Teh tarik man in Penang

My parents remember Malaysia as the place where they had their honeymoon thirty years ago because they had no money to afford better. For seven days they traversed up the Peninsular, stopping by Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands, finally reaching Penang before turning around to make their way back. My aunt, who currently owns a small workshop in Singapore selling built-to-order office furniture, sees Malaysians as reliable people whom she can trust to supply her with good quality raw materials at decent prices, much better than the scheming businessmen from China who are always too quick to exploit their na├пve counterparts from Singapore. For this older generation of Singaporeans, many infrequently rediscover their fond memories of Malaysia and Malaysians when they travel across the causeway to visit their extended relatives during special holidays such as Chinese New Year or Hari Raya. There, they find themselves relishing in seasonal fruits picked up in the backyards of kampong houses while lepak-ing in the living room, or while indulging in numerous rounds of mahjong drowned out by out-of-tune singing to the karaoke machine in the background. Durian is, of course, often the most popular choice.

But how do young Singaporeans view Malaysia and Malaysians today? In a time of budget airlines when Bangkok is the new Johor Bahru[1] and Bali is the new Tioman, how do the perspectives of young Singaporeans differ from their parents? While I do not presume to be able to read the minds of young Singaporeans nor will I attempt to speak for the majority of them, I do believe that my personal experiences are typical of many Singaporean youths. Having grown up as the only child in a Chinese middle class family in a three-room HDB flat, Malaysia and Malaysians were often distant memories as I kept my head down and studied furiously to progress through our notoriously stressful education system. Other notables like the globe-trotting Popagandhi[2], who at certain points in her life has called Kuala Lumpur her second home, or the prolific Alfian Sa’at[3], who at times seems more Malaysian than Singaporean, may offer more interesting and nuanced perspectives. I can only offer the average, the mundane, and the normal.

The only childhood memory that I have of Malaysia was a family trip to Cameron Highlands when I was still in primary school. I remember peering out of the tour bus as it meandered its way through the hills, staring at someone at the roadside who was washing piles and piles of newly harvested vegetables (was it kangkong?). I remember prancing around the hotel room and jumping on the bed with the balcony doors open, amazed at the natural air-conditioner. And I remembered gawking at the tea fields, and how my parents bought many packets of Boh Tea. For a kid from the city, it was all new and exciting.

Fast forward to my junior college years when I discovered that one of my classmates was a Malaysian! She had travelled everyday for four years across the causeway from her home in Johor Bahru to our school in the morning, and then made the trip back at the end of the day in the evenings when she was in secondary school. How she did that for so long, I had no idea. At the end of our two years in junior college, a few of us were fortunate enough to have her help us arrange a trip to Genting Highlands for a few days of mostly-forgettable fun, and then stay over at her house in Johor Bahru where we had much happier times on a short day-trip to the Kota Tinggi waterfalls and a dinner feast at the Taman Sri Tebrau hawker centre.

I attempted to rekindle my Malaysian adventures during university when I signed up for a trekking trip to Gunung Stong with my university trekking club. Their banner screaming “GUNUNG STONG MAKES YOU STRONG!!” certainly attracted quite a lot of attention. But alas it was not to be. Our over-night train was literally stopped in its tracks because the tracks were flooded with record rainfall. The train’s diversion to Kuala Lumpur meant that we spent a considerable amount of time at Jalan Alor and Jalan Petaling inbetween shopping for pirated goods at the various malls at Bukit Bintang. Today, plenty of Singaporean university students still make the annual trek to Gunung Stong, Gunung Tahan or Mount Kinabalu. Most recently, a Singaporean student from the National University of Singapore lost his life at Gunung Stong[4].

As a final hurrah before we settled into our numb and mindless working life, one of my friends called me up one day declaring that he was going to drive up to Kuala Lumpur to survey the established businesses there that sold fancy potato fries[5]. The budding entrepreneur in him wanted to set up the same kind of shop in Singapore, but had wanted to test the quality across the causeway first. I was to be chief taster and chief lookout for the Malaysian Highway Police. So two guys and two girls headed up to Kuala Lumpur with no other interest except to eat fancy potato fries. Our main conclusion from the trip was that the alchohol was much cheaper and the girls were much prettier at Zouk KL than at Zouk Singapore.

My first proper job was a teacher back at my alma mater (where I had first met my Malaysian classmate). It was not long before I knew that the teacher who occupied the cubicle just beside my own was a Malaysian as well! Like my classmate before, she made the return trip everyday from her home in Gelang Patah. When Democratic Action Party’s Lim Kit Siang faced off with Barisan Nasional’s Abdul Gahni Othman in Malaysia’s General Elections last year, my friends and I joked if we should hire a taxi to go to Gelang Patah to observe the election rallies there. Eventually, Abdul Gahni invited himself over to Singapore to campaign to the thousands of Malaysians who make the daily trip into the city-state[6].

So, there you have it. For an ordinary young Singaporean like myself, Malaysia means relaxing holidays, raw nature, great food, cheap shopping and some occasional madness and sadness. Malaysians are friendly classmates and colleagues. Nothing more or less complicated than that.

Elvin Ong is currently a PhD graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Emory University. He can be reached at [email protected].