the top since then, with big businesses and most of the middle class being taken up by ethnic Chinese. The Indians have had generally less luck given the dividing lines between language and religion within their groups. Politically, Malaysia is ruled by Malays: They just about have the numerical majority but have absolute political hegemony. You will not find Chinese players in the national football squad. This unstable balance has erupted in the past, but these days the strife simmers beneath the surface. The volcano is bound to erupt one day, but who knows when.
I talk about this in length at the risk of boring your, dear reader, because I found the whole mixture fascinating. I don’t think I have ever visited anywhere where the mix of people is so clearly defined by their differences. If you are not a socio-political student, then at least think of the food. Oh yes, the mixture of cultures brings this out in spades. Uniquely Malaysian dishes were the first truly unknown cuisines for me. You will no doubt know Curry Laksa, that coconut rich soup that leaves your lips tingling and noodle splashes all over your shirt, but do you know Asam Laksa, a hot-sour fish soup packed with tamarind, galangal and lemongrass? Or any of the other countless Laksa varieties found throughout Malaysia? How about Roti Chanai, a clearly Indian style flat bread that comes out more like a sumptuous crepe, filled with whatever delicious things the chef feels like: eggs, onions, chilli, banana, durian? Oh, and the ubiquitous Char Kway Teow: a noodle dish fried over such fierce heat that it imparts a smoky flavour to its constituent ingredients. Finally, the most unique dessert this side of one of Blumenthal’s wet dreams, Ais Kacang. Shaved Ice is covered in sweet red beans, creamed sweetcorn, lychee and evaporated milk, then topped with green jelly noodles and a scoop of ice cream, but in reality there are as many variants as there are people eating the stuff.
I haven’t even touched the actual places I’ve visited yet, so allow me the benefit of being able to write a prologue to Malaysia. Chapter one will come shortly…