(.....and our children abroad)
REMEMBER the well-worn joke about the fat Mat Salleh who, while boarding a bus, overheard this comment about the beruk gemuk, a reference to himself? Later, he got his own back, of course, by saying, "Tumpang lalu, beruk gemuk nak turun".
There are, of course, many other versions. And this is mine, culled from real life. It was in the illustrious university city of Oxford, no less. We were touring the city with my brother who was then visiting, when the children needed to use the john and spend a penny. None was in sight so we decided to go to a pub, and then have tea and sandwiches as well. While waiting at the counter to make our orders, in strode a scruffy-looking man, spectacles perched precariously on the tip of his nose and banging on the counter persistently and rather annoyingly, to gain the attention of the waitress.
Before I could bite my tongue, out came: "Nampak macam profesor yang tak siuman", at which point my husband gave me a shut-your-mouth type of glare, which of course was too late. Meekly, I offered, "He wouldn't understand lah!" and barely had I finished the sentence when the bespectacled scruffy one sat down with my children who were enjoying their scones and asked them, "Sedap tak?"
Well, I died a thousand deaths and was just about ready for another one.
But why should we be surprised or even amazed that so many Europeans, especially the Brits, speak our language? They were, after all, traders in the Malay-speaking world long before they were our colonisers. And long after our independence, many stayed on and worked in plantations, schools and newspapers. Our gentleman in the pub, for instance, was a planter in Johor and had learnt Malay while happily working there.
Now, long before Marsden compiled the first Malay dictionary, Francis Light was already shooting off epistles in handwritten Jawi script, either to butter up the Sultan of Kedah in his ploy to take over Penang or to ask the dear Sultan of Perak to trade with the British. While to the Sultan of Kedah, he'd sign off as "hamba sehina-hina hamba" (your most humble servant), from the Sultan of Terengganu came the expression of a warm and close relationship, in a letter in which the Sultan addressed him as "kekaseh beta" (My beloved). So there, the way to a royal heart!
Undoubtedly, there is something to be gained from learning the language and culture of the people you are dealing with. To manipulate and conquer them, physically or mentally, you must know how their minds work. And this is where knowledge of language and culture ensures that half the battle is won! And of course, don't our hearts melt so easily at the sound of a foreign tongue dealing with our complicated prefixes and classifiers with perfection?
In the British Library, there is a piece of paper with scribblings in Jawi, apparently from Raffles' exercise book. And indeed it was Raffles who contributed a great deal to Marsden's first Malay dictionary. After that there had been Winstedt, Wilkinson and the likes of Edward S. King and many more offering fast track Malay courses as the demand for the Malay language began to grow. Most are outdated, offering lines like, "Ali, siapkan kereta. Mem mahu keluar"!
Centres of higher learning throughout the world are offering Malay as a modern language nowadays, while language schools offer expats and diplomats intensive courses before their stint in Malaysia, learning everything from "Apa khabar" to the culturally correct art of pointing at an object with one's thumb. And there are of course various informal fast track learn-a-sentence-a-day routes. Halal butchers and shops selling wares popular among Malaysians, such as those infuriatingly ubiquitous Queen Anne items in the Malaysian shopping list, and the dreaded porcelain flowers, all advertise their merchandise proudly in Malay. "Daging halal ada dijual di sini", says a signboard in Queensway.
Which takes me - and you, dear reader - to Berlin on a day trip and a quick visit to Check Point Charlie. There I was pleasantly surprised to be hailed, "Ibu, mari Bu, T-shirt murah-murah!" And this coming from what, I suspect, were Turkish immigrants who had discovered a surefire way of getting to the purse strings of gullible tourists like me. Readying myself to leave with five Berlin Wall T-shirts clutched under my arm, I heard again this voice of commerce drooling away, once again, but this time in unmistakable Chinese ...
From the crumbling walls of Berlin to the dizzying heights of Eiffel Tower - different place, similiar techniques. "Mari cuba-cuba, tidak suka, tak usah bayar!" came the invitation, this time from an Arab standing behind a digital camera.
And of course we fell for that one too, and we have an A4-sized photo to prove it. Malay abroad is an expensive language.
The first time I met Arthur, I thought he was one of the janitors at the school. He is 82, with hardly any teeth to call his own and the kind of hair you'd find on Guy Fawks efigies on 5th Nov. Anyway, Arthur was one of my students. Was - because last week, he came to say goodbye. At his age, he said, its very unlikely that he'd ever visit Malaysia or use the language. He is instead brushing up on his Latin.
Its a pity really 'cos Arthur, half blind, and almost deaf, was a very good student. In a class with others half his age, he'd sit almost comatose, not writing, not reading but listening with his eyes closed.
He's got wonderful memory and often asked funny, interesting and mind-boggling questions. Once, someone asked about the translation for scream or shout: I said, menjerit or pekik. At which point, Arthur perked up and said, "Tolong pekik, saya pekak!"
On his last day, Arthur handed over not less than 10 books on Malay and several dictionaries, and before he left he said, "Oh, this is for you".
It was a piece of paper - with picture of Jesus. And the prayer - in MALAY!!!!!!
Ya - there's quite a lot like him at the corner of Sussex Gardens and Edgeware Road, with Bibles in Malay.
In a car driving to Alor Setar.
Nona: Mama, where's the racoon medicine?
Mama: What racoon medicine?
Nona: you know, the one for the mosquito bites. It says :R-a-c-u-n.
Daddy:(stiffling a laugh) Oh, in Malay C is Ch - therefore it is Racun - meaning poison. Remember, c is Ch.
Back in KL - driving along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
Taufiq: Daddy, daddy - look! Pa - la- che Hotel!!!
(All heads to the right)
Daddy: Oh, that is Palace Hotel.
Back at home:
Mama: Taufiq, dah mandi?
Taufiq: Yes, I have already mandied.
Overheard at Malaysia Hall surau:
Father to five year old son: Okay Papa nak solat sunat dulu.
Son: Papa, is solat sunat only for people yang dah sunat?
Three year old girl to her cousin: Errrr, you've got taik mu'ter (tahi mata cockney style)
Okaylah kak teh nak tidork! Dah pukoi 05:17 ni!