Welcome this time to Malaysia “lah”. Perhaps that association risks offence to our Singaporean friends who also claim a national affinity for “lah”, but with their kind permission I will explore the Singaporean “lah” in another post
The first point to note is that, as far as I can tell, “lah” shares similarities with “na” and “ya” in actually meaning…nothing. In this I don’t mean “nothing”, I mean it is to all effects and purposes devoid of any meaning at all.
So why do Malaysians use it so much? I feel in a sense that the question contains the answer. Malaysians use it so much because it offers comforting reassurance that the speaker is part of the Malaysian family and that social harm is less likely by emphasising that familial link.
This familial reinforcement is also somewhat true for “na” and “ya” in Thailand and Indonesia respectively, but I suggest the difference is that in Thailand the broader Thai family has social hierarchies that must be respected (and which in some ways define what it means to be Thai), while in contrast the Indonesian family is so big and diverse that differences are often overlooked out of pragmatic necessity.
Anyway, like any good slang “lah” works to exclude some as much as include others. Clearly mat saleh (foreigners) could potentially fall into this latter category, which may explain why, in my more exuberant conversations with Malaysians, when I’ve used “lah” it didn’t have the desired effect of edging me closer to being Malaysian. Simply using “lah” more often didn’t help either of course (and, by appearing foolish, made an association with me even less desirable).
Conversational “lah” can be infectiously appealing and terribly endearing, but unlike “na” and “ya”, “lah” (in the Malaysian context) implies a sense of belonging to a specific group. I say “a specific group” rather than “being a Malaysian citizen” for reasons I will explain in a future post (although readers seeking a hint can see the post here), but in any event if you weren’t born into the right kind of family then sadly “lah” isn’t meant for you lah.