Destination: Malaysia (1981)
On return from Colombo after an overnight stay at Madras we were up on a flight to Kuala Lumpur after suffering the inevitable rigours of the pre-departure formalities. The plane was an old “war horse” of Air India – a decades-old Boeing 707. Its air-conditioning did not work when it sat on the tarmac. We kept sweating in the sweltering heat after having been made to embark. After all, the aircraft had remained parked out in the sizzling Madras sun for some hours. Even after a reasonable wait the thing did not move. Soon, however, it was clear that it was waiting for a VIP. Thankfully, in a few minutes the VIP in the shape of a lean and wiry, smart and handsome Air Chief Marshal Latif arrived and we heard the engines kicking in. In minutes we were up and above over the serene and blue Bay of Bengal.
After around three and a half hours we arrived at Kuala Lumpur, KL for short. There were no aerobridges those days. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport was still in the future. The aircraft parked in its allotted parking bay in the old airport. On disembarkation I saw a large number of very wide-bodied, apparently high-capacity buses parked at a little distance away. As the passengers trickled down the craft two of them came and waited nearby. Seeing such unusually wide-bodied buses for the first time I was naturally impressed. As I got into one of them I had good look at the insides. It was pretty cushy and air-conditioned – a rarity in India those days.
The bus whisked us to the arrival area where the customs acted pretty tough. Even though they were told by the IIPA Course Director and his counterpart that we were all government servants and that we had a customs collector among us they gave only one concession. Instead of checking every one of us they would check every alternate participant’s baggage. The process adopted would have enabled my bags to skip the check but, no, the customs official detected that faint fragrance of the Colombo cinnamon sticks. Having the case opened he took a couple sticks out and gave them a good, hard sniff. Realising that there was no drug in the baggage he allowed me to close the suit case. We had entered Malaysia when they were running a strict anti-drugs campaign.
We were ferried to Federal Hotel in the Bukit Bintang area – a high-rise affair on a road that wasn’t very wide and pretty busy with shops on two sides. I noticed a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet virtually opposite the hotel. We had heard of MacDonald’s and KFCs but had never seen or been to one. I don’t remember to have seen any in Colombo. Inside, the hotel was manned by very smart looking and very smartly dressed Malaysians of Chinese origin. I found them rather tall for Chinese. Speaking fluent English, they took me to, mercifully, a single room to get to which I had to negotiate an escalator for the first time in my life. The room was small and modest. A small television set was kept on a table and happened to be chained to its legs. Had some guest walked off with a set earlier?
We attended a meeting with the secretary planning of Malaysia. It was quite revealing. Among those that have remained imprinted on my mind were two features. One was that the Prime Minister monitored every plan project of and above $10,000 (Malaysian) – the country later changed over to Ringgit. This was something unheard of in India then. Projects would be initiated and, leave alone the PM, no chief minister would check out the progress. It is only earlier this year when the economy was on the verge of collapse that the PM decided to activate the languishing projects and created a committee to monitor their progress. Our ministers get no time for such mundane work; they are too busy politicking.
The other point that I still remember is the way they built the roads. The city had as beautiful roads as it had outside. We bussed around over silky asphalt – not a pothole in sight and not a bump. We were told that before a road is laid all the utilities which dig up roads for laying cables or water and sewer pipes are told to plan for twenty years ahead as they would not be allowed to dig up the roads for any purpose during that period. No wonder we went all over the place over velvety roads which we in India haven’t been able to provide even after sixty odd years of independence. For a young Asian nation to provide such superb infrastructure was remarkable.
There were no malls and things yet in KL but it had superb shopping. Petronas towers which I visited years later with my wife, was yet to come up. Our rupee was not as strong but it was strong enough to buy some good stuff. A Malaysian dollar was around Rs.5/- (an US $ was around Rs. 8/-) and consumer goods were cheap. I suppose, the government wanted people to consume. Things that were just not available in India – like electronic stuff from Japan (South Korea had not yet become what it is today) – were there for the taking and cheaply too. But, then we were told Singapore was cheaper most of us restrained ourselves, headed as we were towards it after KL.
Over beautiful smooth slate grey asphalt we travelled to Port Dickson sixty kilometres away. For miles on the two sides of the road were rubber plantations – so dense that deep inside them one could see very little light even at midday. I saw a plantation of Lipton. I didn’t know then that the company had interests in rubber as well. We knew it for only Darjeeling tea. I could well imagine how these plantations have all replaced the tropical rain forests with all their bio-diversity as in India.
Port Dickson is located on Straits of Malacca and is a charcoal mining town. Tin ore was also available nearby. The British had, therefore, enlarged the port. There is a fine stretch of beach which has now a number of resorts and hotels. The town is now a bustling tourist’s centre. When we went, however, we found it was quiet and I recall the part of the beach that we visited was devoid of any dollar-spending Western tourists. Perhaps, it was yet to be marketed abroad.
Palm oil has become big business now for Malaysia. When we were in KL the palm oil industry was more or less in its infancy. They had established huge oil palm plantations. We were taken to one and shown around. They had also constructed lovely small houses for the workers. The industry has given to Malaysia very good returns and it now exports the produce in large quantities. India imports both, crude palm oil as well as refined palm kernel oil. The thriving oil palm industry destroyed the habitat of orang-utan, the most intelligent primate. Earlier found in both, Malaysia and Indonesia, they are now confined to the ever-shrinking rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo.
Named after the river that flows by, Batu Caves, 13 kilometres outside KL, was then not its garish self that it is today. True, we saw stalactites hanging from the roof and stalagmites rising from the floor creating interesting formations and Hindu shrines in the dark limestone caves that are around 400 metres long and 100 metres high, but there was no Murugan temple there. The photographs that I see now show the cave in totally different light with a huge image of Murugan and the entire complex richly done up with bright lights inside surely making it easier to negotiate the steps. With 800,000 devotees visiting it during the Thaipusam festival, it has become somewhat like pilgrimage to the Murugan temple in Palani For me it was a tiring climb up the uneven steps inside the caves which were dark, hot and humid. A non-practicing Hindu, I did not find it of much interest except unusual natural features which in later years I came across in Kutumsar in Bastar and in Switzerland. The most satisfying, however, was the green coconut water that I had after the exertions. The huge fruit was taken out of a massive fridge, deftly sliced from the top to show that it was brimming with water that was cold, sweet and delectably refreshing.
The stay in KL was rounded off with a day-long trip to Genting Highlands. It is the only hill resort of Malaysia at a height of around 5000 ft. above sea level and was established in the mid-1960s. Much cooler than KL, we came across bracing weather. What was more, it had a casino. I, too, took my chances and pumped several gambling machines lined up along the walls. The effort yielded nothing and I lost some valuable cash. The casino was perhaps the only diversion around; the small decked up lake with boats and a brightly coloured miniature bridge appeared pretty puerile. I understand, now it is a thriving hill station with lots of hotels and resorts. Apart from attempting to conserve the surrounding rain forests, I am told, a beautiful theme park has now been created.
IN 1981 along with other participants of the Advanced Professional Programme on Public Administration conducted by As is well known Malaysian cuisine is a mix of the three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indian – that reside in the country. In addition, it has been influenced by Indonesian and Thai cuisine, making the native cuisine highly exotic. Everything, from pork to beef, chicken, fish and seafood has the same distinctive taste, though one can discern that unmistakable flavour of Indian masala. What I liked best, however, was satay (skewered grilled meat) and the fried chicken I had on the pavement cafes of Jalan Sastroamidjojo. The chicken was distinctly different from that on offer at the KFC, delightfully spiced and crisp. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to try it again.
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