Revealing Complexities in the Practice of Faith in Malaysia

By Rachel Yeoh

March 2023 BOOK REVIEW
main image

Book Review - The Accidental Malay by Karina Robles Bahrin

Note: This book review contains spoilers

FEAR. FATE. FAITH. Depending on your religious or cultural point of view, The Accidental Malay by Karina Robles Bahrin will make you either knit your eyebrows in disapproval or strongly feel that every Malaysian should get their hands on a copy of it.

For starters, the fast-paced tempo of the book makes it “unputdownable”; buoyed as it is by crisp dialogues uncorrupted by Manglish, enough drama to put you on the edge of the seat, and internal monologues that make you go “I smell another mistake coming.”

This 2022 winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize tells of bak kwa (Chinese dried sweetmeat) heiress, Jasmine Leong. She falls into an identity crisis after her grandmother, the matriarch of the newly listed, family-run Phoenix Private Limited, dies. At that juncture, different flows of events appear to demand Jasmine’s attention – struggle for power in business, political complications, romance, and the book’s leading narrative, religion.

Having worked for Phoenix for decades and having been groomed to know the ins and outs of the business by her grandmother, everyone thought it natural that Jasmine should become CEO of the company. But because her grandmother had not articulated her wishes clearly in her will for Jasmine to take the top position, there is strong opposition from her aunt, who desires for her son to be the CEO, though clearly, her son has no desire to do so.

Next in her chain of problems is her not-so-secret affair with a married Malay-Muslim man. This simple romantic entanglement gets taken up a notch since it takes place among the business and political elites, and against the complex cultural tapestry that is Malaysia.

Her biggest hurdle arises after her grandmother wills her a mystery chest. And as mystery chests go, there is nothing interesting in it apart from a piece of paper written in Jawi. After getting it translated, she finds out that it is the marriage certificate of her late father, who died during the racial riots in 1969 – she realises that her biological mother was a Malay.

A bit later, she discovers she is with child with her love interest. At this stage, the father of the child has divorced his wife for Jasmine and is, furthermore, on his way to becoming a cabinet minister (should the governing coalition party win the upcoming elections). While some may be coerced by the money, standing and fame she would gain if she marries this man, Jasmine is reluctant to go down that path, and to leave her “super-haram” bak kwa empire.

This is the thing that strikes me the most about this book. It is unapologetically succinct about the play between the main ethnic groups in Malaysia. A major part of this book is about Jasmine resisting conversion to Islam for herself and her unborn child. She goes on to monologue about how being “Malay today means to be Muslim.”

Some may say that the author is attacking the religion she (probably) practises, being of Malay-Filipino parentage, but her book skillfully shines a light on how the country’s official religion is enforced through strict restrictions, assigned identities and social pressure. It is these that Jasmine rebels against in not wanting her child to become Muslim and be caught in the net of expectations that Muslims in Malaysia live in.

But be that as it may, one can’t also help feeling that Jasmine desperately needs therapy. She seems to be a rich, spoilt brat who lacks self-awareness at age 41. First, she gets involved consciously with a married man, but when she gets pregnant with his child, she leaves him for someone else (a rich Chinese man with a knack for business and making connections with high-profile investors), all this while expecting that man to behave civilly towards her. She throws tantrums but is aghast when anyone crosses her. The only thing she has going for her is the chance of becoming CEO of Phoenix.

However, I do regard this complex book as a must-read, mainly for it being a raw “exposé” of the complexities of Malaysian society, especially of members of its elite. The portrayal of the political debacle where several parties leverage on religion to gain support is parallel to what we see in the news.

It considers problems rarely dissected in literature runs and portrays, in honest fashion, individuals particular to a certain class and ethnicity, balancing both their positive and negative sides. I also appreciate that Karina is adequately descriptive without dwelling too much on the setting of each scene. Of course, it helps that I am a Malaysian that have frequented KL and Ipoh to ride on her easy depictions of these places.

Some would consider the book a Malaysian Crazy Rich Asians. It is bold, it is controversial, and it is refreshing. It is the kind of book that makes reading a breeze without poetic or grandiloquent attempts - one you can finish in a day before you ask your peers to do the same so you can have someone to discuss it with. For the best experience with this book, I suggest keeping an objective mind throughout.

Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.