At home with Malay

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 27, 2013

When actress and writer Rilla Melati Bahri was young, her parents believed that she should master her mother tongue.

So she and her younger brother "spoke 100 per cent Malay at home", she says.

Her mother, Ramlah K.M. Gazali, 63, says: "If the kids speak English both in school and at home, they lose out on their heritage."

Rilla, a theatre graduate from the National University of Singapore, has learnt her heritage lessons well.

The 40-year-old has teamed up with fellow actress and polytechnic lecturer Sharon Ismail to co-author the first bilingual Malay-English picture books for preschoolers by local authors.

The two books, which come in a set with a read-along CD, touch on local experiences such as eating nasi lemak at a coffee shop and playing dress-up in traditional outfits.

They are published by television production house Dua M under the brand of Mini Monsters, its educational arm, with a grant from the Lee Kuan Yew Bilingual Fund, and will be launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday.

When Rilla was growing up, her linguist teacher father and housewife mother went against the thinking of many Malay parents, who spoke English to their children at home then so that the kids could have a headstart in school.

Mr Bahri Rajib, 63, now a part-time Malay language teacher with Raffles Institution, adds that they now speak exclusively in Malay at home to Rilla's 12-year-old son and their sole grandson, Nadim.

Mr Bahri says with a laugh: "In pre-school, his teacher complained that he didn't understand instructions in English."

This year, Nadim topped his school, Naval Base Primary School, in the Malay language paper at the PSLE preliminary examination.

Rilla, who divorced Nadim's father 11 years ago, is proud of her son: "There's no need to fear using just one's mother tongue at home."

Mother and son live in a four-room HDB flat in Yishun. Her parents live with her single, younger brother in the same block.

What was Rilla like as a child?

Madam Ramlah: We used to take her to the old MPH bookstore at Stamford Road after visiting the National Library next door.

Mr Bahri: We are a family of readers. I like Malaysian authors such as Shahnon Ahmad.

Madam Ramlah: I read self-help and motivational books and magazines.

Rilla: I loved the written word, and I could spend hours in a bookshop from when I was four or five years old.

How was Rilla naughty?

Madam Ramlah: She was stubborn and was caned for it. I cannot stand rudeness or stubbornness.

I have slapped my son once for being rude when he was a teenager. I can't remember over what issue.

Mr Bahri: I don't believe in caning. Each child has a different personality and some don't need caning. Rilla didn't.

I never intervened because I was never around when she was caned.

But my wife told me about it, and I've never quarrelled with her over this.

Can you recall an incident when Rilla was caned?

Madam Ramlah: She was banned from eating ice cream because cold food triggered her asthma attacks. Once, when she was in Primary 1, she came back coughing. I asked her: "Did you eat ice cream?" She said no but I could see a chocolate stain on her school uniform.

Rilla: I was caned a few more times till I was eight or nine years old, had more self-control and refrained from eating the ice lollies. I was on Ventolin inhalers till I was in my teens. The attacks stopped when I was in Anderson Junior College.

Are you closer to mum or dad?

Mr Bahri: She is daddy's girl.

Rilla: I used to run out to greet him every day when he came from work, and he hugged me.

Madam Ramlah: He would carry her every day - she in one hand, briefcase in another. It went on till she was in Primary1.I wasn't jealous about their closeness. I relate better to older children.

Rilla: She's not too keen on child bonding. But I think she was jealous.

Once, when I was 20 and in university, she and I went for a holiday in Perth. Mum called home and complained after the call that all my father did was to ask about me, not her.

Madam Ramlah: He's the one who read to her, played with her and comforted her.

Every time she got an asthma attack, he bought a toy to cheer her up. He woke up at night to give her medication when she was sick too.

Rilla: He reminds me about medication till today.

Mr Bahri: Now I dote on my grandson. I buy him many gadgets such as a PlayStation Portable and a laptop.

Rilla: He's like a walking blank cheque to my son.

Madam Ramlah: I nag at him about not spoiling the boy.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Mr Bahri: I'd be more streetsmart about my choice of guy friends.

Madam Ramlah: I wouldn't eat ice cream when I was young because my mother would worry for me whenever I got sick.

Rilla: If I were my mother, I'd be more hands-on rather than instructional. For instance, read with me, instead of just telling me to read.

I wouldn't change anything if I were my father because his linguistic methods have been tried and tested, and proven to be good.

The two books, Makan Time! and Baju Melayu Ati, and a read-along CD come in a set. It costs $39.90 from from Nov 2

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 27, 2013

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