The ‘Sia’ in Malaysia

March 05, 2015 / by / 0 Comment

It has been about 2 and a half years since I’ve been in Hong Kong and during this time, I have had countless people ask me where I’m from, why I speak Cantonese that sounds a bit off, and why my Mandarin sounds like an entirely different language. So in this post, I shall describe the country I grew up in – Malaysia. Take note that it is Malaysia, there is no proper short form for this country name, so don’t get creative. It may seem like a minor detail but any Malaysian abroad would greatly appreciate it if you could remember the entire word instead of shortening it to Malay because the two words have different meanings.

Malaysia is a multi-racial country, a characteristic shared with only a couple of other nearby countries such as Singapore and Indonesia. By multi-racial, we mean Malaysians can share the same nationality but belong to completely different ethnic groups. By population, there are three major races in Malaysia – Malay, Chinese, and Indian. Hence, to call someone Malay would mean they belong to the Malay race. A common mistake overlooked by foreigners is that a Malaysian is not necessarily Malay, they could be Chinese, Indian, or belong to any other ethnic group such as Melanau, Kadazan Dusun, Iban, Murut, etc. So please, do not automatically assume someone is Malay unless you are absolutely sure they are. Therefore, to play it safe, we are all Malaysians.

The national language of Malaysia is Bahasa Malaysia a.k.a Malay language. It is a compulsory subject taught from primary till secondary school but many young children start learning it from Kindergarten as well. It is widely used in government departments and often when communicating with Malays.

English is taught from Kindergarten till secondary school as well and is often treated as a default language when two people of different racial backgrounds meet and are not able to converse properly but this is really a case-by-case basis depending highly on which part of Malaysia you are in. Hence, anyone educated in Malaysia is usually at least bilingual.

Mandarin is taught in Mandarin medium primary schools and selected secondary schools. The same goes to Tamil, another officially educated language in Malaysia. It is perfectly fine for someone not of Chinese ethnicity to attend a Mandarin or Tamil medium school and vice versa. Thus, it is not uncommon for a Malaysian Indian to have attended a Chinese medium school and speak four languages – Malay, English, Mandarin, and Tamil. Nor is it rare to meet a Malaysian Chinese who did NOT attend a Mandarin medium school and thus is not proficient in Mandarin.

Apart from the official languages taught in schools, there are the dialects. Much like China, different dialects are used in different parts of the country. The majority of Malaysian Chinese residing in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia are of Guangdong descent, and hence speak Cantonese. Though it is not used in school, many families speak the dialect at home, and is used in most Chinese-run shops and restaurants. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s TVB dramas are often on air on television in Malaysia and even if one is not of Guangdong descent, watching TVB dramas on a regular basis is pretty much like learning Cantonese at home. That is why if you meet someone, especially a Malaysian Chinese who is from Kuala Lumpur, then more often than not, that person will speak a certain amount of Cantonese, even if not fluently. But take note that the Cantonese we speak is not 100% identical to Hong Kong Cantonese as there are certain terms and phrases from other dialects or languages we find more comfortable to use instead. Our accent may also sound rather strange at times but in overall, we blend in well in Hong Kong.

And before you jump to the conclusion that every single Malaysian you meet should be able to speak Cantonese, hold your horses. If he/she is not a TVB fan, nor originates from a region in Malaysia where the common dialect is Cantonese, there is a high possibility that they are much more comfortable with another dialect, or just good ol’ English. If you meet someone from Penang, for instance, the common dialect is Hokkien, as most Malaysian Chinese there are of Fujian descent. A Penang kia, or Penang lang, both affable references to people from Penang would probably blend in better in Taiwan than in Hong Kong language-wise, as Hokkien or Min Nan Yu is the main dialect there.

Confused? Yeah. In a nutshell, there is no rulebook when it comes to a Malaysian’s multilingualism. One may not speak a word of Mandarin but understand three different Chinese dialects. But do not be surprised to see someone who clearly does not look Chinese at all to speak fluent Cantonese or even Mandarin. Much thanks to our multi-cultural background, most Malaysians have a talent of picking up a new dialect or language very quickly regardless of ethnicity.

For our food, Malaysians can get very creative and our food creations are capable of tickling every taste bud you have. There is of course, plain Chinese food or plain Malay food, but also Malay-Chinese fusion, Indian-Hokkien fusion, the permutations are endless. Here are just some examples of classic Malaysian food porn:

Nasi Lemak

Credits to Nyonya Cooking

Roti Canai

Credits to FuWa Asian Kitchen

Teh Tarik

Credits to MWeats

Bak Kut Teh

Credits to deliciously haute

Asam Laksa

Credits to Season with Spice


Credits to jeremy (ng) (photography) IDELISH

Kuih Kapit

Credits to manaweblife


Credits to Street Foods

The list goes on. We eat lots of dim sum too by the way! Tim Ho Wan is doing very well in Malaysia currently ;)  There are even certain foods which we may not know which ethnicity it originated from but crave for nonetheless.

A representational Malaysian fruit is this intimidatingly spiky boulder-like godsend which is dubbed the King of Fruits in Malaysia.

Credits to Nanyang Tours

Hack away the less than attractive outer skin and discover a new world – pale yellow gooey flesh with a creamy texture that is sweet but slightly bitter, fruit that is surprisingly filling with an aroma powerfully seductive that lingers in your breath after hours. It is a love-it or hate-it fruit due to its potent smell that can be detected a mile away and hence is sadly not allowed on flights. Most foreigners do not welcome this fruit (my Korean grandmother refused to try a second bite after trying it once) but my dad has come to love it more than my mom, who is actually Malaysian, so it varies.

There is much much more about Malaysia that I haven’t mentioned but guess what? Malaysian Night is coming up this Friday, 6th March 2015! Being half Malaysian by blood, and more than fully Malaysian by culture, I feel the obligation to promote this delightful event. This year’s theme is Malaysia in Retrospect where you’ll get to watch performances reflecting Malaysia in the 20th century. The event will begin at 7pm at Global Lounge. And Malaysians never hold an event without food so make sure you come early to queue for a free food coupon! Who knows? You might be able to try some of the food I listed above this Friday!

See ya there!

[Feature image credits to Veronica Tam for designing the Malaysian Night poster]