Categorised | Found in Malaysia

Resisting the force-fitters

Raf smiling, side profile
Rafidah Abdullah (all pics courtesy of Rafidah Abdullah)

AFTER graduating from University of Malaya with a Bachelor of Laws degree, Rafidah Abdullah entered the entertainment field as one of the original presenters of 3R, an infotainment programme for young women. She began writing scripts for 3R and went on to write for other television programmes such as Satelit, Generasi, Table For Two, Impian Illyana, and Kami.

In 2002, Rafidah received a Chevening scholarship to pursue her Masters in Scriptwriting at Goldsmiths College in the University of London. Since her return in 2006, Rafidah has continued hosting 3R, and has been appointed Unicef ambassador for Malaysia along with her 3R co-hosts.

With co-stars from Gol & Gincu. Rafidah plays a tomboy
character, Zie. “Hidup tomboy!”

Rafidah wrote and appeared in the critically acclaimed film Gol & Gincu (2005), which was nominated for Best Screenplay at the 19th Malaysian Film Festival. The film was followed up with a TV series of the same title, for which Rafidah was head writer. Her second screenplay was Pisau Cukur (2009). She also appears in a cameo role in the film Susuk (2008).

Rafidah has just finished a semester of teaching Film Script Analysis at Sunway University College, and is currently working on her next screenplay. She tells The Nut Graph about her growing-up years and her hopes for Malaysia, in this e-mail interview on 13 May 2010.

TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Rafidah Abdullah: I was born in Assunta Hospital in 1976, and grew up in Damansara Utama (DU). I went to Sekolah Rendah Kebangsaan DU, then to Sekolah Menengah DU, did my Form 6 in Sekolah Menengah Sultan Abdul Samad, and continued my tertiary education at Universiti Malaya. I still live and work in Petaling Jaya. Yup, I’m one of those people who never left their small town, though I’m lucky that my small town grew up to become a city.

Can you trace your ancestry?

On my father’s side, I have Malay, Bugis and Arab ancestry. My grandfather’s maternal grandfather was an Arab merchant from Mecca who settled in Terengganu and married a local. Their daughter, my great-grandmother, even spent some time in Mecca visiting her Arab cousins. However, that familial connection is now lost.

This great-grandmother later married a Bugis merchant who also settled in Terengganu. According to my father, local people called him Che Long Pah Kelah (Che Long First Class), because apparently he was a man who appreciated the finer things in life. He was always smartly dressed, and his house was the largest and finest in the village.

Unfortunately this great-grandfather passed on while my grandfather was still a child, and with him went our Bugis family connection.

My half-Bugis, quarter-Arab and quarter-Malay grandfather then married my grandmother, a Malay, whose father was also a trader. So actually I come from quite a long line of merchants, but unluckily for me I have inherited not an ounce of business sense from any of them.

Rafidah, being embraced by her grandfather, with her extended family on her mother’s side

On my mother’s side, genetically the link is unknown. My mother, who was born in Rawang, had been given up as a baby and taken into the care of my Malay grandfather and his wife. This grandfather was a high-ranking police [officer] under the British.

My grandparents had no children of their own, and adopted three girls several years apart. Interestingly, none of the three sisters look Malay, and in fact my youngest aunt does have some Siamese blood. My mother never knew her biological family, but she is of the philosophy that it’s really a moot point by now.

What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?

Rafidah with her mother

I remember I used to walk to school and back, crossing a road that is now the eight-lane [Damansara-Puchong Highway]. In my free time I used to walk to Atria Shopping Centre in Damansara Jaya, crossing the road that is now the [New Klang Valley Expressway]. My old neighbourhood now bears little resemblance to the place I knew, but this is not something I dwell on too much. Things change, and you need to accept that in order to move on. You don’t stay the same, why should everything else?

The strongest memory is an incident that happened when I was in kindergarten. One day in class, one of the kindergarten assistants came in laughing, holding a pair of shorts. She proceeded to tell our teacher what had happened. One of the boys in the other class had frustrated his teacher so much that she had called him up to the front of the classroom and pulled off his shorts. The boy hadn’t any underwear on, causing much hilarity among the witnesses.

I distinctly remember the horrified feeling in the pit of my stomach as I listened. I felt so sorry for that poor, poor boy. It was the first time that I understood, sharply, the scars that you can cause others through your thoughtlessness. I still wonder about that boy to this day — about if and how that incident has affected him and his life.

What stories do you hold on to the most from your family?

Rafidah with her parents and brother

Though we were not explicitly taught it, in their own ways my parents set strong examples for critical thinking. My mother has always been a very independent thinker.

One story she told us of her school days took place during [religious] class.

The ustaz very firmly told the students that indulging in anything harmful was haram. My mother piped up and said, “Jadi hisap rokok tu haram la ya, ustaz?” To which the ustaz, glaring at her, snapped, “Siapa kata?” My mother didn’t argue with him, but she knew there and then that she would continue to think for herself. Of course, this was way before the unenforced fatwa banning Muslims from smoking.

My parents and grandparents are also keen followers of politics. I remember, as a teenager, having to listen to my paternal grandfather drone on and on about politics every time we saw him when we balik kampung.

One time, I told him, “I don’t care about politics!” He smiled at me and said, “But you must! If you live in this country, you must care about politics!” After which, he went off on another long rant about Umno, PAS, and sistem feudal this and sistem feudal that.

Little did I know that one day I would come to understand what he was talking about, and I would start caring very much.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?

Rafidah (middle) with 3R co-hosts, Kartini Kamalul
Ariffin (left) and Celina Khor

I don’t struggle with my identity. I am what I am — no more, no less. I do the best I can with what I’ve been given, which is what any of us can hope to do.

What bugs me is when other people struggle with my identity, and then, rather than try to understand me as a person, they force-fit me into their preconceived ideas and expectations. “Wow, you’re very smart for a Malay [Malaysian]!” “You are too smart for a girl la…” “Kawan dengan Cina, makan pun makanan Cina…” “Easy for you la, you’re bumi…” “Of course they will give you the scholarship, you are a celebrity what!”

How is it that people can say these things without the slightest notion of how ignorant and offensive they’re being? And why are these people my friends?

I don’t understand people who are unduly proud of being Chinese/Malay/Indian/white/black, etc. How can you be proud of an accident of birth? You didn’t earn your Chineseness/Malayness/Indianness, so what is there to be so proud of? Sure, “your people” may have achieved all sorts of great and wonderful things, but “your people” could just as easily have been “other people” if fate had decided to park you on their side of the planet.

The same goes for patriotism. You can love your country, but to have the attitude that it’s better than all other countries just because it happens to be the country you were born in is a bit conceited, no?

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

I want a Malaysia run by a political party with a “lelaki” wing, and this is the wing that handles food, drinks and menial labour for all the party events. And I want a Kementerian Pembangunan Lelaki, Keluarga dan Masyarakat, which will run workshops targeted at preventing boys from turning into rempit, rapists and incestuous fathers.

Honestly, it’s a losing battle working on women’s issues when people won’t even acknowledge men’s issues. favicon

See also: How 3R changed Malaysian TV

Read other Found in Malaysia interviews

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7 Responses to “Resisting the force-fitters”

  1. Lainie says:

    I particularly liked the answer to the last question! Kelakar

  2. Azmi says:

    It might seem a losing battle but since the days of 3R, it has started to open eyes of the wider public to gender issues. Yes, there is still a long way away before there is any semblance of acknowledging the existence of men’s issues, but the mere presence of activists in the field has pricked many a mind.

  3. Jay Robert says:

    Tweaked by your final suggestion! Haha…

  4. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    MY GOD! I miss you girl!

    I did wonder if they are ever going to do an interview with you.

    But hey, what happened to the “my mother’s a statutory Malay” line? ;-J

    Anyways woman, there aren’t that many people I’d vote for in Malaysia. But if you run for politics, I’ll vote you. Aku sumpah demi Allah.

    My regards to Izrin — if you guys are still in touch.

  5. malaysian-fan says:

    i honestly suspect Rafidah is of a mixed lineage (i.e. her mom being Chinese, Siamese or something exotic). 🙂

  6. Borneo boy says:

    People will be suspicious and envious when scholarships are awarded based first on race. It would be more acceptable if factors like merit and financial need come first. Why is that not acceptable to the majority? Why?

  7. Joanna G Asson says:

    “How is it that people can say these things without the slightest notion of how ignorant and offensive they’re being?”

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