It was a very pleasant surprise when I was invited to speak at a conference in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia. I have been to that neighborhood so many times, but never to Malaysia. While I have blogged about the conference, this essay is about my impressions about the country. It is based on a very scientific and detailed analysis of reading the daily newspapers and observing the city and talking with some people. So yes, these are very facile observations on the national infrastructure, the people, history, cuisine, politics, economics and will end trying to predict the future of this extraordinary country.
Also, please remember that it was just a trip of 6 days in very urban setting speaking to the professional, technocratic and political class of Malaysians. To give you a comparison, it would be like trying to explain India or China based on a 5-day conference visit to Delhi or Beijing.
As you land in Kuala Lumpur airport, walk out to whiz down the highway to the city looking at the surroundings, check into your hotel and then stand on the 30th floor looking out over the twin towers, you get a sense of surprise and are impressed. The entire corridor between the airport and the city is landscaped as far as the eye can see. The neat townships, the wide highway, the tall skyscrapers, the hotels, the cars, the shops, the advertisements, nothing that you would see out of place in a European setting. And from what I understand, this infrastructure development has taken place in all the Malaysian states, by and large. So just by looking at the infrastructure, you would say this is a developed country. Extremely impressive indeed and something that my father said when I was talking to him. He visited Malaysia 40 years ago and we were comparing notes.
But what they still do not have is the developed country people, and thank God for that. By and large, the developed countries tend to end up having people who do not smile as much (how is that for a sheer generalization?). The sheer warmth of everybody I met was astounding and simply amazing. Smiles galore, great big blooming smiles all over the place. And this is whether you are talking about your shop assistant to the driver of the coach to the chap who was watering the plants to the lady who was crossing the street. Very warm, helpful and warm people and that is what I found on every level, from the Prime Minister down to the ordinary bloke on the street. I didn't get a chance to speak to the Sultan at the dinner but I have no doubt he would be the same. I just hope they keep this national characteristic.
I noticed a general and curious lack of history. A broad based observation here, but I went trawling through two large bookstores in KL, saw the Sunday editions of the newspapers, asked the concierge of the hotel about historic sites, looked around in the admittedly limited trips, and poked my nose into the colonial buildings, but, I did not get a sense that history existed or even exists for ordinary Malaysians. This is going to be difficult to explain, but it is a strange mixture of old mouldy buildings and monuments, loads of historical books, names of houses/streets referring to ages old dead people, frequent referrals in speech to old history, and so on and so forth. Was the rush to technology and modernity accompanied by the loss of history? Picked up some books written by their first political leaders and they also refer mostly to their current and not the past. Rather surprising and curious, especially when you see countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines etc. where I did not get this feeling.
But that did not stop them from having the most amazing cuisine. I was interviewing a lady and on the spur of the moment, offered to do this over lunch at the hotel itself. And the sheer range of food that was available, just blew me away. I regretted I was on appetite suppressant medication, but still managed to put away some serious amounts of food AND lost weight. The combination of Japanese, continental, Malay, Indian, Chinese, yummy, wonderful, absolutely delicious. How on earth do they manage to keep their weight under control despite this wonderful gastronomic spread? The food court in the twin towers shopping mall had 30 different shops selling different kinds of food. I went around thrice before settling on Nasi Goreng from the Malay shop. Just great.
The corruption was unfortunately fairly typical of a developing nation. Again, no direct evidence, but only from what I heard from people. For example, when the father of Modern Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahatir Mohammad, resigned from the ruling party while I was there, I was quite certain that a whole bunch of others will follow him. But no, almost nobody did. I was puzzled and after inquiring, the common response was, who on earth would be stupid enough to get out of the patronage party? Am I surprised? No, political parties are the same all over the world.
The economy is doing well, well diversified, not that much about of concentration in any one sector, not much government interference in the economy as shown by the low 12% of public consumption in the economy compared with about 20% for the USA and 22% for the UK. Nicely galloping along at 5-6% per year GDP growth, but subsidies are a worry. These range from industrial, agricultural, fuel, service and a whole load of them. If the government is not careful, the debt servicing could be an issue. But again, nothing that worried me terribly.
The last observation before my summing-up would be to point to a far more dangerous factor which is brewing in Malaysia. And that is the race factor. The sheer casualness with which race plays a part in politics, business and normal society is shocking for a person coming in from outside. To further complicate matters, this has a religious overtone and is getting worse day by day. I see the blog site of Dr. Mahatir Mohammad and am frankly horrified to read some of his pronouncements on race and religion. And that is wrong, public policy should never be established based on religion or race, because it will simply end up with angst. Especially when you have multiple religions and races in the country. Can you imagine a Prime Minister of any other country clearly stating racist views nowadays?
Take the emotion out of the arguments, help all Malaysians, such as all poor Malays. Do impose the national language for all Malaysians. Malays are ethnically and historically a combination of Indian and Chinese ancestry but now there is a strong but still controllable difference between the Indian Tamils, Indian Punjabi/Sikhs, the Chinese, the Malays, the mainlander and islander Malaysian etc. etc. In the list of the top richest Malaysians, only one was Malay. And this is after decades of affirmative action. On the other hand, the Indian Tamils are bottom of the pile and after they saw the success of the use of religion by Malays, they have also climbed on the Hindu religion bandwagon. This can still be controlled, stop that sucking up to the OIC, think of all Malaysians independently and uniquely. Malays look to Mecca, Chinese look to China and Indians look to India. Who or where is the lookout for Malaysia? But it is not that bad, I think the political class would understand this and can stuff the racist/religious monster inside the cage.
Bottom line and by and large, I think Malaysians can be proud of what they have achieved in their country. The emphasis on information technology, the way they have had a systematic plan to drag their country into the developed country status. I am also impressed by how well joined up the government, industry and bureaucracy is to push for Malaysian interests. This bill of guarantees for foreign investors is absolutely amazing and provides evidence that Malaysia is serious. This is something that other countries can only dream about but the way this kind of national will and drive for months, years and decades is good and creditable. All political parties are on-board with respect to national development and this country will improve dramatically indeed provided it manages to take all its citizens along with this national drive. Salamat Datang (welcome guest) indeed.