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Malaysia is a country that’s well-known for its pristine beaches, ancient rainforests and delicious food. But did you know that this multiracial country also boasts some of the best writers in the region?
Indeed, books about Malaysia have become increasingly popular in recent times. This is thanks to the international exploits of writers like Yangsze Choo and Tash Aw.
While some Malaysian books tell a story of racial disparity during colonial times, others offer readers an intimate experience of Malaysia that is hard to replicate anywhere else.
But which books about Malaysia are the best? While I can’t objectively answer that, here’s a list of 20 of my favorite books about Malaysia just for you! My advice is to start there!
Books set in Malaysia (Fiction)
1. The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Sian Chin Yoke (2016)
This fascinating tale of discovering one’s cultural identity tells the story of Chye Hoon, a rebellious Malayan-Chinese girl (a Nyonya) who has to face the realities of growing up in colonial Malaya (late 1800s to mid 1900s).
Along with the challenges of cultural identity, Chye Hoon must struggle with her own aspirations of becoming a cook and raising her family in their customs and traditions.
Selina Sian Chin Yoke’s first novel debuted as an Amazon best-seller and was also named as one of the best books of November 2016 by Goodreads! It is an enticing story that readers can easily establish an emotional connection to.
2. The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (2013)
Let me just put it out there: The Ghost Bride is probably one of my favorite Malaysian novels ever. And that’s BEFORE the Netflix original movie adaptation!
Set in the historical town of Malacca during Malaysia’s colonial era, Yangsze Choo’s debut novel (a New York Times Bestseller) tells the captivating tale of Li Lan, the daughter of a Malayan-Chinese family that is struggling to make ends meet.
One day, Li Lan receives a most peculiar proposal. In exchange for a better life, she was to become the ghost bride (an old Chinese tradition in which a woman is married to a recently deceased person) of the son of a wealthy family. What follows is an addictive tale punctuated by Chinese folklore and romance with a touch of the supernatural.
3. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo (2019)
Following the success of her first novel, Yangsze Choo’s next masterpiece is equally as enticing! The Night Tiger is an exciting tale that is equal parts mystery and folklore.
The author’s masterful way with words transports readers into the lives of Ji Lin and Ren, two characters who, despite their different backgrounds, cross paths as their town is plagued by a string of mysterious deaths and whispers of an ancient folktale about men turning into tigers.
It already sounds super intriguing, doesn’t it?
4. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint (2010)
I must admit, I have a nostalgic soft spot for this fun, casual novel. After all, it was the first piece of fiction I read that was set in Malaysia!
The short novel is a delightful crime fiction in every way. It starts when Inspector Singh, an ill-tempered detective from Singapore, travels to Kuala Lumpur to help solve an impossible murder.
It has all the classic elements of a crime novel: an unsolvable crime, a brilliant detective, and an unhelpful police force.
While I wouldn’t consider this book (at least not anymore) one of the best Malaysian stories or books, it is still a worthwhile book to pick up, especially if you’re looking for a lighthearted read!
5. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (2009)
Along with Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng is arguably one of the best Malaysian writers of the current generation. His debut novel, The Gift of Rain, proves exactly why.
Set in colonial-era Penang, the main focus of the novel is on the unlikely friendship between Philip Hutton, a Malayan-British teenager struggling to find a place of belonging, and Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat.
Their friendship undergoes a drastic change when the Japanese invade Malaya in a savage campaign. Philip discovers that Hayato is in fact a Japanese spy. Philip must now find a way to save as many lives as possible as he comes to terms with his strained relationship with his former friend and mentor.
6. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2012)
Yet another spellbinding masterpiece by Tan Twan Eng!
The year is 1941, the Japanese have invaded Malaya and the people are suffering. Teoh Yun Ling and her sister are captured and tortured in a Japanese war camp. Years after the defeat of the Japanese, Yun Ling, having survived her tumultuous time as a war prisoner, finds solace in the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands.
There, she meets Aritomo, the former gardener of the Japanese emperor. She stumbles upon Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in the country. Wanting to create a garden in memory of her sister who died during their time at the Japanese war camp, Yun Ling becomes Aritomo’s apprentice and learns how to create a garden of her own.
However, there are still mysteries that surround both Yun Ling and Aritomo. I could tell you what they are, but wouldn’t you want to discover it yourself?
7. The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2006)
The Harmony Silk Factory Tash Aw’s debut novel. Judging by its quality, it’s no wonder that many consider him one of Malaysia’s best fiction writers!
Set in colonial Malaya, The Harmony Silk Factory tells the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim. Johnny rose to prominence in a small town in Ipoh during and after the Japanese occupation.
While Johnny is revered by his people as a hero for fighting the Japanese during the invasion, he has a strained relationship with his son, Jasper, who is one of the main narrative voices of the novel.
8. Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho (2020)
Moving on from stories set in colonial Malaya, Last Tang Standing is an entertaining, humorous, and relatable story about Andrea Tang, a successful lawyer in Singapore.
Andrea has it all, a fulfilling career, enough wealth to live comfortably, and a group of friends she can rely on. The only thing she lacks is a life partner. Even though Andrea doesn’t care much about it, her Chinese-Malaysian family is growing ever more impatient at the prospect of her becoming the last unmarried member of her clan.
Initially apprehensive about finding a life partner, Andrea eventually meets enigmatic businessman Eric Deng. She eventually decides to give love a chance.
But what’s the fun in a straightforward happy ending? As Andrea and Eric’s relationship develops, a third party continuously throws a wrench in their plans.
9. The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (2019)
The Weight of Our Sky is one of those underrated Malaysian novels that are secretly brilliant but lack mainstream exposure.
Written by local author Hanna Alkaf, The Weight of Our Sky is a debut novel that is stunning and compelling! The plot centers around Melati Ahmad, a teenager with OCD who believes she is being haunted by a Djinn (a supernatural creature of Islamic mythology).
During the historic Race Riots of 1969, Melati and her mother are separated as Kuala Lumpur transforms into a battleground between the Chinese and Malays. With a strict curfew imposed and with violent clashes happening all around her, Melati has to rely on her only friend, a Chinese boy named Vincent, to reunite with her mother.
Books set in Malaysia (Non-Fiction)
10. The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370 by Florence de Changy (2021)
When Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared without a trace in 2014, it led to widespread conspiracy theories, especially after large-scale search operations turned up nothing despite global coordination and years of trying.
In this brilliant piece of journalistic investigation, Florence de Changy details the chaotic investigations and how they led to more questions than answers. Apart from discussing her findings, de Changy also offers her own insight into what potentially really happened to the ill-fated flight.
I read it when it first came out and it was a truly remarkable publication into what is potentially the biggest mystery of the century.
11. Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (2012)
Ever since Singapore separated itself from Malaysia, the island nation has developed at its own pace with its own policies in place. To understand how Malaysians and Singaporeans saw each other after nearly half a century of separation, two Singaporeans set off on a cycling tour of Peninsular Malaysia, armed with nothing but a pair of tents, their bicycles, and a tight daily budget of $3.
After cycling to every state in Peninsular Malaysia for 30 days, chatting with locals along the way, the two Singaporeans then went on to interview their own countrymen about what they think of Malaysia. Their findings were then turned into this soulful masterpiece that more than deserves a read!
Books on Malaysian politics
12. My Story: Justice in the Wilderness by Tommy Thomas (2021)
Click to: Buy on Amazon
When Tommy Thomas became Malaysia’s Attorney General in 2018, it caused quite a media frenzy. After all, he was the first non-Malay/Muslim AG to be appointed since Malaysia was formed in 1963!
Despite only being in the position for a little under 3 years before stepping down, his tenure saw plenty of notable incidents and events that helped shape the current political landscape of Malaysia.
His 2021 biography, My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, is one of the most explosive books in Malaysia’s recent history. In it, the former AG speaks candidly about some of the important decisions he made during his term. These include prosecuting the former Prime Minister for his role in the 1MDB scandal, one of the country’s worst political corruption cases.
The author’s personal and authentic voice makes this a truly compelling book for anyone who is interested in Malaysian politics.
Where to buy: Amazon, Popular, MPHOnline, BookXcess
13. Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (2018)
Speaking of the 1MDB scandal, Billion Dollar Whale is another essential book about Malaysia you have to read. In fact, I would say that this book is best paired with the aforementioned book by Tommy Thomas.
Named as the “Best Book of 2018” by the Financial Times and other publications, this New York Times bestseller is a gripping expose of one of the most harrowing global financial scandals in history.
Often known as “the heist of the century”, the 1MDB scandal began in Malaysia when Malaysian businessman named Jho Low (now an international fugitive) colluded with several international banks to siphon billions of dollars away from a national investment fund. Allegedly, he then used the money to finance a lavish lifestyle and even the Hollywood film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
The far-reaching implications of the scandal, along with all the nitty-gritty details of the ongoing investigations are all included in this book, making it one of the must-read books about Malaysia.
14. The People’s Victory: How Malaysians Saved Their Country by Kee Thuan Chye (2018)
Ask any Malaysian and they’ll tell you that the 2018 General Election was one of the most inspirational Malaysian stories of our generation.
After all, this election not only saw the fall of the previous Barison National government, an alliance between unlikely allies, and the return to power of a 92-year old former Prime Minister. In short, the entire affair unfolded like a spellbinding Tolkienesque epic!
Kee Thuan Chye’s expert penmanship brings the entire journey to life with aplomb. The book starts with the aftermath of the previous General Election in 2013 and details the many political twists and turns over the next five years that (re)shaped the country’s political landscape.
Every page of this ode to Malaysians who voted for change is a compelling read, guiding readers to experience the despair of defeat in 2013, to the renewal of hope, to the ultimate euphoria of victory in 2018.
15. The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad (2012)
On the subject of the 2018 General Election, Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power was one that was greeted with enthusiasm by many of those who voted for change.
However, the truth is that the veteran politician was a divisive figure during his first term as premier of the country. While he has written some of the best-selling books in Malaysia, none exemplify the man’s political voice more than this controversial but also insightful book.
The book focuses generally on the Malays (the majority race in Malaysia) and their struggles with identity and economic prowess. It also looks back at the May 13 Riots in Malaysia, one of the bloodiest periods of history in the country, in which racial tension was at an all-time high.
If one were to truly understand the root of Malaysian politics, this book is something you cannot afford to miss out on.
Books on Malaysian History
16. The Tiger That Lost Its Roar: A Tale of Malaysia’s Political Economy by Tony Pua (2011)
Click to: Buy on Amazon
Before the turn of the millennium, Malaysia was one of the leading economic powers in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was once economically superior to even South Korea! However, in the years that followed the 1997 Financial Crisis, the country’s economy has seen a perpetual downwards trajectory.
Personally, this was one of the first books on Malaysian history and politics that I ever picked up. What I appreciate about it is the manner in which Tony Pua, who is a Member of Parliament of the current Opposition, breaks down complex macroeconomic concepts into easy-to-understand sections that really helped further my understanding of the issue at hand.
For those interested to learn more about Malaysia’s economic history and its rather spectacular capitulation, I highly recommend picking up this addictive read. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find as most other books, so your best bet is to order it online.
Where to buy: Amazon
17. A History of Malaysia by Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya (2017)
If you’re interested in reading more about the general history of Malaysia, then I highly recommend A History of Malaysia.
Originally published in 1982, it is one of the most comprehensive guides to the country’s general history. It is regularly updated and revised to reflect recent historical periods, with the latest edition released in 2017.
The book covers a wide range of topics in Malaysian history. These range from the roots of fundamental issues in Malaysian society, to the challenges of maintaining harmony within a multicultural community and much more!
While it may be a heavy read for some, for history aficionados, this is arguably the most complete book on Malaysian history you’ll find on the market.
18. Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore (4th Edition) by Jim Baker (2020)
Here’s a fun fact some might not know about: Before 1965, Singapore was a part of Malaysia! Yes, the two neighboring countries share a common past and a storied history together which has left a lasting impact on both countries’ culture, politics and economy.
In his book (now in its 4th updated edition), Jim Baker deep dives into the complex currents of history and politics between the two countries and delivers a thought-provoking piece that perfectly highlights the commonalities and differences between the two sovereign states.
As a Malaysian, reading this was more thrilling than I thought possible.
Essential travel books about Malaysia
19. The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei by Rough Guides (2018)
A good travel guide book is hard to come by these days. After all, almost everything you need can be found on the Internet. However, The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei is one of those travel guide books that aren’t only useful for gathering information, but also extremely fun to read!
Featuring useful reviews, fully-colored maps and images, and even a blend of humor, this guide book is one of the best travel books about Malaysia on the market. It even has suggested itineraries that you can use to craft your own journeys!
20. Lonely Planet Best of Malaysia & Singapore by Lonely Planet (2019)
Another trustworthy book about traveling in Malaysia you should pick up is Lonely Planet’s Best of Malaysia & Singapore series. For avid travelers, the Lonely Planet name is not an unfamiliar sight. After all, it is one of the most well-known brands in the industry!
In this book, Lonely Planet’s team of dedicated writers highlights the most exciting and memorable experiences in Malaysia. From the top sights to the best foods to try, the book presents everything in an easy-to-digest format. In short, it’s the perfect companion for your trip to Malaysia!
21. Malaysia – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Culture Smart! and Victor King PhD (2021)
For those who don’t know, Malaysia is a country that comprises multiple different races, religions, and ethnic groups. Each community holds firmly to their unique customs and traditions, offering visitors an unforgettable experience of cultural diversity.
However, before you visit Malaysia, it’s always nice to know a little bit about what to expect. This book by Culture Smart! Gives you exactly that: a brief introduction to the different cultures in Malaysia and their traditions and customs.
As you learn more about each ethnic group and their traditional practices, you’ll be amazed by just how many different cultures coexist in harmony in the country!
My favorite Malaysian authors and poets
Of course, apart from this list, there are plenty more books about Malaysia that deserve special mention. However, it’s impossible to list them all. Instead, I shall leave you with my favorite Malaysian writers so you can admire their works in your free time!
1. Yangsze Choo
Yangsze Choo is arguably the freshest face on my list of favorite Malaysian authors. After all, she currently only has two books but her writing style is such a joy to read that I can’t help but elevate her to my personal list of favorites.
2. Tunku Halim
If I were to describe Tunku Halim in just one sentence, it would be this: he is, in my opinion, the Stephen King of Malaysia. He has published works in plenty of different genres, but his best genres are horror and dark fantasy. He often takes inspiration from Malay myths and folklore and his collection of horror stories, aptly named the Horror Stories series, is often considered one of the best-selling books in Malaysia.
3. Kee Thuan Chye
In terms of political commentary, you don’t get a more refreshing voice than Kee Thuan Chye. He is unrelenting, unapologetic and straightforward. He holds nothing back in his penmanship and dishes out both compliments and criticism with devastating effect. If you’re looking for a no-nonsense overview of current happenings in Malaysia, Kee is the best!
4. Tash Aw
As mentioned earlier, Tash Aw is arguably Malaysia’s current top author. Having published several bestsellers, he is a household name among avid literature fans.
5. A. Samad Said
And of course, no discussion about literature and books about Malaysia is complete with A. Samad Said. The 85-year old novelist and poet is one of the best Malaysian writers in history. Most of his works are in Bahasa Melayu, but some of his more prominent poems have been translated into English. I’d recommend you look up The Dead Crow as a start!
And there you have it, 20 books about Malaysia that every avid reader should pick up! They say that a book is a gateway into an alternate reality, and with so many quality pickings from Malaysia, it’s hard to argue with that! For more additions to your library, check out the best books about Korea, Japan, and even Sweden!