AS a child, Animah Kosai used to tell strangers she was from Siberia. They would pat her on the head, call her cute and ask her where she was from because of the light skin she inherited from her English mother. “I’d talk about this wonderful story about how my father was in Japan, and my mother was in England, and they travelled across the plains and met halfway in Siberia,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how much I could stretch this story and be believed.”
Today, Animah is still rebelling against the Malaysian compulsion to label people. A corporate lawyer by day and writer by night, she writes about issues like religious hypocrisy and Malaysia’s lost sense of history.
If Animah had known as much about her ancestry as she knows now, she might not have felt the need to embellish. As she told The Nut Graph, there’s a chance she’s descended from Selangor royalty on one side and a certain famous American on the other.
Where were you born, and where are your parents from?
I was born in London, and my dad is Malay [Malaysian]. My mother comes from Lancashire, in England. They got married and had me while my father was studying in London at the time, and then he started working there. So for the first six years I lived in England. And when I was seven, we came out to Kuala Lumpur and I started my schooling up until I went to university here in Malaysia. My parents come from very different backgrounds as well. My mother came from a working class farming community, and my father came from a richer, political, rising middle class in Malaya.
Can you trace your ancestry?
OK, this is interesting. A friend of mine who’s very into family trees checked through on the internet. He went further and further back and found somebody called Ball. And Ball happens to be George Washington‘s mother’s maiden name. And she came from this place somewhere in England. She’d gone to live in the colonies, then come back to England and met her husband, named Washington. So they went back to the US and got married and then they had George. And so I think, oh, am I from the same stock as George Washington (laughs)? We don’t know, but it was very amusing when we found out. At which point I immediately went and looked at George Washington’s photo and checked the nose, does it look like my nose?
My father’s family are Bugis, a Celebes (Sulawesi) stock from Indonesia. And the Bugis were known 200 years ago as the pirates of this region. And a lot of them settled in Selangor, and my father’s family are now in Johor. Apparently they were originally from the Selangor sultanate. And back in the mid 19th century there was a civil war in Selangor among the royal family, and the losing prince ran to Muar, in Johor, and apparently we come from his lineage. So I often used to say, oh, I could have been a Selangor princess. On the other hand now I’ve discovered republican roots in America!
Do you have any family stories to share?
My father’s parents were both politicians. My grandfather’s name was Datuk Kosai bin Salleh. He was one of those who wanted independence and so on from the British, and one of the young Malay men at the time who started up the movement Umno. Later, we had independence, and my grandfather continued as a state assembly[person]. After he died my grandmother took over, her name was Datin Zaharah Abdul Majid. She then ran for elections in the same constituency, and she won.
During the school holidays my parents would send me down to Muar, and I’d hang out at my grandmother’s house. And my grandmother and her eldest son lived in a very simple, [single] storey house. It had big grounds, but the gate was always open. And people would walk in at all times of the day, up until midnight there would still be people coming in, her constituents. And she never turned a single person away.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but now looking back and seeing how politicians behave today, I have tremendous admiration for my grandmother. I think she was the real kind of people’s politician and people’s representative. And you know, she would just sit on the floor with all these older women, and they would just sit and gossip and they felt so comfortable with her.
Of course, obviously they respected her, but they could talk to her like a friend. And she made sure they felt that way.
Listen to another story about Animah’s grandmother (1:06)
How does your concept of Malaysian identity come out in your playwriting?
One of the things I feel very strongly about is that in Malaysia there are so many amazing stories. There are so many issues that aren’t getting out there. If you sit and you watch TV, you would think that all we do in Malaysia is sit and drink tea and have marital arguments, and that’s it. But there are a whole lot of other issues that aren’t really being addressed. I felt I did have my own stories, stories which I felt Malaysia had and needed to hear. So, are those issues of identity? I guess they are.
What’s your ideal Malaysia of the future like?
My ideal Malaysia of the future would be where people think of people. And it’s not about money. It’s about what is good for the people of this country. So even in terms of the education system, it shouldn’t be about changing the syllabus so someone can make a lot of money churning out new textbooks. It should be about what would really help the children develop into young, creative minds and grow up and be successful and happy and make this country a better place.