I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
FROM HONG KONG, I was meant to head straight into China; I‟d planned a trip to Beijing and further afield, with the possibility of going to Tibet. However, whilst in Hong Kong, I got a Facebook message from two of my oldest friends from university, Craig Harvey and Moe Umer, saying that they would be out in Malaysia for a week or so and, seeing as I was in Hong Kong, would I like to come and meet them? Why not! So in just a few days, I rethought my options. I bought a plane ticket with fresh plans to travel overland back to Hong Kong via Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. This was now the beginning of the South-East Asian leg of my trip. I had visions of Alex Garland‟s The Beach and classic backpacking through one of the great regions of the world. I halved the contents of my backpack intending to as travel light as possible and picked up a new guidebook, the Lonely Planet‟s Guide to South-East Asia. Easy! By now, I was a backpacking veteran! (So what did I take with me? Learning from Grant‟s misfortunes in Buenos Aires, I always separated the most valuable things into my pockets so I was never without them: Passport, wallet, phone. The next most important things then go into a smaller rucksack: alarm clock, glasses, hand gels, books, journals, earplugs, toothbrush, diarrhoea tablets, MP3 player etc.)
Geographically, Malaysia is split by sea into Peninsular Malaysia, between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, and Borneo Malaysia next to Brunei to the east. It‟s ethnically diverse with the breakdown of the population being around 54% Malay, 25% Chinese, around 12% other indigenous peoples of the Malay Archipelago around 8% Indian, and around 1% other peoples.
I flew the three hours from Hong Kong into Malaysia‟s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, in the south of Peninsular Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is nowhere near central Kuala Lumpur, so I took a bus to Sentral bus station and then jumped on the monorail to Binit Bintang in the heart of the Golden Triangle. After two weeks in Hong Kong, and being very well looked after, it was weird being back on the road but it felt pleasantly familiar checking into a ropey youth hostel. May in Kuala Lumpur is an uncomfortably hot time of year (a solid 35 degrees) and it‟s incredibly humid and sticky; it‟s a different style of living here, where things are done more slowly so as not to sweat buckets. The humidity saps your energy as soon as you step into it and you‟re always looking for that next dose of air conditioning. I knew straightaway that I‟d need some new clothes to handle the climate; mainly vests and shorts, not the jeans and t-shirts that I‟d brought with me. I took a stroll around Chinatown which is centred on and around Petaling Street and dominated by a huge street market of the usual fake t-shirts and watches. I immediately got down to the important business of eating, tucking into delights such as sweet pork kebabs with spicy dipping sauces washed down with fresh coconut juice straight from the source and with beer in the only places where it‟s freely available in this officially Muslim country, Chinese food stalls.
There‟s plenty to do and see in Kuala Lumpur over a couple of days. After meeting up with the guys, I was kindly treated by them to a great buffet dinner in the revolving restaurant on top of the massive Sky Tower with great views of Kuala Lumpur at sunset. We also went to the iconic and massively impressive Petronas Twin Towers, which at 452m is/are officially the second tallest building(s) in the world, now below Taiwan’s Taipei 101 (not any more!). These buildings are absolutely enormous! We took a tour up to the walkway linking the two buildings and the sheer height we were at and the immense scale of the design was mind-blowing. Kuala Lumpur looks like a tiny model city teeming with construction from here. We also took a bus to the Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, a system of three huge limestone caves, the most famous of which is the huge, cathedral-like Temple Cave that houses a Hindu shrine. The Temple Cave is reached by climbing 272 steps and its entrance is guarded by the largest Murgya statue in the world, a ridiculously big 43m high golden statue. There are small long-tailed monkeys milling and jumping all around the caves throwing drinks cans all over the temple and I saw a man with a huge bright yellow python offering it to tourists to pose with around their necks. It was about four metres long and about as thick as a human thigh. I hate snakes and there was no way, even in the spirit of trying new things, that I was having that thing around my neck!
As always on my travels, I’m always looking out for the next meal or snack and eating in Kuala Lumpur is a real pleasure; you can have Malay nasi lemak for breakfast (rice cooked in coconut milk, fried peanuts, fried onion, curry paste and a hardboiled egg), ethereally light Indian roti canai (fried wafer-thin chapatis with curry sauce) for a mid-morning snack, Chinese fried ho-fun noodles with chilli and chicken for lunch, fragrant and spicy Thai curry and pad thai for dinner, and some durian for a late night dessert – lip-smackingly great stuff!
However, despite all this great food and interesting sights to visit, something about Kuala Lumpur left feeling me slightly cold. It seemed to me like my mental image of Dubai: full of futurist steel and glass edifices, and luxury boutiques, all with a strong sense of orderliness. I didn‟t feel that for its much vaunted multiculturalism that it really was an exciting melting pot of disparate influences. Instead, I had the feeling that it was another typical city of just another South-East Asian tiger economy. With three other South-East Asian countries still to travel through next, I hoped that that wouldn‟t be the case. Kuala Lumpur is advertised as a „vibrant‟ and „typically Asian‟ city; however, I must say that, having come from Hong Kong and Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur is in the slower lane of world cities. It has the obligatory skyscrapers and plethora of high-end hotels of tiger-ish Asian cities, but somehow without the dynamic atmosphere of Hong Kong. The city is multicultural but in a different way to any other form of multiculturalism I‟ve seen before. Instead of one clear host culture and many other smaller represented cultures (such as in European countries for example), Malaysia has three distinct races and cultures, more or less equally represented; Malay, Chinese and Indian; who all seem to get along well under the official state religion of Islam. Despite this clear sense of cohesion and clear „melting pot‟ of cultures, the host culture (the Malays) holds the reins of power, and does so in a way that is incompatible with this projected perception of multiculturalism. The Malays enjoy all the benefits of diversity but actually entrench discriminatory practices that go against the very idea of multiculturalism.
The major benefits to Malaysia are twofold: firstly, so as to entice tourism, Malaysia undoubtedly uses this diversity and multiculturalism as a marketing tool: Come to Malaysia, we‟re such a melting pot of influences and so developed and progressive. You‟ll love it! claims the tourism literature; and it surely works.
Secondly, as a result of this diversity, Malaysia reaps very real economic benefits, such as from the wealth creation that flows from the Chinese community, many of whom have been in Malaysia for generations, yet another example of the Chinese Diaspora in the region, which extends to Indonesia, Australia, America, and Canada. Like the Jews and their Diaspora, the Chinese have faced hostility in bad times and are often a convenient scapegoat and target for nationalist feeling. Yet through it all, almost without exception, the new immigrants have made significant cultural and economic contributions to their adopted country. Malaysia is no different. Here, the Chinese are leaders in business, enterprise, and education. There is little doubt that the Chinese are major contributors to Malaysia‟s total wealth and have played a strong role in transforming Malaysia into a leading developed nation.
As we‟ve seen, Malaysia enjoys the benefits received from diversity and it‟s an image that‟s projected to the world. Given then that Malaysia paints itself as a multiethnic and multicultural nation, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that Malaysia has written into its Constitution that the Bumiputera (Malays and certain indigenous groups) people have certain rights over and above all non-Bumiputera peoples. Articles 153 and 160 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia provide that the Bumiputera have a “special‟ place in society. These laws are the basis for an extensive programme of affirmative action or positive discrimination that borders on racism; meaning, amongst other things, that certain administrative positions are only open to Bumiputera; that a certain percentage of higher education places must be held for Bumiputera only, with lower qualifying grades necessary; that certain large companies must have a certain minimum percentage of Bumiputera on the controlling board to be able to be listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange; a certain percentage of new housing must be sold to Bumiputera and a discount must be offered and so on.
For a country to use “cultural cohesion‟ as a marketing tool and to simultaneously enjoy the wealth creation of one of its largest ethnic groups but yet actively and deliberately make discrimination such an iron-clad, entrenched feature of its constitution and its society, with all the consequences that entails, is completely wrong.