The other day, I had the opportunity to sit down with Siti Mahmud, who goes by Pam (a name given to her by her mother), a vivacious 32-year old single Muslim Malaysian woman living in Kuala Lumpur. She has a background in public relations and law and is currently a management consultant, having worked at some of the largest consulting companies in the world. Pam has a fascinating background. She grew up on the island of Borneo, where her ancestors have lived for hundreds of years. Her family is quite modern – her grandfather was educated in Australia and father in the U.S.
At the age of 10, Pam moved to the U.S. for her father’s studies – Indiana to be specific – for four years where she attended public school between 5th and 8th grade. When I asked her what the hardest part of moving to the U.S. was, Pam responded:
‘Language wasn’t an issue. The hardest part was educating the environment. People have never heard of your country – that’s hard. You feel like an alien.’
After returning to Malaysia to complete her ‘O-Levels’ (aka high school), Pam moved out for her law studies but ended up completing her education in Communications in Australia. Pam has been living on her own for the past 14 years. Below are some of the questions and answers I received when asking Pam about what life is like in Malaysia as a modern-day, working Malaysian woman.
[C]: You’ve lived all over the world. Where do you consider home to be and why?[P]: The west coast of North Borneo is still home to me. I fit in better. Race and racial labels are really important in Malaysia, and you are judged by the color of your skin and the way you look (whether you are Malay, Chinese or Indian). I fit in on Borneo but not necessarily in Kuala Lumpur. I am Malay. I have a Malay name, but I look different, and I’m fairer than many (I have a Borneo indigenous background) and people are confused about who I am. I am stereotyped.
[C]: What are your favorite things about your home in Borneo?[P]: The beach. I recharge by going to the islands, hanging out on the beach. It’s what I did growing up. My parents are also there. They are divorced, but I see my whole family when I am home. It’s only me and my sister, but I have three adopted siblings as well. Finally, the food. The cuisine on Borneo is unique; my favorite thing is seafood soup with local kolok noodles. You really have to try it!
[C]: Is divorce common in Malaysia?[P]: For my parents’ generation, it is not common, but it is becoming more so for the younger generation. Women are growing more independent.
C: As a side note, I had a fantastic Muslim female Uber driver, Ita, who shared that she married at the age of 21, and it was completely by choice. She has a fantastic husband who helps take care of her five children when she is working. While he can have up to four wives in the Muslim religion, she said she would divorce him if he ever chose to marry someone else. Divorce rates are on the rise in Malaysia as women gain more independence. Many of Ita’s girlfriends are now divorced.
[C]: What is it like living in Kuala Lumpur?[P]: I rent an apartment in the city. It’s not typical for Muslim women to live by themselves but I do what I want. When I came back from the States, my parents wanted to straighten me out so they sent me to an all-girls Muslim school that required girls to wear a hijab. Every morning, we had to recite prayers in the prayer room, and I learned how to read and write the Q’uran. There were a lot of do’s and don’ts. Like, we weren’t supposed to color our hair, but I did it anyways and hid it under the hijab.
[C]: How do you decorate your apartment?[P]: I go to IKEA to complement my home décor; like, storage bins, and I love to pick things up from my travels. I love to get shot glasses on my travels – especially from the Hard Rock Cafe.
[C]: What are your favorite things to do in Kuala Lumpur?[P]: I love to shop! There are shops everywhere. I tend to go for good, modern pieces. My favorite stores include the Saccor Brothers because of their lifetime, global tailoring. I also like Tory Burch. I’m a bargain hunter, and, if I have time, will go to the outlets near KLIA (the international airport) or shop online. For local pieces, I love the local online platform Fashion Valet – it’s like the ASOS of Malaysia. It’s founded by an Instagram influencer, Vivy Yusof. I also get a lot of my clothes tailored. I have bags and bags of fabric at home that I design into clothing. It’s really cheap to get clothes custom made to your liking. I also love to travel to neighboring countries.
[C]: Do you have anything you always bring with you when you travel?[P]: I always carry a neck pillow and pack a dress so I can go out to a nice dinner.
[C]: Tell me about your friends. What are they like? What do you do together?[P]: I have a good mixture of friends. I have multiple groups of friends, but the majority of us are single. As far as dating is concerned, I always find myself in long-distance relationships. My friends and I typically get together for Sunday brunch or chill with friends at the apartment. I also have certain friends who are my movie buddies and others who I attend society functions with. Sometimes, I hang out with my clients as well.
[C]: How do you typically relax?[P]: If I’m not at the beach in Borneo or out in nature, I turn to retail therapy. There’s so much shopping in Kuala Lumpur. I also get massages and mani/pedis and practice meditation and yoga 3-4 times per week. At times, I also just catch up with myself and watch Netflix, like House of Cards.
[C]: What is dating like in KL?[P]: It sucks. It’s never been a pleasant experience for me. I will never marry anyone from Borneo. The men are too laid back there. In Malaysia, dating a man also means dating the family. When you marry, it also means you marry into the family, and I don’t subscribe to that. Dating someone should be about shared values between two individuals.
[C]: Can you see yourself getting married?[P]: It depends. At times I don’t know if I want to get married. But other times, I would be open to it. In Islam, a man can have up to four wives. I am open to the idea if it were the right person. Parts of my family practice that structure but it can be really hard on the family, especially the kids. The husband is supposed to be fair – if one wife gets a house, the other one does too and so on. In some ways, it gives women quite a bit of flexibility.
A HUGE thanks to Nik for introducing me to Pam and Pam for agreeing to do this interview! We had the best time chatting over Malaysian donuts, coffee, and fried fish.
From other individuals I have spoken with, it is not too common for people to live alone in their early 20’s and 30’s. If children do not stay at home with their parents, they tend to live with a sibling or relative – especially females. Because people marry young (average age for a Muslim Malay is 24-26 while Chinese Malays marry a bit later – 28-30) they typically wait to buy an apartment until they are married.
As part of a cultural village tour, the Remote Year group had the opportunity to try on traditional Malaysian wedding garb, made of the songket held together by a brooch, called a Kerongsang. Malay women usually use headscarf or tudung with their Baju Kebaya or other traditional clothing. A small Kerongsang is used to hold the tudung securely together. Another, larger-sized Kerongsang might be used to hold the top portion of the Malay Baju Kebaya or other traditional Malay clothing. The largest piece is usually used as a brooch.
Here are some beautiful jewels and brooches I came across at the Islamic Arts Center in Kuala Lumpur.
There were also stunning clothes on display at the Blue Mansion in Georgetown, Penang. The collection included a set of Nyonya beaded slippers, individually-sewn slippers with tiny beads of flower, bird or butterfly motifs, brought to Malaysia by the descendants of Malays and Chinese who intermarried in the state of Malacca.
Malaysia’s culture is vibrant and thriving. This is evident everywhere you turn and with everyone I encountered. One evening, I had the opportunity to sit and listen to Tok Yah Ali and Tok Puan Aminah as part of a ‘Grandparents Storytelling Night.’ The experience was priceless, as the group was introduced to the story of one of the cutest couples I have ever met and their life progression throughout many political uprisings, including the Japanese invasion of Malaysia…by bicycle! Here are a few wedding pictures and modern day photos from story night.
5 Ways to Live Like a Modern Malaysian
- Try designing your own clothing and getting them made at a tailor
- Go out to Sunday Brunch with friends
- Take a day to catch up with yourself and your beloved Netflix shows
- Spend an evening with a set of grandparents (they don’t have to be yours) and learn about their history
- Splurge on some retail therapy at your local mall