Malaysia-bound Part 2: (Mal)english

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Mal(English) (2)

Already its my second month in KL. Looking back at the first, I seem only to recall snapshots, and the rest is an nondescript blur.

I never thought I would, but I think I am slowly adjusting to the food, the climate, even the crazy work hours, and I’m also beginning to notice the little idiosyncrasies that make every country unique.

The use (read: adaptation) of English in Malaysia – more specifically how it is reflective of the psyche, attitudes and perspectives of the people is a never-ending source of fascination for me. So for my second post I’ve decided to write about some of the unique ways English is used and adapted in Malaysia (well, KL).

Oh lord. DAT kerning.

Oh lord. DAT kerning.

Enough, is.

While both Bahasa (the local Malay language) and English are official languages (a remnant of its British colonial past), English is more of a perfunctory one which comes second to Bahasa. From what I gather, in recent times the educational system has used Bahasa as the primary language for courses, and English is just one subject, much like German or French is in New Zealand.

As a result, most people’s English is perfectly sufficient for everyday conversations; however there are quirks and foibles in its use that make it uniquely Malaysian.

Language is merely a means of communication. Ergo, if you possess enough skill in the language to convey the intended message, then the rest is all filigree. The strange sentence structures, or the odd usage of vocabulary are jarring, but there is never any doubt as to its intended message – and given its ultimate purpose, shouldn’t that suffice?

As an example, you will hear people say “You want?” instead of “Would you like one of these?” and similar substitutions which would be considered a) grammatically incomplete, and b) probably abrupt and rude in any other context.

I found this plastered onto the cafeteria tables at a client premises.

I found this plastered onto the cafeteria tables at a client premises.

Interchangeable words

This is sorta related to the first point. The meanings of words are a bit broader, and generally interchangeable when the words have similar meanings. Where there are material differences in the meaning, people rely on the context in which it was used to ascertain the correct one. I’m struggling to think of an example off the top of my head though.

Optional capitalisation

Imma Capitalise some of the Words cause I feel like it. If you’re having Problems understanding as result, then You’re the one with the problem with English, not Me.

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The shortening of words

When pronounced, many of the English words are truncated to remove the last consonant sound. Perhaps Bahasa is spoken like this as well? For instance, the word “cent” is written and pronounced as  “sen” without the “t”.

I also think this has something to do with the fact that many of the words used in Bahasa are a direct phonetic spelling of English words. For instance, the word “boutique” is written in Bahasa as “butik”. The word “discount” is spelt “diskaun” with the “t” omitted entirely, both phonetically and with how it is written.

Mal(English) gems

You know that cliché saying about Eskimos having over one hundred words for the noun “snow”? Firstly, I bet it’s not even true, and when asked to verify this I bet they’re all like:

I digress. But I do think there is an element of truth in that thread-worn saying. After all, it isn’t an unreasonable to hypothesise that a language will develop (or be adapted) to reflects the thoughts of the people who use it on a daily basis, is it?

With that said, I wanted to share with you some of the MalEnglish gems I have come across in the last few weeks.

“Dowan” / “Cannot”

One of my favourite MalEnglish words are “dowan” (an abbreviated portmanteau of “don’t want”), or “cannot”. Depending on the context, these words can be used in a variety of situations. They can mean anything from  “that’s not possible”, “no thanks”, “that’s not ideal” to “that’s ridiculous”, or “are you crazy?”.


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I assume this is a Bahasa word? This word is sorta the opposite of “dowan”. Depending on the context, it means “can do”, “yeah let’s do that”, or “that’ll work”.

Incidentally I think it captures the mentality of Malaysians very well. This is a country where rules are more guidelines than anything else, and no matter where you go, you are battling the heat, the crowds, the traffic jams, the chaos, the bureaucracy and everything else. Despite all of these challenges and more, everything just “works” somehow, and I think it’s a pervasive part of the working culture here as well.

If you just gun it, or if you throw money and/or people at it, it’ll work. Surprisingly, it often does. It’s that #bolehlifestyle


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People who have been to Singapore/Indonesia/Hong Kong will know this one. Malaysians have a tendency to add “lah” at the end of English sentences. If you ask people what it means or when you’re meant to use it, you’ll find they struggle to explain something that is so innate to them it just comes naturally without them thinking.

In isolation, it has no particular meaning. From what I have gathered and from listening to the context in which it is used, it is used to soften a statement or to seek the affirmation of the person to whom the sentence is addressed to (i.e. you want them to agree with you).

For instance, you might ask a group of people where you should go for lunch. A person from the group gives a few suggestions, when another person interjects and says “No, that’s too far away lah!”, seeking the affirmation of the others in the group in saying it. It’s hard to explain.

All I can say is, that a recent hobby of mine (particularly after a few drinks) has been use it with a thick New Zealand accent in situations that totally don’t call for it to watch all my Malaysian friends visibly cringe.

Final thoughts

I’m actually enjoying writing these – I hope all 3 (4?) readers are enjoying reading them too. Perhaps weekly is too ambitious but I hope to write another post soon. Perhaps I’ll write about religion next, given that it is currently Ramadhan.

– Chris.

Author: Chris Park

One half of the Park Brothers. Purveyor of banter, curator of misc. Manage comms for @BuoyandMine. Read More

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