“I’M not panda, I’m Malayan tapir,” reads the mural on the wall at Ruang by Think City. The mural of the black and white animal which is often mistaken for a panda is the first thing I see as I enter this community space at the junction of Jalan Hang Kasturi and Leboh Pasar in Kuala Lumpur.
Mere walking distance from the Pasar Seni and Masjid Jamek LRT stations, the white facade of the refurbished OCBC building sticks out like a sore thumb.
Visitors from all walks of life throng the ground floor of the space for the arts and crafts bazaar. There are booths selling various things, from T-shirts to hand-made jewellery.
I recall seeing a big stuffed tapir on a shelf. The sign above it reads MUOC, which stands for Malaysian Unity of Culture. Curious, I check out the rest of the booth. A maroon crochet of a tapir catches my attention and I couldn’t resist picking it up and giving it a gentle squeeze.
The cards on the table pique my interest too. Upon close scrutiny, I notice they’re not your ordinary greeting cards. They’re pop-ups!
What amuses me most is the design of each card. There’s nasi lemak bungkus (packed nasi lemak), teh tarik, durian, ais kacang machine, satay, and wau. And is that… roti canai? I point at a round and flat card stuck between the other greeting cards.
“That’s a roti canai mouse pad!” a male voice says from somewhere behind the booth. Coming into view, I notice he’s wearing a black T-shirt with the same quote as that from the mural. Smiling, he introduces himself as Yew Souf, the founder of MUOC.
Established in 2014, MUOC is a home-based enterprise inspired by the richness of our cultural heritage. The merchandise is 100 per cent Buatan Malaysia (made in Malaysia).
“You have so many tapir stuff,” I exclaim, picking up the crochet again.
“I love tapir,” replies the bespectacled man, smiling.
With so many errands to run today, I don’t have the time to linger and find out more about this fascinating enterprise. But before I leave, I make sure that Yew and I would meet again for a longer chat. Our date set, I bid him farewell.
LOVE FOR TAPIR
Fast forward several days later and today, I find myself seated opposite the same man at a cafe in Sunway Damansara in Petaling Jaya. He’s wearing the same printed T-shirt, only this time it’s maroon-coloured.
While waiting for our food to arrive, Yew begins his story: “After seeing tapir at the zoo when I was little, I fell in love with this animal because of its uniqueness.”
He proceeds to share about his knowledge of the tapir, or more specifically, the Malayan tapir. It’s the biggest tapir of all the four types of tapirs in the world and can only be found in Southeast Asia.
“Do you know why baby tapirs have a different colour from the adults? The body looks like a camouflage for protection from predators. When they grow into adulthood, the colour of the body turns black and white. They look like big rocks when they sit,” he explains.
Before I can chip in with a response, Yew continues enthusiastically: “Do you know in Japan, they love the tapir so much that they even have a tapir character in Pokemon? Also, in their culture, tapir is a ‘dream eater’.”
My forehead furrows. Dream eater?
“Parents would hang or paste photos of the tapir above their children’s beds so the tapir can eat all the bad dreams,” explains Yew, smiling as he notes my bewildered look.
The Malayan Tapir has a flexible snout like an elephant’s trunk, ears of a horse, legs of a hippo and a body colour like the panda. It’s an iconic creature that perfectly epitomises Malaysia, a nation of cultural fusion between different races. Such fusion has given birth to amusing colloquial languages, colourful festivals, and arts and culinary delights.
As an artist with aesthetic discernment, Yew realised that there was a niche market for creative but affordable gifts which would appeal to both local and foreign tourists.
It also dawned on him that Malaysia needed a shot of positive energy from something unique and iconic that we can all identify with and take pride in as Malaysians.
And so the brand Malaysian Unity of Culture or MUOC was born. Coincidentally, the pronunciation of MUOC is similar to tapir in Mandarin so Yew came up with an idea to use this iconic animal as an ambassador for his merchandise, the first of which is a foldable paper toy.
“I like to play with paper toys so I created a tapir one because I hadn’t seen anything like it in the market,” confides Yew, who works as an advertiser.
Encouraged by the success of his first attempt, he came up with more products such as pop-up cards, mouse pads, bookmarks, animated cards and postcards. Yew runs MUOC together with his wife who’s been helping him with the production of the merchandise.
What makes his merchandise popular though? I wonder.
“Perhaps it’s because I use the concept of unity to come up with things that all Malaysians can relate to. For example, food. We can all relate to nasi lemak, teh tarik and durian regardless of race and religion. That’s why I designed the cards, but made them pop-up,” he explains, adding that the pop-up cards are his best-selling items.
“It all depends on the location also, I think. My durian and ais kacang pop-up cards sold like hot cakes in Penang,” shares Yew, who is from Bukit Mertajam, Penang and has been residing in Selangor for over 20 years.
The creative chap also designed endangered animal postcards pasted on pages from really old books. “Just like those old books, the animals could also fade in time. It’s symbolic,” he says simply.
Those postcards were sold out when they were placed at a pop-up store by AirAsia Foundation’s Destination: GOOD where artisans got the chance to sell their creations using their own labels through its shop.
Since its inception, MUOC has been involved in bazaars around the Klang Valley and its merchandise can be found in several outlets. The Kinokuniya bookstore in KLCC has a designated corner for MUOC merchandise.
So, where did you get your creative spark?
“I’ve liked art since I was 4,” replies Yew, adding: “I’m lucky to have parents who let me do what I want. My father even encouraged me to take part in art competitions. Then I studied art and design.”
That he’s a creative soul goes without saying. Yew is also a prolific painter and makes sculptures. “Oh yes, I paint using water colour, oil and acrylic. I also make sculptures using wires,” he confides, scrolling his phone to show me his artworks which mostly uses green colour as he’s a nature lover.
“I stopped painting for a while when I stated working, but with encouragement from friends, I started to paint again and even joined a few art exhibitions. Money from some of the artworks went to the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS),” he divulges.
As a home-grown brand, MUOC strives to be 100 per cent Malaysian made, and attempts to utilise the talents of underprivileged groups such as the deaf and mute.
Pausing to sip his coffee, Yew eventually shares: “I want to give back to society so I teach the deaf and mute how to do the crafts, and then I buy them back. In a way, I’m helping to create a supplementary income for these groups.”
He tells me that the money earned from selling the merchandise go towards the conservation of tapir. Earlier this year, MUOC donated RM4,000 to the Malayan Tapir Conservation Centre in Sg Dusun through MNS. The centre, which is not open to public, has about 12 tapirs under its care.
And he’s not stopping at just selling merchandise. Yew also gives talks in schools to spread awareness on the tapir. “You’d be surprised that some students, even parents, don’t know what a tapir is. Some actually thought that it’s an armadillo or some panda species,” recalls Yew.
In Taiwan, he continues, there’s an artist who uses the tapir as his comic character and because of that, many people think that the tapir is that Taiwanese’s creation.
“It’s rather sad. That’s why we should educate people and spread awareness about this beautiful animal. We have the tapir but I feel like we don’t care about it enough. I prefer people to come up to me and ask rather than being ignorant. If they ask, I’ll be more than happy to explain,” says Yew.
What else can be done to protect this animal, I ask. A pause again as Yew ponders the question. Then he replies: “The government and also private sectors have to take more serious action to protect wild animals, not just the tapir. I think there’s one minister who had mulled over the idea of allowing forest rangers to bear arms to deter hunters and poachers. I think that’s a great idea!”
As for MUOC, Yew hopes to spread greater awareness about the tapir and collaborate more with other communities, starting with single mothers. “They can help sew jeans or bags so I can buy them back,” he says, before adding that MUOC will be doing another donation drive next year and will take a group of people to tour the tapir conservation centre.
As we reach the end of our chat, Yew confides that he will continue to make it his mission to spread awareness about the tapir. “I know I don’t have to wait for my business to grow big to give back to society. I have to start somewhere, even if it’s as small as MUOC,” he concludes, eyes shining.
For details, visit www.facebook.com/MalaysianUnityOfCultures