When my friend Juril showed me the Letter of Offer by RTM, one of Malaysia's tv stations, little did I know what I was getting myself into. It was an offer to produce 13 episodes of a fashion reality program (Fesyen Fantasia) and I was psyched to take it up. It was something I felt would benefit my company Superheroes tremendously.
As I write this now, we have wrapped up a month of production work, a month that was exciting, interesting, educational yet stressful, infuriating and nerve wrecking. I have left the set a bigger person and most profoundly, with a better understanding of the Malay community.
I have never been involved with production and the crazy hours of it all. But it wasn't the novelty of lights, camera, action that fascinated me. I was the only Chinese person on set. I was wrapped up in a culture that was so close to me in my country and yet so far from me.
Malaysia is a multicultural country consisting of 3 races - Malays, Chinese and Indians. I've always thought myself an open-minded person and enjoyed friendships with all races, although my friends are mainly English-speaking Chinese/ Indians/ Malays. I hang out also with Malay-speaking Malays and Chinese speaking Chinese and I consider myself more tolerant than the average chauvinist racist.
Malaysia is a beautiful country consisting of different races.
While we put on the front of multiculturalism in my country, the truth is we've been pretty segregated for the last couple of years since independence. Off late, the segmentation is greater than ever. When I was in school, I had a Malay best friend who didn't converse in English. We would call each other on the phone and speak for ages. At one point, I was hanging out with a group of Malay girls in the canteen. The majority of them were children of soldiers while my dad was in the stock market. But we were plotting schemes in all the typical ways of 10-year olds and my being the only Chinese was an invisible factor. I've always been open like that, and I admit, language plays a huge part in fostering closeness. Most of us Malaysians are proficient in Bahasa (Malay) and in our school days, it was effortless for most of us.
Many years since those multicultural years have passed. Politics and bad governance have intervened and Malaysia is a little divided today. I've had less associations with Malay-speaking Malays since I started working. Corporate Malaysia is predominantly English or Chinese and I suppose I have gotten stuck in that segment. And then, I fell into Fesyen Fantasia.
Surprisingly or not surprisingly, even though I fashion my company to be more Westernized, it took on a natural course of excelling in the Malay market. I do attribute this to my open-ness and lack of prejudice in seeking ties and collaborations with other races. That's how I met Juril and how we bonded over his religious fables and lofty lectures of being a millionaire. Juril and me come from different worlds and it was his world that I got immersed in when Fesyen Fantasia happened. It was eye-opening and I felt truly privileged to be able to be part of them.
In Fesyen Fantasia, everyone was a Malay-speaking Malay and English was hardly spoken on set, if only for me. I stood out very clearly. "Who is she?" People asked. I fancied my Bahasa to be good but it faltered during tea time and meetings. There was too much slang involved and while I understood Bahasa, I was not able to articulate myself comfortably from too many years of corporate English.
I suppose I was a bit of a novelty on set too. This was a Malay production and there I was in my shorter hemlines and exposed arms. If there was a Malay girl on set (aside from the artists and sponsors) she would be in a head scarf and dressed in conservative fashion.
Juril the Director and me the Producer
The Malay world opened forth for me. Malays, Chinese and Indians bump and interact on a daily basis but it's nothing significant. Our social circles are not tightly intertwined and we go back and justify and reinforce generalisations we know of each other. Being around them everyday gave me a better understanding of how they thought and their lifestyle. We think we know them from the generalizations all of us are guilty of making. But generalizations are the worst kind of brush you can paint on someone. People who stick within their race and mentality are not doing themselves any favours really. When we understand each other better, we become better neighbours.
I see with more clarity how the Malay-speaking Malays live. Perhaps, I walked away from set feeling most enlightened about the Malay race, a race that has been with me all my life and yet, how I do not know them intimately.
What I Learned About The Malay Community
The Significance of Marriage
Marriage is a societal pressure one must fulfill in the Malay community. I may not be the carefree single girl that I am should I be born a Malay girl. Parents will never allow it and neither will the relatives. Marriage is decidedly young (before 25) and this is followed quickly by children. I was quite bemused at first when every young guy I met on Fesyen Fantasia was a father of children. I've been so used to being around my unmarried but seeing-someone Chinese friends. Being unmarried causes social havoc and the pressure young Malays receive is enough to make some of them choose less wisely, if I may say.
The hurdle of marriage is no joke and considered duty. So too is having children after marriage. These seem to be the two musts among them. Girls are skilled at cooking and take pleasing their husband very seriously. I have yet to meet a Malay girl who cannot cook a complicated meal. From starters, mains to deserts, they do it all alongside a delicate femininity that many men would find irresistible.
There is an overarching belief in God the Almighty and everything is linked to the great Lord above. Faith is a strong element in this community. Conversations are often peppered with Insya Allah and Alhamdulillah (God willing). Among them, sharing posts of God on Facebook are exceedingly popular. It seems to be the way to gain acceptance within their community.
The fear of sin is also high and if I may say respectfully and neutrally, with that comes judgement. I find judgement to be high towards women - the way she dresses and her sexuality. The threat of hell is even used on women who do not dress decently. This appears to be a large focus in the community. Wearing the headscarf and covering the “aurat”is almost like peer pressure among the girls. Girls who do not wear the scarf are pressured and advised by the older generation as well as friends already donning the scarf. Come marriage, the wearing of headscarf is almost practice. I may not be so popular should I be a Malay girl. My dressing and solo traveling is the perfect fodder for gossip. As one gets older, religion takes on a stronger influence. It is also this foreboding belief in God that persuades them to refrain from sin and committing flaw in daily life.
A Philosophical View
The Malays have a more philosophical view of outcomes, a result of their unwavering belief in God. Chinese tend to be less spiritual in that aspect and believe less in the presence of a greater force in the outcomes of their daily lives. This big difference demonstrates why we react differently. There is no right and wrong and that's why I think understanding is key among races.
I was also a fashion judge on the reality program
Malays are loving and demonstrative in affections. They hug and kiss family members and cry at farewells. A lot of Chinese families don't operate that way. We're a little less demonstrative in our affections and more tight-lipped. I'm happy to report though that the younger Chinese generation are discarding this stoic approach and expressing physical emotion better.
Good Manners and Respect
Respect among the Malay community is high. I was amused at how everyone shook everyone's hand each time they had to leave. It was the "Salam" and I soon got used to shaking many hands. Everyone older is addressed as "Abang" (older brother) or "Kakak" (older sister) automatically infusing respect and camaraderie among them. Is it any wonder that they stand high on solidarity.
The Malay Diet
All our production meetings were held in either mamak (Muslim Indian) restaurants or Malay restaurants. It struck me how different our daily habits were. Tomyam, nasi goreng (fried rice) and spicy gravied meat were the call of the day. I'm not being a snob and I love eating in these places, but it also showed me how cappuccino and churros and my varied cafes were not at all their way of life. Neither did they enjoy it very much when cappuccino without sugar was served. The Malays have a sweet tooth and make utterly sinful and delicious deserts. There’s an indulgence in their diet that’s very much missing from our Chinese diet.
As I've worked with them, I've gotten very fond of some of them and I worry for their health. I look at Juril and his unhealthy eating habits and feel some degree of concern. Almost all Malay men smoke. Thank goodness Juril doesn't though. I would sit among them in a fog of smoke trying my best not to inhale second-hand smoke. Meals were always fried and oily and drinks were sugary. As a low-carber and one who avoids sugar on weekdays, I cannot help but be very aware of their indulgent diet. Sugar and smoke is something I hope they look into.
Ghosts and Spirits
Southeast Asia is rife with tales of ghosts and spirits and certainly Fesyen Fantasia didn't disappoint on this front. On the third day of shooting, three people were possessed. Yes you heard me right. Imagine the horror movies we watch and how horrified we get clutching at our seats. I doubt very much the Malays get frightened at things like this. They accept it as part of life. I wasn't on set that day when the ruckus of possession took place but I came back the next day to a heap of enthusiastic stories.
Now, this isn't some tall tale because everyone on set witnessed it. I was shown videos by the director who smiled as he participated in the cleansing act by an ustaz, clearly unfazed by this event. A possessed crew boy flapped on the floor with his shirt off and glared venomously into the camera. Later when he came too, he had no recollection of what happened.
But the biggest wonder to me was that, no one bat an eyelid about this. Ghosts and possessions are pretty normal for them. When I started getting frightened, the prop boy told me matter-of-factly not to fear these beings. The editor laughed at my nervousness. "Oh actually when I first drove in our set, I saw a giant black shadow watching by the main gate," he said. I was properly petrified and waited till 5 am before I tailed another crew member home. Everyone I spoke too on set had their own experiences within their community with ghosts and possessions.
They Are So Cool
They are easily cool if I may say. It just seems they don’t have to try much. Throw on a faded tee and jeans, and they give off that cool vibe. It’s a little harder to achieve for us Chinese. It may be silly, but I think more Malays than Chinese take to wearing caps as well. It’s a little more natural on them and they just work this effortless chill vibe. So many of them are self-taught on the guitar and master music instruments pretty well. Their favourite American word seems to be “Roger.” I noticed everyone used that word over “Call me.”
I find Malays to have an effortless cool
Cool aside, filial piety to parents is high on the list of being a good person. There is even a fable on how a child Tenggang was turned into stone when he abandoned her mother. Family, relationships and the activities surrounding it are the highlight of most women's lives. Career or achievement are very much a far second and third if it's there at all.
Creativity and Passion
Malays are creative people. There is something very fluid and artistic about them that leads to the creation of beautiful art, music and film. They are romantic too. They show it more obviously and with a little more ardour. The men have are flirtatious and passionate and women seemed to have accepted this as normal male behaviour.
They have philosophies and opinions and are not afraid to fight for something they believe in. Many Malays are gifted artists, poets and writers. They have viewpoints to put across and offer a refreshing perspective that is away from the more mechanical and practical Chinese view.
The Power of Belief
I met many hardworking Malays on set, those with excellent work ethic and an urgency to get things done. What Chinese have to understand is that Malays are brought up with God being a central and very pivotal part of their lives. This of course shifts perspectives which shifts lifestyles. There were a couple times on set when things were going so badly but miracles would happen. I can only attribute this to the strong power of belief that was so inherent in everyone - that God would will things. The same thing may not have happened on a highly realistic and practical Chinese set.
I have made many friends on set in the last two months. Since my stint with Fesyen Fantasia, many of them have approached me separately with production opportunities. I am very grateful. But perhaps, the most profound takeaway for me is that, I feel a little closer to them. I feel more familiar with them.
I see a huge gap in my country and how each race knows so little of the other. It's bad really and can lead to so much discord. I would urge my fellow Malaysians to foster friendships with people out of their race in their own country. For that matter, everyone should do that. Make friends out of your race. Speak another language. Have friendships with people where you have to foster and stutter in language. So what? You'll be amazed at the insights you get. You'll have a richer perspective and see that your truth is not necessarily the world's truth.
Malaysia is an amazing country really. The strength of our 3 races should be able to bring us far but we're not utilising it. Let's all see things from someone else's perspective. I love my country and I hope to make it a better place.
Being the only Chinese in a Malay set has made me aware how important it is for us to know the people living with us well. With greater understanding comes greater empathy.
The judges, mentor and me at the Fesyen Fantasia finals.