Projek Dialog

Regional dialects in Malaysia’s Language Debate

by Yvonne Tan


Language debates within Malaysia are almost always highly charged. From time to time the heated medium-of-instruction debate between Bahasa Malaysia vs. English Language for Maths and Science props up every so often. Be it from then Minister of Information, Communication and Culture, Rais Yatim sneering at a journalist “Saya tak jawab lah soalan begitu. Tanya je lah dalam bahasa kebangsaan […] Where were you educated? You can’t speak bahasa at all?” or when Sharifah Amani said “I sound like, stupid, if I speak Malay, so I’ll speak English” when accepting her Best Actress award at the Malaysian Film Festival (FFM). Lest we forget the discussions in Twitterjaya about why Malaysians continue to struggle with the common languages they have learnt in school be it English (aimed at Malays) and Malay (aimed at Chinese).


Nevertheless, one part of the language debate in Malaysia that does not have as much strife or even much focus on, is pride in regional dialects. They are almost always celebrated exclusively in alternative media and pop culture. Syahmi Sazli’s “drama spontan” and Alieff Irhan has made waves throughout YouTube for their use of Baso Kelaté or Bahasa Kelantan. Film has also taken a liking to utilising dialects such as Cun! (2011) a romantic comedy entirely in the Kedahan dialect starring several actors who were not necessarily native to Kedah but took the time to learn the regional dialect, many saluting Remy Ishak’s attempt. Others include Dain Said’s Bunohan (2011) and Budak Kelantan (2008) where both touch on urban-rural and development-tradition divide with a big dose of crime. Needless to say, Northern Malay dialects have drawn on and challenged stereotypes of rurality and backwardness as with films like Chemman chaalai (2005) and Jagat (2015) on the Malaysian-Indian community, both also filmed primarily in Malaysian Tamil.


Malaysian dialects have also been featured prominently within the growing hip hop genre in Malaysia. Artists such as K-Main, RxF Rhaled & YAPH – Golok, where many express pride in being Kelantanese while the famous Sabahan rap group K-Clique proudly mixes English with the Sabahan dialect alongside the inclusion of regional culture in their music videos from dances, festivals to everyday lorongs, warung and palm oil plantations. Fauxe, a Singaporean artist also mixes traditional samples from traditional Malaysian Tamil to Hawaiian Malay music overlayed with hip hop beats and distortions; a fusion serving as an ode to Malaysia and its sonic legacy.


Hip hop was especially popular during block parties in the 70s, creating a space for multicultural exchanges between African-Americans and other immigrant and marginalised communities, with many rappers having Latin American or Caribbean origin. Hence, hip hop naturally reflected their shared socioeconomic background as well, providing an outlet to be proud of hybrid cultures that are not necessarily celebrated elsewhere. Although not in a dialect, Kidd Santhe’s Bawah is a song that captures this essence, albeit localised, with the lyrics “berapa kali polis tahan budak india tak lepas, hari-hari kena gari buat cam barang hias”.


If English signifies professionalism/internationalism and Bahasa Melayu as loyalty to the nation [1], then regional dialects signifies the specific community one comes from. Unlike English and Bahasa Melayu, usually framed as a “choice” to become fluent, dialects don’t have a similar connotation. Given they are not as accessible such as tonal accents cannot simply be ‘learnt’, dialects require living for a long time within the community. Almost always, dialects never exist on their own, with subtitles in Malay or English to try to bridge the gap and ensure a wider audience, important to alternative media platforms.


Not only in Malay communities but also within others, with the prominence of Mandarin, there has been some worry of how “dialects” like Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teo Chew and so on would be phased out. Hong Kong protests consistently emphasize that Cantonese is not a dialect but a separate language altogether as mutually unintelligible to Mandarin, resisting standardisation. The same can be said with Taiwan so much so with the Sunflower Student Movement, indie band Fire Ex’s Island’s Sunrise song in Hokkien became the anthem. The same pride in such dialects has also trickled here as well such as Hai Ki Xin Lor [You Mean the World to Me] is a film entirely in Penang Hokkien, a first for Malaysia. Meanwhile, Cantonese has been regularly featured in films that proudly mix languages together such as Fly By Night (2018), Ola Bola (2016) and the Sepet trilogy.


An Instagram filter “Guess the Gibberish: Malay edition” is a play on the Gibberish challenge, where English words were used to mimic Malay slang and people had to make out what the Malay phrase was.  For example: people had to guess “low lung sea low mat tea” as “lu langsi lu mati” and my personal favourite “nah see go rank tell lure matter” as “nasi goreng telur mata”.


Regionalised ones popped up soon after such as Penang, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan and so on with netizens becoming popular for guessing and commenting with the filter. Multilingualism is required to utilise the filter where, depending on which filter, knowledge of English and Malay or the regional dialect.


Linguistic uniformity has almost always been favoured by nation-states while others mourn the death of many dialects worldwide. Nevertheless, what is unique about the increasing vernacular popular culture in Malaysia is the awareness of an audience beyond the community, almost always accessible to a Malaysian audience and expanding the three labels of “Malay” speaking standard Malay, “Chinese” speaking Mandarin, “India” speaking Tamil. This runs counter to how dialects are usually used, more often than not as an “indirect and intellectually respectable way of defending the borders, those outlying borders crossed by foreigners”. [2]


However—as popular and official discourse have always been conceptually distinct—the growing conscious use of dialects within the Malaysian context has seen the reimagining of  “national” sentiments as language of diverse groups can exist and be celebrated. Despite increasing migration and urban centralisation, popular culture has often been, and continues to be, associated with unmediated oral vernacular culture which serves as a rare source of pride and optimism in the never-ending language strife within Malaysia.


*Special thanks to Fuad Rahmat for keeping me updated with Hip Hop in Malaysian dialects


[1] Tan Zi Hao, “Language shaming in Malaysia” New Mandala, 19 January 2017



[2] Michael North The dialect of modernism: race, language, and twentieth-century literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 25.



Looking for a Social Media Research Assistant

Job vacancy alert 🚨🚨🚨


Projek Dialog is embarking on ‘Leveraging Media for Advocacy Objectives,’ a six-month research project on politically effective social media usage. We are looking for dedicated research assistants to help to facilitate surveys, analyze data and manage social media platforms for strategic outreach on intercultural understanding.


1. Job scope:

a) Researching social media trends

b) Critically evaluating social media data and analytics

c) Content creation

d) Periodical commentaries, presentations and written reports on 1a, 1b and 1c


2. Candidate requirements:

a. Well-versed in social media usage (especially memes and Tik Tok)

b. Awareness of Malaysian and regional politics. Local (i.e. not just Euro-American) insights are particularly advantageous

c. Fluency in Bahasa Malaysia

d. The ability to think critically and independently about (and beyond) social media trends

e. Contextual literacy

f. Good writing

g. Team player + kindness

h. Be comfortable with playing a feature role on social media accounts created during the course of this project or hosting project content out onto their own platforms.


If you’re great at utilising social media platforms such as TikTok, social media trends and memes, this is definitely for you!


To apply, please submit either of the following to with the subject line “Research Assistant for Leveraging Media for Advocacy Objectives”

    1. A writing sample that demonstrates the candidate’s social media literacy.
    2. A short video (30-seconds maximum) that provides creative commentary on a trending issue. This video should be accompanied with a short statement (less than 100 words) of why the issue was selected and the approach for creating the video.



Makluman 🚨🚨🚨


Projek Dialog akan memulakan projek ‘Leveraging Media for Advocacy Objectives’, iaitu sebuah projek penyelidikan selama enam bulan mengenai penggunaan media sosial yang efektif untuk politik. Kami mencari pembantu penyelidikan yang berdedikasi untuk membantu memudahkan tinjauan, menganalisis data dan menguruskan platform media sosial untuk jangkauan strategik mengenai pemahaman antara budaya.


1) Skop pekerjaan:

a. Meneliti trend media sosial

b. Menilai data secara kritikal dan analitik media sosial

c. Pembuatan kandungan

d. Ulasan, pembentangan dan laporan bertulis secara berkala mengenai 1a, 1b dan 1c


2) Anda harus:

a. Mahir dalam penggunaan media sosial (terutamanya meme dan Tik Tok)

b. Mempunyai pengetahuan mengenai politik Malaysia dan serantau. Tempatan (iaitu bukan hanya Pandangan Euro-Amerika) sangat bermanfaat

c. Kefasihan dalam Bahasa Malaysia

d. Keupayaan untuk berfikir secara kritis dan bebas mengenai (dan seterusnya) tren media sosial

e. Literasi kontekstual

f. Penulisan yang baik

g. Boleh bekerjasama + baik

h. Selesa dengan memainkan peranan dalam akaun media sosial yang dibuat semasa menjalankan projek ini atau mengehoskan kandungan projek ke platform mereka sendiri.


Sekiranya anda mahir menggunakan platform media sosial seperti TikTok, tren media sosial dan juga meme, ia pasti sesuai untuk anda!


Sekiranya anda berminat, anda boleh hantar e-mel ke dengan subjek “Research Assistant for Leveraging Media for Advocacy Objectives” bersama dengan salah satu yang berikut:

  1. contoh berbentuk penulisan yang menunjukkan literasi media sosial anda
  2. video pendek yang kreatif (maksimum 30 saat) mengenai sebuah isu dengan pernyataan pendek (kurang daripada 100 perkataan) mengenai mengapa isu ini dipilih dan penerangan dalam cara video itu dibuat

Remembering Afro-Asian Solidarity amidst George Floyd protests

by Yvonne Tan


The month of June 2020 had sparked the George Floyd protests all over America before reigniting the #BlackLivesMatter movement throughout the world. As some protest what is happening in America, others protest the systemic racist practices in their own country such as in Indonesia with #PapuanLivesMatter while in Malaysia some discussion of the treatment of African students, in particular, Thomas Orhions Ewansiha’s death in police custody and #MigranJugaManusia.


As the identities of the officers were released, Tou Thao, an Asian American officer who had stood by as his colleague restrained and eventually killed George Floyd became another subject of discussion on anti-blackness within Asian communities. As the model minority myth is perpetuated about Asian American immigrants, it further justifies mistreatment of other minority groups including African and Latin American communities which is in itself an opportunity to touch on the once transnational dream of African-Asian solidarity.


One cannot speak about African-Asianism without mentioning the Bandung Conference [Konferensi Asia-Afrika] in 1995 and subsequently, the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. At the height of the Cold War, postcolonial states were invited based on shared experience of Western imperialism to stand for anti-colonialism through transnational solidarity. Rachel Leow remarked how Bandung became “easy metonymy: Bandung the place, Bandung the spirit—Bandung the moment, Bandung the history. Anti-colonialism and transnational solidarity were all theatrical parts: Bandung was the diplomatic debut of newly decolonized peoples on a bipolar world stage, full of agency and vigour.” [1]


The “Bandung moment” was a spectacle with a global institutional space for decolonisation which was also, by and large, a foreign policy strategy. Jim Markham from the British colony Gold Coast, alongside Roo Watanabe, Menahem Bargil, Soerjokoesoemo Wijono, embarked on a research tour of then-Malaya, Indonesia and South Vietnam under the umbrella of the Asian Socialist Conference held in Yangon and Bombay during the mid-1950s as well. He had worried Britain of “Asian infiltration” wherein intelligence reports mentioned Markham’s research as “most impressive” with “acute understanding of wider problems” facing the Malayan Federation, as he warned how British and American firms expanded into cocoa plantations in Malaya to diversify away from the depressed global rubber market. [2]


Indian historian Vijay Prashad in Afro-Dalits of the Earth, Unite! (2000) proposes a polycultural approach to experiences in oppression instead of what he calls “epidermal determinism” which meant seeking solidarity on the basis of skin colour. When black slaves were emancipated in the Caribbean, North America and South Africa, Asian labour was brought in to replace and do the work of former slaves therefore continuing the racial strata of labour like in Trinidad and Guayana. Hence, such linkages were seen as important to Prashad for the struggle against universal racism. Part of growing Afro-Dalit scholarship alongside Ivan van Sertima, Runoko Rashidi and V. T. Rajshekar are among those who offer alternative approaches to the interconnections in African and Indian life. Rashidi told an Indian audience that he travels to India “to help establish a bond between the Black people of America and the Dalits, the Black Untouchables of India,” a tie that “will never be broken” and true enough the Black Lives Matter protests have spurred calls for India to end Dalit discrimination.


Grace Lee Boggs, who was mistaken by the FBI as an “Afro-Chinese”, personified her arguments against any approach that would focus singly on either race or class: “Whether the [March on Washington] movement proves transitory or develops into a broad and relatively permanent movement for Negro democratic and economic rights will depend upon whether it will develop a leadership which seeks its main support in the organized labour movement and whether the Negro masses in the labour movement are ready to enter into and actively support this general movement for Negro rights as a supplement to their economic and class activities within the unions themselves.” She and her husband, James Boggs, were deeply involved in the Black Power Movement and establishing multi-racial community institutions throughout Detroit, rooting politics in the struggle of black workers in the 1960s.


These are but some moments in a long history of transnationalism between Africans and Asians which emerged with the fall of Western empires. As national interests and growing Cold War tensions took precedence, African-Asian solidarity and other internationalist projects that explored decolonial possibilities did not take center stage as it had then.


Nevertheless, the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic saw a spike in Asian and eventually African discrimination, is a sober reminder that it is but an exacerbation of deeply rooted systemic racism that remains. As people across the world relate George Floyd’s death and police brutality against African Americans with the plight of Papuans, Aboriginals, Dalits, Rohingyas, Palestinians, migrant communities in Lebanon, Spain and of course Malaysia, the global protests are a watershed moment in carving out worldwide solidarity against the disciplinarian state that has used the excuse of the pandemic for too long to enact authoritarian measures.


Coupled with massive unemployment throughout the world and overall economic downturn, feeling the full effects of racial violence on top of inability to fight for justice in the workplace, people are forced to come to terms with their situation. Universal slogans adopted during the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the world include “All Cops are Bad” and “Silence is violence, Complacency is complicity.” Although this is but the beginning, just as how a pandemic affects the whole world, so does institutional racism coupled with repressive state apparatuses which have no opposition party against such. As much as health practitioners have spoken about how coronavirus does not discriminate across all races and classes, what has been taken into account instead is but how it would affect “the national community” or those most far removed from society while the marginal fall from the cracks. Taking lessons from African-Asian movement against colonialism, standing together globally against racism as a system that manifests in norms, institutions and policies is possible and needed in continuing the long fight to dismantle oppressive social hierarchies.



[1] Rachel Leow, ‘Asian Lessons in the Cold War Classroom: Trade Union Networks and the Multidirectional Pedagogies of the Cold War in Asia’, Journal of Social History vol 53 no. 2 (2019): 429–453, p. 430.


[2] Gerard McCann, ‘Where was the Afro in Afro-Asian Solidarity? Africa’s ‘Bandung Moment’ in 1950s Asia,’ Journal of World History, Volume 30, Numbers 1-2, June 2019, pp. 89-123


Diverse Voices Media Grant

by Jeannette Goon


What are Malaysian stories?

When we first put a call out for grant submissions, we were expecting diversity. But even so, we were surprised at how extensive the diversity in media could be.

We received pitches for stories about the stateless community in Sabah, Chinese education in Malaysia, psychological trauma among children with medical conditions that affect body image.

There was also diversity in medium — from essays to VR documentaries to interactive digital articles.

Ultimately, out of the 47 submissions we received, we could only select 10. This was a very difficult task, considering many of the submissions were of high quality and highlighted stories that we were interested in.

Helping us with this difficult task was our selection committee, which consisted of:

Victoria Cheng, Project Manager, Projek Dialog

Jeannette Goon, Program Officer, Projek Dialog

Sharaad Kuttan, Senior Anchor, Astro Awani

Abu Hayat, Migrant Worker’s Rights Activist

Justin Wong, Founder, Write Handed


The selection process involved an individual evaluation, where each member of the selection committee received access to all the submissions and assessed them individually, as well as a group evaluation where all selection committee members met to discuss the final 10.

The 10 grant recipients are:


Aidila Razak (Malaysiakini)

For an interactive digital article, accompanied by video and podcast, on unaccompanied minor refugees.

Vinodh Pillai

For a series of written accounts of lived realities from those working in the different, vulnerable jobs in the local sex industry and how their livelihoods have been affected during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Rupa Subramaniam

For a virtual mixed media art exhibition and a documentary featuring the stories of 30 Malaysian women translated into body art.

Loh Yi Jun

For Take a Bao, a podcast that tells the stories of the unrepresented food culture of Asia, starting off with stories in Malaysia/Southeast Asia.

Kristy Tan Wei Shia

For a podcast series inviting diverse sources to have a chat on topics related to motherhood. One of the topics it aims to explore is: How is motherhood valued and shaped by our different cultures and faiths?

Allie Hill (in collaboration with Amin Kamrani)

For an ebook featuring members of the refugee community, that will showcase how multi-talented they are and the skills that they have. The book will be visually led, accompanied by short text.

Tan Su Lin

For a Malay language story highlighting the effects of climate change on indigenous communities in Malaysia.

Ricardo Unto (Daily Express)

For a video report on ritual specialists from Tuaran and Penampang in Sabah. These “ritual specialists” are the guardians of the native Kadazan Dusun community’s culture.

Zarif Ismail

For a VR documentary about the Batek tribe in Taman Negara. The film explores their settlement, spiritual practices, food gathering and their relationship with the forest.

Roshinee Mookaiah

For a short story competition to be run on a Humans of New York-inspired social media platform that features Malaysian Indians. People will be asked to submit short photo essays or videos and the grant money will be used for prize money, judges’ fees, advertising expenses and production of a final video.


Congrats to all grant recipients, and thank you to all who submitted!

For more information on the selection process, please read our selection guidelines for this grant.


This media grant is part of the Diverse Voices program run by Projek Dialog with the support of Internews. The main goal of the program is to promote religious freedom and under-represented communities in the media.



Apakah itu cerita-cerita Malaysia?

Apabila kebukaan permohanan grant kami diterbitkan di laman media sosial, terdapat pengharapan untuk kepelbagaian. Tetapi walaupun begitu, kami amat kagum melihat betapa luasnya kepelbagaian media.

Kami menerima idea-idea mengenai komuniti yang tidak bernegara di Sabah, pendidikan Cina di Malaysia, trauma psikologi di kalangan kanak-kanak dengan keadaan perubatan yang mempengaruhi imej badan.

Terdapat juga kepelbagaian dalam perantara iaitu daripada karangan kepada dokumentari alam maya kepada artikel digital yang interaktif.

Akhirnya, daripada 47 permohonan yang kami terima, kami hanya dapat memilih 10. Ini merupakan tugas yang amat sukar, sedangkan terdapat pelbagai permohanan, idea yang berbagai disertakan dengan cerita-cerita yang kami minat.

Menolong kami dengan tugas yang sukar ini adalah jawatankuasa pemilihan kami, yang terdiri daripada: 

Victoria Cheng, Pengurus Program, Projek Dialog

Jeannette Goon, Pegawai Program, Projek Dialog

Sharaad Kuttan, Pemberita Kanan, Astro Awani

Abu Hayat, Aktivis Hak Pekerja Migran

Justin Wong, Pengasas, Write Handed


Proses pemilihan melibatkan penilaian individu, di mana setiap ahli jawatankuasa mempunyai  akses kepada semua permohonan dan penilaian secara berasingan dijalankan. Selain itu, penilaian secara berkumpulan juga dilaksanakan di mana semua ahli jawatankuasa pemilihan bertemu untuk membincangkan 10 finalis.

10 penerima grant tersebut adalah:


Aidila Razak (Malaysiakini)

Artikel digital yang interaktif, disertai dengan video dan podcast tentang masyarakat pelarian bawah umur.

Vinodh Pillai

Untuk siri laporan bertulis yang bersiasat mengenai pekerjaan yang berbeza dan terdedah dalam industri seks tempatan dan bagaimana sumber pendapatan mereka terjejas semasa penyekatan oleh COVID-19. 

Rupa Subramaniam

Untuk pameran seni media campuran maya dan dokumentari yang memaparkan kisah 30 wanita Malaysia yang diterjemahkan ke dalam seni badan.

Loh Yi Jun

Untuk Take a Bao, podcast yang menceritakan kisah budaya makanan Asia yang tidak diwakili, bermula dengan cerita-cerita di Malaysia / Asia Tenggara.

Kristy Tan Wei Shia

Untuk siri podcast yang mengundang sumber yang berbagai-bagai/pelbagai untuk membincangkan topik yang berkaitan dengan hal-hal keibuan. Salah satu topik yang ingin diterokainya ialah: Bagaimana perihal keibuan dihargai dan dibentuk oleh budaya dan kepercayaan kita yang berbeza?

Allie Hill (bekerjasama dengan Amin Kamrani)

Untuk ebook yang menampilkan ahli komuniti pelarian, yang akan menunjukkan bakat dan kemahiran yang mereka ada. Buku ini akan dipimpin secara visual, disertakan dengan teks pendek.

Tan Su Lin

Untuk cerita berbahasa Melayu yang menekankan kesan perubahan iklim terhadap masyarakat peribumi di Malaysia.

Ricardo Unto (Daily Express)

Untuk laporan video mengenai pakar ritual dari Tuaran dan Penampang di Sabah. “Pakar ritual” ini adalah penjaga-penjaga kepada budaya masyarakat Kadazan Dusun.

Zarif Ismail

Untuk dokumentari alam maya mengenai suku Batek di Taman Negara. Filem ini meceritakan tentang penempatan, amalan kerohanian, pengumpulan makanan dan hubungan mereka dengan hutan di sana.

Roshinee Mookaiah

Diilhamkan oleh Humans of New York, sebuah pertandingan cerpen akan diadakan di laman media sosial yang menampilkan masyarakat India Malaysia. Mereka akan diminta untuk menghantar esei foto pendek atau video. Wang daripada grant ini akan digunakan untuk memberikan hadiah berbentuk wang, pembayaran untuk hakim dan iklan, dan juga untuk pengeluaran sebuah video.


Tahniah kepada semua penerima grant kami, dan terima kasih kepada semua yang membuat permohonan!

Untuk maklumat lebih lanjut mengenai proses pemilihan, sila baca panduan pemilihan kami untuk grant ini.


Media grant ini adalah sebahagian dari program Diverse Voices yang dikendalikan oleh Projek Dialog dengan sokongan Internews. Matlamat utama program ini adalah untuk menggalakkan kebebasan beragama dan masyarakat yang kurang diwakili di media.