January 2006: I’m sitting alone in the mess hall of Camp Princess Haliza in Sepang, in a midst of anxiety and loneliness of being swept from a different reality, to be put in the middle of a palm tree plantation. The next three months was not going to be easy.
I remembered receiving the letter from the Malaysian government to serve in the National Service programme back in Perth, and thinking to myself “This could not be happening.”
As I’m eating my meal consisting of a piece of fried fish, bean sprouts, and rice, I am approached by a Malay teenager who introduces himself as Zaki – I stutter to reply back my name. He asks if he could join for lunch and I agree, in my mind I was scrambling for small talk conversation as I knew my language was limited, and it was quick to be revealed.
We exchange the basics – Where are you from? What do you think about this place? And have you made any other friends yet? As we chat, he notices my weird accent and mumbling answers, and it finally comes into question: What race are you?
“I’m Malay” I say.
“But you don’t sound Malay at all, your accent is really weird,” he enquires.
“Well I’m not really from Malaysia, I was brought up overseas ” I reply sheepishly.
“And you can’t speak Malay?” He asks, looking at me like I was some sort of alien.
“A bit but not that well” I answer awkwardly in Malay.
Our lunch continued with a silence, until more people came onto the table where he was able to find a better conversation than from me. Our relationship didn’t really pull off after that throughout the three months, we found ourselves more as acquaintances and myself labelled as matsalleh celup (White boy wannabe) within the Malay groups throughout the three months.
I was able to find some English speaking friends who I could connect with, however, the guilt lingered of how much I had lost my self identity as a Malaysian, and as a Malay. I often questioned – How important was language to play to find my identity as a Malay Malaysian.
Bahasa Malaysia has been emphasised by the Malaysian government as an important factor in defining Malaysian identity and its culture, they strive to promote that Malaysians are able to speak the country’s official language. The language in comparison is not influential as a global language, but it is widely spoken in South East Asia taking various dialects, and also similarities with the Indonesian language.
I have never realised the importance, until I was deemed a pariah from the wider Malay community. The definitions of a Bumiputera under the constitution is one who claims to practice Islam, follows Malay Culture and speak Malay.
I did not fulfil any of the criteria.
I had grown up in Perth for fourteen years. I had never viewed myself as white or Australian. Neither was I accepted as a Malay or Malaysian.
I am left with disenchantment – What the hell am I?