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Yuna on being “Malay Malay”

Yuna in her shop IamJetfuel in Subang Jaya (all pics below courtesy of Yunalis Zarai)

SHE is a law graduate and co-owns a clothes boutique. But Yunalis Zarai, who is more popularly recognised as just Yuna, is better known as the current darling of Malaysia’s independent music scene.

The 24-year-old began writing her own songs when she was 14 and has not looked back since. After releasing her self-titled EP in 2008, the Subang Jaya lass launched her full-length album Decorate to much excitement in July this year.

Her songs are spun from beautiful lyrics and sophisticated music-writing. No surprise then that her music plus her unique dress sense of headscarf-cum-flamboyant-coloured clothing has made her a hit with her young fans.

The independent singer-songwriter will leave next year to tour Los Angeles and New York and promote her album. In an interview with The Nut Graph on 14 Oct 2010 at her shop IamJetfuel, Yuna tells us there is no incompatibility between tradition and culture on one hand and modern, progressive thinking on the other.

TNG: Where were you born?

Yunalis Zarai: I was born in Alor Setar, Kedah on 14 Nov 1986. My father was a government servant so we moved around a lot. We lived in Kelantan, Penang, Ampang and then we moved to Subang, where I grew up for seven years. We then went to Perlis for a while but we later moved back [to Subang Jaya] and I consider this home.

Do you know your ancestry or family history?

Yuna winning a competition at her school

Yuna winning a competition at her school

Both my parents are from Perak. My mum is from Batu Gajah and my dad is from Sayong, Kuala Kangsar. My lineage comes from Raja Abdullah on my mother’s side. She is a direct descendant. (Sultan Abdul Samad conferred on Raja Abdullah the power and authority to rule Klang in the 1800s). So basically, we are Bugis.

My great-grandparents were from the royal family and I remember my family telling me stories, such as when my grandmother got married. There was a huge parade and she rode an elephant, which is quite a crazy thought! It is nice to know that [one’s] family has that kind of history but right now we are normal people and live just like everyone else.

Are there any stories from your family that has stuck with you?

Well my parents are always telling me to go for my dreams when it comes to music. They tell me that both of them had many dreams but could not achieve them. My dad was a performer and he played the guitar in a band. Music was his passion but he could not really pursue it, so he ended up being a legal advisor.

My mum wanted to be a fashion designer. They both ended up doing something else, working 9 to 5. When I started on this journey, I told myself to be grateful for this opportunity, and to just go for it. I am their outlet. I am actually doing the things they wanted to do. They remind me about this and I tell myself that I am very lucky.

Yuna (second child from right) with her mother and aunts.

Yuna (second child from right) with her mother and aunts.

Based on your family history, how has that affected your identity as a Malaysian?

My parents are very “Malay Malay”. They are conservative, but also modern. I asked my parents before if I was mixed or anything like that, perhaps hoping that I had a bit of, say, exotic Spanish in me (laughs). But they said, “No, you are pure Malay” and that they really appreciate that we are culturally rich and berbudi bahasa.

But we are firm believers of being Malaysian; we appreciate [being Malaysian]. We are proud Malays but we are proud to be living with other cultures and races. We are proud Malays but we appreciate others as well, and we are very courteous people.

So being what you call “Malay Malay” is not incompatible with being a Malaysian. Recently, there has been all this talk about being Malay or Malaysian first, how does all of that register with you?

A young Yuna

A much younger Yuna

Well, it is tricky because some people have the wrong idea. Am I supposed to feel or think in a certain way because I am Malay? We live with other people and they have the same rights. I believe that other races deserve the same privilege.

I studied in UiTM and I am proud to be a UiTM product. But there was one time [the Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim] wanted to open [10%] [of the university’s] enrolment to other races. There were people against it, saying this is “hak Melayu”. I am a firm believer that education should be free for everyone. We are Malaysians in Malaysia. Why couldn’t we give this [10%]?

UiTM is such a great school with such a great music and law school, and I am proud of it, so why not give other races the opportunity to enjoy its good education? This was the way I was raised in my family; and from my grandparents to my parents to me, we all believe in this.

It is interesting that you are embraced by all Malaysians from different cultures and you represent this mix between the modern and traditional. Do you get a sense of your fans appreciating that?

Old school 1 and 4.jpg Yuna with her parents

Yuna with her parents

Yes, because I believe that I am not the only one like this. There are tonnes of other Malay [Malaysians] who wear the tudung, and they are just like me, girls who enjoy music. They go to gigs, they like fashion. You’d be surprised to see all these stylish girls.

And after I started playing music and going to all these shows, there were more of these stylish tudung girls around. They embrace their faith as Muslim girls and also want to do the things they like. It is nice how Malay [Muslim] girls are finding the right balance nowadays just wanting to be successful, educated and stylish.

What makes you happy about Malaysia, and what gets you down?

It sounds clichéd, but I was with my friend at this banana leaf restaurant and I thought, we are this Malay and Chinese [Malaysian] sitting down, eating from a banana leaf. How great is that? I think it is cool because we all relate to one thing, this glue that holds us together even if we are not really sure what it is.

But then there is also the other side that is keeping us apart — that negativity which brings out the horrible [side] in people. There was that time they carried the cow head in a demonstration in Shah Alam. That was very unnecessary. I was disgusted because firstly, that is an animal’s head, and secondly, it represents the mentality of some people. Not all Malay [Malaysians] are like that but they go in one group to say “We, the Malays” or “We, the Muslims feel this way”. It’s not like that at all. We really need to get rid of that mentality.

I started a simple career as a musician but hopefully in the future, I can encourage people to be more loving and caring, and more [interested in] peace.

Yuna performing (© Syimir Izaffy)

Yuna performing (© Syimir Izaffy)

What do you hope for this country?

I hope Malaysia will always be peaceful. It just takes one stupid person to do one stupid thing which can affect everything. So, hopefully everyone can just keep it together. Keep calm, and focus on being better people. It is so simple.

When you do that, you will only find ways to benefit yourself, society and the country.

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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20 Responses to “Yuna on being “Malay Malay””

  1. ben says:

    Wow! After reading this interview I think I like this girl. =P Good luck for your US promo tour.

  2. steel says:

    I’m half Bugis and half Minang… and [I’ve become] a Selangorian.

  3. Kai says:

    Yup, me too. Will try out her music. Can we get it in stores?

  4. Merah Silu says:

    Yes, I am a “Malay Malay” too. My ancestors were warriors during the Malacca sultanate and retreated to Ulu Muar before went to Riau, Siak. They came back to Perak and then Malacca. Many died fighting the colonial powers of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. My immediate grandfather died fighting communists. I am very proud of them.

    The name of Malaysia has a key word of “Malay”, reflecting the Malay identity of this coutry. Whether you are Bugis, Minang or Melayu Riau, you are still categorised as Malays, the native of this great and beautiful Malay Nusantara.

    Other kaum are considered alien to this country. They should be called Chinese or India Malaysian to indicate that they are really coming from outside the Malay land.

  5. alamak says:

    @merah silu

    Seriously? Aliens? If it weren’t for these so-called “aliens,” do you think you would be able to enjoy all the privileges supposedly “bestowed” upon you by the former colonial rulers?

    I may be classified under bumi, but anyone who is born in Malaysia regardless of generation or race should be treated equally and deserves a proper chance, as long as they’re willing to work for it, and not just because they happen to be of a certain race.

  6. cicit Tunlama says:

    She’s so busy with her life that she’s not had the time to read the news. What a pity for a UiTM grad.

  7. chris says:

    Really, why are we so obsessed with race so much? And then call other people “alien”. Can we move past it already? Every great nation consist of migrants from all over the world. What more do you want? Got NEP already lah, if you still can’t better yourself, then it’s your own fault. Without migrants from other countries, we would not be where we are now. Really, the Chinese [Malaysians] are the driving force of the country’s development – and I’m not Chinese, but I recognise their contribution. Merah Silu macam budak-budak lah.

  8. @merah silu Seriously? Aliens? If it weren’t for these so-called “aliens,” do you think you would be able to enjoy all the privileges supposedly “bestowed” upon you by the former colonial rulers? I may be classified under bumi, but anyone who is born in Malaysia regardless of generation or race should be treated equally and deserves a proper chance, as long as they’re willing to work for it, and not just because they happen to be of a certain race.

  9. Ibrahim Eusof says:

    Although I am four decades older than this young lady, I share her thoughts. When I was her age, we never had to worry about race or religion; only the need to excel ourselves in whatever way. Now the divisive lines are too obvious, created by racial politics. We have to have more young people thinking like this young girl, or else we won’t have much of a future.

  10. YJ says:

    Merah Silu,

    Shame on your pendatang and supremacy [comments]! Malay Nusantara? You should talk to Indonesians, and straightaway they will say Malaysia didn’t used to exist – your country is a colonialist’s gift! […]

  11. Yuki Shiro says:


    It’s already 2011 and we are still talking about the same thing over and over and over again?

    Seriously, I am a Malay [Malaysian], according to my IC, and when I was growing up in Shah Alam, I never had this race issue until these past few years. Had tons of Chinese and Indian [Malaysian] friends.

    For instance, my best friend was a Chinese [Malaysian], even (accidently, so forgiven) ate pork when I was at her house at the age of 10. NO BIGGIE!

    Why do people want to be labelled according to their races anyways? I would not want people to look at me as a ‘Malay’. I want them to see me as a person or at least, as a Muslim.

    Because, at the end of the die, I want to die as a Muslim; NEVER as a Malay.

    Seriously, we should move on and look into bigger things in life.

  12. Hanya Uvet says:

    Dear Merah Silu,

    I advise you to do a thorough research on the word Malay itself. Where do you think the Malacca Sultanate derived from? Other kaum considered alien? [Then what about Malay Malaysians?] The indigenous people are the Orang Asli. Before saying something, can you just do some reading to avoid hasty generalisations. […]

    P/S Luv Yuna’s music!


  13. Politicokat says:

    @merah silu
    “Other kaum are considered alien to this country. They should be called Chinese or India Malaysian to indicate that they are really coming from outside the Malay land.”

    Alien? Really? I am a Chinese Peranakan. My family has been in Malacca since the 1400s. My family even holds a document from the Malacca sultanate! Moreover, the Malacca sultanate is so very entwined with the Chinese. You can’t mention the Malacca sultanate without mentioning Bukit Cina and Puteri Hang Li Po.

    And yes, my grandfather, too, died fighting communists. He lost a brother fighting the Japanese.

    Do you really think that the history of Malaya started with founding of Malacca in the 1400s? If you know anything about the history of Malaya, you will know that the Chinese and particularly the Indians have had strong economic and political ties with this region at least from the 7th century AD. The Srivijaya kingdom was even part of the Indian empire for a generation.

    The non-Malays have been here for centuries. We are part of the landscape as much as you are. Only our history books have been revised to minimise or overlook that fact. Even the name Malaya is derived from a description by Indian sailors to the British.

    Not a single non-Malay in Malaysia is really an alien. Of the three million Chinese that were in Malaya at Independence in 1957, only 300,000 were allowed to stay. Everyone else was deported. Only Chinese which were second generation and above, born in either Penang or Malacca, were allowed citizenship. Only a year later after massive protest were Chinese in other states allowed the same. One can only imagine that the same happened to the Indians.

    So yeah, Merah Silu, all the aliens have already been deported. You are stuck with people like me whose family history in Malaya is generations deep. Your warrior ancestor could even have been using a weapon made by mine. Don’t be too smug about being Malay Malay. You might suddenly find Chinese, Indians, Arabs, or other aliens in your family tree. Three generations back, things weren’t so racial. Poor Chinese families often gave up children to Malay families for adoption. Mixed marriages happened. And religion was such an absolute.

    And yes, I even have Malay women recorded in my family tree. Does this make me local enough?

  14. Merah Silu says:

    “the aliens have already been deported”

    I do not share that view. As stated in your posting, there were not just Chinese in Malacca and Penang, as initially intended, but a year later, due to protest, from other states in the peninsula. That was THE historical mistake made by the Malays. Without this historical mistake, I am very confident that the Malays could be far more competitive and able to form a community that we could be proud of. There would be less polarisation as the population would be more homogeneous and could easily adopt the local culture as the culture of the nation.

    • Trueblood says:

      Hey Merah,

      Get your facts right! Find out the real name of Malaysia. You are not natives, you are pendatang that came from nearby countries. The “Orang Asli” are the TULEN people of Malaysia.

      How do you know the real facts? Have you been reading the “revised” Malaysian history? When [one] proclaims that [one’s race is] so great and pure , then I think [one’s race] is going to be the next Nazi race!

    • Mei Yen says:

      The Malays would be far more competitive without the Chinese and the Indians? But who would they compete with then?
      It’s ludicrous to suggest that anyone would be more competitive if the competition is removed.

    • SadSoul says:

      It’s so sad to know that at this day and age, we still have to deal with [people like] you. You should be ashamed.

      It’s because of people like you that the natural way of life that is 1Malaysia has to be forced unto our children. We ARE 1Malaysia. We have been living in harmony for generations. Don’t you realise that we all have some form of ‘mixed blood’ inside us? THAT is what that makes us uniquely Malaysian. THAT is our pride and joy.

  15. Merah Jamban says:

    Merah silu, [if there had been] no pendatang, Malaysia [wouldn’t] be like this today. The Malays would be eating nasi lemak in the kampung.

    • Merah Silu says:

      Do you know that nasi lemak international at Kampong Baru, KL is very delicious? Why don’t you give it a try.

      Don’t be too arrogant in thinking that the Malays are very far behind. There are sizable intellectual and able Malays now. This country will be far better, socially and economically, if they are left alone. They will not be polluted by this alien culture and corrupt practices by this pendatang.

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