Nothing Like a Malaysian Stoplight to Make You Feel Self-Righteous

There’s nothing like a Malaysian stoplight to make you feel self-righteous.

I approached a rather new stoplight this morning. It’s been operational for a month or two. It’s situated by a school and a new housing development and on mornings like this, Sunday, traffic is rather light.

As I came to a stop at the glaring red light, I felt very much alone — like all eyes around me were asking the question: “Who does he think he is?”

A motorbike approached from behind. It passed me by, continuing right through the red light as if he had special permission from the traffic police. I looked around at the vacant scene and felt rather ridiculous, sitting at a red light for no apparent reason accept that it is red. That fact alone didn’t seem to stop the other motorbikes who continued through the intersection unimpeded.

Then a car came up from behind. I felt this large, looming presence over my shoulder. I felt the driver’s stares, and my motorbike held him back like a schoolmarm unwilling to allow their students out for spring break even one minute early.

I felt the negative peer pressure. I felt the condemning scorn from those who accused me of going against Malaysian culture – red lights are optional.

I revved my bike, wanting to throw off all restraint and cruise freely as a local, unshackled from authority, and free to live according to my own schedule and desires.

I pondered. I waited. I fidgeted. I kept glancing back at the car.

And I …

Waited for the light to turn green.

The rebel, I am not.

Self-righteous at a stoplight, I am.



Theatre Review: “In a Nutty Shell”

One of the essential requirements of a free, open, and democratic society is the ability to laugh at oneself. Theatre-goers have been party to government critiques and satire for as long as actors have dared to portray their version of reality on stage. There is something cathartic and even wholesome to be able to laugh at stereotypes and paint with broad strokes in order to see oneself and a society-at-large in a new light.

Recently I was chatting with someone in the theatre scene in Malaysia (but not connected to this production) and this person said that Malaysia has long wanted to follow America in laughing at their leaders, in exposing criticism through laughter, and just having the ability to lighten up and not take each other so seriously.

That is exactly what “In a Nutty Shell” accomplishes so well.

I’m not conversant in Bahasa Malay, Chinese, or Tamil, but that did not distract me from seeing the wonderfully distinct ethnic groups and stereotypes displayed on stage. The entire play takes place in a mamak coffee stall with three friends – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – chatting about life in Malaysia on a typical Friday morning.

The dialogue is funny and poignant. (If you are not Malaysia, you may want to bone-up on Malaysia’s political scene. Get to know your abbreviations: BN, MCA, MIC, etc…) It’s like listening in on the secret thoughts of the three most prominent races in Malaysia. Through the complaining about the “lazy Malays”, the “rich Chinese”, or the uniquely different Indians, the audience begins to get a clearer view of this richly diverse yet fragilely held together country. As the Chinese man said: “everyone tolerates because they have to.”

That may very well be the case, but one gets the sense by watching the wonderful interaction between the three main actors on stage that there is much more camaraderie and country pride present than is readily admitted.

And this is, perhaps, the point. Malaysia is a beautiful cross-section of religion, ethnicity, and culture. It has existed that way for a long time, and while it is not without problems, it has created a beautiful mosaic in the midst of Southeast Asia. If only the groups themselves would look past differences and see the potential of its vibrant and lovely people.

“In a Nutty Shell” finishes its debut run in Penang tomorrow (Sunday, August 17) at PenangPAC (Straits Quay) 3PM.

If you are in town, please stop in a for a great laugh and a little lesson on Malaysian life.


I’m the boss of nothing (in Malaysia)

I’ve been to enough places throughout east and southeast Asia to understanding vividly that the western concept of customer service is typically a foreign one in these parts.

Here’s a couple examples. A few years back I was at a small ice cream shop called “Dairy King.” Yes, very original. On the menu was a chocolate sundae; however, in the picture of the sundae, it showed that the chocolate sundae was topped with kernels of sweet corn. Adding beans and corn to cold sweet treats in Asia is nothing new, but my American palate likes sweets in the good-ole-American-way – without vegetables. So here is an approximation of my conversation with the young ice cream attendant.

“Hello, I’d like the chocolate sundae, but without the corn.”

“The chocolate sundae comes with corn.”

“Yes, I know. But I don’t want the corn.”

“But the chocolate sundae comes with corn.”

“I see that. But I don’t like corn in my ice cream.”

Blank stare. I decided to try another tactic.

“OK, can you make my chocolate sundae, and after you finish putting the chocolate on top, can you just forget to put the corn on.”

“But it comes with corn.”

“But isn’t it cheaper for you to not give me corn.”

Blank stare. Another tactic.

“OK. I want the corn, but please make my sundae and then put the corn on the side of the plate. All right?”

“No, the chocolate sundae comes with corn on top and so I have to put it on top.”

“Are you going to give me a sundae without corn, or are you going to lose a sale.”

Blank stare.

“OK, I will never come back to Dairy King again.”

“Have a nice day.”

Have you ever heard of thinking outside the box?  Actually, I had this nearly exact same conversation at a pizza place here when I wanted to order just a plain cheese pizza but all of the options on the menu included some kind of meat.

“Can you just make the pizza and put the pepperoni on the side of the plate?”

“I’m sorry. The pizza must have pepperoni on the top.”

You get the picture.

So I’ve learned just to smile and accept the fact that the menu is always right and the customer is always wrong.

However, there is one aspect in which one must love Malaysia customer service. Everyone, and I mean everyone, from waiters, to servers, from car mechanics to restaurateurs,  from vendors and hawkers of all stripes – everyone calls me “boss.”

“Boss, did you order yet?”

“OK, boss.”

“Here you go, boss.”

It is very cool being the ‘boss’ if one remembers that you are actually the boss of nothing.