6 Things You Didn’t Know About Malaysia

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KL skyline in the night

Malaysia often gets a bad deal. We are overshadowed by our more exciting neighbour Bangkok, to the north and our ‘bickering sibling’ Singapore, albeit wealthier to the south. I once sat next to an American attorney on a flight from San Francisco to Dallas – I was gobsmacked when he asked smugly “Do you have Coke in Malaysia?”. Not to mention the numerous times I’ve been asked “Where do you learn to speak English?”. We are a misunderstood lot – here are six common misconceptions about Malaysia.

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1. No, Malaysians don’t live on trees

Malaysia may not feature prominently on the global stage – with the exception of our current Prime Minister who at 93 is the oldest serving state leader in the world or Jimmy Choo, a Malaysian who started the eponymous luxury shoe brand that has graced one too many red carpets. To think we live on trees is smack of ignorance because Malaysia boasts the tallest twin towers in the world…until today.

2. We speak English…a lot

English was my favourite subject in school and I grew up with the perennial classic of every kid – the Enid Blython series. The British empire established its linguistic hegemony across much of the world and Malaysia being a former British colony, most of us speak English as a first or second language (though often peppered with slang words borrowed from other languages and dialects). Malaysia also boasts decorated author such as Tash Aw, winner of the Commonwealth Writer Prize and Whitbread Book Awards for First Novel Award. His 2005 debut, ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ has been translated into 23 languages. Most recently, Zen Cho, a Malaysian fantasy author won a Hugo award for Best Novelette, regarded as the premier award for science fiction writing.

3. Most Malaysians speak more than one language

A multi racial country, most Malaysians speak more than one language – don’t be surprised that the majority of us are either bilingual or tri-lingual. We have no problem switching between multiple languages or dialects, in what we term colloquially as Manglish, a pleasant creole that may sound foreign to native English speakers. ‘Abuden!’ The quintessential ‘lah’ is often sprinkled in daily conversations (It’s ok-lah) and honestly where else in the world would you find a mishmash of words from several languages to string together a coherent sentence – ‘Wei macha, you want to makan here or tapau?’ which contains four languages including English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

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4. Every Malaysian is Asian but not every Asian is Malaysian

I have been mistaken for being Thai, Korean and Japanese. Once in Sicily, a group of kids thought I was American because I spoke in English and had blue contact lens! It’s an incredibly broad statement to say that Asians are all the same simply because we have black hair, small noses and flat features. Asia is the world’s biggest continent with diverse ethnic/racial groups, cultures, dialects, accents, cuisines and yes appearances too. Unlike East Asian countries which tend to be ethnically and culturally homogeneous, Malaysia is Asia’s cultural melting pot.

5. Malaysia is a food lovers’ paradise

In some countries, people often talk about the weather but “have you eaten” is a standard greeting in this part of the world. Malaysia is a gastronomical paradise and our passion for food borders on obsession so it comes as no surprise that food is the secret ingredient that unites Malaysians. Malaysian food offers an eclectic mix of diverse and rich influences from Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisines. The natives of East Malaysia in the state of Sabah and Sarawak offer their own unique dishes such as ‘manok pansoh’, (chicken cooked in bamboo), ‘umai’ (raw fish salad) or ‘tuak’ (home-brewed rice wine), which is a potent alcoholic drink. Best of all, Malaysia is one of the cheapest places to dine out in the world – from glorious street food to exquisite fine dining.

6. Malaysia is a plural society

Though Islam is the official religion in the country, Malaysians are free to practice other faiths such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, folk religion and animism. Every major holy day is declared an official holiday including Eid al-Fitr, Lunar New Year, Diwali and Christmas which is celebrated with “open house”, a uniquely Malaysian tradition where everyone is invited to visit and feast at the home of the host, regardless of background. The country’s tourism tagline ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ certainly captures the essence of our unique diversity from landscapes, languages to a tapestry of flavours and cultures.

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So what are some of the misconceptions that foreigners have about your country? Share your thoughts below.

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