Elementary Malay, prepared as a guide for R.A.A.F. personnel

IMG_3262Elementary Malay, prepared as a guide for R.A.A.F. personnel, issued for the information and guidance of all concerned

By Command of the Air Board

August 1944

Because Steph’s moving to Singapore next week, and I bet you didn’t know she collects vintage language guides.

[Liz: how did I not know this? It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.]

So I’m Chinese-Malaysian, as I talk about FREQUENTLY, and it is all good and fun but there is a resentment in my heart, and it has a lot to do with colonisation. Your background to this book: various parts of Singapore and Malaysia (still Malaya at the time) were occupied by Japan from 1941-1945. Before this, we’d been colonised by the British and the Dutch; afterwards, began the business of merdeka (the independence/self-rule movements of various SEAzn countries). This book was issued out of Melbourne in 1944, during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

Notes on some of the habits and customs of Malays, Chinese, Southern Indians and Eurasians


The Malay, generally, has a quiet dignity, inborn in him, coupled with a naturally happy disposition. He is easy to get on with, and will, in most cases, show respect for and willingly assist the white man.

They are an independent race, and in a different class altogether from the prevalent idea of a “native” being a coolie – someone to order about.

Many Malays are good motor car drivers, and their sober habits make them reliable. They are an easy-going and rather lazy race.

Much was done by the British and Dutch to protect Malay interests, provide education facilities, improve methods of cultivation and raise the standard of living. There is no doubt that the great majority of the Malays will welcome the return of the white man.

Oh, wow, how hideous. Witness in full the overbearing, paternalistic, patronising attitude of white people (then and now).


They are a very progressive people, many having become wealthy, starting a career as labourers in the Islands.

Many thousands of Chinese labourers were employed on all the more strenuous works in mines and plantations, and commanded higher wages than the Indian labourers.


Very strong unions or “Kongsis” protected their interests, and the “strike” weapon was as familiar to the Chinese workman as it is nearer home.

Wait, WAIT, someone tell me more about Chinese unions and strikes aaahhhhh.

Opium smoking was strictly controlled. A smoker had to be registered to get limited supplies, and no new registrations were issued. The proportion of the Chinese population of the Islands addicted to the habit was very small…Every assistance was given by the Government, by treatment and homes for addicts, to those who wished to break the habit.

Okay, Ima stop you there. DO YOU KNOW WHY THIS IS? Because opium was a tool used to control China’s MAINLAND, not Chinese/perakanan peeps who left the mainland. That’s why it was MIRACULOUSLY under control in Malaysia! GROSS.

[Liz notes that Chinese consumption of opium was different again in Australia, but her knowledge is limited to the 1920s and she cannot speak with any authority about the experience of Chinese-Australian opium users in the 1940s.]


They are an easily controlled people when properly handled, simple and child-like in their habits, remarkably clannish, and although they are almost all of the so called “untouchable” class, there are many distinct castes between which there is still, despite the influence of Gandhi, no inter-marriage.



The Eurasians form a very useful community. They are usually employed as teachers, nurses, clerks and typists, a large proportion in Government service. Amongst them are some brilliant doctors and scientists.

Their standard of living, as with Europeans, varies dependent on their income.

contents page of the bookAnd if you think for even a moment that this section on Eurasians isn’t heavily influenced by the fact that Eurasians have some form of European descent, you are SO SADLY WRONG.

[Liz notes: To people who are accustomed to a UScentric view of history, where mixed marriages were widely frowned upon and frequently illegal, it might come as a surprise to learn that people of mixed European and Asian descent were so privileged. SPOILERS, that was a pretty common state of affairs outside the US, even in places like Australia, that worked really hard to deny it had an Asian-Australian population at all.

In fact, if Stephanie will forgive the digression, people — especially women — of Asian and European background in Australia were very quickly assimilated into whiteness in the eyes of the community, even if they themselves identified with Chinese culture and political movements. An account of a Kuomintang-sponsored picnic in Melbourne in 1920 notes that there were lots of “white women and girls” present. Said women were clearly the wives and daughters of the Chinese-Australian men present, but to the Anglo journalist, they had been upgraded straight to whiteness, without passing through the “Eurasian” category described here.]

[Further aside, this time from Steph – in fact, the use of assimilation to whiteness via being mixed-race is why we don’t use the term biracial/mixed-race to refer to Indigenous Australians! (Unless an individual self-identifies that way, of course.) Because of the use of white ancestry to deny Aboriginality/remove Indigenous kids from their parents and communities.]

I don’t really have the patience to transcribe everything in this magnificent tome, so just some highlights with regard to patronising colonialism:

Lesson 10: On the Aerodrome

bomber-plane (aeroplane which throws bombs) kapal-terbang yang lempar bom
air raid shelter (hole to hide from aero-planes) lobang sembunyi, dari kapal terbang
Don’t be afraid, that is ACK ACK only. Jangan takut, itu ack ack saja.
There are many Japanese hiding near the ‘drome. (Many Japanese are hiding, etc) Banya orang-japun ada sembunyi dekat tempat kapal-terbang.
Please fetch my water bottle Tolong piggi ambil saya-punya botol ayer.

Lesson 12: Ailments – The Body

My favourite chapter!

Sick heart, in low spirits, depressed. Hati sakit.
He cannot bear it. Ta’boleh tahan.
He (has) not yet found out about that. Dia belum dapat tahu pasal itu.

The thing about hati sakit is that it’s not necessarily about the heart – it’s about the liver, which is where one feels ones emotions. So, nice translation, accurate to the meaning, but not necessarily to the heart (hah!) of the matter.

Which leads me to some of my favourite translations:

She (is) very shy Dia banya malu
He is paying out Dia keluar gaji

If you don’t speak BM, note that ‘dia’ means both he and she, so…that she is shy, but he is paying out, sure is a thing. And is super common all the way through the book. Perfect. Amazing. Not gross at all.

3 thoughts on “Elementary Malay, prepared as a guide for R.A.A.F. personnel

  1. That was deeply fascinating. I did not know that biracial/mixed race wasn’t used with indigenous Australians, even though I remember Liz’s visceral “NO NO NO” reaction when I mentioned how some NA tribes here have a 1/16th rule for tribal registration.

    (What does “piggi” mean?)

    1. ‘piggi’ is an old transliteration of ‘pergi’, which means ‘to go’. I can’t believe I forgot to point that out in the text, it’s such a hilarious thing, because they don’t sound anything alike.

      I honestly wish I had the patience to type it all up, the whole thing is fascinating. That Australians using the book are told to use ‘English’ and not ‘Australian’ to ask for things. The weird things it assumes. The need for a section of emergency translations for stranded airmen. It’s all great.

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