Karaoke, The Malaysian Way
June 09, 2011

The following article was published by an organization close to my heart, Association of British Women in Malaysia.

We live in a country full of singers. It's true. From security guards to CEOs, maids to MPs, in Malaysia, you can never miss the sight of people mouthing the words to their favorite songs. Be it an evergreen number from the past or a current chart-topper, our air is filled with music (in various pitches) courtesy of the Michael Boltons and Mariah Careys in us all. For good or for bad, singing is a national pastime.

So it's not surprising that there are more karaoke joints than McDonald's in KL. Okay, that's a baseless exaggeration -- we all know Ronald McDonald is taking over the world. But the depiction is not entirely inaccurate. Karaoke joints are growing like mushroom and there's nothing you can do about it. New malls are almost definitely built with one of the many flamboyantly-named karaoke chains like "Super SingBox KaraOK!" and such. On their billboards, "We have karaoke!" is the new "We have cinema!"

The term "karaoke" is derived from the Japanese words kara (empty) and ōkesutora (orchestra). Little that its inventors knew, there's nothing "empty" at all about karaoke these days -- especially in Malaysia. Try standing at an audible distance (15 yards away) from any karaoke session and you'll hear vocals throughout the songs. With verses sung over choruses and vice versa, it's amazing how people could spend hours immersed in each other's voice... myself included.

Karaoke joints in Malaysia run the gamut from the smallest and tightest to the widest and most extravagant of spaces. Mostly located near video game arcades, the karaoke box is perhaps the simplest and cheapest option for karaoke enthusiasts. Built no bigger than a portable toilet for two (if there is any out there), locals call these charming little boxes "karaoke jamban". That's right. Directly and rather crudely translated, it means "toilet karaoke" in English. A rather fitting description at times considering the sound coming out of it.

The most popular joints in town are probably the mid-high range venues located in shopping malls. These places offer the latest songs and a wide variety of group packages. Very confusing group packages. For some reason, the cost structure for these group packages were designed to be so confusing you might end up thinking you're paying for parking as well in the room charges. There's the individual charge, hourly charge, cover charge, and a host of other charges targeted at confusing the customers so that they give up and just pay the damn charges already!

Nonetheless, these mid-high range joints have always been the preferred gathering venues for families and friends to have a little get-together and torment each other unique renditions of I Will Survive and Careless Whisper. From birthday parties to hen parties, baby showers are probably the only event that has yet taken place at a karaoke joint. For now.

Possibly the only karaoke joint where everybody sound good is the karaoke pub. Often filled with less than sober customers, karaoke pubs are usually where hardworking businessmen wind down after a long week at the office. It's where singing "I Just Call To Say I Love You" with the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is acceptable. Colored by the sights of scantily-clad waitresses and the sounds of wine bottles popping in its glory, karaoke pubs are where serious office workers roll up their sleeves and have fun even when they're caught with their pants down, literally.

Apart from the commercial joints, karaoke is present in almost every other function out there. There's always the little karaoke setup at Malay weddings where Pak Mat and Mak Limah relive the glory days of Pop Yeh Yeh from the Swinging Sixties as they twist their way to the music of The Siglap 5 and The Zurah II. Such spectacle of their true colors from yesteryears is often followed by the baffled gasps of the young ones.

In the corporate world, the setup is more elaborate and usually geared toward -- for lack of better words -- kissing the bosses' behind. Just as they do in golf, where the bosses gets the best clubs, buggies and flights, corporate dinners are typically equipped with state-of-the-art karaoke sets complete with an Auto-Tune machine to fix the pitch of every wrong notes they hit. Basically all you need for your boss to sound good when belting out Copacabana, before you call him the next Barry Manilow as he walk down the stage.

As we can see, karaoke has become a part of the Malaysian lifestyle. And karaoke joints have become a place for us to go out there, sing our hearts out, and live our dreams of becoming a singing superstar; at least within the four walls of the room. Who knows, the next Justin Bieber may just be singing in a tiny karaoke jamban at a small shopping complex in Kampar as we speak. Not that he has to sing that well to be like him anyway.

The writer and his friends having too much fun they don't care if they're singing into a bottle of grape juice

The writer and his friends congratulating each other after successfully butchering I Just Called To Say I Love You


Haha.."It's where singing "I Just Call To Say I Love You" with the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is acceptable" - SO TRUE. Karaoke brings out the very best and worst singers in us. But I say, the best karaoke session is when everyone learns to laugh at themselves and have pure fun.LOVE YOUR POST!

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Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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