June 12, 2008


Sitting in Chinatown, on Jalan Petaling, KL finally feels like Asia. Hot and sweaty, a monk wandering the street in the midst of hawkers selling almost-real LV, Gucci, Adidas. Chaos, too many people, too much noise and light.

This is my final night in KL. Pretty much as I expected and feared it has been a week mostly without sightseeing. Many early nights caused by long and exhausting days, leaving little energy or time to venture out into the unknown. Today wasn't much different except for the urge to see one other part of town before I head out tomorrow night.

Not being able to sightsee doesn't mean that I haven't seen anything of the country though. If anything, this has probably been a much better week to learn about Malaysia than if I would have been backpacking. Maybe by talking and talking and more talking to many different people you find out more about a country than by seeing temples and palm trees.

Talking with NGO-workers, for example, who are explaining the complexities of Malaysian politics and the need for more transparency. And then, at lunch, the Indian woman of this group starts going off on Muslims and how we have to stop them from taking over the world. Right...

Or the couple, Chinese Malaysians, of which the woman speaks and writes Cantonese and English fluently but no Bahasa Malaysia at all. And the man speak and writes English and Malay perfectly but only speaks (and doesn't write) Cantonese. They commute into Singapore daily from Johor, on the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia.

Or Malaysian politics - which seems like a complicated maze as well. Current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is under heavy criticism after his party lost heavily in the general elections in last March (though they still have a majority in parliament). He's apparently sometimes compared to a Malaysian version of Gorbatsjev - opening up the country but currently risking his own position as a result of that. He's inherited many big issues from previous PM Mahathir Mohamed (also known as Dr. M). Although he built up the country so it now has 6%-plus annual economic growth things such as corruption and non-freedom of press became normal throughout the country. He also left the country with a heavy car-dependence. Obsessed with creating a domestic automotive industry, he heavily protected this industry and promoted individual car ownership. Now, in a time of record-high oil prices, Malaysia is also suffering. With the country dependent on cars, fuel subsidies were finally mostly removed last week causeing fuel prices to rise with 41%. Combined with the worldwide increase of food prices and an expected big hike in electricity prices next month, Malaysians are not a happy people right now.

This moment is an interesting time to be in Malaysia - not only for the ecnomic and political situation but also societal. The Indian and Chinese part of the population (making up almost 40% of the total population) is seeing the country transformed into a more Muslim-state, and the local Malay population (also called bumiputra's) gets advantages on all kinds of things: from favourable interest rates on mortgages to entry into government jobs and so on. At the same time, all population groups in Malaysia claim that the beauty of the country is that different ethnicities can live together peacefully. Yes, but only to a certain extent it seems. There's a lot of frustration hidden underneath that surface and it will be interesting to see how that will change in the coming years.

No comments: