Malaysia 2007 – Surprises and Highlights

My Malaysian blogs are almost at an end. I have focused on the aspects of our journey that were of most interest to me, and in so doing have left out much I could have mentioned. I’ll leave comprehensive coverage of “the sights” to the travel guides; the following is but a brief summary of personal highlights and impressions I want to record in closing.

In a trip full of surprises and highlights, these are the ones that left an indelible impression:

The food
a) Quality, diversity and VALUE were astounding (see previous Menu Malaysia blog series for details in pornographic close-up).
b) Noodles predominate over rice as a daily staple! In this, Malaysia is surely unique among Asian nations.
c) Satay and laksa do not feature as strongly in the everyday Malaysian diet as I had assumed.

The people
Extraordinarily hospitable. Warm, helpful and charming everywhere we went. Forget the stuff about Muslim hostility towards Westerners in Malaysia. This is simply bullshit.

The nationalism
All three ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians – identify first as Malaysian, while retaining their own cultural traditions. In this sense, Malaysia’s brand of multiculturalism probably works better than Australia’s (although the make-up of the population of the two countries is very different, as are many other aspects, so any comparison is going to be of limited value and validity).

Everyone we met responded eagerly to our questions about their nation and its people, clearly appreciative of our interest. The pride of the Malaysians in their country seemed almost naïve – most Aussies, for example, would probably feel bound to temper such expression with a self-effacing joke. I found the Malaysians’ unguarded national pride dignified and somehow touching. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of the absence of any hint of aggressive patriotism behind it, and the openness of their expression.

And I envied the sense of community that informed their pride. These guys know there are some aspects of life in their country that are special, and that their nation has come a long way in the 50 years since Independence – and they feel a part of this achievement. I cannot help but to contrast this with today’s Australia, where my sense is that more and more are feeling less and less included, while many others care not at all about such trifles, happy to focus on themselves and their growing assets and accumulation of expensive toys.

The widespread respect of the Poms!
I had no idea the Brits were held in such high esteem in Malaysia. Far from being resented as imperialists, they are respected for developing the country during their period of colonial rule. One elderly Malay gentleman told me he regarded the Brits as “our mentors”. Our conversations with other Malaysians suggested that his view was far from uncommon.

The popularity of the English Premier League
Everywhere you go, you see crowds gathered at hawker centres and restaurants watching live telecasts of English first division soccer. I was frequently asked if I followed “football”. At first, naturally, I took full advantage of this opportunity to assert the superiority of that greatest of football codes, Aussie Rules (AFL), over the round ball yawnfest with the frequent nil-all full-time scoreline – or “soccer” as it is referred to in derisive tones in AFL territory – but alas, I encountered only perplexed expressions and a follow-up declaration of loyalty to Man United or Chelsea or Liverpool etc…I soon abandoned my proselytizing. I could see that my cause, though just, was hopeless.

My expectations were that Malaysia would be a conservative Muslim country where “gay” still meant bright and cheerful, and any deviation from mainstream behaviour and dress codes would be slight or driven well underground.

Wrong! In KL, impeccably made-up ladyboys are a not infrequent sight behind the counters of the cosmetics and perfume sections of the big department stores. In Lumut, a small town far from the madding urban crowd, an obvious transvestite, seated rather regally outside the public toilets near the bus ticket offices, collects fees from those using the facilities. In Tanah Rata (Cameron Highlands), an old queen minces showily along the main street at nights. Chatting to one of the local restaurateurs, I expressed surprise at the openness of this oriental Quentin Crisp and the ladyboys we had noticed elsewhere in Malaysia, to which he replied: “To us, they are just normal like other people…only some old people don’t think so, maybe…”

The Petronas Towers
Before going to Malaysia, I knew of the towers, of course, and that they were the tallest on the planet – actually, Tawian has now raised a bigger erection, apparently. But this mine’s-bigger-than-yours stuff with tall buildings has never held a lot of interest for me. STOP!

The Petronas Towers are an architectural marvel! They’re big alright, bloody big, and let’s not pretend that size doesn’t matter – but the scale of the achievement of these towers goes way beyond mere dimension. Standing at their base, they range majestically into the heavens, a glorious and powerful statement of clean lines in metal and glass with a geometrical symmetry of form that in my experience is simply unequalled. One tower would have been incredible; two is audacious.

At night they command attention, powerful beacons of Malaysia’s modernity, yet lit to their rocket tips in lacy white light, they take on the delicacy of a crystal sculpture. A magical paradox.

But I am not yet to the heart of the matter, which for me is this: the Petronas Towers are the realisation of an essentially Islamic architectural vision that has pushed the artistic possibilities of the modern skyscraper to new heights, literally and figuratively. There is nothing similar in the Western world, and there never could be. Our dreams come from different places.

5 thoughts on “Malaysia 2007 – Surprises and Highlights”

  1. I’m so glad that you took that extra step to learn what Malaysia really is about. You, my friend, have discovered our secret…and it’s not the Twin Towers, or the Batu Caves, or beach resorts. You got to know us, the people. You took the effort to learn about us by asking questions and by forming new friendships. I have a lot to learn from you. 🙂

  2. Moved and humbled, Lyrical Lemongrass. Would like to investigate your country a whole lot more – and looking at your Whiff Of Lemongrass blog pics, your incredible KL restaurants!

  3. As a M’sian living abroad, I marvelled at and was charmed by your observations, Mr Stein. It’s refreshing and sometimes ticklish to read what people have to say about our mish-mash of a society. More and more, I look at M’sia with ‘foreigner’ eyes now that I live in Western Europe. When I visit home, I relish all the good things you mentioned, and more. Thanks for being generous and open-hearted.

  4. Thanks a lot for your comments, argus. I appreciate your taking the time and making the effort to post your feedback.

    Bet you miss the sensational food of your country. Maybe things have changed, but when I was in Europe, there wasn’t a lot of really good, authentic Asian food around (apart from Indian), except in isolated nooks and crannies. I guess places like London always have diverse choices on offer, though, if you know where to look.

    All the best to you!

  5. Now that I’m in Europe I try to sample the regional specialities as often as I can afford them. Yes, you’re quite right; other than Thai, Japanese and Indian, there are not many authentic Asian restaurants in Switzerland (where I live). Anyway, eating out is very expensive here.

    I’ve since been blessed with a small circle of Asian and foreigner friends. We cook our favourite national cuisine and share them in a pot-luck every so often. It works out great. ^_^ For instance, at a pot-luck dinner I recently hosted, we had 12 nations represented and so you can imagine the tempting array of food.

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