Malaysia as told by Yasmin Ahmad

Cultural diversity is one common factor between Malaysia and Canada that I love. This week I thought I’d share several ads that showcase the rich cultural heritage of Malaysia. These ads were made by Yasmin Ahmad, a brilliant writer and film director, from Malaysia. Her ads mostly focused on the cultural and racial diversity in Malaysia, but weaved through them powerful messages of a shared heritage among the races. Through clever storytelling, her ads carried subtle calls for unity in the country. She tended to tug at heartstrings, inviting viewers back to simpler times, encouraging us to remember our days as kids when race or colour never mattered in our lives. She reminded us to remember who we were, and where we came from regardless of where we went in life. She blended in humour, most of which are very recognizable to her target audience or to those who may have visited, travelled, or stayed in Malaysia for a while.

The three I showcase here are among my favourite Yasmin Ahmad ads.

This ad was for Petronas (Malaysia’s national oil company), celebrating Deepavali (the Hindu Festival of Light).

This ad, celebrating independence day in Malaysia, shows a Chinese boys expressing his love of a Malay girl. Children, the ad closes, don’t know the distinction between races. Should we not keep it that way, it asks.

In this ad, two boys of different races try to describe the meaning of race.

Race-based politics (and conversations) often rears its ugly head in the lives of Malaysians. While inter-racial marriages are not uncommon, religion often dominates the conversations when two people of different races or religions form a union. Often, these conversations are not pretty, and they add a load of unnecessary stress on couples and families. So reminders like these from Yasmin  are often very good for Malaysia as a nation. (Yasmin passed away in 2009).

Share your thoughts, or your favourite Yasmin Ahmad ad.

What’s the secret, Canada?

I was into my first few days of being in Canada. The thermometer was sitting at 37 degrees C, but the weatherman said, “feels like 45 with the humidex”. It was the first time I’d ever noticed the temperature reported this way. I was used to a stock standard weather report: “hot and humid”, “rain”, “thunderstorms” – nothing too complicated. Oh, we might get the occasional air quality report, whenever a thick layer of haze blanketed the country, but otherwise, the actual temperature, or what it ‘feels like’ were inconsequential to most Malaysians. We generally knew what to expect – a torrential downpour in the late afternoon; hot and sticky the rest of the day. So, unlike Canadians, we paid little attention to the weather network. But the Canadian I moved here for, figured I would love the heat – after all, Kuala Lumpur sat just 2 degrees north of the equator, and before I experienced the brutal shock of a Canadian winter, he wanted me to know that Canada could feel just like home.

“You guys are crazy!” I said several times that day, as I dragged myself through the city, wilting with each step. “When it’s this hot, Malaysians (and most rational humans, for that matter), stay in the air-conditioned comfort of their homes, offices, cars or, the malls. But, all around me, Torontonians were basking in the ungodly heat. Looking back after eight cold, cold winters (where the temperatures hit -28 with the windchill, or worse on some days), I finally understood why.

We eventually made our way down to Harbourfront and found a spot on the patio of an Italian restaurant. While we waited for our tall glasses of something cool, I was struck by the scene at the table across from us. Some eight people sat around a couple of tables pulled up together, and I swear that no two looked to be of the same race or colour. Though this was just a small piece of Toronto, it was a microcosm of Canada – truly multi-cultural – and I loved it.

A few days later, we travelled to a small rural village four hours north of Toronto. It was distinctly ‘white’ and I stood out, or so I thought. I soon realized that it was just my mind racing ahead forming conclusions it was used to when placed in similar situations. In reality, not once was I made to feel like an outsider, regardless of where I went or who I met in that little village. This ‘inclusive’ experience has been consistent over the years – at school, work and play. I am just part of Canada’s mosaic of colour, and I have my place in this country.


The Canadian Flag Mosaic by Tim Van Horn

Like Canada, Malaysia is multicultural and diverse. We consider ourselves tolerant. We are rich in our culture and heritage and we celebrate our diversity with holidays to mark each cultural and religious festivity – Chinese New Year, Ramadhan, Aidil Adha (the Haj), Dewali, Christmas, New Years and much more in between. Yet, the colour of one’s skin, their religion and/or sexual orientation all play a significant part in Malaysia’s politics and how we live and work. So, behind the pomp of our festive celebrations, there are divides – some that run deep, and others that make me feel like I belong there less than I do here in Canada.

Undoubtedly, Malaysia is a tolerant nation when compared to many others where cultural or religious disagreements have led to great fissures in society. However, the undercurrents of dissatisfaction are strong, and it has always felt like things could quickly turn ugly at any point. Over the last few years, we’ve seen the country struggle even more with the challenges of its diversity. I believe Malaysia has yet to fully understand the true meaning of diversity, at least not in the way that Canada seems to. The land of my parents still has a long way to go to mature as a nation of many races, colours and creeds. Canada, on the other hand, has a lot to teach the world from this perspective.

We finished our drinks and found our way back to the car. With the air conditioning at full blast on that super hot day, we drove home. What I still don’t get is how Canadians consider +10 degrees C t-shirt weather.

Factoid: What unifies Canadians? The Weather. Or talking about it.

Welcome to Canada

When I finally stepped off the plane at YYZ (27 hours after take off), I was exhausted, but excited. I was at the start of something new. It’s one of the best places to be – the beginning. It’s the place where you’re often caught up in such a wide mix of emotions all at once, that the only thing you can do is take the next step and work through them all, one at a time. But I digress.

I funnelled my way  through the long lines to the immigration desk and dutifully presented my paperwork, all neatly organized in a clear plastic folder – I was not going to be caught out for missing any paperwork – you know what immigration officers can be like.  Paperwork cleared. The officer, much to my surprise, was pleasant (unlike stern-faced immigration officers the world over). He even smiled and asked if I had a good flight. “Long,” I said, trying to match his smile. “Welcome to Canada,” he added, and handed me my PR card and paperwork. I found my way to the baggage carousel, picked up my bags and walked out into Canada.

On the other side of the sliding doors, my husband greeted me with a single red rose and a copy of these two books.

How To Be A Canadian (Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson); Why I Hate Canadians (Will Ferguson)

How To Be A Canadian (Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson); Why I Hate Canadians (Will Ferguson)

Ahh…an instructional manual on How to be a Canadian (authors, Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson). How useful, I thought.

I didn’t get the Why I Hate Canadians title tough (author, Will Ferguson). It kindda rubbed me the wrong way. Why should I hate Canadians? I don’t want to hate Canadians… I just got here! I gave my husband a slight sideways glance, wondering what he was thinking (or even up to) giving me this book.

But, let me tell you…both books are hilarious and definitely worth a read. The best part: it only gets funnier once you’ve stayed awhile. I think Immigration Canada should be handing these out with their Welcome Packages.

PS: I started with Part 4 of Why I Hate Canadians – Sex in a Canoe and Other Delusions. With a title like that, it was hard to resist. 🙂