How does one begin a conversation with strangers? More to the point, how does one start a conversation with strangers whose people one has read about only in stories that are poignant and horrific in equal measure?

Here’s one way – talk about the produce.

“What is this root?” I ask the Rohingya vendor at the Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur in Selayang, jabbing at the plastic bag of herbs. Inside is another layer of wrapping, a piece of newspaper in Thai script.

“Is it from Thailand? Can I buy just a little of it?” Then, without missing a beat – “What is your name?”

He is taken aback, but only for a moment. His face breaks into a grin. I feel a flash of triumph.

“Daud,” he says.

“Daud,” I repeat. “I’m Hui Lin.”

It’s easy after that. We find out that Daud is married. His wife lives in the ramshackle multi-storey shophouses across the street – the ones that are considered a safe haven to the Rohingyas, despite the conditions and the frequent police or immigration raids that happen here. He has two children, both of whom attend Hashim’s madrasah. Daud speaks English and appears confident in his pristine beige button-down shirt.

The next person we speak to is a little quieter – a little younger, perhaps in his early twenties or late teens. At first he stares openly at us, expression unreadable – Curiosity? Suspicion? Assessing? It’s hard to tell. It’s similar, though, to the looks we got as we strolled down the aisles.

“Can I buy just one chunk of ginger?”

Soon we’re discussing his dream woman. A few of his fellow vendors sidle up to join in. One has a very eager smile and the lively, strutting demeanour of a teenager. Another is tall, moustached, and looks so sullen, almost as if he didn’t actually join our circle by choice.

“No, I’m not married. The girls here are too fat. They eat too much gravy,” he says gravely, in broken but rapid Malay. “I’ll get married when I go home to Burma.”

We meander in search of a woman to talk to. Nasimah sits on a low stool just outside the building, peeling onions into a basin under the scorching sun. She turns her face upward at us as we approach, her disposition friendly. Her teeth are tinged red, the effect of betel nuts. She answers our inquisitive questions quite readily.

“We get our food from the market and we cook them at home.”

She also asks about us, and how many years we’ve been in KL. She’s been here for 11 years herself.

“Ranzambi (sp?) doesn’t go to school. She only went to school back home in Myanmar.” Ranzambi, her 18-year-old daughter, sits beside her under the shade of an umbrella. She turns and smiles reluctantly at us at the mention of her name, as if she’s not too interested to participate in our conversation. I can understand that. I feel like that a lot. She continues to stir away at her little pot of white goo, which is apparently meant to be eaten with betel leaves. Another girl joins us but doesn’t say anything, just leans against the van, listens, and smiles. A man stops by, takes a box from Ranzambi’s plastic basket – perhaps cigarettes? – gives her some cash, and leaves.

Soon after that, we leave too.

It only struck me later that the second person we spoke to, whose name escapes me, had said Burma, not Myanmar…and that he harboured some hope of going home.

KUALA LUMPUR – A school in Jalan Mana was among 16 schools in the city ordered to close by local authorities today after students were discovered engaging in intelligent conversation in the canteen. The spot check was conducted by the Kuala Lumpur Board of Development of Society (BoDoS) after it detected abnormally high concentration of progressive-mindedness from the premises.

Its director, Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Professor Dr. Et Cetera, said besides the closure order, offending students were also required to memorise local mainstream newspaper articles everyday for one year as corrective treatment to realign them with standards on appropriate civic behaviour. Repeat offenders, she warned, would be sentenced to the additional penalty of partaking in social media discussions on Malaysian politics.

“The students have clearly failed to appreciate the detrimental widespread health effects their ignorance can impose on society. Overexposure to intelligent conversation and serious reading materials can cause contagion of severe mental disorientation, deranged speechmaking, and worse, far-sightedness,” Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Professor Dr. Et Cetera pointed out.

“Our team also found a barrel of smuggled books with mature content, such as history,” she told reporters at the end of the operation. “Judging from the creases in the spines and pen markings, these books appear to have been read.”

Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Professor Dr. Et Cetera said 77 enforcement officers from BoDoS, as well as the police, were involved in the spot check on over 70 schools. She said the checks on the premises were conducted under the Insecurity Act 2013 and Public Sedation Act 2020.

She advised the public to lodge complaints to the state BoDoS departments if they found schools which did not comply.

“All members of the public are responsible to ensure that these issues are arrested,” she added. “We do not want the world to think that Malaysia is an insecure country.”

Read More Actual :


This post was written as part of a series of writing assignments for the Unrepresented KL workshop. It is a dystopian take on Kuala Lumpur and is as far-fetched as any fiction can possibly be, and absolutely without any basis in reality whatsoever. At all. I mean, literally. None.

Twenty pages into A Sense of Style, I understand now why books like Out in the Midday Sun or Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s World or Wellington: The Iron Duke are so absorbing. It’s not just the fun of facts and uncovering alternate narratives; it’s also how these books are written. They aren’t simply a parade of stultifying statistics and sweeping statements. Through letters, diaries, journals, they give voice and breathe life into people who are every bit as real as you or I despite having vanished into the hollows of time. They continue to be, if only for the finite period over which the book is unfinished. I root for them, rail against them, cry with them.

For that brief interlude, it almost seems as though I am a personal friend.

Whether in writing, daily life, or writing about daily life, it is a challenge, I think, to resist the tendency to – as Steven Pinker puts it –  “submerge individuals in abstraction”. Living as we do in a country like Malaysia, it is all too easy to lose one person in a sea of persons, so they no longer are a million individuals with a million lives and minds, but rather just a homogeneous mass of colour. Yellow. Brown. Lighter brown? Even worse is when you try and write individual stories by reverse-engineering – fishing from the “melting pot” (that phrase makes me shudder) and then moulding perfect little clay imitations of human beings sorted by colour.

Such was the difficulty I had at last week’s Unrepresented KL session. We were prowling the streets at Masjid Jamek, hunting for a story to write. I tried conversing with the beauty salon attendant while she threaded my eyebrows in the hope of inspiration. Unfortunately, despite the bits and pieces she shared – husband’s occupation, plans for future children’s schooling, where she was from, what her hometown was like – it came to nothing because I found myself unable to perceive her outside the confines of stereotype. So I tried to use some imagination. Perhaps I could alter the conversation beyond banal back-and-forths. I then found myself uncomfortable about being presumptuous about her beliefs.

So there I was, stuck, staring right into her eyes, unable to give voice and breathe life into Sendhi – someone who was actually living.

It’s only the second week yet. Perhaps I’ll get better.

Dear H,

So this is goodbye, then.

We’ve had a good run, haven’t we? Sometimes I look back upon the years and wish we could have been happier. I wonder if we got to know each other as well as we should have.

I know I’m not easy to love. I’m indifferent and bad-tempered, especially when I’m busy. And I’m always busy aren’t I? Hustling, bustling, milling in and out…always in a hectic frenzy. I don’t mean to be rude though, it’s just that I find the people in my surroundings so ungovernable, I sometimes boil over from the pressure.

You’ve occasionally accused me of being soulless; too vain, too achievement-hungry and materialistic. I paint and repaint myself in garish colours hoping to prove to the world I am cultured or have some sort of history to be proud of. I adorn myself in one glass ornament after another, each one a shinier and bigger bauble than the last, screaming “See me! Recognise me!”

Here’s my confession. Sometimes I think I am running away from who I really am. I often feel that if I look in the mirror too long, it might break. If I bare my memories, my scars, my struggles for the world to see, I’d shatter the precious illusion that I’ve gotten over my past and made peace between my warring selves. So yes, I’m hiding. I’m messy and complex.

What hurts me, though, is that you’ve never tried to understand that. You think I’m just…shallow. Have you even looked deeper, listened harder, tried to read what I’m really saying? I am not faultless but you, you – pardon my saying so – are equally to blame. You return from some great sojourn with your high-and-mighty ideals, demanding for me to meet them without sparing a thought for whether I actually can. And then when I fail, you vilify and shun me. Is that fair? You’re just like the rest of the lot, you know – constantly trying to fashion me into something I’m not just to suit your own purposes.

I’m trying. And if you did too, you would see that I’m a work-in-progress. I’m young and stupid. If you knew my history – how I grew up as a child and the kind of manipulations I’ve been subject to by the ones who were meant to nurture me, you would sympathise.

I’m still finding myself. And I’m not ashamed to say I need all the help I can get. I know it’s selfish of me to ask…but I wish you’d stay.

K. L.

This post was written as part of a series of writing assignments for the Unrepresented KL workshop.


From my reading of Out in the Midday Sun (yay all done!), I’m getting  a strong sense  that colonialism happened to us out of, as Alexander Hamilton said (see previous post), “accident and force” more than the deliberate manipulations of any single evil mastermind. Imperialists and colonists were men of their own time, and therefore trapped in the value systems and political narratives of the era.  Values were also a lot more community-based and less individual, which I imagine would have been less conducive for individual independence of thought. Whites also thought for a very long time that non-whites were genetically inferior – how many clever souls borne of that world would have known any better? We have had the benefit of time to reflect and develop a supposedly more enlightened perspective, and so perhaps it’s easier to look in from the outside and moralise about colonialism, or in our case, adopt accusatory tones. From the writings that Margaret Shennan curated however, some old British Malayans genuinely believed that they were benign or constructive.

But okay, still, intentions aside. Perhaps they did create and perpetuate the lazy native stereotype (Or did they really? And was it lazy native, or lazy peasant native? Had it always been a class rather than ethnicity issue? I would have to dig a little deeper on this one – The Myth of the Lazy Native next!), which arguably had a lasting impact on our consciousness as a society. But then, what is the cutoff time for this anyway – when we say perpetuated, do we mean they started it? Or are we angry with the continuation of the stereotype? For if we mean continue, then you and I and my aunt and numerous op-ed columnists in Malaysia today are equally to blame, given how much we talk about it. In any case, are the people who non-deliberately (don’t yell – I’m not well-researched on this one) perpetuated it to blame, or should we really be glaring at the people who are actively manipulating it still for their own self interest today?

All this to say, I still don’t (not yet, perhaps?) really understand the anger at “them”. In fact, it seems to me that for most of the duration that “they” were here, up till at least WWII, there wasn’t even really an “us” – we seemed more a bunch of disparate kingdoms sharing a geography, than a country with a shared sense of identity (okay, other than along ethnic lines). In fact, the postwar era seems to have actually precipitated our sense of nationhood. In which case, if we’re going to blame the British Empire and imperialism for mucking us up, we should also recognise the part that British ineptness in fending off the Japs played in setting us on that path to nationhood. Come to think of it, was there a sense of nationhood, or was it a pragmatic pact among races to get rid of a common foe?

In summary, I am still quite confused (and ignorant…) and cannot decide what I feel about this.

What I do observe for sure though, are my own double standards. While I am forgiving about sins of the past – chalk it up to moral relativity, whatever, olden days, poor things didn’t know the gravity of their offences – I am a lot less forgiving, a lot more personal and accusatory, about the present. Could one also use the same line of argument to justify the current establishment? Oh, don’t blame them, they just have a different perspective on what is considered an acceptable level of competence. Oh you know, that’s just how business works. It’s just entertaining. Oh you know, it’s hard to think beyond the confines of your peers’ ideology, bigoted or chauvinistic though it sounds to you, they’ve never known any different, they grew up in this party, this environment, this generation, this era… Yeah, right. No. I expect a lot more personal accountability, a lot less stupidity (if ignorance is the excuse), because – How the fuck can people be that stupid?! How the hell can people be that greedy, that corrupt, that evil!? 

Why is that, I wonder?



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