Tengku Jamidah | In episode 79 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks with Malaysian Princess turned cannabis legalization advocate.
Of Malaysian royal birth and a celebrated fashion entrepreneur back home, Tengku Jamidah decided to ditch it all and move to America where she has emerged as a cannabis activist advocating for its use in wellness and spiritual growth. We talk about her youth in a country where possession of cannabis can lead to a death sentence, its long history in Asian religion and medicine and how she went from a non-smoker to where she is today.Read Transcript
Talk about reinventing oneself, our guest today on Light Culture has one of the best stories I’ve heard in a very long time. Tengku Jamidah was one of Malaysia’s most celebrated fashion entrepreneurs before she decided to ditch it all and move to America, and become a cannabis and wellness advocate and activist. Famous back home in Kuala Lumpur, known for her stylish good looks and luxury lifestyle, Jamidah was a media darling with a busy social life befitting someone of her status. A royal blood and former investment banker and founder of several fashion brands. She now splits her time between Vegas and LA, where she has opened Jiwa Sound Healing and Meditation Centers, whereas in Malaysia journalists would ask her for beauty tips and the name of her favorite shoe designer, today the questions are more likely to be about her work in the cannabis movement, spirituality, holistic medicine, and social justice. In a self-imposed exile from her homeland, where smoking weed is a serious offense, she has embraced an alternative approach to good living that we’re gonna learn about today. So welcome, Jamidah.
Thank you so much, David, for that introduction. Wow, you know a lot about me already. [laughter]
Yeah. There’s a lot to know. You have such a great story.
However, I- I am actually based in Los Angeles now. I moved to LA some time last year, mid- mid-2020. In July. No longer in Vegas.
Oh, Vegas is over. Okay.
Cause I was gonna ask you how, you know, how wellness goes over- [laughter] How well wellness goes over in a city like Vegas.
It’s a heavy, heavy place. You know, LA is a lot lighter. [laughs]
What were you expecting when you came to LA? Just give me a little bit of what prompted you and made you brave enough to make such a move?
Well I came to the US in 2018 and, as you said, my life was so different. I was always in the public eye. I had such a very busy schedule and I actually experienced burnout. And I was under a lot of pressure, and there were a lot of expectations of me in that society, and I just felt that I wasn’t being supported spiritually and emotionally. And, I came here to reinvent myself and to be able to find myself in a place that supports freedom. You know, one’s own individual freedom. And so I moved to Las Vegas because initially, I wanted it to be an easier transition for the children. So I had a lot of family support over there, but at the same time, it’s not an industry where I felt that I belonged. I would travel to LA every other week, just so that I could feel a lot more full. And it’s actually the ocean that called me, and I had my own spiritual awakening and experience, and I needed to be near a big body of water to feel like myself and to feel a lot more grounded. So I made LA my home, and it feels really comfortable and I feel myself here. I have a lot of good support and I feel like it’s a place where I can discover myself even more, especially being in the cannabis sector. I still feel a lot more myself in LA, as compared to Vegas.
When people started hearing about it back home, in Kuala Lumpur, did it generate a lot of gossip and speculation or what? [laughter] What- What are you doing? Because, you’re such an accomplished woman.
It did. It did. There’s also the fact that it was a personal issue as well that I experienced. There was a lot of emotion behind it. It was shocking to most, because I was running two successful businesses and there was a lot of talk. I had a social media following and an audience, and when I announced that I was over here and that I was gonna shut off my social media for a little while, just to have a bit of privacy people just went like, “What is going on?” There were a lot of assumptions made. But at the end of the day, My life has always been following an authentic path that is true to myself. No matter what people say, I thought that I would just pursue what I felt was right for me, and I did it.
But what did you expect when you left, that you would be doing? You’re an accomplished woman. You knew you would have to do some kind of work eventually, or were you just not thinking about that?
Well to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about that. I did a lot of healing. I stopped working for about a year, just to feel like I was myself again, a lot of my life back then was more of pleasing my partners or the media, or the people that I had the attention of. When I first started my business, in my early twenties, the intention was right, I started a sustainable design collective and it was called Ultra. The purpose was there, the direction was there, but because I was presented with all these opportunities I kind of strayed from that main purpose and path. So I felt that coming here gave me the opportunity to rediscover who I really was and all the things that I had sacrificed.
Are you a consumer of cannabis when you were in Malaysia?
Well so I discovered it in my teen years. I lived in the US for a little while. My mother’s side of the family is American, and I grew up British educated. I went to an International school and then I came to the US when I was thirteen, fourteen. It was everywhere. I lived in a small little town in Missouri. I lived in Upstate New York and New York City as well. So I was exposed to it. But at the time, when I tried it, when I experimented with it, I felt that it could’ve been this strain or it could’ve been the environment, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t sit right with my body. So, I stopped. Experimenting with it in my early twenties, but I was always exposed to it around me. I was part of the underground dance scene in Malaysia and in Australia so it was around, it was there. My friends consumed it. But it wasn’t something I would do recreationally. It was only when I came to the US in 2018 that, you know, this whole industry was booming. And my sister, actually, she lives on the East Coast, she was the one who reintroduced it to me, and said, “Hey, why don’t you try it again and see how it makes you feel?” And that’s when I realized that it could be used as part of my daily wellness routine and not just to get high. It was a whole rebranding. In Asia, how we see people consuming cannabis is just- it’s ridiculous. It’s like, “Oh, stoners and potheads.” But it’s not that anymore. That’s not the truth. So I rediscovered it and I do consume now.
And you were also involved in wellness as well in your own life and practice, it wasn’t like “Okay, I’m gonna do this now.” [laughter] This must have been something that you already had in you.
Yeah. I- I believe so. I’m naturally curious, I stop taking synthetic medication and I only use it when it’s absolutely necessary.I’m a big advocate of herbal medicine, especially in Asia, where we come from. In Malaysia, we take all kinds of raw vegetables in our diet, all kinds of herbs It’s used in all our rituals. And so it was something quite natural to me, I was more inclined to take herbal supplements as opposed to synthetic pills.
Do you think we could learn from Malaysia or Asia overall, with regard to a lot of these natural supplements and herbs?
Yeah. Oh for sure. We have these amazing plants in Malaysia that we use, one of them being ketum. I think in the US, they call it kratom. So this is also a medication that supposedly causes a psychoactive reaction in our bodies. We were colonized by the British, so before independence we were growing hemp in Borneo, which is east Malaysia. And we’re producing hemp for hemp fiber, industrial hemp for textiles, to supply to all kinds of different industries. And so we knew that our environment was perfect for growing hemp, but with the war on drugs, we just ended up following the narrative out of the Western society, and it just became so stigmatized that people see cannabis in Malaysia is just purely a drug and nothing else. It’s just they’ve been miseducated.
And it’s interesting because in Malaysia although we’re a secular society, I guess we’re called more moderate Muslims. The kind of Muslim sect that we follow, is interesting, and there’s also different teachings, which I’m sure you probably have heard have like Sufism.
So Sufism. Sufism is a more mystical side of Islam, right, and so they use hashish and it’s a gateway to transcend. So the founder of Sufism, his name is Shaykh Haydar he consumed cannabis and in a way that was not smoking it, he actually ate it. So it’s more of a consumable or an edible. To elevate his consciousness and to be closer to the divine. So it’s embedded in, Islamic culture, but because we’ve been conditioned and we’ve been following the whole Western narrative that we know has been racially driven, it’s become such a stigmatized part of society that we need to address and we need to re educate our people. Because a lot of people see hemp or cannabis as something that’s not allowed, which means it’s not permissible in Islam. But, you know, a lot of the big Islamic scholars and thought leaders have already said that cannabis or CBD is hallow, which is permissible. But they just don’t know that. So I’m on this mission to share that and to help people understand that it’s not a drug. It is permissible in Islam.
You haven’t quite left Malaysia mentally, because I understand you’re still involved with the organization, Malaysia Society of Awareness?
Which is involved in trying to overturn some of these laws?
Yes. I can share a little bit about MASA. So MASA was founded by two individuals. One of them, she’s not around anymore. But the cofounder, once he started learning that I was sharing on my socials about cannabis and speaking up about it, and doing a little bit of activism. And the only reason that I was doing that was because I’m generous with my knowledge. If I believe in something to be true, and if it’s helpful then, I like sharing about it. So he started approaching me through social media, and he told me all about the work that the NGO has done since 2011. They’ve been lobbying the government, they’ve been doing a lot of programs and campaigns in Malaysia and he asked me to come onboard as a patron. And so at that time, I accepted. Although there have been quite a lot of challenges and I assisted the NGO with rebranding, creating a ten-point manifesto for them, as well as getting a lot of other members onboard, I decided that because it was just something that I experienced that I felt that I needed to take myself out of being represented by an organization, but represent myself on a personal basis. Because I didn’t want any of them to be a target. Because the things that I say and I share make a lot of people uncomfortable, and there are a lot of people that disagree with what I’m doing, including family members. So there’s a huge risk and I didn’t want them to be liable to that risk, so I decided that I would just continue my activism, as an individual and not represent the organization.
And back in Malaysia, do they write about you still? Are they outraged? What’s the general sense of what you’re doing back home in the media?
[laughs] Well- Yeah. Well, I got a lot of attention some time last year, mid last year. There was an article in the South China Morning Post about me. And then there was also articles from other, digital media. So it was mainly positive, although I still do get some comments from individuals and some personal attacks, but at the same time, it’s part and parcel of this. You know, everybody gets criticized. You’re never gonna please everyone. Yeah. You just keep going.
I’ve seen you quoted as saying, you don’t expect to go back to Malaysia. Do you think that’s because of legal repercussions potentially? Or just personal?
There’s a lot of reasons, most of them are personal. But I feel that it’s safer for me to be here to be given a choice to consume however I choose. I think that’s a basic human right. And I believe that my work will be a lot more effective if I’m in a place where the industry is growing, where I can make connections. I feel that there’s a lot more benefit for me to be here in the US instead of being back home in Malaysia where there’s a lot of prohibitions.
you were an investment banker and a commodities trader, and then you did another, an earlier shift, right? You just must have decided, “Nah, that doesn’t seem right for me. I should try fashion.”
I am still a director of an investment bank. It’s a Labuan-based investment bank in Malaysia. I did a little bit of commodities trading because the state where my family comes from and where I used to be involved in a lot of business transactions and operations with some companies and family members that had a hand in commodities trading. So it was, uh, per project basis, but it’s not something that I would say that I was passionate about. So how fashion came about was I’ve always been quite an extreme person, I love different types of cultures and exploring different types of cultures. As I’ve mentioned before, ever since I was young, I’ve gone from dressing up and being into hip hop and being into the rave scene, and it was a way of expressing myself and I was noticed for my fashion and how I dressed. Because in Malaysia, you know, people weren’t so exposed at the time. We didn’t have all the big fashion labels and brands. And it was ten years ago, or over ten years ago, that I decided that I wanted to create that sustainable design collective called Ultra. And I met with these two designers and they won an award for the most promising designer that year. It was 2009. If I’m not mistaken. And I was like, “Hey, you know what? I want to create a sustainable collection made out of recycled materials and I want it to have a low carbon footprint.” And I was like, “You guys have some pretty edgy designs.” You know, back then it was all Rick Owens, that kind- that kind of a style. Very dark, very edgy. And I liked their aesthetic. And so I was like, “Okay, you know, well let’s do something unique.” Although it was a little bit premature for Malaysia at the time, but I did end up getting an award from the UK for innovation in design and sourcing. I launched a campaign in Shanghai. I was featured in shows across Europe, in Columbo for the ethical fashion shows. It’s an exciting industry to be in, but at the same time, it takes a lot out of you. It’s pretty demanding, it’s pretty fast, and even though I created collections that were more sustainable it was pretty hard to launch in that market, in Asia.
Do you use some of your background in design and fashion, with regard to your work in cannabis, or how your centers are presented, or just in your own personal style? Do you still care about fashion at all?
[laughs] Well I’m a little bit more chill now. I’m not so much involved it’s more comfort over fashion for me. But I still believe I have an eye for it. And, it’s pretty exciting. Today was a great day. I spoke to one of my partners and we decided that we would soon explore a cannabis brand together. It’s been something that we’ve been working on for quite some time. And I believe that. Everything has been leading up to this, and I’m just really excited about the fact that I get to express myself creatively again. But in a place where I feel a lot more grounded. That supports my true essence.
As branding is an important part of business.
Of course. [laughs]
And cannabis is- is a wild west right now with all these different, you know, old school types of people throw back to the stoner world. They have sensibility of design or something very modern, like the Apple version of what a cannabis store would look like.
Where do you fit within all of that? Do you expect to have your own dispensaries too or stores eventually?
[laughs] We’ll see. I feel like you’re right. There is this narrative that’s been created, but I feel that there’s also a huge market that’s untapped. And there’s a huge audience that still doesn’t understand what cannabis is. And so creating a universe that allows them to discover it in a more unique way. I think claiming the plant as having eastern origin and roots is important. There’s so much sacred wisdom that the plant has in elevating our consciousness. And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand with this spirituality aspect that leads my life. I think that, because I already have this audience in Asia and the industry is progressing towards legalization, with Thailand, it’s already legal. Korea, it’s legal. Hong Kong, CBD is legal. And even Malaysia and, Philippines are also moving towards legalization. So-
Philippines, uh, don’t people get shot over there for stuff like that?
Yeah. So- Yeah. So- [laughs] So in the Philippines, it’s kind of the same. In Malaysia, with possession of over two hundred grams according to the Dangerous Drug Act, you can be charged and you can face capital punishment. However, because of the kind of network and the friends that I have that we talk, you know? We share information and- and there’s a lot of interest in this space because we know that we- It can create jobs, create economic recovery. A lot of people, businesses, you know, countries are hard hit by the pandemic. So there’s obviously a lot of potential there. So being able to cater to this market is something that is important to me. But also making it relatable, making it cool, making it easy to digest.
Is it mostly for women are you thinking? Is it like, uh, a gender bias? [laughter]
No. I think, um, we’re more diverse and inclusive in that aspect. I can’t really say much. I wish I could share right now but, you know, it’s slowly developing.
Okay. Because when it comes to wellness, that’s the new market for women, primarily, are the target consumers of the CBD right now, and that seems to be a way for them who have been hesitant because their boyfriends have been stoners or whatever. And they have a bad history, [laughter] so they may not be interested but once it’s rebranded in a way that you’re probably familiar with, because you have actually done that to yourself, let alone, now helping to rebrand this product. It comes out of the dark ages. We know it’s been making progress. But, from what I understand, it’s still pretty difficult to raise money and work with banks or just actually be able to do a proper business.
It’s interesting you say women, because in Asia we have a huge market for beauty and cosmetics. And as you probably know, I had my own cosmetics brand as well in Malaysia, and I think that there’s great opportunity there. I think it will be a lot easier for people to accept, because it’s not consumed, it’s applied topically. People Asia, they’re obsessed with how they look. Beauty is a huge, it’s a huge deal. And, it’s definitely something that we consider. But at the same time, understanding that the initial market will be here in the US. And until the market is open to us in Asia, this is kind of our focus.
And how do you handle your cannabis around the house? Cause I know you’re a mother and have children, and that’s always a question that comes up for a lot of people I know.
I don’t smoke in front my children. However, I have applied topically, CBD to both, my son and my daughter. And I’ve also given CBD tinctures to my thirteen-year-old daughter. I do educate them and I talk to them about this, and I say that it’s plant medicine, it’s only natural. And they understand, my daughter’s on Instagram, so she sees what I post. She knows that There are different ways for people to consume, and I have smoked it. I think it’s important to be transparent about what you do. And I think my daughter’s at an age where she understands, and she has that level of maturity to be a critical thinker or have an open mind about it. Because I’ve given CBD to my mother, I’ve given CBD to my grandmother, and she’s very aware and she knows that there’s nothing scary about it anymore. It’s accepted, it’s a plant, it heals, there’s so much data that supports that, and so she’s an intelligent girl. She can just Google it and find out herself too, which she probably has. [laughs]
There’s so much bogus CBD on the market as well, isn’t there? So many products that claim to be CBD and then it turns out they don’t really have it, or it’s not in the proportion that they claim?
Yeah, that’s true. In fact, there’s a black market in Malaysia. And I’m kind of connected, I have my ear on the ground, especially with the grassroots kind of movement. So I see it, there’s a lot of miseducation as well. Because they believe that hempseed oil has the same benefits as CBD, which it doesn’t because you’re not extracting it from the plant, it’s coming from the seed. I’m also part of this community of higher ups, they’re called the higher ups at HiVi Life. And so, uh, we’re very inclusive. There’re over a hundred of us women in this community, here in the US, and so we share information to destigmatize, and we’ve also created a lot of content in the Malayan language, because it’s important to reach that audience and population in Malaysia.
Well I was thinking, even in the US there’s a bogus CBD. It’s not just a problem in Malaysia, is it?
Yeah. In the US there is too. There’s a lot of misinformation but then there’s also a lot of information out there that you can have access to. It’s good to educate yourself and to read the labels, look at the COA, the certificate of analysis, and make sure that you’re buying CBD from a reputable company that understands the whole process.
When I asked you if there was anything particular you wanted to discuss, you mentioned, you’d like to discuss my activism and why I’ve been sharing so much about cannabis and why I feel this is of importance. How was your shifting and your thinking when you first started looking into it to your evolution to where you are now?
It’s a natural progression for me. Initially it was more of, okay, I’m using it on a personal basis. I’m consuming it on a personal basis, and I’m just being generous about the knowledge that I’ve gained to share in so many different ways. I’ve used it for my eczema, I’ve used it for my anxiety, I’ve used it for insomnia, and then after that, I started realizing that there are so many people in Malaysia that do not have access to this medicine. And I started getting a lot of messages from individuals and it’s just- it’s horrifying. It’s shocking the kind of stories that they tell. One of them specifically being this mother, you know, she’s practically crying and begging, and saying, “Help me. My son is about to undergo this procedure, and there’s a fifty-fifty chance, and he has a neurological disorder, but the doctors and the hospitals are, you know, I’ve heard that cannabis can help with it. But they’re saying that if I give it to my son, he can become an addict.” And then there’s the flip side of it coming from the criminal aspect, where, like I mentioned before, possession of over two hundred grams, you are treated like a criminal. And there’s a huge potential of you being put to death if found guilty. I come from an interesting family, and I know that I was born given… In this family that has, um, I have an opportunity to help people, basically. And I believe that what I’m doing and what I’m sharing could possibly pave the way to help get these people the medicine that they need. People that consume drugs should not be treated as criminals, full stop. You know, there’s so many different factors that drive them to consume. It could also be because they’re consuming it because they’re trying to heal themselves from cancer. I’ll tell you a story. During my younger years, in my youth, I was part of the dance scene in Malaysia. So there’s a lot of parties and a lot of people are consuming. And so sometimes in the middle of the night, I would get these calls. And my friends would be- And they’d have these raids in Malaysia. And so they would go to the clubs, and they would just pick up all the people in the club, and they would hall them into these Black Marias, which are police trucks, and send them to prison and test them. And so I would go to these jails, just- To help my friends. [laughs] Because to me, it’s like, “Why would you treat them as criminals?” And I don’t see it as using my privilege, I see it more as an act of compassion. You know? As a human being, and knowing what they’re going through, I just- My heart just wants to help them. So… And I know that I can, and that’s what I’ll continue to do, because it feels right in my soul.
Is it similar there to here, where the incarceration rate in prison is some crazy percentage, of people in prison are there for cannabis offenses now. Who are still sitting there. The laws are being used discriminately, cause most of those people are of color. Is it used discriminatory as well in Malaysia that way, to pick on certain people or certain classes that are not deemed to be of the right substance.
Yeah. There’s a lot of discriminatory things happening within Malaysia and the system is definitely flawed, and they are targeted, our people of color are targeted. And that’s the thing about the whole, BLM movement. It’s shined a light on what’s happening back home in our country as well. So right now there’s about forty thousand prisoners in our Malaysian jails that are in there for drug charges. We don’t have an exact figure on how much of them are cannabis users. But it’s overpopulated, and we know that they’re spending about five hundred million to maintain these prisoners that are in there for possible non-violent charges. And the thing is the police sometimes have a quota that they need to meet, and it doesn’t make sense anymore, you know? I think the world is evolving and the world is waking up to this whole new perspective and realizing that the governments have been conducting themselves in the most horrible of ways. And things need to change. And we need to use our words and our voice to be able to shine a lot on that, because Malaysian’s are culturally taught to just conform to just listen and to not question. And- I think it’s important that now that they start becoming a little bit more vocal on things that they feel is important to them.
Yeah. I’d like to talk- also a little bit about your centers, sound healing. I saw this really cool video of you with your bowls. Tell me what the instrument is and why you do it, how you got interested in it, and what do you think it can do for all of us?
Every being, everything has a vibration and a frequency. And our bodies are made up of sixty to seventy percent water. And so water is a good conductor of sound. And when I play in my crystal bowls and I play my different instruments, which are more high frequency instruments, they hit our cells and they affect us on a cellular level, and balance our energy centers, and put us into a meditative state. So getting to that, uh, brainwave frequency where it’s more [??? 00:39:01], where you’re more relaxed, and it affects your subconscious, and I think it’s really important to be able to get to that place. Because there’s so many things happening in this world that causes a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, a lot of confusion, and most times we create our own reality, we create our own world, and we have the power to shift our physiology in a way that is more healthy for ourselves, our minds and our bodies. And science has already proven that it has helped. It can help with so many different ailments. You know, with insomnia, it can even lower your blood pressure. There are just so many different modalities right now, and holistic practices that you can have access to. Unfortunately now, in Covid, we can’t really host a sound bath in person, and that’s the most effective way of feeling the vibrations. But virtual sessions help too. And I think that now one of the things that we’re lacking is connectedness and community. And it’s really important to experience these things together with people that we care about, who we love. And, you know, in the past, there’s all these sacred traditions where people were healed because you need the support of the community. Sharing this is something that means a lot to me. I believe that sometimes we don’t feel safe in our bodies and I create that safe and sacred space, so that you can discover your own healing and you can just journey within. It’s such an invigorating but also calming feeling to experience. Have you experienced one, David? Have you had a sound bath before? [laughs]
No, I haven’t. But a friend of mine, uh, got into it recently, and she started putting up a lot of the videos of doing it and I was listening to some of those. But as you were talking, I was thinking of your other life, your previous life in the clubs, dancing to the music. [laughter] And I was curious if you think you could find that as well in some of these other forms of music? Protection, community, a safe space, being in the club, raving, taking drugs, it seems like very much what you’re talking about. [laughter]
It is. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. People do that because their souls just need to. Music heals, you know? Music is something that really touches a person’s soul. And using the body as a means of communicating that and moving our bodies is so important, when you align your spirit and your body, it’s just- Wow. It opens up so many different portals, and plant-medicine is definitely the future. So I truly believe in cannabis, psychedelics, there’s so much left to discover, and I’m just really excited about this.
Wow. Thank you, Jamidah for talking with us today making it okay for us to go out and have a good time. [laughter] And feel better.
Appreciate it. Thank you.
Thank you so much, David.