19 Best Books on Malaysia: Novels, Short Stories and Non-Fiction for your Armchair Wanderlust

Traveling to Malaysia and looking for a good introduction? This list of great Malaysian novels, short stories and non-fiction makes for essential pre-departure reading.

best books on Malaysia
Books and readers in Penang at the George Town Literary Festival in 2017 (image by Marco Ferrarese)

Penang and Malaysia, with their colonial history and mysterious jungles, have been the perfect setting for novels and books of all kinds. It’s no wonder then that there are many very good books on Malaysia and, obviously, fascinating Penang.

Especially in this sad time of COVID-19 pandemic, when we have a lot of time on our hands, reading a good book is a great idea. The following 19 suggestions can make up for hours, if not days, of great reading with some of the best books on Malaysia.

Whether you are dreaming of a trip to Malaysia, are longing to explore Penang, or you are a Malaysian looking for some good literature about your country, this list of books on Malaysia should be perfect to get you started — and even introduce you to some pretty awesome books.

We must thank our friend Gareth Richards, manager of Penang’s incredible Gerak Budaya Bookshop, a landmark Malaysian bookstore, and the multi-functional art space Hikayat, for chiming in with most of the suggestions for this list. Don’t forget to go visit his shop once in Penang, and remember that you can order online, too.

With this post, we are highlighting some of the best Malaysian novels, books of Malaysian short stories, and books about Penang. This list also hopes to sparkle interest on some of the Malaysian writers who, more or less silently, have given a name to some of the best Malaysian literature.

Best Malaysian Novels

The Soul of Malaya

By Henri Fauconnier, Editions Didier Millet, 2015

best Malaysian novel the Soul of Malaya
Cover © Edition Didier Millet

Before Malaysia, there was “Malaya”: a land of tigers, lush tropical vegetation enveloping as far as the eye could see, and… foreign planters. “The Soul of Malaya“, originally published in 1930, tells the experiences of two French planters who lived in Malaya between 1905 and 1914, and 1919 to 1925, and a world of yore inhabited by various strange Englishmen running plantations in colonial Malaya. Winner of the French Prix Goncourt in 1930 — it’s probably the best novel about Malaya before Burgess.


The Malayan Trilogy

By Anthony Burgess, Penguin Books, 1996

Cover © Penguin Books

Few know that the author of seminal “A Clockwork Orange” lived as an English teacher in Kuala Kangsar, former British Empire, in the 1950s. Burgess loved Malaya, and his life experiences have been vividly painted in a series of three novels, “A Long Day Wanes” (1956), “The Enemy in the Blanket” (1958) and “Beds in the East”(1959). The three novels are a comic rendition of decolonisation in Malaya — and Burgess’ life — following the stories of Victor Crabbe, an English teacher in a multiracial school, and his wife with low morals. Not surprisingly, “The Malayan Trilogy” has been long banned in Malaysia — but you can easily find it elsewhere.


The Return

By K.S. Maniam, Skoob Books, 1994

best Malaysian novel the Return
Cover © Skoob Books

While we still mourn his recent death, “The Return” is K.S. Maniam’s masterpiece. It tells about the story of young Ravi as he sees the country transitioning from colony to Independence in 1957. This book is greatly focused on the experiences of Indian migrants to Malaysia between the 1940s and 1960s, and Ravi’s struggle for identity and improving his family conditions — most likely, an autobiographical account.

Sister Swing

By Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Marshall Cavendish, 2006

best Malaysian novel Sister Swing
Cover © Marshall Cavendish Books

Shirley Geok-lin Lim is a legendary writer and this may be one of her best novels. “Sister Swing” follows the story of three sisters, moving from the comfort of Malaysia to the harsh reality of the United States.
“Sister Swing” describes masterfully the relationship between the three siblings, and how it is to grow up Asian in the Western World. A great read.


The Harmony Silk Factory

By Tash Aw, 4th Estate, 2005

best Malaysian novel Harmony Silk Factory
Cover © 4th Estate Books

Another book on colonial Malaysia — but this time, written by a real Malaysian!
Tash Aw’s debut tells the story of textile merchant Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in Malaya. To his countrymen, Johnny, with his impressive factory, is a model of a self-made man — a former Communist who fought the Japanese invaders to help his people. But to Johnny’s son, Jasper, the father is a crook and the Harmony Silk Factory nothing else than the result of his shady business. “The Harmony Silk Factory” is an exquisitely written debut that shed light on the thorny issues of the Malayan Emergency. Highly recommended.


Evening Is the Whole Day

By Preeta Samarasan, 4th Estate, 2008

best Malaysian novel Evening is the Whole Day
Cover © 4th Estate

Preeta Samarasan’s debut tells the story of an Indian Malaysian family and its complex relationships. Beginning with Aasha’s grandfather’s ascension from Indian coolie to an illustrious resident of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, and going on to tell the story of how Appa, the family’s Oxford-educated patriarch, courted Amma, the humble girl next door, “Evening Is the Whole Day” moves gracefully backwards and forward in time to answer the many questions that haunt the family. As complex as Malaysia’s underbelly itself, a notable debut.


The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng, Myrmidon Books, 2011

Cover © Myrmidon Books

Another important book on the ending times of Malaya, recently turned into a major blockbuster film. It’s the story of Yun Ling Teoh, a woman survivor scarred by a brutal experience in a Japanese wartime camp, who returns to her native jungles of the Cameron Highlands to find solace. It’s here that she meets Aritomo, the exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, and his unique Japanese garden, the only one in Malaya. As Ling Teoh becomes his apprentice to learn how to make a similar garden to honour her dead sister, the relationship with Aritomo unfolds, together with many secrets, in the Garden of Evening Mists — one last sheltered place from the kidnapping of the guerrillas in the hinterland.


Nazi Goreng: Young, Malay, Fanatic, Skinheads

By Marco Ferrarese, Monsoon Books, 2013

Cover © Monsoon Books

When young Malay Asrul is beaten up by a bunch of Indian gangsters, he finds support in a new friend, the bossy skinhead Malik. He quickly introduces Asrul to a down-spiralling world of racial hatred — but fighting for “the cause” pretty much goes completely south from there. Banned in Malaysia in 2016, Ferrarese’s novel is a gripping thriller that blends together all colours — the brown, the yellow, and the black — of Malaysia’s melting pot. Loved by many and hated by all, as every controversial book should, “Nazi Goreng” was translated into Malay and was a bestseller in Malaysia before the ban. You can still get a copy via Amazon.


The Sum Of Our Follies

By Shih-Li Kow, Silverfish Books, 2014

Cover © Silverfish Books

The small Perak town of Lubok Sayong and his quirky characters are beautifully narrated by Shih-Li Kow, who touches on the usual racial, political and LGBTIQ issues that make Malaysian life the daily struggle it always is.
Very good and underrated – the French translation just won a major prize in Europe.

Once We Were There

By Bernice Chauly, Epigram Books, 2017

cover © Epigram Books

A gritty, highly graphic and sexual account of life in Kuala Lumpur during the era of the 1990s Reformasi. Protagonist Delonix Regia, a naive journalist and activist, lives the parable of big city life — from the sex and the drugs to falling in love with who she believes is the “right man”… but is he? From transgender sex workers to immigrants, newly rich and debonair journalists, “Once We Were There” pulls no punches in depicting Malaysia’s capital as a splinter or hell. Haunting, and surprisingly, NOT banned… yet?


We, the Survivors

By Tash Aw, 4th Estate, 2019.

best Malaysian novel We, the Survivors
Cover © 4th Estate

Ah Hock, a poor Malaysian Chinese fisherman, has killed a man and has just gotten out of prison. But wait… was he a man, or just a Bangladeshi migrant worker? Tash Aw’s latest novel plays with the haunting ghosts of the racial card, describing a character as troubled and embittered as the country he lives in. Narrated as alternating flashbacks and the interview between Ah Hock and Su-Min, a sociology graduate who just returned from the USA, maybe “We, the Survivors” is not Aw’s best, but in nevertheless really important novel tackling the hard subjects of contemporary migrant labour, injustice and exploitation in Malaysia.


The Weight of Our Sky

By Hanna Alkaf, Simon & Schuster, 2019.

best Malaysian novel weight of our sky
Cover © Simon & Schuster

Melati Ahmad is a Beatles-obsessed teen with OCD — or better, what she believes is a djinn inside of her, a creature that molests her with terrible images of her mother’s death if Melati doesn’t appease him with an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping. In “The Weight of Our Sky“, Melati does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut. Meant to be a Young Adult novel, this book can be read by all and is highly recommended. It’s being translated into Malay as we write this.


Best books of Malaysian short stories

Ronggeng-Ronggeng: Malaysian Short Stories

By Malachi Edwin Vethamani (ed.), Maya Press, 2019

best Malaysian short stories ronggeng ronggeng
Cover © Maya Press

A really good collection of 28 stories covering 60 years from the 1950s to the present, and edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani. These Malaysian stories span decades of Malaysia’s development and come from the skilful pens of Malaysian writers such as Lee Kok Liang, KS Maniam, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Tunku Halim and Saras Manickam. Different genres, from comedy to supernatural horror, and different perspectives that truly encapsulate the kaleidoscope that is Malaysia.

Telltale Food: Writings from the Fay Khoo Award 2017–2019

By Bettina Chua Abdullah (ed.), Hikayat, 2019.

best Malaysian short stories
Cover © Hikayat

This interesting anthology of food writing — mainly from Malaysia, but with contributions from around the world— collects the best entries from two years of the Fay Khoo Award for food writing. There’s a bit of everything that intersects life with food: food for thought, food for the Gods and for friends, all told from the kitchens, alleys and restaurants tables of Malaysia. Yummy, to say the least.

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Lake Like a Mirror

By Ho Sok Fong, Granta, 2019

best books on Malaysia
Cover © Granta Books

A really interesting short-story collection – lots of weirdness – translated from Chinese, from an author described by critics like “the most accomplished Malaysian writer, full stop”. “Lake like a Mirror” is an exploration into the lives of Malaysian women buffeted by powers beyond their control, whose lives become twisted in disturbing ways. From naked sleepwalkers in a rehabilitation centre for wayward Muslims, gossip in unlicensed hairdressers, and mysterious wooden boxes, “Lake Like a Mirror” is a Cronenbergian look at the pulse of modern Malaysia. Highly recommended.


Best Non-Fiction Books on Malaysia

With such a convoluted history and political scene, Malaysia makes for very interesting non-fiction — because at best, Malaysian life and society are really stranger than fiction. If you want to get a deeper understanding of Malaysia, one that goes beyond the mere “travelling”, then you better dive into some of this essential literature.

Here is a selection of very good books, both scholarly and more popular, on Malaysia, its society, politics, scandals and peoples.

A History of Malaysia, 

By Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya,3rd Ed., Macmillan, 2016.

best books on malaysia history of Malaysia
Cover © Macmillan Books

The best single-volume history of the country, covering the social and political history of Malaysia — in a recently updated edition that includes the latest shenanigans.


Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World

By Tom Wright & Bradley Hope, Hachette Books, 2018.

best books on malaysia Billion Dollar Whale
Cover © Hachette Books

The 1MDB scandal may be the biggest fraud of the century and has a shrewd Malaysian as its protagonist. The tale of Penangite Jho Low and how he fooled the world getting ludicrously rich in the meantime is told in surgical detail, exposing all the names, the vertigo-inducing money laundering, and the theft and circus of excess that this renegade Malaysian sparked around the world. Gripping, revealing, and also extremely sad — “Billion Dollar Whale” is possibly the most successful non-fiction book on Malaysia ever written.


Towards a New Malaysia?: The 2018 Election and Its Aftermath

By Meredith L. Weiss and Faisal S. Hazis (eds). NUS Press, 2020.

best books on Malaysia
Cover © NUS Press

Malaysia’s stunning 2018 election brought down a ruling party that had held power since independence in 1957, marking the first regime change in the country’s history. This scholarly-researched edited volume recounts and analyses the full story of this historic election (officially called the 14th Malaysian General Election), combining a sharp analysis of the voting data with consideration of the key issues. “Towards a New Malaysia?” is an essential read for all those who want to see through Malaysia’s complicated political scene in better detail.


Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World

By Sumit K. Mandal, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

best books on Malaysia becoming Arab
Cover © Cambridge University Press

Who were the Malays, and how they built their world, and their identity? Nottingham University Sumit K. Mandal brings up a very well researched and engaging history of the creole mix between Malays and Arabs, and what leads one to become the other. “Becoming Arab” really interesting book on identity, which also won the Harry Benda J. Prize for Southeast Asian History.


There are of course many more books on Malaysia. If you have already read the essential ones we list above, you can also check out these other Malaysian-themed novels and one non-fiction book.

• The Rice Mother
• The Ghost Bride
• When the Future Comes too Soon
• Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore
• The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds
• The Night Tiger

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