Made In Malaysia/Here In My Home

A theme of these columns has been that some places, for many reasons, carry before them more mental associations than others. For me, Malaysia was one of those that remained hazy. Many of its neighbours - Vietnam, Thailand, Java, Bali - called a set of images,rightly or wrongly, to mind. However, Malaysia was never really a country that figured much in my consciousness and before going there I had no real idea what to expect. What notions of the place I had came from a random mix of sources over the years. I had no real picture of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, other than knowing that for a while it had the tallest building in the world, the Petronas Towers. The Straits of Malacca, with a history of piracy, sounded wildly exotic. The Tea Plantations of the Cameron Highlands sounded like a genteel echo of a colonial past.

There had also been the occasional old films on TV set in Malaya: The Long, The Short and the Tall, based on a play about British soldiers in Malaya in WW2, and A Town Like Alice. There were sometimes reminiscences in the paper or on the radio of British National Service time spent in Malaya, with memories of the jungle and Kuala Lumpur and Tiger Beer. National Service in the UK ended in 1960 so there was a short overlap with the rise of British rock and roll and pop and the odd musician – like Danny Thompson of Pentangle - found themselves doing their bit overseas in Penang. However, not only did national service seem incompatible with the ethos of rock and roll but the time out of civilian life could also end a pop career before it had really got going. Singer Terry Dene was probably the biggest pop casualty of this at the time but  Adam Faith apparently considered having one of his toes cut off to avoid call-up and his career crashing. It was therefore ironic when the cry from Middle England went up at the sight of the early Rolling Stones - “What they need is a bath and a hair cut and a spell of national service would do them all good” . This overlooked the fact that one of the band, Bill Wyman, had already done his National Service – 1955-1958, RAF Oldenburg, Germany –and look what it did for him.

There seemed few non-Malaysian songs about the country. The Small Faces gave the capital a mention in their 1968 song, Rene, “romping with a stoker from the coast of Kuala Lumpur”. More recently American outfit Bombadil also sang of Kuala Lumpur: ”monsoon winds will take you home to my Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur all day, so much to say”. There seemed little else. When I went to Malaysia, therefore, I went with no set expectations. Parts of Kuala Lumpur , with the Petronas Towers, the huge artificially lit shopping malls of consumer goods and elevated rail system, seemed ultra-modern, rather like those futuristic drawings people in 1960 produced when imagining the cities of 2000. However, a train and boat ride away there was Crab Island - Pulau Ketam, an island fishing village built on stilts – and which sounds like the title of a really exciting Famous Five adventure story (The only flaw in going is that if you are not that keen on crab, you are a bit stuck as to what to choose in the restaurant there).

A couple of hours to the south, Malacca lived up to its exotic image, with the bonus of a canal system from a Dutch past and the Dutch Harbour Cafe, serving hagelslag and apple cake. There were also unexpected musical delights. At the Geographer Cafe on Jonker Street in the Chinese quarter, Mr Burns, the coolest cat in town, entertains most evenings with an eclectic range of songs from early rock and roll through the Bee Gees to J J Cale and all points in between. One evening his version of Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones floated incongruously over the nearby street stalls selling frog porridge , mingling with the sounds of outdoor Chinese karaoke.

What was also apparent was the wide mix of cultures - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian - and the active promotion of a sense of national unity and ‘one Malaysia’. This is reflected in different ways by the two songs here. The first is Made in Malaysia, a patriotic anthem by Roots n Boots, a Malaysian skinhead punk band influenced by the Oi! sound. Though it sounds like something Sham 69 might have done in 1978, it came from their 2000 album Working Class Heroes, part of a largely underground music scene. The other is the 2008 Here in My Home by Malaysian Artists for Unity: a more ‘official’ musical statement and a kind of Malaysian We Are the World.

The visit also gave rise to a common holiday experience. A glass of retsina can taste wonderfully authentic in an outdoor Athens cafe in the shadow of the Acropolis but can start you worrying if you have mixed it up with the Jeyes pine disinfectant when tasted in the front room at home. A CD of Croatian folk music can suddenly sound less interesting when heard again out of context. And a sketch of Malacca purchased from its Chinese artist in his shop can seem not really naïf art when opened up after the journey back to England. What remained, however, was a sense of a kaleidoscope of a place: shifting images of colour and sound. It is then not hard to see where the Tourist Board marketing slogan of 'Malaysia, Truly Asia' came from.


  1. Geoff - two songs! This is new for your column:) I love as well that you give us so much more than normal of your own impressions of the place, I liked that a lot! Also because I had no real impression of Malaysia either until I read this column. I knew it had a king, but that was about it. I think as well there has been very little Malaysian immigration to the US - there are many more Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese, Cambodians, Laotians and Thais here, who I have met and gained a picture of their home countries. So I appreciated your column!

  2. I was reading fairly recently that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has organised a Malaysia song competition, aimed at “capturing the diversity of the nation.” It was initiated by Najib himself who wanted a song which “represented the spirit of Malaysia, written and chosen by the people to voice out what Malaysia meant to them.” Apparently all the finalists were about the same thing - about how Malaysians are “diverse but still together”, strong, bold in facing challenges, etc. And this one was the winner..... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mt6SRH8tIQ

  3. I liked your column a good deal. Especially because THIS is most people's idea of Malaysian music: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_9ksU_3g9wNs/TRrxeCJvUyI/AAAAAAAAAA0/4f1H-LsbFM4/s1600/home.jpg

    So I am pleased that you had an interest in showing your readers about Roots n Boots.

    It is sad that some people have never heard of them, or of Hujan, Pop Shavit, Love me Butch, The Bananas, Janice and the Supertank, Estranged, Rollin Sixers or HandleWithCare. There are plenty of talented musicians in Malaysia, unfortunately even we in Malaysia are not even made aware of it actively. Instead, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Lady Gaga and many other US Billboard top 100 artists flood the radios, shop playlists and TV shows. I'm not a mainstream hater, in fact I like the mainstream songs. The only thing I have a problem with is the songs from other countries being overrated and our own country's bands aren't given enough chances to shine. We always complain that the Malaysia Music Industry is waning and lacks talents, the truth is that we brand our own music industry before we even take a closer look at it. My final say is, we must take a good look around music forums, nightclubs and pubs where live music is being played weekly. There are some great Malaysian homemade music with it's own brand of originality. To further promote the music scene in Malaysia, here are some youtube videos of Malaysia's great songs!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmm2P0ne02I Handle With Care - Tujuan
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTXEariH_XQ Love me Butch - Hollywood Holiday
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E64TdNVX_70 Janice and the Super Tank - And You Know It
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJcVlR6xEm0 The Bananas - 30 Days

  4. Geoff, you might like Yuna, a Malaysian-born singer-songwriter - especially her song "Deeper Conversation" - www.youtube.com/watch?v=41JBNf9dyB4. She sings in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.

  5. Wonderful column Geoff!

    And this made me laugh: "The only flaw in going is that if you are not that keen on crab, you are a bit stuck as to what to choose in the restaurant there" - about CRAB ISLAND!:)

  6. Geoff, if all these things below happened to you, then that is such a wonderful paragraph description of how the aftermath of a holiday is so anticlimactic - I loved this idea.

    "A glass of retsina can taste wonderfully authentic in an outdoor Athens cafe in the shadow of the Acropolis but can start you worrying if you have mixed it up with the Jeyes pine disinfectant when tasted in the front room at home. A CD of Croatian folk music can suddenly sound less interesting when heard again out of context. And a sketch of Malacca purchased from its Chinese artist in his shop can seem not really naïf art when opened up after the journey back to England".

  7. I went to look at some of this advertising about "Malaysia" being "Truly Asia" and I found it actually really effective. There is a whole page of different versions of their advertisements here: http://www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my/corporate/trade.asp?page=malaysia_truly&subpage=gallery

    And the whole idea seems to be this: "There is only one place where all the colours, flavours, sounds and sights of Asia come together – Malaysia. No other country has Asia's three major races, Malay, Chinese, Indian, plus various other ethnic groups in large numbers. Nowhere is there such exciting diversity of cultures, festivals, traditions and customs, offering myriad experiences. No other county is "Truly Asia" as Malaysia. "Malaysia, Truly Asia" captures and defines the essence of the country’s unique diversity. It sums up the distinctiveness and allure of Malaysia that make it an exceptional tourist destination."

    (from this page: http://www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my/corporate/trade.asp?page=malaysia_truly&subpage=history).

    It's actually a really nice idea that creates a country's character is precisely that is has so many identities - rather than picking one singular image, they are saying in a way "What makes Malaysia truly Malaysia is its lack of anything singularly Malaysian" - which I really like!

  8. Hello Geoff

    We thank you for your column on Malaysia and all that it offers. We also would share this quarterly and annual rankings of 200 countries and territories, which is very positive about Malaysia (Truly Asia!).


    Thank you again for your words!
    Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board
    New York

  9. I think "The Long and the Short and the Tall" was sort of based on a popular wartime ballad. Also, in the U.S. they released it as "Jungle Fighters" - I couldn't find a video clip, but here is a piece of advertising that is pretty strange! - http://www.moviegoods.com/Assets/product_images/1020/26958.1020.A.jpg

  10. Your blog is great.

    Yes, I was posted to Penang in Malaysia for two years and my love of music took him out-of-bounds to visit the local music clubs. You weren't allowed anywhere near clubs, of course that's where I went because that's where the bands were, and because I had my hair shorn with the nuts and bolts sticking out, people didn't want to know me because they knew that I was a squaddie. And I said 'well I only want to have a play' and so this Tamil Indian bloke said 'go on let him play' and as soon as I started playing they accepted me! I made many friends and at the end of my service I was approached by Radio Malaya and was offered a job. But I wanted to get back to England even though I knew I would be unemployed. And when I returned I found that in the 60’s the dance hall scene was changing drastically and a vibrant music revolution was taking place all over Britain.

  11. In the U.S., "The Long, the Tall and the Short" was released as "Jungle Fighters" - I couldn't find a clip anywhere online, but I did find this piece of advertising, which shows how weird all the imagery was! - http://www.moviegoods.com/Assets/product_images/1020/26958.1020.A.jpg

  12. Thanks for the links to all the Malaysian artists.
    Thanks for writing in Danny-fascinating to hear your story

  13. Geoff, i have been reading your blog off and on for a bit. you may be interested that i have formed a new rock and blues band and we will soon release a new album that will have new tracks (Better man, Rainy Day, The Rock Is Rollin' Again, Come Down and So Long) as well as 2 old favourites (Fever and Rocking Robin).

  14. I don't know the film "A Town Like Alice" that I just looked up and it's apparently from 1956, but I do remember enjoying the TV miniseries from the early 1980s. It's totally where I got my image of Malaysia from!!! - www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SlUbc3bqw0

  15. Geoff! Did they really say that about the Stones, that they needed a bath, a haircut and some time in national service? I don't think I ever read that in biographies of the band members or anything. Fascinating!

    I remember that after their television debut on "Thank Your Lucky Stars," people wrote letters to newspapers calling them "Longhaired louts," "disgusting," "filthy" and "a disgrace." I think I remember people saying that they needed a bath and a haircut, and someone saying they preferred that "nice clean boy Cliff Richard," but not the bit about national service. Thanks for the extra memory!

  16. Your mention of the futuristic drawings of life in 2000 made me think you might enjoy my blog, which is all about past visions of the future - or retro-futurism: http://www.paleofuture.com/

    Here is one entry that resonates with your comment in particular: http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/2011/1/20/fords-magic-skyway-1964.html

    And here are more entries on the 60s: http://www.paleofuture.com/blog/category/1960s


  17. It was a comment thrown generally at layabout pop groups at the time - and particularly those with long hair! Of course the Stones compounded the outrage by one of them urinating on a garage forecourt.

  18. Geoff! I love Mr. Burn! - Here's a little video for old time's sake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUy8i8nXb44

    One my favorite times in Malacca.

  19. Ah yes, the infamous garage forecourt urination incident. Although today's celebs make that all look a bit tame, what with their cocaine-fuelled episodes where porn stars get locked in bathrooms.......http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/tv/la-et-charlie-sheen-box-20110131,0,4595648.story

  20. Hey thats great -even if he's not singing on this clip!

  21. Geoff, it is totally fascinating that the Oi! sound still exists in contemporary Malaysian music. After the Riots of 81, Oi! Music was deemed dead by almost everyone, to the press, the music industry and all record companies, Oi! was now a dirty word and only the hard core lovers of this type of music, the kids on the streets were willing to still come and support the bands, the hardest years were to follow as most promoters and venues refused to book Oi! Bands for fear of trouble & police harassment which always seemed to follow Oi music down in the London & South East area and this went on for some years after. We saw our once great country slip violently down the toilet under the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, which was gut wrenching. But I still love that old school Oi! sound.

  22. Sorry about that, here is one with singing! - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByoSXIaevCY

  23. If you liked Here in My Home, you might be interested in 15Malaysia, a short films project of mine, consisting of 15 short films about Malaysia. It is directed by some of the best young filmmakers, and featuring some of the best-known directors, actors, musicians and politicians in the country.


    Also, to date, my anti-racism music video project ‘Malaysian Artistes For Unity’ been seen or heard by more than 10 million Malaysians.

    Pete Teo

  24. i applaud Malaysian Artistes For Unity. i applaud their belief, their work.

    Unity is the responsibility of each and all of us. Believe in it. Work at it. Don’t let the voice of the divisive deceive us, drive a wedge between us. Push back the enemies. Push back the lies. Push back the racist, the bigot, the corrupt who are bent in breaking us up.

  25. I thinks the Malaysian Artists For Unity project is a commendable effort plus the video is absolutely fantabulous!

  26. A big applause to Pete Teo for your awesome song!
    The politics in Malaysia has now, some way, turn upside inside out..
    & there are times I feel that Malaysia is not safe for us anymore..
    But, after listened & watched the video clip of this great song ever that is created in Malaysia
    by a Malaysian,
    it has some how change my opinion about Malaysia is not secure for it's people.
    The unity of every races had made me feel that no matter what happen in our own country,
    if we stand together as one, we will always be safe under each other's care.

  27. I liked “Here In My Home”. Initially I thought it would be another soothing pop song but turned out to be a catchy song with multilingual rap in between!

  28. I love that none of the people you see in the video are paid. Respect to them. I recognise a few faces Pete Teo himself, Reshmonu, Melina of Tempered Mental, Jason Lo, Awie, Harith Iskandar, Adflin Shauki, Daniel Lee, Jac Victor and the list goes on......

  29. National Service, ugh. My Dad joined up as a regular in 1960, it was around then that national service was phased out. I remember watching a TV programme years ago about some London Gangster, saying that National Service was the best training he had for his particular trade, umm. National Service, what a load of bollocks.

  30. Yes,my old man was drafted into British National Service at 18 despite having voluntarily joined the Merchant Navy at 16 to escape mining jobs and such. My Dad reckons there’s a super brief snippet him in The Beatles Help, when they were filming on the base in Wiltshire, but I’ve yet to see it.

  31. Geoff, I had no idea that there was such a thing as Malaysian skinhead punk - this is really fascinating. It must be related to post-punk revival (alternative rock of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in which bands took inspiration from the original sounds and aesthetics of post-punk of the late 1970s). British and American bands like Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four and Echo & the Bunnymen. It's fascinating that it is big in Malaysia and I would be curious as to the politics behind it. I imagine some punk, skinhead bands in Malaysia have an underground, anti-corporate ideology, even anarchist. But others presumably have a more skinhead, fascist approach.

  32. I'm interested too, like Laura, in the politics of this Malaysian punk. I found the lyrics to the particular song you wrote about, and I guess it's not totally clear if it's a misguided nationalistic politics or more of a protest alternative politics:

    The days had gone, too long, it seems like yesterday,
    This is the land we’re born and where we gonna stay,
    The pride is there, we know and it’s always in our hearts,
    We gonna stand and fly the flag of nations pride,

    The war had gone, and all the heroes had their way,
    But if its strikes again, we know we gonna stay,
    We gonna stand and fight, we’ll die for this prideland,
    We’ll show the foes, we’re great coz we’re the countrymen,

    And when you hear the call we know that you’ll be there,
    It’s for the stripes, the moon and star,
    Coz we all proud, that we were Made In Malaysia...

    We had been raised to trust the God and to the King,
    We gonna stand our ground, the strength that comes within,
    So if you think you got those feeling that is true,
    And it’s all for the yellow, the red and white and blue,

    We gonna stand (We gonna shout),
    This is the land (That we are proud),
    Let’s join the line and you’ll know what it’s all about,
    So if you think (You feel the same),
    Raise all the flags (Of our land),
    And feel the pride inside, you know that it is true,
    We just don’t care, now who the hell you are,
    You got to shout it loud,
    that you’re proud,
    to be Made In Malaysia...

  33. I think it can only be an alternative, voice-from-the-margins kind of music - in that Malaysia is a Muslim state and I highly doubt that there is any tolerance for punk in Islam......

  34. The band played at Music Against Racism in November 2008 at KL Tower (they actually played Made In Malaysia, which was a crowd favorite), so they can surely not be considered any kind of right-wing group; they seem to be all about progressive politics.

  35. I think it's a very valid query, about whether this band is rightwing. There are numerous "patriotic" Malaysian bands that are xenophobic, antisemitic, homophobic and misogynistic. Someone sent me a link to a Panda Head Curry album called "One Thousand Homo Humpbacks" for example, I think it is supposed to be funny, but it's not really.