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Dirty Malay phrasebook!

THIS gem was spotted on the blog of one Anthony Monteiro, the sadly underappreciated Malaysian art critic. He wrote it in November 2008, but recent events have made the subject more topical than ever, so he has consented to my reproducing his work here:

(Source: Wikipedia)
You probably know the British sextet Monty Python, whether you are an aficionado of surreal humour or not. Most famous for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a comedy stream-of-consciousness sketch show that aired on BBC from 1969 to 1974, the group’s humour adulated the unexpected. An example: the Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook. (It’s really quite dirty.)

But the brilliance of Monty Python has been much abused over the generations. Sam Anderson, in his review of Spamalot, sighs as much. Writing for, he called the Broadway adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail “the gaudy climax of a long, unfunny tradition of post-Python exploitation … that treats the old material as a series of slogans.”

Thankfully, Malaysians have been largely immune to Python oversaturation. Fans are thin here; I even thought that comedic absurdism was lost on the general public.

Lately, however, I discovered something that made me revise my assumptions.

Useful Malay phrases

Last week, passing by a newsagent’s in Central Market, I spotted a curio tucked between copies of Star and Malay Mail. It was a neat booklet — the Tourist’s Guide to Useful Malay Phrases. “Get around Kuala Lumpur without fuss!” touted a round yellow sunburst on the cover. On one of the inside pages, I discovered that it was already in its fourth edition, and that it was first published in 1998.

The title is a little misleading. Below is a selection of phrases, and their Malay-language translation, as they appear in the booklet:




Apa khabar!

Good morning.

Selamat harijadi.

What’s your name?

Di manakah kedai gunting rambut?

Excuse me.

Makanlah biskut.


Al**h ampunkan kamu.

How much is this ____?

Berapa lamakah anda menganuti agama ____?

Where’s the washroom?

Di manakah m*sj*d?

Have a nice day.

Semoga diberkati Al**h.

Would you like to dance?

Oh T*h*n, jemput sila rileks?

How do you say ____?

Adakah Al**h marah jika ____?

Call the police!

Saya cinta imam saya!

Having scanned through it, and trying not to laugh, I searched for the publisher’s name: Rias Indah Publications. There was a URL on the back cover, but entering the address returns nothing; the closest online equivalent introduced me to an urban spa for men.

It was a hoax, no doubt, albeit an elaborate one. The printing and binding, while shoddy, looked authentic enough. Little details, such as the year and number of imprints, added to the deception. The eight-page introduction was surprisingly erudite, explaining not only Malay’s roots as an Austronesian language, but the increasing Arabisation of its modern-day usage.

So imagine how authentic it would seem to a Malay-language non-speaker. I know, for a fact, that it fooled at least one.

Gullible Mat Sallehs

There was this Mat Salleh three stores away from the news-stand, you see. His accent was vaguely Eastern European, and he was a backpacker, judging from his sandals and faded T-shirt. He was trying to buy a pair of rattan-made shuttlecocks, and was attempting conversation with the souvenir shopowner with the assistance of the Guide.

It is difficult not to look at Rias Indah Publications’ little stunt without remembering Monty Python’s.

(Hovercraft © Igor Lubnevskiy; eel © Rick Hawkins)
Both scenarios end the same way, with the offending visitor being carted off by the police — in the case of our Caucasian friend, “for insulting Islam and proselytising to a Muslim”, according to the arresting officer. Our pranksters are also aware of their source material, since the phrasebook includes the whistle-blowing “My hovercraft is full of eels.” (Translation: “Orang Kristian Sabah dan Sarawak boleh pergi mampus.”)

Sadly, as in all Python-esque homage, our local version was much weaker, content-wise. The original was notable for being lewd by virtue of its situation. The Guide manages the same by being fairly literal, and relying on profanities like Al**h (this is a family-friendly website, you perverts) to produce outrage.

The one advantage of the Dirty Malay Phrasebook is that the satire plays so much to reality that it becomes real. That’s a difficult feat — but something about the Malaysian mind ensures that such artfulness is commonplace (see the Herald vs the Malaysian Home Ministry, circa Jan 2008). Monty Python happens in the reality of television; ours merely happens. 

PS: For those kind souls asking: “What happened to the nice, innocent backpacker?” Well, you can imagine the fuss this guy kicked up. A number of onlookers followed him to the police station, just to make sure the fellow was okay. The police warned him not to challenge Islam, forced an officially-sanctioned phrasebook on him, and invited him to teh tarik.

Zedeck Siew knows that the English phrase meaning “Can you direct me to the station?” is translated by the Malay phrase “Tolong raba ahli politik itu.”

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2 Responses to “Dirty Malay phrasebook!”

  1. hovercraftandeelsfan says:

    The eels and hovercraft picture made me spit out my coffee laughing. Great job!

  2. Lee kok Meng says:

    The police arresting the Mat Salleh are stupid. This is the sort of mentality we have in our beloved country only to be spoilt by such policemen and others, such as some politicians having their brains in the wrong place. The author of that booklet should be in jail.

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