Being distant from my Malay identity


We all know at least one person who is the human embodiment of jiak kantang. Speak to them in their mother tongue, and they’ll respond in English. Throw them a reference to local pop culture, and they’ll give you a blank stare until you explain it in a Western context.

Well, that used to be me at one point.

For a significant period of my life, I never embraced the Malay part of my identity in favour of being more “Westernised”. And while I thought I would remain this way my whole life, it took a 6-month exchange programme in Paris for me to realise that I relied on my Malay culture much more than I expected.


Why I used to be distant from my Malay identity


Before we begin, let me clear something up: I never hated Malay culture – I just didn’t have a proper affinity with it. 

My family conversed primarily in English, to the point that any Malay word that left our mouths automatically sounded awkward to our ears. The Malay friends I made were also more comfortable speaking in English, so the only time I ever spoke Malay was during my mother tongue classes in school.   

Malay Identity - Taufik Batisah Siti NurhalizaThe only Malay icons I knew were Taufik Batisah and Dato’ Siti Nurhaliza, but only because they were always on TV.
Images adapted from: @taufikbatisah and @ctdk

Growing up, I didn’t know a lick of Malay pop culture, choosing instead to immerse myself in Western content. As a child, I listened primarily to Western artistes like The Beatles and Queen, and my one childhood idol was none other than Mr Bean. 

Like others, I had the notion that Western culture was “cooler”. Shows like Supernatural and Merlin were at the top of my must-watch list during my teen years, and I practically worshipped YouTubers like JacksGap and danisnotonfire, who had ridiculously hot British accents. 

Aside from the time my grandmother scolded me for so badly wanting to be an “orang putih” (white person), my extended family and friends loved Western content too. 

Malay Identity - emailBack then, I created an email based off the Winchester brothers from Supernatural. Cringe.
Image credit: Farzana Fattah

It got to a point that, during a certain period of my life, I was proud of the fact that I was more “Westernised” than the average Singaporean Malay. In fact, my social media profiles were screaming “the most non-Malay Malay you’ll ever meet” in my bios.

Obnoxious, I know. 

With all these influences from my environment, I was perfectly content with what I liked. As such, I never really saw a point in familiarising myself with my Malay culture – until I went for exchange on the other side of the globe.


How going on exchange changed my entire perspective


Universite Paris-DauphineMy first day at Université Paris-Dauphine
Image credit: @dixiesays

Going on exchange is like a rite of passage for every university kid. And for me, it was also a chance to finally live among these ang moh people I so adored. In the spring semester of 2017, I was fortunate enough to be one of 20 students from Singapore Management University (SMU) who was selected to attend Université Paris-Dauphine for 6 months.

But as it turns out, with a lack of Malay presence in France, I became the sole Malay person within the school I was in. That, as well as the fact that my father passed away just a few months prior, made my first few months in Paris a real struggle. 

And as I observed my Chinese pals conversing in Mandarin and celebrating Chinese New Year together, I began to wish I had a Malay friend with me to make me feel less excluded.

KebabAs there was no Malay food where I was, I found myself eating kebabs every other day. It could be due to desperation, but to me, it was the closest thing to Malay food I had.
Image credit: @farzanarama

Don’t get me wrong – I was having a lot of fun there. But in this strange, foreign land, I found myself missing home. There was nothing even remotely Malay around me – no delectable Malay dishes, no friendly nasi padang aunties, and not a single Malay person in my immediate surroundings.

I had been excited to live in this European city. But in a strange turn of events, I found myself clinging to any resemblance of home like a lifeline – like Whatsapp calls with my family, and online game sessions with my friends.

Gradually, I began to see that my culture had been deeply integrated into my identity – I just never acknowledged it. Amid this realisation, there were 3 incidents in particular that really changed my perspective:


Incident #1: “Shouldn’t your ethnicity be Malaysian?


Universite Paris-Dauphine classesA peek into classes at Université Paris-Dauphine
Image credit: l’Etudiant

It was the first day of our Cross-Cultural Management course. Our professor had tasked us to introduce ourselves by stating our name, country, as well as the culture we identified with. Seeing how my fellow Chinese Singaporean pals had already gone ahead, I thought I could provide my classmates with another perspective by talking about my Malay culture.

“Hey guys,” I began. “My name is Farzana, and unlike my other Singaporean friends here, my ethnicity is Malay, and-”

“Excuse me!” I heard a voice exclaim to the side. An Argentinian girl had her arm raised, looking at me dead in the eye as she tried to catch my attention. Without waiting for an acknowledgement, she barrelled on. “Shouldn’t your ethnicity be Malaysian, and not Malay?”

I paused. To say that I was annoyed was putting it lightly. She had interrupted me mid-sentence, and on top of that, she still had the nerve to correct my own ethnicity? The gall. 

“No,” I replied curtly. “It’s Malay.” And with that, I turned my attention back to the class and resumed my introduction. The girl didn’t interrupt me again, but I spent the rest of the day trying to ignore my frustration, without knowing why I felt that way at the time.

It has been years since then, and I still clearly remember how I felt. While that incident instantly proved how some foreigners have no idea who or what Malay people are, it took me a little longer to realise that the lingering annoyance was a result of pride in my roots.

Given how culturally distant I was, I thought I would be a little more apathetic whenever people questioned my culture. But as this incident showed, I was willing to defend myself – especially if I thought a core aspect of my Malay identity was under question.


Incident #2: “Could you tell me more about your Malay culture?”


As part of our professor’s bid to promote cross-cultural interactions within that same class, I ended up sitting beside a girl from Chile. We had never gone beyond polite greetings before that, but all changed during one of the class breaks.

Malay Identity - Hari RayaOne of the best parts of Malay culture – Raya celebrations.
Image credit: @farzanarama

“Hey Farzana,” she said, smiling brightly. “I’m sorry if this is very sudden, but I’d like to know more about Singapore and your Malay culture if that’s okay? I’m from South America you see, and we don’t really know much about Asian culture, so I really want to learn as much as possible while I’m here.”

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I spent the remainder of that break telling her about our Singaporean Malay history and language. And while our conversation was cut short after our professor came back to class, I let her know that I was open to sharing more whenever the opportunity arose.

It wasn’t a particularly lengthy conversation, and I could’ve told her so much more. But I was incredibly glad that someone had shown an interest in knowing more about my culture, and that showed through the vigour I had while regaling the stories of my people.

Looking back, I think I surprised myself with the level of enthusiasm and knowledge I had. I never really showed much interest in my culture back home – but that changed after setting foot in Paris. No one really knew about Malay people over there, so I was proud to share it with people from all over the world.


Incident #3: “But what exactly is Malay food?”


Malay identity - Nasi AmbengI found it difficult to describe Malay dishes like nasi ambeng in English words

In yet another lesson from the same course, the class was in the midst of a discussion regarding our difficulties in trying to get used to a foreign land. Being the total Singaporean that I am, I decided to bring up the topic of food.

While I was talking about how hard it was to find authentic Malay food in France, I got the attention of an American guy, who turned to me with curiosity. “But what exactly is Malay food?” he asked. As I thought about the best way to answer him, I ran into a problem: my mind was filled with Malay words – and Malay words only.

Ayam Masak MerahArguably one of the best Malay dishes ever – the almighty ayam masak merah
Image credit: @mrsjonesy.boy

How do I describe dishes like ayam masak merah when it literally translates into “chicken cooked red” in English? How do I do justice to things like our rempah and sambal

After a brief moment, I simply said that Malay food was rich, spicy, and involved loads of spices and herbs. And that was when I truly realised that describing our cuisine in English simply doesn’t work – in a turn of events, English words sounded really peculiar to my ears.

I could, perhaps, attribute this to a weak grasp on my mother tongue. But I began to understand that I actually relied on Malay language much more than I realised – not just to describe certain things, but also to place meaning on the things around me.


Gaining new perspectives on my Malay identity


All these realisations I had gradually made me more open to accepting the Malay part of my identity. As Singaporeans and foreigners alike came to ask me more questions, I found that I was glad to share bits of my culture with them.

Hari Raya in ParisNo baju kurung that year, but still a Hari Raya celebration nonetheless. On the left are my friends from Brazil, and on the right is my SMU pal.
Image credit: @farzanarama

Towards the tail end of my time there, my family came to Paris to celebrate Hari Raya. And as my mother was planning to whip up a feast consisting of ketupat, chicken rendang and sayur lodeh, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to invite a few of my foreign friends over to show them a key part of my culture.

This slow process of embracing my Malay identity didn’t just start and stop during exchange. It carried on even after I headed home, where I gradually began speaking more Malay with my family and friends. I had never really spoken proper Malay with my loved ones, so it was awkward at first. But after continuous effort, I got used to it and it became more natural.

I also began helping my mother cook. It wasn’t just to give her a hand, but also to gain a better understanding about Malay dishes I loved so much.

Additionally, I gradually began listening to more Malay music. I used to tune out whenever my pals belted their hearts out to a Malay song during karaoke sessions. But after coming back, I started paying more attention to these songs, noting down the title and the artists before giving the songs a proper listen at home.


Lessons I learnt about my Malay identity


Hari RayaImage credit: @farzanarama

Most of us in Singapore have grown up with some form of Western influence. But for me, my choice to wholeheartedly embrace “Westernisation” over my own culture made me distant from a core aspect of myself. And it was only after I went on exchange that I realised how my culture was always an integral part of my identity.

It’s funny, really. I was culturally distant from my Malay identity, but it was physical distance that finally helped me appreciate my roots. And now that I’ve grown to accept this part of myself, I now feel much more connected with my fellow Malay peers, and am now more in touch with my language and traditions.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve still got so many things to learn. I have a ways to go in terms of refining my Bahasa Melayu, and I’m still learning new bits of Malay traditions every day. 

But I’d like to think I’m getting better. If my 2011 “most non-Malay Malay” self could see me now, I think she’d be shocked at how different I grew to be. Because no matter how much I’ve been influenced by Western culture, one thing remains certain for me – that tetap darah Melayu masih ada (loosely translated into: Malay blood will always be there). 

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Cover image adapted from Farzana Fattah