“Kau orang apa?” “Kau bangsa apa?”
These pervasive phrases have been commonplace in the Malaysian lexicon since time immemorial. Regardless of its purportedly innocent phrasing, the question can serve to include or exclude, depending on your answer.
Many members of the majority race use it interchangeably with greetings towards new acquaintances, and this phrase can invoke a cringe-like response to those of a more multicultural inclination. Perhaps fittingly, a Malay indie rock stalwart has taken it upon himself to reclaim the phrase.
Azmyl Yunor, a singer-songwriter hailing from Kuala Lumpur, has been churning out bangers independently since before the turn of the century. In his latest release – John Bangi Blues (2020) – Azmyl leans into a sound which blends folk and blues, while staying true to his roots as a true blue indie rocker. On Track 3, aptly titled ‘Orang Kita’, he croons about identity politics over a high-strung guitar accoutrement.
“Aku, Engkau, Mereka, Kami, Kita, Dia,” he begins on the track. The song is both a cathartic renunciation of the loaded titular phrase, as well as political statement in its own right. Indeed, this sentiment is laid plain when he sat down with JUICE for a recent interview.
“All Malaysians from all walks of life are Orang Kita, ‘Our People’. It’s not uncommon to be asked ‘what are you?’ in reference to race in Peninsular Malaysia if people can’t figure you out based on how you speak or look. I find that annoying, so I usually just reply with ‘I’m human’, which is the truth isn’t it?”
“People don’t ask that question in Borneo Malaysia, it’s a Peninsular Malaysia thing. We’re more racist here. That segregation began with the British – who couldn’t deal with how diverse we are – so they came up with the ‘Melayu, Cina, India, & Lain-Lain’ categories that we still use in forms (today).”
Elaborating on this colonial leftover, Azmyl also speaks to how the current political climate only elongates this divide-and-conquer mentality.
“Those in power then use this technique to make us suspicious of each other while plundering the nation’s coffers while we’re all distracted.
“In other words, we still haven’t ‘merdeka’, honestly. Our system of segregation is a British legacy we still carry on foolishly.”
Throughout his long career, Azmyl has released 10 albums and many EPs, while also collaborating with many notable local acts. He is also no stranger to other mediums with academic publications and column writing as well as collaborations with filmmakers and like-minded artists under his belt.
As a man who has seen it all, Azmyl says unity ought to be more than just sloganeering like ‘Keluarga Malaysia’, and more substantive acts of true engagement with others.
“We’re still living in some kind of Disneyland run by the elites. Unfortunately many still want a free ride even though they can afford the ticket. To be a true ‘Keluarga Malaysia’, we must ask why does one sibling get to eat a bigger slice of cake from the other siblings?
“We talk unity, equal opportunity, and fairness, but do we walk it?”
The now 44-year-old says he wrote ‘Orang Kita’ precisely to call out the powers that be, while spreading awareness to everyday Malaysians. In the song, he repeats the phrase “Aku manusia” to drive the point home, so perhaps the next time someone asks you “Kau orang apa?”, be like Azmyl.
Stream ‘Orang Kita’, and the full album ‘John Bangi Blues’ on Bandcamp.
Watch the MV for ‘Orang Kita’ below!