Categorised | Found in Malaysia

You Melayu? Betul?

IN this new section called Found in Malaysia, The Nut Graph talks to notable Malaysians about their roots in our shared land. By asking notable personalities to tell stories about being Malaysian, we hope to answer these questions: Who is a pendatang? Who is a native? What makes a Malaysian? Why do we call Malaysia home?

In our first Found in Malaysia interview, we spoke to Zalfian Fuzi, Instant Cafe Theatre Company associate director.

ZALFIAN Fuzi, 27, has been associate director for Instant Cafe Theatre Company (ICT) since early 2006.

Armed with a masters in theatre directing from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (Gits), Moscow, and Middlesex University, London, he helps ICT founder Jo Kukathas helm their FIRSTWoRKS programme. The programme aims to develop new writing for the Malaysian stage about Malaysian concerns.

In this candid interview, Zalfian shares what it means to him to be who he is as a Malaysian.

TNG: Where were you born?

I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at a maternity clinic called Klinik Sambhi (pronounces it “zombie”). Not “zombie” like, you know, monsters. I think it’s spelt with an “S”. I need to find out the actual name from my mother. (It’s Sambhi Clinic & Nursing Home, Jalan Medan Tuanku, Kuala Lumpur.)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up all over the world. With my family, I was always in capital cities: KL, the Hague, Canberra, (Washington,) DC, Dhaka, then back to KL. And for my studies — Philadelphia, London, and Moscow. You know, my older sister was born in Moscow, during my father’s first posting overseas in the 1970s.

Why did you grow up in all these countries?

My father is a diplomat. He works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will be retiring in 2009.

Zalfian's father, Tan Sri Ahmad Fuzi Razak, former Secretary-General (KSU) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Pics courtesy of Zalfian Fuzi)

Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents from?

My great grandfather on my father’s side was from Yemen. From what they tell me, he was a trader. He had a wife in Yemen, but when he came to Malaya, at the time, he did some trading and then took another wife. And that’s how we started here, in Penang.

What about your mum?

My mum as well, she’s from the north. Born in Taiping. My father was born in Sungai Bakap and throughout his life he moved around a lot in Peninsular Malaysia. Then later on, only [his family] settled down in Kuala Kangsar. So for me, when I say balik kampung, I mean Kuala Kangsar.

Has anyone in your family met with the family in Yemen?

Yes, two of my uncles and two of my aunties with my grandmother went about three years ago, to trace the family history. So they went through [this person my grandmother knew] and they met the entire generation there. They went to the village of Busraa. My family was known as the Al-Yafa, as in, from the region of Yafa. My uncle told me that in Yemen, your last name is based on the region where you are from. It’s really fascinating. Anyway, I didn’t go on the trip. They came back with a lot of photos and a whole family tree. It was like a mile long. It’s amazing.

Zalfian's Yemeni relatives (L-R): Ali Mohamad Salim Kassim (of the Kassim clan), Siti Aishah (paternal grandmother), Fauziah Razak (Zalfian's Malaysian aunt), Faizah Razak (Zalfian's Malaysian aunt), Najmi Razak (Zalfian's Malaysian uncle), Mohsein Husin Nadji

Zalfian's late great grandfather's residence in Yemen before coming to Malaya.The building is more than 300 years old

What is your strongest memory growing up?

My strongest memory was the first time I saw racism. This was in Washington, DC. It was 1989, and we were on the playground, playing. And there was an African American boy. He was in my class, and there were some other boys in my class, in my grade, it was like Grade Three or Grade Four.

The playground is covered in mulch, soft chips of wood, so that if you jump and fall, you don’t hurt yourself. And they (the white boys) grabbed his head, shoved it and made him eat the stuff. I felt so sorry for the boy, and I was just shocked. And it was happening because he was African American. It was horrifying, and I still think about it to this day.

What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents that were told to you when you were growing up?

My father’s stories about his childhood. We were a poor family, on both sides. My father would tell me stories about him growing up, because he was the eldest, how he had to walk three miles to school, how he was so poor that he didn’t have a white shirt to wear to school. And he couldn’t afford to buy white school shoes, so he always wore his sandals and he would always get caught by the prefects.

[And he would ask] his father for money to buy a white shirt, because his shirt wasn’t white, it was beige, [and] his father got so angry. [Not] because he didn’t want to give him the money, but his father was angry at himself for not being able to give the money.

And [there are] my father’s stories about growing up in the Malay kampung. Simple things that boys did like climbing up the coconut tree — I can’t see my father climbing up a coconut tree (chuckles). But he did, you know, and he’s a real Malay gentleman from that generation.

Tan Sri Ahmad Fuzi Razak (Zalfian's father) and Khadijah Mohd Nor (mother) after meeting Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in her palace, 1970s

How do you connect with your father’s stories as a Malaysian? What meaning do these stories have for you now?

I think I try to emulate a lot of that.

I’ve gone to 10 different schools in my life because I was moving so much. I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve seen the most expensive, grand things, to the poorest, saddest things. I’ve lived in America and Australia and I’ve seen poverty like you’ve never seen before in a country like Bangladesh. Every single day the moment you step out of the gates of your house, poor people are just running up to you.

And I’ve always appreciated that [I have] an understanding of different cultures, religions, people, and backgrounds. And I know where I am and I think that’s why I put a lot of work into what I do because I know that it’s not easy. Because my father used to always tell me, “Life is a struggle.” Life in the Darwinian sense.

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

I think it’s my work. I mean, say I tell them I do theatre. Or that I direct. “Oh, TV? Film? Which movie? Acting? Oh, I’ve never seen you.”

Zalfian is obviously too short for Tom Selleck. Hollywood, 1989

I think the whole concept is still quite alien to some people but it is getting a lot more prominent now. As much as I hate reality TV and all this kind of stuff, I think it has done something good in the sense that it’s raised the whole profile of the arts and the performing arts, that people do it.

In terms of who I am, as in racially or whatever, I don’t think I have issues. It’s more that people wonder who I am or where I’m from, and I get that a lot. I find it surprising it still happens today. People are like, “You Melayu? Betul?” I find it surprising that people think it odd that you can be Malay or Chinese or Indian when you look slightly different. We’re all mixed anyway. I would have thought that by now people would be accustomed to this.

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

[I want] a Malaysia that is undamaged, environmentally. [A] lot of this is irreversible. [And] I can’t imagine a Malaysia without rainforests.

There’s nothing wrong with development. [But] I don’t think development is just about engineering feats. I think a society that is developed is a thinking society that can reason critically and communicate effectively. I’m worried about us constructing a society that is so one-sided that the soul is left behind. That’s why the only thing that we can do here is go shopping. What else does KL offer, culturally?

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3 Responses to “You Melayu? Betul?”

  1. J says:

    I wonder why so many Yemenis left Yemen as traders in those days. Because when you read about Arabs in Malaysia and Indonesia in those days, the Arabs were overwhelmingly Yemenis.

  2. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Regarding his last answer: KL and other Malaysian cities need more greenspace – parks and such. The KLCC park is nice because it’s in the center of the city (obviously) and very accessible. And a remark my cousin made after coming back from college in the US: “Malaysians always hang out in malls.” All these rich Mat Sallehs come to our country to go jungle trekking – do they know something we don’t?

  3. elfin says:

    Dear Zalfian Fuzi,

    I was born in Kota Tinggi, Johor on 12 May 1949, Johor. My mom was born in Mersing, Johor. Dad, now deceased, was born in India.

    Went to school, 1st year in Muar, and the rest in Kluang. I was in KL during the May 13th riots. Saw some very ugly scenes. Being alienated and ostracised as a non-bumiputra, and denied equal status, job openings and promotions, I left the country in 1979.

    Today, I would like to return. I can afford to pay myself a ‘pension’ of RM10,000-plus a month for the next 25 years, buy a decent property for about RM400,000 or RM500,000, and have more than enough to invest in the local economy. I have the knowledge, expertise and finance to create employment, employ Malaysians, have the ability to communicate and trade comfortably with English, French and Dutch-speaking nations.

    Do I want to? Do I know of many, many more Malaysians of Indian and Chinese descent, and even a few Malays, and indeginous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak, who are in the same boat and would love to come ‘home’? Yes, my friend.

    I have kept in touch, like many others, of events in Malaysia. Almost on a daily basis. We see changes in the minds of many. In their writings and their despair. We see the pain and anguish expressed by many about their children’s education, their future wellbeing and oppurtunities.

    We cannot even begin to comprehend the mentality and often-times absolute ‘madness’ which the UMNO-MCA-MIC entity subjugates the Malaysian public to. I am appalled at the use of the ISA to bully, imprison and torture any Malaysian who dares question or criticise the ruling coalition. I am disgusted at the corruption that is part and parcel of the country’s elite, police, judiciary, etc.

    But, as a non-bumiputra, I will never be made to feel, or be accepted, as a citizen of equal standing.

    My father was not a diplomat. He was an everyday, ordinary teacher. He gave and worked all his life to educate and shape generations of Malaysians of all faiths and races. He died a broken man watching the divisions and ugliness perpetuated by the so-called ruling elite, in his beloved adopted country and on its beautiful, gentle people.

    I have returned many a time, to visit my mom and pay my respects at my father’s grave. And what do I see? Oh yes, fine buildings, fantastic highways, superb hotels and holiday chalets. Sadly, perhaps the saddest, is the more pronounced divisions amongst its people. We used to enjoy each other’s company, festivals and traditions. We used to enjoy the nasi lemak stalls in our local warongs. We used to enjoy the national football and hockey teams with it’s different races, playing as one.

    And there is no lack of culture in Malaysia, Zalfian. The country came into being with Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Indonesian influences at its core. Over centuries, it gave the nation its colour, faiths, traditions and its strengths and joy.

    And what have we done with it?


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