As a newly established resident in Kuala Lumpur, the first Malay word I learned was “the H“. Whenever I used it in a conversation, locals and expats alike happily exclaimed, “You got Malay so fast!” Because that short, simple sound used as a suffix in everyday conversations sums up the ease and warmth with which Malaysian society embraces everyone in its fold. Indeed, although it is believed to be of Cantonese or Hokkien origin, lah is most commonly used in what is known as Manglish – Malaysian English – a delicious formal English patois with occasional touches of Malay, the national language.
Lah is added at the end of sentences to soften or reinforce a statement, to express an unequivocal opinion, to offer a sheepish apology, or to imply that something has been jokingly said. But what is most significant is that the word is an excellent equalizer, used by virtually everyone, smoothly crossing the barriers of language, race and religion in Malaysia. I hear it in air-conditioned malls and sweltering fresh produce markets, spoken by young and old alike. And when I spot the lah at the end of a sentence – even ones that convey anger, dismay, or rejection – I know the speaker means it.
All this to say that I found Malaysian hospitality itself as cordial as that manglish word. While the majority ethnic group in the country is Malay, also known as Bumiputera (meaning ‘son of the ground’), nearly 25% of the population is Chinese, while Malaysian Indians, mostly from the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India are close at 8%. While Malaysia generally remains under the radar, overshadowed by its glitzy neighbors – Singapore’s commercial hub and Thailand’s tourist haven – it is one of the friendliest and most tolerant countries in the region where its three main communities ethnic groups have lived in harmony for the most part for several decades. Recently there has been the growing specter of racism directed against newcomers, but such cases are still relatively few and far between.
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What keeps them together is not just a shared love for their country, but the spirit of Muhibbah. In the Arabic language, where it comes from, muhibbah (also Muhibah) means love or goodwill. In Malaysia, that’s it and more. According to Dr. Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, researcher and professor of religious studies, muhibbah in Malaysia is about solidarity, or “understanding, benevolence, empathy and kinship”.
When Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, the rulers decided to adopt the muhibbah as the unifying spirit of this new country to ensure that there would be no tension between the various ethnic groups. and religious. For example, while the country is officially an Islamic state, everyone has the right to follow their religious beliefs and speak their own language. Even now I see local newspaper articles in which politicians invoke this word as a reminder to continue peaceful coexistence.
“Our Mamak the stalls are the perfect example of muhibbah, ”said Salwah Shukor, a Kuala Lumpur resident, explaining how virtually everyone eats at the fresh produce restaurants run by Muslims in South India that serve food inexpensive halal to satisfy various palates. There is easy camaraderie among mamak customers, whether their meal is a local Malay dish mixed with Chinese sauces, or a searing South Indian dosa (called thosa here) with coconut chutney on the side.
Growing up with Indian family friends and Chinese classmates at school, Shukor insists that it is impossible to remain isolated within your own community in Malaysia. “The three communities have their own strengths and weaknesses, we have learned to use them to our collective advantage and we are all better than the sum of all the parts,” she said.
Indeed, Kamaruzaman insists that muhibbah does not mean tolerance: “Just tolerating is not really a pleasant feeling, it is condescending. Muhibbah is the opposite of tolerance, it means acceptance. She also cites mamaks as an example, saying, “You can find nasi lemakthere (a Malaysian dish of fried rice), as well as roti canai (a dish of flatbread and curry of Indian origin) and cendol (a Southeast Asian dessert of coconut milk, jelly noodles and crushed ice) – no one wonders where this or that dish comes from, India or China? They’re all Malaysian cuisine now.
Writer and scholar Dipika Mukherjee, who grew up in Malaysia and currently lives in the United States, says her experience has been embracing her different identities. “I could wear shorts and walk to a mamak for breakfast, then travel on the bus in a sari to visit my Indian family – either way, no one would look at me strangely like I was in suit. Here in the United States everyone has to coalesce into one white identity, wear and eat what everyone else does, but not in Malaysia.
Malaysia’s muhibbah also means that the country’s festival calendar spreads throughout the year, starting with Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations early on; Hari Raya or Ramadan sometimes in the middle; and Deepavali (another name for Diwali, the festival of lights) in the last few months. And as I discovered to my surprise, there is still room for Christmas with the main streets and malls adorned with sparkling decorations and even fake snow.
Another manifestation of this multiculturalism is the “open day” Malaysians hold during festivals, where food and drink (non-alcoholic, in the case of Muslim households) are arranged each evening to welcome friends, relatives and even strangers. “Previously, only Malaysians celebrated Hari Raya with an open day, but many Indians now do it in Deepavali, and sometimes even Chinese people on their new year,” Shukor said.
It is impossible to remain isolated within your own community in Malaysia
Unsurprisingly, the streets ring with the official language of Malay as well as Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hainanese, and Tamil, Hindi, Gujarati, and Punjabi, among other Indian languages. In fact, my Malaysian friends are very proud of a unique concept called Bahasa Rojak, i.e. a mixture of languages (after rojak, a local salad with often contrasting textures and flavors), which often turns into a uneasy phrase or an “Aiyyo!” Appalled. in Tamil in the middle of English conversations.
Bahasa Rojak was born at the beginning of the 15th century, as was the concept of muhibbah itself. Mukherjee explained that Malacca (and other port cities like Kedah) was an important trading center on the Spice Route, and for the sake of commerce, local governments always accepted new languages and cultures. “Traditionally, migration routes were never controlled in the same way as traditional towns, and in Malacca too, it was easy for communities to intertwine, for example, through business transactions and even marriages.” , she said. The conversational pidgin adopted by traders to communicate with each other persists as an easy code change among Malaysians. Add to this the intermarriages between communities, and the multicultural DNA of contemporary Malaysia was created.
Along with this attitude of acceptance, Malaysia also offers economic attractions such as affordable housing and healthcare, making it one of the world’s favorite retirement destinations, further deepening the country’s multiculturalism. Of course, nowhere is perfect all the time. What started in the 1980s as affirmative action for the Bumiputeras is now a tense situation, with the right-wing ideology of Malay supremacy (known as the Ketuanan Melayu) occasionally raising the head. However, this remains largely a politically motivated position to gain the trust of the majority Malay community.
What I have seen since moving here is an acceptance of other people’s weaknesses or quirks with a loving smile and an indulgent nod. Shukor said to me, ironically, “My Chinese classmates forced me to be competitive, because they always aimed to be at the top; and at the same time, thanks to my Tamil friends, I learned to relax and take things easy.
And to reflect the easy going attitude of Malaysians, Bahasa is full of simplified English words in its most basic phonetic form – minit for a minute, Biskut for biscuit, mesej for the message, motosikal for the motorcycle, and so on. After all, why complicate things when a simpler option is available? In Malaysia, muhibbah is the ingredient that brings individual components together into an attractive and welcoming composite.
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