The Country in My Blood

Alvin Teoh, Executive Creative Director of NagaDDB, shares with us a Malaysia we can hopefully still remember in the years to come.

I love Malaysia. I mean, I could do with some nice, cool San Francisco weather sometimes, but yeah, I love this lady because she’s such a part of me.

Recently, I joined an international community of Catholics on the net. I thought it’d be cool to exchange views of our universal faith with people from all over the world. (Having the occasional fight online is exciting, too). But one thing about the community stood out. Amazing and learned as some of them were, I did find some of their points of view a tad narrow. Not so much because of the faith, but more so, I feel, because of their monolithic culture.

Quite unlike our rojak one, hor?

Over the years, I am blessed to have met Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Protestants, Agnostics, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, ‘Bananas’, ‘Chindians’, ‘Mat-Salleh Celups’, ‘Rockers’, ‘Jinjang-Joes’, ‘Diskangs’, and those categorised as ‘Dan lain-lain’.

Different colour, different faiths, same mischievousness | Photo by Alvin Teoh

My first real friend was a John Skelchy. He was as Eurasian as they come. We met in kindergarten when we were 5. From him I learnt that boys have penises and girls, something different altogether. One day, our teacher caught us comparing private parts. Our parents were called, and so, they too became friends. This Skelchy fellow was my classmate all the way to form 5.

In Standard 1, I met Sheik Faizal. He didn’t look like the average Malay boy. I have to admit he was rather good looking. I wonder if he had Arab blood. He was a great artist; he could do caricatures. And he did a mean pencil sketch of characters from ‘Planet of the Apes’. We hung out all the way through Standard 6. He was a very deep and intense sort of fellow. He wrote in my book:

Allah gave you wings to fly, so fly high.  Don’t let Satan’s arrows shoot you down.

Other friends I hung out with during those days were Julian Hassan, Lim Hong Bok and Jaswinder Singh. Julian Hassan (mum: British, dad: Malay) taught me how to eat rice with tomato sauce. I loved it. Meanwhile, Hong Bok taught me how to write mystery stories. We’d find some flattened patch of grass in a field or an abandoned house to do this. Occasionally, we felt certain we’d chanced upon a crop circle formed by aliens, or an evil house haunted by some creepy entity. We would then ‘investigate’ these ‘phenomena’ and record them in our journals. It was classic Hardy Boys sort of stuff.

As for Jaswinder Singh – well, Jaswinder had a habit of snatching our journals and reading them aloud for all to hear, laughing his head off as he debunked each mystery with great pleasure. This always became an exercise of epic embarrassment for Hong Bok and me. Then Jaswinder would finish with a flourish: “What the fuck is this all about?”

I suppose I should mention that this Singh taught me how to expand my vocabulary. From hanging around him, I learnt to pepper every sentence with the word ‘fuck’. It was cool to say ‘fuck’. For a while anyway.

Hong Bok and I were in the Boy Scout Troop together, too. From this group, we learnt the art of shoplifting and we performed this feat with another kid we called KKK. We were quite good at it, I must say. Our prize was always some Airfix model plane or Matchbox model tank. We shoplifted from Standards 4 till 6 until some plainclothes detectives finally caught us. Our lookout, KKK, fled the scene at our hour of need. Thanks bro.

[Just so you know, I was caught in my scout uniform. During interrogation, I peed in my pants. The Indian interrogator then told me he’d pull out all my fingernails and cut off all my hair, then use them to make soup for my dinner in jail. When you’re 11, you tend to believe these sorts of things.]

From KKK, I learnt the jentik game. You open a page from your textbook and add the numerals in the page number. For example, page 35 meant 3+5. If you lose, your finger gets flicked by the winner’s, hence jentik. Now, KKK had rather large fingers. I was amazed that our fingers didn’t break under the pressure of his. I still remember the sound…thok, thok, thok. From our fingers being jentik-ed, we progressed to having our manhood being treated in the same manner. I am amazed I managed to have children later in life.

Yeah, I had a healthy and happy childhood.

No handphone or i-pad but no boredom either | Photo by Alvin Teoh

My neighbour was a Malay boy. All the boys in Ampang Jaya were mostly Malays, really. Anyway, I called this boy Boy because his mum called him that, too. Thanks to Boy, my spoken Bahasa Malaysia improved a lot. We played catch and football, climbed trees and plucked cherries for our cherry guns and shot paper bullets at goat’s balls – they were large and hard to miss.

From Boy, I learnt the word dosa. So whenever the occasion arose, I’d tell the other Malay kids, “Hei, jangan buat ‘gitu…dosa lah!” Their response? “Ha? Cina pun ada dosa ke?” Ha-ha.

Opposite my house lived a ‘Chindian’ family. They had a daughter my age named Tina. She was my first crush. One day, when I was coming back from school on a bus, she ran out of the house and after the bus yelling my name, “Alvin…Alvin…Alvin!” That was the happiest day of my life. (Yeah, I’m big on cheap thrills.)

By the time I entered Secondary School, most of my friends had changed.  Most of the Malay kids went to the asrama and most of the Chinese ones became gangsters. And the Indian boys? Most of them became Catholics for reasons unknown to me.

During these years, I learnt a new lesson: it’s possible to fail seven subjects at a time. Most of my classmates failed above 5 subjects. In my class, that was a badge of honour, like a Purple Heart. Well, you had to be brave to fail that many subjects! But yeah, in reality, we were pretty hopeless.

These years were also a time when I joined the Scout Troop. It was a whole different world. In the initial years there, I grew close to one John Williams. If you see that name in the West, he’d be a white dude. But in Malaysia, you can bet he’d be Indian. John was our scoutmaster and he, God bless him, introduced me to the fabulous world of Indian food.

Manna from Heaven modelled by Machas from Kelana Jaya | Photo by Alvin Teoh

I first tasted thosai in 1982 after a fishing trip near Bukit Takun. We were at Lebuh Ampang and my God, did that stuff taste like heaven! I remember it was a masala thosai and I still recall my fingers surveying the brittle surface and coming into contact with hot chunks of potato and beans in some yellow sauce. Topped off with dhal and chutney, then mashed up with crushed vadai and Lord, you’d died and gone to Heaven, like, maybe twice.

Many times, I could be found in John’s house, and Edwin’s (another scout) house and having these unreal Indian lunches. Lovely!

Original finger-licking good food of the gods | Photo by Alvin Teoh

From my Indians friends, I learnt another new word – mutal – which means ‘stupid’. Now, mutal went with another word – Malayali.  I soon found out that Tamils and Malayalis didn’t get along. Or at least, pretended they didn’t get along. I had both Tamil and Malayali friends and they called each other, yup, mutal. And they could do this the whole day, too. (Yes, there was a lot of love in the air.)

It was during these times too that I met some Orang Asli and Kampung folks. Twice a week, a few of my friends and I would find ourselves in Hulu Langat. In fact, it was there that I met and befriended one Encik Zainal. He was in his 40s and he looked after the mini hydroelectric dam in Pansoon.

Happiness is... | Photo by Alvin Teoh

He’d take us trekking up Gunung Nuang, and then we’d swim in the dam at Lolo, at the waterfalls at Lepuh and also Upper Ponsoon. Through him, us Chinese city dwellers met other Kampung folk. I remember a heavy bamboo-grass smoking old gentleman called Mat Katun. I challenged him to a sport of tree-climbing halfway up Nuang. I managed to ascend 20 feet and was quite pleased till I looked back: Mat Katun was already 10 above me and he was, like, 60 years old, too!

From Encik Zainal and his family, I picked up a thing or two about the Kampung life and also life as a simple and humble Muslim. He also regaled us with Pontianak stories when we got lost after a hike to Latar Siak. I learnt later that ‘Latar’ was the old word for air terjun.

And oh, Zainal had a daughter. My God, I could not stop staring at her. My friend Benson, a Chinese-speaking Eurasian who looks Indian described her as a ‘natural beauty’. He intended to introduce himself to her this way: “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” It was the lamest thing I’d ever heard so I stopped him.

From the Orang Asli, I discovered that one could pick amber with one’s bare hands. They’d even asked us to try. Now, I know I failed seven subjects in school, but I wasn’t that stupid. From these warm, earnest people, I also learnt to trek jungles carrying very little with me. That a small piece of newspaper placed over a leech bite could stop bleeding quite effectively.

Thanks to them, I was introduced to the magical world of glowing plants, too, just like the ones in the movie, ‘Avatar’. They were little mushrooms and fungus-like plants that thrived under rotten leaves and damp tree barks. It was an amazing sight, one that could not be described with words

Little fellow had style & a pet hornbill, cool or what? | Photo by Alvin Teoh

These are all the experiences I’ve enjoyed in the first 22 years of my life. This is the Malaysia I remember and the Malaysia I cherish. The excitement and beauty I experienced during these years stem from a life thrown into and shaped by a mix of many cultures and faiths. And I’m rich beyond measure because of it.

Muslim grave site next to Buddhist temple | Photo by Alvin Teoh

Today, I see a different Malaysia. I see fear, insecurity, suspicion and anger. There seems to be a lot of sentiments of frustration boiling under a seemingly harmonious surface. And I blame self-serving community leaders for this. While I see our diversity as a blessing, many of these fellows seem to look at it as a threat. They don’t see that we’re a blessing to each other. They don’t see that we have much to gain from each other. They don’t see that we can be good together. In fact, we are good because we are together.

Instead of celebrating our diversity, they’ve turned it into something divisive, raising one race above another, and causing each one to be suspicious of the other. Essentially, they’ve turned a blessing into a self-inflicted curse. After all, our diversity is our gift from God, yet look at what we’ve done to this gift!

A Hindu deity hangs out at a Chinese altar with Jesus | Photo by Alvin Teoh

My plea to all who’re reading this is that we may stand together and deny these small-minded and irresponsible people as well as their goal of dividing to conquer us. If this spirit of bigotry is in us to some degree because we’ve been contaminated by their sickness, let’s cast it out. It’s never too late. Don’t let their darkness overcome our light.

I say to all Malays, Indians, Sikhs, Chinese, Eurasians, Bananas, Orang Asli and Orang Asal, DLLs, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists and Agnostics: we’re all beautiful. We’re all unique. We’re all special.  We’ve so much to share with each other. Don’t let a bunch of idiots rob us of who we truly are or perverse the Malaysian in us. Don’t let them steal the blessing of being a rojak culture.  Let us fight to keep Malaysia beautiful. So that when our time here on Earth comes to an end, we can go knowing that our children – and their children – will experience the kind of Malaysia we experienced as a child. The Malaysia in our blood.

Masjid Keling amidst Chinese shops; a beautiful sight | Photo by Alvin Teoh


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Alvin Teoh is a father of 3, husband of 1. Also owns, 1 Great Dane, 2 Tortoises, about 100 guppies. Loves God. Well, I do try. Loves advertising. Loves to paint, shoot and write stuff. Hates cats and most politicians. Believes that change is possible.

Posted on 2 February 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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