This story is a part of a series of essays submitted to The Culture Review Mag on the theme of #perantauan (Malay for ‘journey’).

If you have your own story to tell on this theme, whether as someone who has left Malaysia, leaving it, staying put or returning to the country, we would like to hear it. The word limit is 1500 words. Please include a short bio and a few photos of yourself. The editor can be reached at theculturereview.tcr@gmail.com

By Masturah Alatas

Dear Mohani Niza,

I recently saw The Culture Review Mag’s call for stories on the theme of ‘perantauan’, which I loosely understood as the condition of being temporarily ‘luar negeri’ or away from one’s home to improve one’s lot, and the journey—spiritual, mental and literal—that that entails.  It’s a wonderful topic, one I have written about before in both English and Italian.

But I confess, the phrase “ex-Malaysian” turned me away. What is an ex-Malaysian anyway? One can be an ex-spouse or an ex-convict but you can’t be an ex-mother or father or daughter.

Ex has a complex use in Latin. There are so many ex-pressions that we use in English— Ex situ (as opposed to in situ), ex novo, ex libris, ex gratia. There is also ex Europa and ex Africa to refer to what comes from or out of these continents.

Then there is also ex-tra, the extra communitarian, for example, a resident in the European community who is not a citizen of the European Union. Americans, Australians and Canadians are technically extra communitarian, too. But in Italy, the term extracomunitario has acquired, thanks to the media as well, negative connotations. Many don’t think American or Australian when they see the word. Instead the first thing that comes to mind is probably a clandestino or ‘illegal’ immigrant, possibly a criminal, doesn’t matter if dark or light skinned, Christian or Muslim. The extracomunitario is someone who doesn’t integrate into the European way of life and accept European values; it is someone who is just not one of us Europeans. 

But the ex in ex-Malaysian functions as a prefix, not as a preposition. It means former Malaysian or no longer Malaysian.

Is being Malaysian only about institutional definitions of citizenship? For many it is. For sure there are Malaysians who are happy to rid themselves of their previous national identities and affiliations when their institutional ones change. And I imagine that these are also the stories that The Culture Review Mag wants to hear, because it is interesting to read about why someone would identify as ex-Malaysian just as much as it is interesting to read about why Malaysians cling to their Malaysian identity no matter where they are.

I, personally, would never identify as ex-Malaysian though I have been living in Italy for close to three decades now. My birth certificate and school-leaving certificates give me license to identify as Singaporean as well. This was why I wrote the story Causeway Love, because there are many like me who still see Malaysia and Singapore as one country. And the funny thing is that when the British were calling it Malaya, Italians were already calling it Malesia. So, it is really not a problem for me to identify as Malaysian in a country that gave my country, so to speak, its name.

Italian-Americans are by and large US citizens of Italian origin, and this hyphenated identity is so strong that it has given rise to a whole set of stereotypes immortalized in cinema and literature. South African Malays are just that: they are Malay South Africans and not Malaysian-South Africans. So, if one can be Malay without being a citizen of Malaysia just as one can be Italian without being a citizen of Italy, why can’t one be forever Malaysian even if one is no longer a citizen of the country?

For a long time, Palestinians did not have a state but they’ve always had a homeland. And many have left that homeland. Edward W. Said has never called himself an ex-Palestinian or been called one as far as I know. In fact, his entire intellectual oeuvre rests on his being Palestinian-American.

Multiple identities including the hyphenated ones are always interesting; there is always a complex narrative there. Italians born and raised in Italy to non-Italian parents have to wait till they are 18 years old to be granted citizenship. It is the whole ius soli ius sanguinis debate.

Is citizenship granted because of blood or lineage i.e. one parent is a citizen, or do we become citizens of a land from the second we are born on it? These are extremely important questions for the granting of complete rights to an entire generation of youths who are Italian for all intents and purposes but who aren’t Italian citizens, youth who have a strong emotional connection and sense of belonging to the territory they were born and grew up in.

They are not even ex-Italians; they are non-Italians. The parents’ condition of being immigrants to Italy has extended to the children. But how long can the condition of migrancy be prolonged? (notice there is no noun for the condition of being a migrant, can ‘perantauan’ be the loan word?).

Is citizenship granted because of blood or lineage i.e. one parent is a citizen, or do we become citizens of a land from the second we are born on it? These are extremely important questions for the granting of complete rights

Masturah Alatas

One very quickly ceases to be an emigrant but the immigrant identity can last for a long time. Malaysia, like the U.S., Australia and Canada, are often described as being nations of immigrants. But Malaysia is also a nation of Malaysians. We use the word immigrant when we talk about our ancestors and of late we have been using the word migrant with worker; the migrant worker—that person who has to stay in a place to work because work has a way of fixing you to a place—but is expected to leave one day. A migrant is that less glamorous traveller who does not carry the baggage of the prefix.

For a long time, Palestinians did not have a state but they’ve always had a homeland. And many have left that homeland. Edward W. Said has never called himself an ex-Palestinian or been called one as far as I know. In fact, his entire intellectual oeuvre rests on his being Palestinian-American.

Masturah Alatas

When I first started writing in Italian, they called writers like me migrant writers. We weren’t just asked to write about how or why we came to Italy. Indeed, for many of us the journeys were stories in themselves. But while there are travel stories in migrant literature, migrant literature is not travel literature. We were also called upon to share our experiences of day-to-day living in Italy, to narrate how we struggled to get acclimatized in a new country, finding jobs and homes, in a language we had not yet mastered. It was these early writings that helped me become fluent in Italian, and most of all they turned me into a writer.  

Writing is the freest land of my citizenship. And to write you have to sit put for a long while, it is a metaphorical putting down of roots. It is where your perjalanan ends even as your imagination continues to merantau.

I am a writer ex Malaysia but I will never call myself an ex-Malaysian.

Ex animo,

Masturah Alatas.

About the author

Masturah Alatas worked as a reporter for The Star newspaper in Malaysia before moving to Italy in 1992. She is the author of The Girl Who Made It Snow In Singapore (Singapore: Ethos Books 2008) and The Life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010), a memoir-biography about her father, Syed Hussein Alatas. She is one of several writers around the world along with Naomi Klein, Amitav Ghosh and Susan Abulhawa to be included in the anthology Will The Flower Slip Through the Asphalt: Writers Respond to Capitalist Climate Change (LeftWord Books, 2017). She teaches English language at the University of Macerata, Italy, where she has been living for close to three decades. She has also published essays and short fiction in Italian, making her the first Malaysian to write and publish in that language.