On 6 September, I was interviewed by Shu Yi from The Interview in conjunction with the Malaysia Day celebration at I Want Festival 2023 on 16-17 September.
Original interview in Mandarin: https://theinterview.asia/feature/125961/
Here’s the translation:
[I Love My Land] Singer-songwriter Straw Lim: Malaysia is not special, but I love her very much
Malaysian indie singer-songwriter Straw Lim has backpacked to nearly 50 countries. Having looked up at the night sky from different places, and seeing both beauty and the absence of such around the world, she looked back at the land where she grew up and realised, “Malaysia is actually not so special.”
She already had thoughts of emigration while she was still in school, and has seen her friends go abroad one after another, but she herself still hasn’t left. When asked why, she shyly covered her mouth, laughed, and said, “Actually, I found out I am really patriotic.” When this love translated into action, she found herself in the rundown areas of her country, and tried to bring light to the marginalised community as an artist.
The stage name “Straw Lim” initially came about because she felt that her existence was like a straw– dispensable and not very useful. As she grew, her thoughts began to change. “Everything has its own use. For example, bubble milk tea or milkshake smoothies, it only feels right if you drink it with a straw. Similarly, everyone has their own purpose.”
So if everyone in the world is born for a purpose, Straw ponders: what role does she want to give herself?
“Later on, I saw the straw as a pipe. If my music has a message, then I’m just a tool to convey that message. In my opinion, the so-called inspiration is not created by me. I’m just the pipeline/vessel/channel that converts inspiration into music.”
Interestingly, her emotional pull with Malaysia has a similar evolution.
Malaysian Chinese are not unfamiliar with this statement– that Chinese are second-class citizens in this country, and only by emigrating abroad can they get better prospects. Straw’s environment growing up was also full of similar thinking. Most of her classmates were thinking about their future emigration plans, herself included.
After releasing her first EP “你看不见的” in 2012, Malaysian indie singer-songwriter Straw Lim travelled to the United Kingdom to study interactive multimedia design, and went backpacking before her graduation. She then released her first album “Excursion” in 2019, recording her feelings on her travels. More recently, she has released several singles that touch on social issues, has communicated more closely with some of the marginalised community of East Malaysia, and has committed to providing a platform for stateless children to realise their self-worth. (Image source: Provided by the interviewee.)
She then went to the United Kingdom for university studies, went backpacking in Europe and the Middle East, and returned to Malaysia to participate in the Bersih rallies. The various experiences caused the scales in her heart about whether to stay or leave begin to tip to one side. “I felt that I must make sure I fully understand this country, do my best to stay, and only if it really doesn’t work will I choose to leave.”
As for her friends who originally said they wanted to emigrate, they really did leave one by one, but Straw has stayed until now still. When asked why, she herself found it hard to explain, and could only say “It’s because of love I guess!”, while covering her mouth and laughing.
“Actually, I found out I am really patriotic. You grow up in this land, and receive the nourishment it gives you. That familiarity… I don’t really know how to explain it. No matter how bad it gets, you can still go through it. This is your home.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for staying here is also because she found a way to make herself a useful “pipeline”.
Stepping into the marginalised community, teaching children how to play the piano and make animations.
In 2019, Straw, who grew up in Kuala Lumpur, moved to Kota Kinabalu with her husband, and was surprised to see many weak-looking, dark-skinned stateless children wandering on the street, squatting in the busy city, and begging regardless of rain or shine.
“Why is there such a group of people in our country?” The ugliness of reality stared at her straight in the eyes. Having been particularly concerned about injustice since she was young, she couldn’t turn around and pretend she didn’t see it.
Consequently, she searched for relevant information on the internet, and got to know about Borneo Komrad, a non-profit organisation comprised of university students. These students had been teaching stateless people in villages near their university for a few years, providing free education. Gradually this grew in scale, and led to the formation of a school called “Sekolah Alternatif”
“I sent them an email saying that I wanted to know more about their work. They immediately invited me to visit the school in Semporna, so I went, and stayed in the village there.” Her first impression of the local village there was one as shabby and dirty as a war-torn place. “Originally, I only planned to stay for a few days, but ended up staying two weeks.”
Straw Lim (standing) believes that education can change one’s fate. “You can see the difference between educated and uneducated children. A child that has received education has a more mature mind, they know where their own value lies, and also gain self esteem.” The picture shows Straw teaching the marginalised children how to make simple animations. (Image source: Provided by the interviewee.)
In those two weeks, Straw used her knowledge from her background as a multimedia designer to teach the marginalised children how to make simple animations. Later, in preparation for a graduation ceremony performance, the school invited her to go again to teach the children to play the piano. In the process, she found that one of the children had a creative talent, so she invited him to write a song together, and let the other children sing and record the song in Bajau and Sulu. Together, everyone worked to complete the song and included it in Straw’s next album.
Having been in close contact with the marginalised children multiple times, she has gained a deeper understanding of them.
“They are actually not as pitiful and incompetent as we might think. Not only are they very talented, they also have strong vitality. Whether it is painting or music, they pick it up quickly. I think they are more talented than I am, they’re just missing that one opportunity. We often think they need our help, when in fact that might not be necessary. I think my role is to encourage and support them in what they want to do, or just to connect them to a suitable platform.”
The school invited Straw Lim (left) to come again to teach the children to play the piano. The gifts and talents the children displayed during this process made her sigh: “I think they are more talented than I am, they’re just missing that one opportunity.” (Image source: Provided by the interviewee.)
You can’t stop a person from loving a piece of land.
However, many locals label these stateless people as outsiders, either turning a blind eye to their plight, or having unkind attitudes towards them. Yet what Straw found unforgettable was this: at that graduation ceremony, the atmosphere created by the students when they sang the national anthem with all their heart was deeply moving.
You can’t prevent a person from loving a piece of land, nor can you stop a person from deciding whether he belongs to this place.
“Some closed their eyes, some put their hands over their hearts,” Straw described while imitating the expression of the students focused on singing the national anthem. “Seeing that scene made me want to cry. You can feel that they love this land and this country so much. You can’t stop a person from loving a piece of land, nor can you stop a person from feeling they belong to that place.”
And a person cannot deny what they feel in their heart. She expands on this, that this is also the power art can have in social movements.
“When you see them singing, you feel moved, simple as that. You won’t stop yourself from being moved just because they are stateless children. Music and art have that ability to cross boundaries.”
Having been in close contact with the marginalised children multiple times, she has gained a deeper understanding of them. “They are actually not as pitiful and incompetent as we might think. Not only are they very talented, they also have strong vitality. Whether it is painting or music, they pick it up quickly.” (Image source: Provided by the interviewee.)
As an artist, Straw has been intentionally encouraging more people to pay attention to social issues through her songs and imagery. She believes that art can be more than just art, but can also record history, reflect reality, and even possibly change society.
“If we want to attract people’s attention to a topic, we often already have a lot of documents and books, and the government may also put forward many policies, but where words and policies might fall short, art can fill the gaps, create emotional connections between people, and elicit empathy and compassion for others.”
Stateless children wander the streets every day, and few people do anything to help them. Perhaps the reason why Straw took an extra step may be because the backpacking trip she embarked on alone a few years ago had a great impact on her.
Only when you understand your own country, can you understand yourself better.
On her journeys, she cared about a boy who should be going to school, but was on the train playing a large accordion with a sad look on his face; she cared about a group of children and their breastfeeding mother all crowded together in one small cabin; she cared about the refugees and vulnerable communities scattered at the outskirts of cities, and wrote songs for them. But when people she met asked her about Malaysia, she realised she did not know enough about her own country.
“I was originally a very quiet person who wasn’t very good at expressing myself, but when I went overseas, I found that I could learn a lot from chatting with others. Then people would ask me about Malaysia. At that time, I hadn’t even been to East Malaysia myself, and people from other countries ended up introducing me to the attractions found here instead. Some British people even asked me what I think of Britain’s colonisation history. This prompted me to learn more about the history of my own country and pay more attention to the social and environmental issues when I returned home.”
So she began to read relevant books to understand the different perspectives of her country’s history, and realised that this was also a process of understanding herself.
“I want to understand where I come from. There must be a reason why I was born here instead of the UK. I feel that if I want to find out what my purpose is and live up to my potential, I must first understand this place, then only will I know who I am and what I want to do.”
Over the years, she has travelled to nearly 50 countries. With that wealth of experience, when asked what she thinks is unique about her country, she actually thinks that Malaysia is not that special after all.
Perhaps in many cases, it is not the existence itself, but rather the dedication and investment we put in that makes specific surroundings so special in our hearts.
“Actually, when I do all these excessive things, it’s to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone. Stepping out of comfort zones is not as scary as we think, but actually quite fun. There are so many more wonderful things to explore and stuff to get into. Understanding how you can do more may help you find a sense of belonging and live more freely.
All of us can each become a useful “pipeline/vessel/channel”, to connect to places that are lacking, and spread warmth and hope.