WHEN Malaysians hear the name Patrick Teoh, it’s a voice, and not a face, that springs to mind. Teoh had no inkling when he landed his first radio job at Redifussion 45 years ago that he would go on to become one of Malaysia’s most recognisable voices.
“People do say sometimes, ‘Patrick, your voice is still the same as I remember. I used to tune in to you and you kept me company when I was staying up late mugging for exams’,” Teoh tells The Nut Graph. “Those times are nice, being part of someone’s life when they were growing up, it’s the best part of the job.”
Other than his many years in radio broadcasting in Redifussion and Radio 4, Teoh worked as a part-time newscaster for TV3 when it first started broadcasting the news. Teoh also appeared alongside Chow Yuen-Fatt and Jodie Foster in Anna and the King in 1999, acting as a judge. He is now a full-time actor and a member of the Instant Café Theatre Company.
Teoh also writes on his blog Niamah!!!, where he comments, sometimes caustically, on the Malaysian political scene and public affairs in general. Teoh calls his blog an “outlet” and his small contribution in trying to combat Malaysian apathy.
The Nut Graph interviewed Teoh in Petaling Jaya on 27 July 2010.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Teoh: I was born in 1947 in Ipoh. I grew up in Ipoh. I attended St Michael’s Institution from Standard One until I finished with the School Leaving Certificate. At that time, you had to take an entrance exam to do the Higher School Certificate or A-Levels. I failed the entrance exam, that’s why I didn’t go to Form Six. So there went my mother’s dreams of her son going to university.
School was not so exciting for me. Due to my physical disability, I was not involved in sports or games. I did stuff like being president of the photographic society, debating, because that’s the one thing I could do, and elocution contests.
What are your strongest memories of the place where you grew up?
When I was growing up, we felt proud of our surroundings and country. I remember I used to swell with pride when we read geography books and they said Malaysia is the world’s biggest producer of tin or Malaysia has the best road system in Southeast Asia. Ipoh, then, had the reputation of being the cleanest town in Malaysia.
I remember seeing these road-sweepers with brooms fashioned out of bamboo. The broom would consist of two sticks of bamboo, slightly curved, with the leaves still intact and about 10 to 12 feet long. The sweepers would come twice a day to clean the streets.
I also remember that Ipoh was famous for the Chinese herbal tea stalls.
(Listen to Teoh describe the Chinese herbal tea stalls)
Can you trace your ancestry? How did your grandparents come to Malaya?
My paternal grandparents I did not know very well. My paternal grandfather died when I was five. He worked for the colonial government as a chief clerk in a government department. My paternal grandmother was from China. She was one of those traditional ladies who always wore black, put her hair in a bun, and had bound feet and blue shoes. My father was born here.
My maternal grandparents were both from China. My mother was born [there]. She came over to Malaya when she was 14 years old.
My maternal grandfather died before I was born. My maternal grandmother lived until she was almost 100 years old. My best memories of her would be a humongous birthday party every year during her birthday. Our family had close to 200 people, grandchildren included, who’d come back from all parts of the country to celebrate in this huge mansion they had. They were very wealthy – they owned rubber estates and were involved in tin mining.
My father and mother were both Eng Choon Hokkien.
Are there any stories you hold on to from your family?
My mother told me about her life when she was a little girl in China. Back in those days, the family hierarchy system was very strict. At any meal, none of the daughters were allowed to eat at the first sitting. That was reserved for the mother, father and male offspring. Whatever they left behind became the girls’ meals. They were also not given rice, but gruel. Or they would be given leftover rice from the previous meal, added with hot water, for bulk.
It’s not that they were treated badly by their parents, they weren’t, but that was the way it was. Of course, going to school was reserved for males. They were not allowed to go out or go to school. All my mother’s sisters were not educated, including her, except for her youngest sister, who was born here.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with as a Malaysian?
I didn’t use to have any struggles at all being a Malaysian. But nowadays, I ask myself, what does being a Malaysian actually mean? I never had that problem before.
Until 15 or 16 years ago, I was a staunch supporter of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the Barisan Nasional government. I had no problems with bumiputera status. I thought, simplistically and naively, I suppose, that being a citizen of a country with rich and poor, those richer have a duty towards those poorer. The NEP as a concept was very noble. It was supposed to lift people up to an average level.
But about 15 years ago or so, my feelings changed. Like many other Malaysians, I begin to see so much abuse. The NEP is not doing what I feel it should do; it’s not benefiting anyone that it should. We’re still the same as we were. And there’s this growing sense that I’m being asked to contribute more and get less.
Sure, we’re called pendatang, [by] clowns [who] say this. But after a while, you begin to feel that maybe it’s not just the clowns who are saying this, maybe it’s the government of the day who is also beginning to feel that way. Maybe it’s the government that actually wants people to believe that.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you’d like for yourself and for future generations.
We’re not that difficult a country to handle if only the politicians would stop politicising everything. We are blessed [with] so many resources, we should have built paradise on earth by now. Why is it that we are still the way we are? There is still abject poverty, there’s a wide gap between the middle class and the poor growing every day. We have an education system that does not work, and a public transport system that’s a joke. Why?
We have everything to make everybody have a very comfortable life. We only have 28 million people. For years and years, we’ve had Petronas making billions, pumping oil like crazy, where’s that money gone to? Without being an economist, you would know that with the money Malaysia generates from its resources – palm oil, petroleum, tin – we are more than capable of building a wonderful country where everybody can partake of the fruits of the resources. So, it must be the management of the country that’s at fault, not the people.
We need to go back to the basics. [Take the film-making industry.] Like in so many other things, Malaysia was the leading film-making country in Southeast Asia not so many years ago, [surpassing Thailand and Singapore]. We were exporting our people to the Middle East, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Now, less than 20 years later, Thailand has a booming movie industry which is becoming recognised globally. Singapore is also the same. Where is Malaysia?
The Thai and Singaporean governments recognised the film-making industry’s role in bringing in foreign investment and technology transfer to the local industry. They actively backed the film industry in Thailand and Singapore. In Malaysia, the government talked about it and never did anything about it.
What is your Merdeka wish this year?
My Merdeka wish is one that I’ve made for more than 20 years, and which still hasn’t come true. That we will be one bangsa Malaysia, instead of always having to be defined as Chinese, Indian, Malay, lain-lain, Muslim, non-Muslim.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.
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