Friday, 28 January 2005

Malay as she is spoken by Mat Sallehs....

(.....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!


atiza said...

When I first arrived in the UK, somebody in MSD cautioned us about bad-mouthing the Brits in Malay. Jokes like beruk gemuk (the one I heard was juicier) were told to us. Even the baps/sandwiches seller in uni knew Malay. He once told us "don't worry doc, the baps tak ada lembu kaki pendek"

mokciknab said...

Kak Teh, jangan lah maraaaah. Next year we'll nominate YOU for on the blog contest and you can make us jealous by having a partay over there!

(I won't envy you for English food tho'. It's horrid :P)

Kak Teh said...

mokcik, thanks for dropping by! Will be thinking of all of you nasi daganging over there. If I win I make fish and chips!

atiza - yes - memang kena berjaga-jaga! I went o order a book at Wtarestones recently, - lepas tu, bila I turned to go, the cashier said, terima kasih!

CN said...

it was in klm flight to Malaysia when the flight attendant greet me ..selamat pagi, boleh saya bantu awak in indonesian dialect (recall history - indon was conquered by the dutch..)

Atok said...

during my uni days, there was one old chap in law course. old, like 50's gitu. my friend who was in the same class with him told me this.

this old chap, had been at many times holding the class by asking the lecturer to repeat and explain things. one day, he was seating in front of my friend and went about his normal 'distracting' manner. my friend was pissed of and said, 'apalah org tua ni... bla, bla'. the chap then turned around and blasted, 'peduli apa kau, ikut suka akulah!!!!'.
and the rest is history. we all msians became friends with him (john) afterthat. apparently he lived for about 15-20 years in Johore & Spore.

atenah said...

i'm the only malay on campus, jumpa indon suka sangat, boleh menceceh. but the indons are all undergrads so the heads are not the same

Kak Teh said...

Can you imagine that my professor is russian and teaching me traditional malay literature? I was at three conferences last year - di paris, leiden and in Malaysia - di kelilingi expert-expert dunia melayu dari jerman, holland, jepun, perancis...korea and merata-rata!malu-malu!!!!!! Melayu belajar dari orang asing!

Lollies said...

I worked a part time waitress when I was in Manchester before. Typically would say something nice like thanks luv and all that. More often than not when they said terima kasih, I would always have to make them repeat because that was always shocking. I thought they were swearing..

Lollies said...

Oh, oh and another thing. I met a Malay ex sailor once in Liverpool. He spoke Malay like the Malay classic drama. I suddenly felt black and white

Kak Teh said...

LollLies, yeah, there are a handful of old Malay sailors left - I have written abt them in 'Goodbye Pak Cik and Thanks for the Memories' and The Old Man and his Sea.

Captain Barbell said...

i actually enjoy singaporeans malay speaking malay :)
like those days in jalan ampas. used to have a singaporean malay housemate back then. dia BILANG jiran dia letak persian carpet dekat TEMBOK. we were like 'huh'? takkan dalam rumah dia ada tembok. rupanya he meant 'dinding'

Kak Teh said...

riza, memang betul. My childminder di sini orang singapore and for a while my children were speaking singaporean malay - Kasi, bilang, hari satu, hari dua..etc. And the pak cik sailors that i interviewed too spoke very much like cerita melayu dahulu kala.

Ms.B said...

Ooo! That take about Arthur passing you the pic of Jesus with a prayer in Malay and many like him selling bibles in Malay along street corners, is interesting. When you say Malay, do you mean our Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Indonesia? I was just curious, because obviously, it isn't surprising if it's B. Indonesia. But if it's in our Bahasa Melayu, then hmm, .. it's curious - I've heard stories before, but are they true? I mean ultimately, everyone has the right to make his/her own choice about religion, but Malays in general have always been synonymous with Islam (stereotyping of course, but it's a fact) .. but I'm sure there are many that may have wanted to choose a different path. So Arthur's sale of Malay bibles intrigue me. :)

And "tahi mu'er!! That's just too funny!! LOL

Lollies said...

I'll read them. Thanks. I love classics

Zac said...

Salam Kak Teh,

Love your blog! Especially about the "taik mu'ter", priceless.

A friend's 5 year old son once commented that "itu Noddy orang bowdowh". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry...

Anonymous said...

can't remember exactly where my friends and I were in london that thing for sure is...we were buying leather jackets in one of the shops there...the kind of leather that you would not want to buy is the off the pig skin....and how it is identified is from the 3 grouped little dots on the leather all over the surface.....we were like.....Eh jgn! yg ni kulit babi la"..bla bla....the owner of the shop in his 50s approached us and said "ohh that's not babi"..
since then on we were exta careful on things we said...