PETALING JAYA: For Abdullah Man, who grew up in the 1960s in Jitra, Kedah, the annual Milo van visit to his village was an eagerly awaited occasion, not just for him but for his entire community.
Milo, a staple beverage of many Malaysians, was created by Australian Thomas Mayne in 1934. The chocolate and malt powder mix is stirred into milk or water and taken either hot or cold.
It was introduced in Malaysia by Nestle in 1950 as a tonic drink primarily targeted at athletes. However, its popularity quickly spread, and Malaysians soon became the world’s biggest consumers of Milo. In 2012, Nestle built the largest Milo factory in the country in Chembong, Negeri Sembilan.
For many Malaysians, though, the history of Milo is irrelevant: the drink is simply a fond reminder of childhood.
A cold cup of the chocolate beverage is always a treat for children, but Abdullah says back in the day, even adults were excited whenever a Milo van rolled up.
“In the past, Milo vans would also screen movies at night – local films like P Ramlee movies.
“There wasn’t much entertainment, especially in my area which was far from any town, so the whole village would join in.”
Nestle Malaysia business executive officer Kumaran Nowuram told FMT that back then, popular shows screened by Milo included cartoons and action movies, especially Tarzan films, and even newsreels from the Information Department.
Abdullah, who is now 64, recalled how such screenings would bring together people from all walks of life, even from neighbouring Chinese and Thai villages, generating a festive atmosphere.
The Milo vans, which have been around since the 1950s, had such an impact on Adullah that he eventually became an “Abang Milo” van driver himself, a job that he held for 12 years.
He told FMT that the main draw of Milo vans for children was always the prospect of getting a free cup of the chocolate malt drink.
“When I was growing up, we hardly had a chance to drink Milo, so the van coming to our village was a big deal.
“They also used to serve the drink in plastic cups, which we could take home and keep.”
By the time Abdullah became an “Abang Milo”, movies were no longer screened. However, it still made him happy, bringing a smile to children’s faces.
His son, Marzuki, who sometimes accompanied him on his rounds, became an “Abang Milo” in turn, a job he has enjoyed for five years now.
He told FMT he was inspired by his father. “It really makes my day to see the children happy when we come to their schools and sporting events.”
The adults, meanwhile, frequently ask him how the Milo is made and why it tastes different from the Milo they make at home.
“We always tell them it’s a secret formula, and it really is,” he quipped.
Despite critics who say that Milo is unhealthy and those who condemn Nestle’s marketing strategies, it remains the most popular beverage in Malaysia.
“Some kids will always try to get more than their fair share of Milo,” Marzuki said, laughing.
“Boys will line up for Milo without wearing a songkok. After finishing their cup, they’ll put on a songkok to disguise themselves and line up again to try and get a second cup.”
And although Milo vans no longer screen movies, Marzuki told FMT that they now collaborate with the education ministry to promote a healthier lifestyle through activities like senamrobik.
Like all else, the Milo vans have moved with the times. The new vans, launched in February, have been visiting schools and offices to familiarise consumers with their new look.
They even have a mobile football pitch featuring smart football and other high-tech features. Modern “Abang Milo” drivers are also trained to interact with consumers, both old and young.
But as always, they continue to serve free, icy cold Milo to anyone who wants it.
Milo has come a long way in Malaysia since 1950, with the Olympic Council of Malaysia in 2015 choosing the brand as its ambassador to the Los Angeles Olympics.
But for most Malaysians, it’s the Milo van turning up at schools and rural villages that they remember.
Today, Marzuki is a happy “Abang Milo”. “It’s a nice job because the kids really appreciate us and the drinks that we serve, especially in remote areas where such treats are rare.”
Yes, all over Malaysia, people are still starting their day right with Milo.