Tag Archives: malaysia

Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012


During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.


I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”


I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012

Missive #11 – Tragedies of Exile

12 Jul

Those nice folk at The Expat will be running my article ‘Tragedies of Exile’ in two parts over August and September. It’s a series of interviews conducted with expatriates in different parts of Asia, all of whom are escaping from some difficulty or another. But don’t worry, it’s not too miserable. Actually some of the interviewees are quite funny.

Missive #9 – Around Malaysia in Eight Dishes

12 Jun

My article celebrating Malaysian cuisine is now appearing in The Expat magazine. Entitled ‘Around Malaysia in Eight Dishes’ (see what I did there with the punning title?), the online version can be found here.

Let There Be Something or Nothing

9 May

He is looking for the signs. All he needs to see are oddities or inconsistencies in the city he is so familiar with. Then he will know whether he is really the draughtsman of his own reality or a sketch in someone else’s, some organising force or entity. Then he will have solved mankind’s greatest mystery. The first day of the new millennium seems like a good time for it to happen. Let’s test the predictions of a legion of oracles, druids and laudanum fops, see if they got anything right. And if some revelation is forthcoming then it might as well arrive on a blank slate, when there is a primal glow to every clock on every computer: 0:00, 01/01/00.

Will the signs be hidden behind the quotidian just to make things more interesting? Or will they be gaudily visible like the gold and green deities on pimped-up Delhi rickshaws? He has to be eagle-eyed.

Plotting some course must surely be inappropriate. Instead he trusts in his instinct which pulls him this way and that way like a rodeo bull. The destinations smack of bipolar disorder. He finds himself in the compulsive bustle of Pekeliling Station, rubbernecking bus drivers, and then suddenly he’s getting off the LRT at a sloping, windless suburb in Jalan Petaling where he meditates on the crazed array of insect sounds. Wherever he goes he is surrounded by the melioristic skyline of rocketships licking the stratosphere.

He moves in grey-suited anonymity, fedora forbidding positive ID. It hasn’t escaped him that today there might be other forces at work for whom the signs could spell profit or advantage. There might also be parties whose interest it is to preserve the status quo, to stop him detecting the explosive truth. Near-delirious by the time he reaches Chinatown, he ponders the Homelands Food Court and grabbing some pig’s intestines on the fly. But there’s no time for that. He stands outside a luridly overpriced bar listening to the sotto offbeats and crosswind melodies of the gamelan. Nothing unusual there.

A door with a sign reading NO SEX NAVIGATION PLEASE opens and he gets a waft of computer game white noise – crowd groans, gun cracks, wench squeals. The silicon god boxes to whom spotty acolytes prostrate themselves.

He notes down the first possibility: the roof-hugging rollercoaster in Time Square is out of order, a first as far as he can remember. What can that mean? Doesn’t matter. The correct thing to do right now is to listen and absorb.

A blind man wearing a Bin Laden T-shirt sits beneath the Petronas Twin Towers, playing a kendang drum which, by the arid state of his cap, hasn’t earned him a single sen.

Near there a huge screen shows trailers for US action films all starring people who look distinctly like nightclub bouncers. High above in the sky the trails of aeroplanes almost form a cross but on second glance they are more crooked like a pair of scissors.

He joins a crowd near Maharajelela station to look at a brilliant aura that has formed around the sun. He is disappointed to be told that this is an optical effect of ice crystals in tropospheric clouds.

He wonders if the animals might know something. He once heard a spaced-out Dutchman talk on a relaxation CD about how whales have evolved a more complex language than humans and a more complete understanding of reality. In the zoo he studies the backs of cobras as they sleep coiled up in their tanks. He gazes and gazes but the psychedelic patterns don’t strike him as the elaborate work of a prime mover. He doesn’t feel like he is being drawn through the doors of perception.

An obvious destination – maybe too obvious – is the National Mosque. Might the old creeds and their talk of fate, divine intervention, providence and submission still have some relevance? He strolls between the precise, star-shaped fountains until he reaches the entrance. He has missed the public visiting time.

It is conveniently close to the National Museum of History where he muses over the succession of maps made by explorers who came to region over the years. This was a kind of reality-making of course, and usually to strict ideological spec. The early cartographers consciously downsized India and Africa. Those globes on European desktops were always for closet megalomaniacs – touch and spin your very own Earth!

A giant inflatable grouper fish promoting a cellphone company bobs along the roof of the new media plaza outside Bukit Bintang. Smaller fish, buoyed by helium, are released from the backs of transit vans and crowd together before taking leave of the ground forever, probably to be found days later deflated and wrapped round the blade of a helicopter. Some referential tuning fork is struck deep inside him. Fish multiplying. The signs might be going old-school.

In another mall, he doesn’t care which one because there are so many, he takes a translucent elevator which goes so fast his ears pop. From it he can see the operations of perhaps the greatest world religion playing out on a big screen. Sculpted shamen work their magic and conduct time-honoured rituals inducing ecstasy in onlookers. He shoots, he scores!

There are peculiar shops selling weapons like numchucks, silver-plated blowpipes and replica handguns. Traders offer him superhero T-shirts, military-style binoculars, belts, cigarette cases, intricate pen knives, scale models of the Very Important Towers.

An Indian guy seizes him by the hand, makes as if he is about to perform reflexology but instead studies his palm. “You will live long and be healthy,” he says predictably. He pauses and then adds, “Don’t worry about questions that might not have answers.”

He keeps on through the afternoon. His route ends up a formless scribble on the map: next up is Jalan Tamingsari, then a swing back to KTM Station, then southwest to the Lake Gardens, a radical swerve towards the Merdeka Stadium, on to Jalan Davis, Jalan Raja Chulan and then a leap back into the core of the city, back to Chinatown and the Colonial District. But it’s just another normal day all around KL, with a pinch more excitement than usual given the festivities looming. Inner critics question his choice of location. Why not Angkor or Borobodur; some place sparkling with mystical tradition? But the new signs, if they are to be relevant to the modern mindset, are more likely to appear in a modern milieu.

Night creeps up slowly in this eternal summer, so there is always a long intermission before darkness proper. He sees the omnipotent shine of the golden arches – there must be a record number in this city – and the guiding star of a sportswear advert projected against an office block. There’s the colonel beaming at him and him only: Maybe I have the answers, kid! Pizzas and footballs and chopsticks: the hieroglyphics of seduction. A neon terrain of leisure lifestyle designed by the West, adapted by the East and known by almost everyone on Earth. A small part of him is jealous of those who can submit to all this with blissful ignorance, those for whom cosmology ends at the supermarket till.

At five minutes to twelve he returns to his Chinese hotel where twosomes can rent rooms on an hourly basis. His quest to understand the signs forced him to change his life some time ago, to cut of the ties most normal people retain. Thus all week his phone has been beeping a symphony. Pleas by text message and mobile phone.

Where have you been call me and let’s go out for a few drinks you seemed like you needed it last time I saw you which was a long time ago hu-llo? hu-llo? don’t make me beg I just need to know you’re OK that’s all I’m not prying into yur private business I’m sure you have your own reasons your daughter needs to see you and you’ve skipped the last five weeks this is an important age for her she needs a father figure especially since we got the divorce son? son? I can’t get to Giant to do my shopping son I need your help you know I do og hello sir can you please call me back at the office concerning taxes owed for the revius three financal years much appreciated sir be reasonable friend I know you’kll say something like we don’t live in an age of reason but just meet me for ten minutes and we can sort this all out

He half-listens, half-cares. The messages are distant, unreal. Thay are petty trivia the rest of those numbskulls care so much about but don’t realise the futility of – careers, money, families, relationships. These things will not be the decoys that throw him off the scent of the signs.

He wipes the dust off the mirror and is shocked by his changed physiognomy. The key features – lips, nose, chin – have lost their association with one another and appear scavenged from different heads. The eyes have expanded and reddened like a firebrand preacher’s. The skin is the same though, its creamy ambiguity an outward reflection of the cultural slippage and identity confusion that set him on this chase in the first place.

He needs to relax himself, eject the tension of the day. He strips down to his underpants now so worn that one of his testicles hangs out of a big hole in them. He doesn’t care. He passes a pythonesque shit into the toilet and admires its girth and length for some time.

While the TV counts down he masturbates to a mind-parade of women’s faces. One of them is the assistant in his local 7/11, others include Bollywood actresses and even distant relatives. He comes on precisely the stroke of midnight as the fireworks are launched and the crowd goes untamed. The camera pulls back to show helicopters dropping powder paint in the colours of the national flag. People in the local dress of each state release balloons which are blown into an arcing pattern by the vagaries of the breeze.

Presently he slips into bed. He mustn’t dwell on the day’s happenings at all and risk importing his own opinions into this project. He will murder to dissect the truth of the signs which will only appear to him on their own terms. He must listen and absorb.

But he has no choice when it comes to his dreams. Wheels of life spinning. Sacred pillars throbbing with significance. Arks and saints and sinners. A garuda with wings of fire eating a wild-eyed snake. Monkey tricksters. Deities manifested in all the elements.


The signs continue to elude him into the new year and he enters a dark period of fretting over how they will appear. He needs to experience a major miracle, or a major disaster, something he could never conceive of himself. He has to be shown things of such complexity and wonder that he couldn’t have imagined them himself, couldn’t have been the godhead behind it all. But it’s a matter of interpretation; there have been plenty of miracles and disasters and things of complexity and wonder but which were the Real McCoy? Which could be taken down as evidence?

He starts to take out his frustrations on the unsuspecting. He makes a beast of himself. Back in that Chinatown food court he steals the tin from a beggar on crutches and sprints cackling into the night. He tells another beggar elsewhere that he can’t give him one ringgit because he only carries fifty notes.

He hangs around outside hotels to meet tourists who are about to go trekking into the interior. He misinforms them that the indigenous people they will encounter don’t speak Malay or English. He gives them a few phrases in an entirely made-up language of his own devising. A couple of days later the newspapers report on tourists thought to have lost their minds in remote villages talking gibberish and getting angry that the locals can’t understand them.

The schadenfreude of this keeps him mildly entertained and his mind off the profound questions, the signs. But he is soon thinking about them again…


Ten months later he is sat in a bar watching an audacious act of violence against a symbol of Western prosperity. Alcohol has always produced one or other of two feelings in him: pathetic empathy or icy neutrality. Tonight it is neutrality. He is surprised that the terrorists didn’t aim for a more populous target but then he suspects that that might not have been the point. A practical military victory was probably deemed less useful than a terrifying image, a sign….

His head zips back to the drummer beneath Petronas. Had that been a prediction and therefore a clue that he was looking out for the right things?

The years go by, bringing with them more potential signs. His spirits improve to a level where he now thinks he didn’t waste all that time searching. There is more terror closer to home along the border with Thailand and in nearby Bali. An old schoolfriend loses his life in the latter incident. Then a cataclysm that could have been from the apocalyptic phase of a holy book – the tsunami that mercilessly sinks islands, drowns whole tribes.

He is sure he would never have conjured so much suffering if he controlled the universe. The human subject might interpret the external world with its cognitive models but that is something quite different to creating the external world from scratch. So much responsibility there! So he plays with the scary notion that maybe there is a higher power and it is irrational and barbaric. But the alternative theory is scarier: that irrationality and barbarism is the result of random chance.

That night he has the most vivid dream of his life. He watches himself roam an endless volcanic landscape. He calls out but only echoes answer him. He looks to the sky which is devoid of a sun, a moon or stars. Only a murky light allows him to see the scabrous ground underfoot. It is a sad, desperate place and he is compelled to cry desperately. His tears fall to the ground and become puddles which expand until they become lakes which in turn form tributaries and rivers. At the edges of the water he begins to sculpt the sand into little hills. They grow into vast mountains and craggy gorges and swooning valleys. He looks up again and now a sun has appeared and he feels warmth and the new world is illuminated in a rich range of colours. He urinates and the sky follows his lead, lavishing life-giving liquid upon the landscape. Crops sprout at an amazing speed as do herbs and flowers and trees. Soon there is a kingdom of animals.

Feeling wholly satisfied he watches himself turn slowly translucent like a failing hologram, until he disappears altogether in a shroud of steam. The steam disperses upward into the atmosphere.

The next day he decides to take his destiny into his own hands. He quits all his responsibilities in this city – not a difficult process – and travels to Java where the bus takes him through rutted slums with birdcages hanging from their barbed wire balconies, where laundry is drooped over power cables and babies sleep in hammocks made from old flags. There is an all-pervading smell of smoke.

The countryside beyond cheers him up a little with its dramatic scenes of workers gathering sticks from manure-blackened fields sustained by groaning irrigation machines set in stone circles. He thinks about how different this is to home, how there is so much variety in the world.

As soon as he gets to Bali he notices a better quality of light which shows off the lushness of the vegetation, organized vaguely by rows of canes and streaming white flags to ward off pests. People in straw hats fish in the marshy lagoons carved out by low tide movements. The gentle, stained-glass sea seems to be the backdrop wherever he goes, it is always the same, always there. With little or no regulation the traffic flows across bridges, down country lanes, along beachfronts. The vehicles nudge one another for pole position, a scooter sliding between a bemo and an oncoming farm truck, an old Mercedes cutting off a motorcade carrying Hindu youths in head bands. But there are no accidents, no hard feelings. Everything goes on. Everything is as it looks. Everything is as it should be.

He arrives at a new, good, simple life. He will work at a beachfront bar, drink beer, smoke ganja, swim, soak up the sun and not think. He will unclutter his mind of meaning. He will accept the reality of appearances. He will not long for things that aren’t there, signs that may or may not exist.

(First published in Urban Odysseys: KL Stories)

Mat Sellahs With Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

7 Mar

Mat Sallehs with Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

Francois Truffaut said ‘every film should say something about life and something about film.’ Since the 1930s and the golden age of B.S. Rajhans, Malaysian films have had much to say about Malaysian life. But what happens when Westerners get behind the camera? Have their portrayals of the country been positive, negative, fair-minded, inaccurate? How have such movies changed over the years?

One of the earliest offerings was Four Frightened People (1934) directed by Cecil B DeMille, Hollywood autocrat and master of the biblical epic. Four Americans wash up in the jungles of Borneo, having left their collective sense of shame on the boat. Cue plenty of close-up kisses and half-naked frolicking in waterfalls – about as racy as the movies could get back then. Four Frightened People taps into a long-held Western delusion that the East is just one big steamy, licentious free-for-all. As we’ll see later, this delusion persists today. Despite being set in Malaysia, Four Frightened People was in fact filmed in Hawaii and the native characters played by Japanese…

Film noir is a genre one usually associates with American cities, not rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. However, The Letter (1940) stars femme fatale Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the homicidal wife of a colonial administrator (Herbert Marshall) in Singapore. The opening montage – beautifully shot on location – is all cockatoos, coolies and rubber trickling from branches. Based on the play by W Somerset Maugham, The Letter climaxes with Marshall announcing his plan to buy a property in Sumatra. The problem is his wife has paid all their money to a blackmailer in possession of a letter that incriminates her…

In the 1950s and ‘60s, World War II became a favourite subject. Filmed in both Malaysia and Australia, A Town Like Alice (1956) was based on the bestselling Nevil Shute novel and starred Virginia McKenna and future Academy Award winner Peter Finch. Jean Paget (McKenna) is living and working in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade. She survives the rest of the war thanks to her fluency in the Malay language and desire to engage with local ways. After the war is over, her ‘Malayophilia’ prompts her to return to the country to build a well for the orang asli.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958), made by British B-movie studio Hammer, has the politically incorrect strapline: ‘Jap War Crimes Exposed!’ That sort of sums it up really: allied POWs endure torture and humiliation in a prison camp in occupied British Malaya – not the greatest advertisement for the country! Although not a classic, The Camp on Blood Island’s graphic realism was very much ahead of its time.

Jumping ahead in time, the thriller Turtle Beach (1992) remains the most controversial Western flick to have engaged with local politics. Greta Scacchi plays a journalist investigating the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Pulau Bidong. Both the Malaysian government and elements of the Australian media lambasted the scene in which refugees are murdered by Malaysian policemen. While noting the talents of the lead actresses – Australian Greta Scacchi and Chinese-American Joan Chen – the critical reception was generally poor.

Entrapment (1999) is an altogether more light-hearted – and superficial – affair. A confused mixture of romantic comedy, Bond rip-off (apt then that Sean Connery stars) and crime caper, there is at least a gripping heist beneath the Petronas Towers and some stunning shots of attractions like KLCC, Bukit Jalil Station and the Malacca River. One wonders if Entrapment works better as a tourist information film.

Return to Paradise (1998) plays on the greatest fear of the hedonistic Western backpacker: getting busted for drugs. A suspenseful set-up is marred by poor research – the loose local women, gang violence and drinking culture make you wonder if writer Bruce Robinson has confused Malaysia with, well, somewhere else entirely. Robinson may well have brought his own interests into this script – he was, after all, responsible for the the cult British comedy Withnail & I (1986) which follows the (mis)fortunes of two alcoholic actors. Like other Western movies before it, Return to Paradise exoticises Malaysia as a sensuous land of easy thrills, yet when the protagonist (Joaquin Phoneix) falls foul of the law, we are presented with an authoritarian hell. Anyone who’s spent half an hour in Malaysia knows both conceptions are bunk!

Jungles of carnal abandon, mysterious plantations, brutal prison camps, island paradises – Western films have imagined Malaysia in many different ways over the last eighty years. But whereas Malaysian-made films have tended to say something about Malaysia, Western films about Malaysia have tended to say more about Western preoccupations.

First published in The Expat, October 2011