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In February 2011 we travelled to Malaysia.  I was surprised to see modern housing estates in substantial numbers during our first cab ride from the Airport to Kuala Lumpur.  It seemed more reminiscent of the United Arab Emirates than of the poorer Middle East or of other developing countries in SE Asia.  Our hotel was similarly well appointed.

 

 

 

Getting About

 

After a few days in Kuala Lumpur we flew north to Penang and then drove down the peninsula to Malacca, with a side trip to the Cameron Highlands overnight, then back to Kuala Lumpur.  

Click here to see the slide show...

 

Because they drive on the same side travelling on Malaysia's roads is very similar to driving in Australia.  And the road engineering is very similar in terms of the road surface and hardware like guard rails and signage.  It is easy sitting in a car on the expressway to think that you are driving in some tropical part of Australia. 

You immediately realise you are not in Australia when you stop to refuel, rest or eat.  There are no giant air conditioned cafeterias.  Instead there are several, or many, small food stalls and a large roofed over area with seating; as well as basins for hand washing.  At some there may be an alternative small air conditioned café, typically a food franchise such as McDonald's or Dunk'n Doughnuts.  Notably absent are the many very large trucks we have on Australian roads.  But there are many familiar names on billboards and on the few English speaking stations on the car radio, including Harvey Norman and the usual American franchises.

For most of the road trip we travelled on a six lane highway with a nominal speed limit of 110 kilometres per hour.  But at this speed almost all the traffic overtakes the law abiding.  I quickly applied my rule that I should not be overtaken by more than one or two cars a minute.  I found that the speed of between 120 and 140 kilometres an hour was about right.  Nevertheless we were still frequently pulling over to allow faster traffic past.  On one occasion a BMW travelling at at least 180 kilometres an hour overtook the bunch of traffic that we were travelling in by driving along the near-side shoulder; this is sealed but not a traffic lane and obviously intended for breakdowns or roadside maintenance; not for swerving onto at over 100 miles an hour.

On two or three occasions we saw police radar traps but they seem to have little effect on the speed of traffic.  The Malaysians may subscribe to the theory that allowing traffic to travel faster than the nominal limit in fine weather increases vehicle volume per hour and optimises the road infrastructure.  But they haven't taken this to the extent of the police in Germany who pursue slow cars with megaphones and tell them to get over; out of the way of those who want to travel faster.

Even on secondary or tertiary roads in the Highlands I was amazed to see the level of sophisticated engineering with elaborate terracing and hillside stabilisation and substantial drainage works.  These roads were extremely winding often with linked s-bends but correctly cambered.  Once off the expressway, Malaysian driving skill seems to vary dramatically, between appalling, hesitant at 20 kilometres per hour; to amazing.

On several occasions I was overtaken between hairpin bends that would challenge The Stig from Top Gear, by expensive German cars that generally disappeared into the distance as quickly as they had appeared. 

Although statistically the chances of being killed in a car accident in Malaysia are about three times higher than they are in Australia we didn't see any car accidents over the four days that we had the car; or at any other time.  Malaysia's road accident record has improved dramatically over the past few years as road conditions have improved and drivers have become more skilled.


Infrastructure

 

Malaysia's entire infrastructure is of a high standard.  The Airport to Kuala Lumpur is undergoing significant upgrade.  It is already a very workable Airport both for the domestic and international flights.  The Airport at Penang was of a similarly high quality.  It is possible to check-in your bags at Kuala Lumpur central station and take a high speed train to the Airport.  We used this for our return flight and it is much faster than catching a cab to the Airport.  Kuala Lumpurhasa developing metro, in addition to high speed heavy rail connections, and it has a complimentary monorail system that, unlike Sydney's, goes in both directions.  The city already has a number of high quality expressways and more under construction.  There does seem to be an over investment in the car, many of which are the locally produced Proton.  In the city, cars and motorbikes are in roughly equal numbers but in the countryside cars and trucks predominate.  The cabs run on LPG but petrol too is very cheap; still around 70¢ Australian a litre.  Malaysia is a major oil producer.

The other infrastructure feature that is always very obvious is the electricity grid.  In Malaysia this appears to encompass several generations of high voltage transmission towers.  The older system I took to be 330 kV like ours; but checking the web tells me that it is 275 kV.  Some of these towers are very tall carrying 12 cable strands on six crossbars.  But in addition there is a new 500 kV system running the length of the peninsula that appears to be at least as technically advanced as our new 500 kV system.  A little Web research informs me that the length of the main Malaysian grid is around the same as the grid in New South Wales.  According to the Web current annual electricity demand is around 100 TWh (terawatt hours) growing at about 1.7% pa (62.6% gas, 20.9% coal, 9.5% hydro and 7% from other forms of fuel).  This compares to New South Wales at just over 73 TWh (94.8% coming from fossil (black coal and gas) 4.7% from hydro electricity; 0.3% from biomass and biogas and 0.2% from wind) and growing at around 1.5% pa.  Malaysia has just under four times the New South Wales population and, it follows, lower electricity consumption per capita.  Interestingly for New South Wales, their new and largest power station is coal-fired to reduce the previous dependence on gas.

Everywhere you look in Malaysia there is new construction.  Acres and acres of what looked like McMansions and luxury high-rise buildings; new expressways; vast new shopping malls.

 

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As we drove around the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca we certainly saw some shabby buildings and second rate accommodation and some people are obviously poor.  There are few beggars and almost everywhere is clean; with very little rubbish or untidiness; except for the untidiness of the numerous building sites.  And everywhere there are job advertisements; often long lists of staff wanted.  Public Parks and amenities are particularly well cared for and even the nature strips between divided carriageways are maintained like parkland, with topiary shrubs and bushes. 

There are of course some exceptions to this tidiness.  The Batu caves near Kuala Lumpur conceal heaps of rubbish stuffed into every corner; behind every screen.  Just like India.  These ancient caves were once mined for their bat guano by local people.  They were discovered for Europeans by the American Naturalist William Hornaday in 1878 and subsequently taken over, in part, as a Hindu temple.  There is a large cavern with the inactive stalactites, smaller but reminiscent of the 'Devil's Coach House' at Jenolan Caves in NSW, that has a number of Hindu shrines installed.  In a side cave, that has been left in its natural state, it is possible to take traditional speleological tours, with helmet, lamps and boots.  The caves, but not the tours, are free to visit but they are reached by some 300 steps and there is no lift.  We were surprised to meet quite elderly people, as well as small children, at the top coming back down.

 

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In addition to litterers, Malaysia also has a criminal element.  We were told that there are some areas in Penang that are dangerous after dark and we were almost the victims of a motorcycle bag-snatch in Malacca.  Fortunately Wendy's bag was firmly over her shoulder and only her camera case was torn off the strap; the camera falling to the ground un-broken.

 


Expectations

 

I went to university with several Malaysian students and had I been asked to write what I knew about Malaysia before going there, these would have been on my list:

  • Malaysia is the principal world producer of natural rubber.  Rubber was originally introduced by British planters from South America.  During world war two the Japanese effectively stopped access to Malaysian Rubber.  As a result, United States invested heavily in Guayule a desert growing rubber plant; and in the rapid development of synthetic rubbers.  To protect of the Malaysian Rubber industry after the war United States voluntarily burnt or ploughed-in all the Guayule they had planted.  I once wrote a report on Guayule as a potential crop for arid Australia. 
  • Malaysia's population consists of about half Malays, together with the remnant indigenous population, and half other races, predominantly Chinese, Indian and mixed.
  • Malaysia has long played a role in Australia's defence policy and is a strong ally, Australia having maintained an RAAF base there for many years and having committed troops to the Malayan emergency, against communist insurgency; and again against Indonesia, during the period of Confrontation.
  • When the previous British Straits Colonies came to together to form Malaysia in 1963 Singapore was a part of the confederation.  But Lee Kuan Yu pulled Singapore out when it became evident that the confederation intended to give the economic preference to Malays ahead of Chinese citizens.  I remember him crying on television.
  • Malaysia is a successful multi-cultural religiously tolerant country in which English is the official common language.

Today few Malaysians would agree with all, or perhaps any, of the points on my list.

Despite our trip to the Highlands we had seen far more rubber trees in Vietnam then we saw in Malaya.  Almost the entire coastal strip is a mono culture plantation of oil palms.  New areas are being cleared for oil palm even up into the Highlands.  But there is a lot we didn't see and rubber must still be important somewhere.  The Encyclopaedia of Nations tells me: ' In 1999, Malaysia produced 10.55 million metric tons of palm oil, one of the world's largest producers.  Almost 85 percent or 8.8 million metric tons of this was exported to international market.  Malaysia remains one of the world's leading suppliers of rubber, producing 767,000 metric tons of rubber in 1999.  However, in the 1990s, large plantation companies began to turn to the more profitable palm oil production.  Malaysia also is the world's fourth-largest producer of cocoa, producing 84,000 metric tons in 1999.'

Malays now out-number Chinese and other races.  Chinese people we spoke to said this is because they are discriminated against in Malaysia.  They regard the policy of economic preference in favour of Malays to be discrimination against them.  As a result many have left the country and as a matter of course they send their children overseas to be educated; never to return.  We were told that sixth or seventh generation Chinese feel they are now treated like guest workers and one of the children was reportedly told by a schoolteacher to 'go back to China'.

I visited a number of museums and there is virtually no acknowledgement of Australia's commitment to the development of Malaysia and its independence.  Several of the references appear to be antagonistic.  In Malacca and Penang the British and Chinese role in the early development of Malaya is acknowledged but in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur this is put in the context of perceived aggression against the Muslim princes.  Today the ancestors of these princes take turns at being the King in the Malaysian constitutional monarchy.  They are all Muslim and are charged with being the defender of the faith. 

It is interesting to look at the photographs of the prime minister's who followed independence and to note that they wished to reinforce the secular nature of the government.  As in Turkey their wives did not wear scarves, even on formal and religious occasions.

 

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Islam took on additional stridency with the advent of Mahathir Mohamad as PM, who Australian PM Paul Keating exasperatedly called 'recalcitrant', resulting in several years of diplomatic chill, and who subsequently had his deputy PM and political rival jailed for alleged buggery.  But this stridency seems to vary across the country and to fluctuate with time. 

It's a pity that Singapore did not stay in the federation.  Although Malaysia has done very well economically the predominantly Chinese Singapore has done significantly better.  The United Nations Human Development Index now places Singapore one step below the United Kingdom in the highly developed group.  Hong Kong has done even better and is now several places above the United Kingdom. 

At the top of the list is Norway followed by Australia and New Zealand; then the United States.  I have speculated elsewhere on this website about the factors important in Australia's success.

English is no longer a common language.  But while many non-Chinese or non-Indian people could not speak English, almost everyone was polite and as helpful as they could be.  Unlike many developing countries, it seems most people can at least read a map.


Eating

 

In Malacca we stayed in China Town where it was possible to buy pork won ton soup and other pork dishes; and in a courtyard off our street locals were preparing a suckling pig for Chinese New Year.  But in our hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Penang we could not get real breakfast bacon, nor was pork served in the various Chinese Restaurants that we ate in in those cities.

Those of my readers who have read my report on India will know that I can't eat food heavily spiced with chilli.  Unfortunately in Malaysia this unpleasant culinary fashion has spread, presumably with the Indian migrants.  This makes a significant part of the Malayan menu inedible for me.  On the other hand Wendy loves chilli.  But in the Chinese restaurants the food is very good and fresh chilli is sparingly used, and easily picked out with chopsticks.  Additional chilli is available if required. 

 

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The good thing was that breakfast at most of our hotels was vast and covered every taste; provided it didn't include pork.  Malaysia is one of the last places I would recommend for a culinary experience.  But it does beat India; at least you are not denied beef and can avoid the chilli.

I know it's boring and conservative but I prefer France, Italy or Spain; even Greece or Turkey; for a good food experience.  Vietnam and China are also a lot more exciting from a culinary point of view; you can get pork, beef and duck, in addition to vegetables, fish, chicken and 'mutton'; actually they will eat almost anything that was once alive; as well as some not yet dead.


Religion

 

Committed believers may wish to skip this section.

In Malaysia it is taken as a given that there is a god and that everyone believes in Him, or them, in some form or another.  This assumption is evident even in the English print media.  I do not read Malaysian or Chinese but it is my impression that the media in these languages takes a similar line.  In Kuala Lumpur there are several large English language bookshops and I was drawn to the shelves on religion; there were none on philosophy.  These were far more numerous than would be found in an Australian bookshop of a similar size and to my surprise they covered mainly Christianity; with books by all manner of the born-again American demagogues.  Where was Richard Dawkins?  Where was Islam?

Then of course I realized that Islam has its own section that is vastly larger again.

There is clearly censorship in place; real or complicit.  But at the Airport I was able to buy a copy of Karen Armstrong's 'A History of God'.  The flyleaf has critical endorsements from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and from Rabbi Julia Neuberger.  Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun.  So I presume the buyer had not delved any further into the book.  It explores in great detail the human authorship of the monotheistic tradition in the context of the cultures and political context in which these beliefs arose.  While not advocating atheism like Richard Dawkins, within a few pages Karen Armstrong makes it clear that she is no longer a believer in the conventional sense.

The Armstrong book illustrates, as many others have noted, that one of the principal reasons for the evolution of the more sophisticated forms of religion, such as monotheism, as societies grew larger and more differentiated, has been to better underwrite the legitimacy of ruling elites: the anointment of hereditary rulers; the wisdom and authority of the priesthood.

Across the Middle East the younger generation is now questioning the validity of their leaders' divine right to rule.  But we know that the complaints that lie behind the unrest: lack of opportunity; rising food and energy prices; will be no more soluble by new, possibly more democratic, governments than by the old, more dictatorial, ones.  Indeed the present unrest is injuring already weak economies and potentially making conditions worse. 

The present economic weakness is fundamentally due to the accumulation of many years during which young people, of both sexes, have been deprived of appropriate education, exacerbated by out-of-control population growth.  In Egypt the education system has long been unable to keep up and illiteracy is endemic.  One illiterate cab driver there (but he could speak a little English) told us that he was driving the cab all day, everyday, to support a family of eight children; obviously also illiterate.  He depends on sympathetic tourists for that little bit extra.  Things are unlikely to improve for his family any time soon.

Reading the paper at breakfast I noted that there is an extensive public debate about the degree to which Malaysia should be governed by sharia law; and how secular society ought to be.  Malaysia is by constitution a Muslim rather than a secular state.  Much of this discussion took place in the context of the unrest in the Middle East and in particular in Egypt. 

Some 11,000 Malaysian students were studying in Egypt when the troubles broke out.  These had to be airlifted to Saudi Arabia and then home.  What could they possibly be learning in Egypt? I could imagine 11,000 Egyptians fruitfully learning something from Malaysia; in particular the skills involved in engineering, infrastructure development and maintenance; as well as public efficiency and population control.  But the other way around seems bizarre. 

I can imagine one or two flaky American housewives abandoning their empty marriage and immature lover to live on Indian ashram for a few months or to shack-up in Bali à la the book and movie: 'Eat, Pray, Love'. But 11,000 of them?

As far as I could divine from the newspapers they were a mixture of religious scholars and medical students.  Apparently Egypt has better medical schools, difficult as this is to believe; given the comparative states, including literacy, wealth and life expectancy, of each country. 

According to the United Nations 'human development index' Malaysia ranks 57th, well above Russia, whereas Egypt ranks 101st, well below China.  But according to our Chinese breakfast companion at least they learn a more moderate version of Islam in Egypt than they would in Pakistan; which is according to her, the source of all Islamic evil. 

One of the best things in Kuala Lumpur is the Islamic Arts Museum.  Representations of humans and animals have generally been precluded in the Islamic religious art, for reasons discussed elsewhere on this website.  So the Islamic Arts Museum cannot compete with the great galleries of Europe that display Christian inspired figurative, passionate and otherwise emotionally charged art.  But it does very adequately display the artistic riches and decorative objects that have been inspired by Islam; not just in Malaysia but in India and Spain as well as the Middle East.

 

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Part of the display shows the great mosques of the world.  Because of its preoccupation with geometry Islamic architecture is the jewel in the crown.  I was surprised at how many of the best examples shown we have visited and enjoyed; including those in Turkey, Syria, Spain and India. 

One interesting display provided simultaneous English translations of selected prayers and I was very impressed by how beautifully poetic Islamic prayers can be.

It's difficult to think that Islam is any better or worse than any other religion when practiced privately and without imposition on others.  Much of the press comment in Malaysia was to oppose fundamentalism of all kinds.  And if this is how Islam is practiced I have no more argument with it than I do with Christianity; Judaism; the many eastern religions; or with religion in general. 

Like the many other successful religions of mankind, Islam arose at a time when it made sense to a great number of intelligent people to convert to it in preference to earlier religions that no longer seemed believable, adequate or politic.  It arose in the Middle East in the context of Judaism and Christianity and the monotheistic tradition; when people could still believe that this planet was at the centre of the universe and the culmination of God's creation; when everyone could still believe the creator of the universe had made mankind in his image; when everyone could still believe that mankind has a central place in this creation; and that the Creator communicated with them through the prophets or angles or visions or dreams or the priesthood; and in turn listened to their personal prayers; when everyone could still believe that the mind and soul were separate and inhabited the body, rather than being ephemeral processes and memories that are a consequence of the peculiar arrangement and interactions of the cells in their brain and nervous system. 

Like the other great religions, Islam provided important steps on the way to a new perception of the universe.  It provided us with algebra and new mathematical, geometric and important scientific discoveries, particularly in medicine and astronomy.  It was the inspiration for poetry, music and art.  One can't visit the Alhambra in Granada in Spain or read about the activities of the Spanish Inquisition without realising who the barbarians were; not the Moors.  It provided several important steps on the way to the Renaissance; and ultimately to the Enlightenment and modern scientific understanding.

But, together with the other religions,  it is based in beliefs that we now know to be untrue or that are extremely improbable.  My argument is that set out so succinctly by Bertrand Russell over half a century ago in the short video clip linked here: 'one should not believe things that are not true; and if there is uncertainty one should suspend belief'.

It seems to me that in Malaysia the average person has no way of discovering that religion, as defined by the many superstitious traditional practices and unsubstantiated or actually refuted beliefs of mankind, has no support in contemporary, verifiable knowledge.  This contemporary knowledge is easily verifiable in that it allows us to fly between continents; to carry out advanced medicine (drugs and surgery affecting the brain, swapping hearts and so on); or to make a mobile phone work.  If these understandings are true then the ancient beliefs are not.

Malaysians have no way of discovering that many intelligent, informed people no longer have any time for traditional religious concepts; that are disproven or no longer viable like: 'life after death'; the central role of humanity in God's creation; a divine plan for them or their country; or the efficacy of prayer.  They are not exposed to contemporary religious scholarship that explores the evolution of religious thought in the context of the social conditions that spawned it; and consequently the palpably man-made origins of the often bizarre and imaginative subtleties that differentiate Mankind's various religions.


The Past

 

The Malaysian National museum in Kuala Lumpur has a very good gallery dedicated to Malaysia's prehistory.  It starts with the early human habitation during the early ice age when sea levels were much lower and Malaysia formed part of a much larger land mass.  My report on Vietnam and Cambodia, also on this website, provides similar information.  It displays a range of skulls of early human species and discusses the arrival of modern humans in the region between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago.  Earlier plate tectonics and continental drift are also touched upon.  I was surprised to see this gallery in a Muslim country where more typically strict adherence to the Biblical creation account appears to be the norm.  It gave me heart that contemporary scientific scholarship can outweigh Biblical authority when it comes down to irrefutable evidence.

There was no demonstration of the fossil record or early life forms or discussion of the cosmic background radiation and other evidence for the formation of the current universe some 13.7 thousand million years ago, as one might see in an Australian, North American or European natural history museum.  But visitors were clearly informed that the earth was well over 200,000 years old and that modern humans were preceded by earlier hominid species.  Later galleries that covered the European and modern periods became less objective and more problematic as they approached the present time.  I thought the coverage of the Japanese invasion in World War II; the Malayan (communist) emergency against the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA); and Indonesian confrontation; particularly confusing if not wildly inaccurate.  This may have been because of the idiosyncratic English translations of the original Malayan explanations.  It seemed a nice demonstration that the victor writes his own history.

A much clearer picture of more recent history was available from the memorial to Prime Minister Abdul Razak, in the nearby park, that has on display some of the original documents from his period in office.  He is credited with rapid rural development, financial and educational initiatives to benefit the poor rural Islamic Malays (Bumiputera).

Wendy and I agreed that we are much less familiar with Razak, who came to office in 1969 in a minor coup, than we were with his predecessor Tunku Abdul Rahman who was constantly in the news when we were young.  More recently we were obviously familiar with a disciple of his, Mahathir Mohamad (PM from 1981 to 2003).  Today another Razak (Najib Razak) holds the office.

At the Islamic Arts Museum nearby there was timeline and map (below) showing the advent of Islam and its spread across the world from Arabia.  Early Arab traders were interested in the Malayan Peninsula for its spices, particularly pepper, and for tin and other minerals.  They were also interested in controlling the strategic Malacca Straits that constrict the sea trade route between India and China. 

 

Malacca

 

Malacca is a good port with ample freshwater strategically located at the narrowest part of the straits.  According to the museum the first Malacca Sultanate was from 1402 to 1511.  And within 70 years additional Muslim sultanates controlled the whole of the East Indies as far as Java.  The Malacca Sultanate fought off various attacks by the Hindu Siamese and then the Vietnamese during the 15th century under the patronage of the Chinese emperor and many Chinese subsequently settled in the area.

 

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Prior to the arrival of the Muslims the region including modern Indonesia had been a mixture of Hindu and earlier religions and there are the remains of ancient Bronze Age Hindu ruins across Malaysia.  Bali of course remains Hindu to this day.  Earlier Palaeolithic societies practiced various animistic religions similar to those practiced in New Guinea and Australia and small remnant groups also continue these practices and beliefs to the present day.

In due course various European powers were attracted for the same reasons that attracted the Arabs.  Initially the Portuguese established various footholds on the trade route between India and China.  These included Bombay and Goa in India and Malacca in Malaya.

In 1511 the Portuguese overcame the local sultan; and fresh from finally expelling the Moors from the Iberian peninsular, in 1492, set about trying to Christianise the region.  The Jesuit missionary St Francis Xavier spent several months in Malacca to this end and is remembered at the historic Catholic church in the town.  The Portuguese fortified Malacca against ongoing Muslim harassment and the remnants of their fort can still be seen.  It is not surprising that the Malaysian museums do not treat this period well. 

Relief for the local sultan came when the balance of power shifted in Europe and the Netherlands, shaking off Spanish control from 1581 onwards, became a significant sea power in their own right; developing the Dutch Empire, largely by capturing the colonies of Spain and Portugal.  With the help of the Sultan of Johor the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese in 1641 and went on to control Malacca for the next 150 years.  The Dutch recognised the multi-racial and multi-religious nature of Malacca and made no attempts to forcibly change people's beliefs.  For the Dutch, Malacca was an outpost of declining interest and they ceded it to the British in 1824.  The Dutch East Indies were instead administered from Batavia (Jakarta) in Java until Indonesian independence in 1949 (backdated to 1945 by the Indonesians).  I went to school with a Dutch kid who, with his parents, had been expelled in 1949 and had moved Australia.

In due course Malacca became the least important of the Straits Settlements with Penang and Singapore.  The British dismantled its fortifications and at one stage even attempted to move the population to Penang.  But eventually they settled in for the long haul and the Anglican church in town records the deaths, particularly of young wives and children, of those who dedicated their lives to keeping Malacca British.

 

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Today it is an interesting historical town, with a large Chinese population, far less significant than Kuala Lumpur or Penang.  To improve its tourist value the river that runs to the harbour has been lined with concrete supporting river sidewalks, reminiscent of the Grand Canal in Venice; lined with historic houses, restaurants and cafes.  River boats carry tourists under pretty Venetian style bridges.  An apparently seldom working monorail winds along part of the foreshore.  At one point a 'Ferris wheel' and 'pirate ship' form the main attractions in a small amusement park.  At another a Disney style replica Spanish galleon forms part of the maritime museum.  A large fake, electrically driven, waterwheel stands beside a reconstructed fortification.

 

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Replicas, reproductions and fakes are popular in Malaysia.

 

Penang

 

Penang is an island joined to the mainland by a long road bridge.  The British East India Company needed a base in the Malacca Straits and the adventurer and trader Francis Light negotiated the lease of the island from the local Sultan, renaming it Prince of Wales Island; a name that was soon changed to Penang.  The main city was named Georgetown; the name it still retains.  The Sultan felt that Light had deceived him and unsuccessfully attempted to attack the island in 1790.  As a result a long-term agreement was established with the British East India Company and subsequently with the British Crown.  The Sultan of Kedah receives an annual rent for the island to this day.  Penang became a free-port for all the traders in the area; a status it retained until 1969.

As a major trading centre Penang developed a large Chinese population with an informal Chinese local government.  In 1826 rival Chinese interests resulted in riots that the British had to suppress with the Indian troops.  After this it came under British colonial administration that continued until the Japanese invasion at the start of World War II. 

Georgetown retains a number of historic colonial buildings.  Outstanding among these is the restored five star Eastern and Oriental Hotel.  As this was a special holiday we had booked into the modern five star Traders Hotel and the club level.  But we were both a little sad that we have not chosen the Eastern and Oriental.  We had to make do with High Tea in the historic lounge and strolling the grounds along the seafront.  Past guests of the hotel include: Noel Coward; Rudyard Kipling; Somerset Maugham; Sun Yat-sen; Charlie Chaplin; and Lee Kuan Yew

The Japanese treated the Chinese particularly harshly and this is remembered with some bitterness in the local museum.  After the war the British incorporated Penang into the Malayan Union and subsequently the federation of Malaysia.  From the 1970s to the end of the century Chief Minister Lim Chong Eu successfully developed one of the largest electronics manufacturing bases in Asia in Penang.  These large multinational electronics plants, Fairchild and so on, can be seen on the trip into town from the Airport.  Elsewhere there is a large new, and largely empty, industrial park dedicated to solar development.  In common with the rest of Malaysia there is also a great deal of construction underway, including luxury high-rise apartments and villas along the coast.

Penang has the highest population density in Malaysia.  Although once predominantly Chinese, with a substantial Indian minority, ethnic Malays now exceed the ethnic Chinese in number and this trend is expected to continue. 

Today Penang attracts tourists and backpackers to its beaches, where you can swim with jellyfish or, more interestingly, as I did, paraglide behind a speedboat.  I took my camera up with me and Wendy photographed the insert.  Fantastic!

 

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Well under half the Penang population is Muslim but we found it bizarre that women in full black burqa could be seen at the beach-side resorts presumably accompanying menfolk frolicking among the scantily-clad non-Muslims. 

 

Kuala Lumpur

 

The development of Kuala Lumpur was based on tin mining.  In 1857 the local Sultan decided to open the area around the confluence of the two Rivers, that give Kuala Lumpur its name, to Chinese tin miners.  As the settlement grew, the British appointed Chinese leaders to act as local government for the predominantly Chinese miners.  This led to a dispute with the Sultanate over its share of the profits from tin mining and sparked early interracial tensions.  Once these issues and the structure of the Chinese leadership were resolved Kuala Lumpur quickly grew to be the largest town in the region.  As a result it was first made the administrative capital by the British then in due course the capital of the new nation.  Chinese people we spoke to are seriously upset by the lack of acknowledgement of their central role in this development and apparent attempts to erase all memory of it. 

Today much of Chinese Kuala Lumpur has been demolished and replaced with modern concrete and glass office towers and shopping malls, like the one below the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.

 

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A few historic exceptions remain like the Central Market that specialises in traditional arts and crafts as well as the usual tourist souvenirs; and the surrounding streets that specialise in replica goods such as 'designer' clothes and watches and exceptionally low cost first release DVD movies.

 


The Future

 

The future is an endlessly moving target.  Every community and every civilisation is attempting to finesse the present with an eye to the possible future.  The way they go about this is highly dependent on the culture.

Like Australia, Malaysia is a resource rich country.  It is attempting to get these riches more evenly distributed across its population.  But in doing so it has alienated much of its middle class: Chinese, Indians and non-Muslim Malays.  This is highly risky.  The country's middle class provides the skills that are so evident in its advanced infrastructure and competitive manufacturing sector.

Squandering its resource wealth on social programmes and cheap petrol is certainly a way of keeping the ringgit low and manufacturing competitive but it is at the cost of economic efficiency; and a lower overall standard of living than would otherwise be achievable.  It is unlikely that the Malaysian middle class will go to the barricades, or that interracial rioting will break out yet again, but the educated minorities are voting with their feet. 

There have been vast and costly efforts to educate working class Malays (Bumiputera) but as far as we could determine virtually the entire newly educated and upwardly mobile working class reads and speaks only Malaysian (Bahasa Malaysia).  This language is useful only in Malaysia, with a population not much bigger than Australia's, and in some parts of Indonesia.  There are less than 11 million native speakers worldwide, many of whom are poor and disconnected, compared to over 400 million native English speakers and a further 1.8 billion who have English as a second language. 

On the other hand most of the ethnic Chinese we met are very fluent in English and many have Mandarin as well (around 1.3 billion speakers and more who can read and write).  I was surprised to hear the Chinese Malaysians speaking Mandarin, rather than Cantonese or another southern dialect, but Mandarin is the official, if not first language, of Singapore as well as Taiwan and China; now officially the second largest economy in the world.  That is thinking to the future. 

More than many, less strategically positioned countries, Malaysia has always depended on international relations and trade for its success.  If current trends continue for any length of time, and as ethnic Malays predominate politically and as a proportion of the population, there is a serious risk that the country could become inward looking and increasingly radicalised. 

Recently the retiring U.S.  ambassador, James Keith, wrote an article that caused outrage in Malaysia.  He apparently had the temerity to warn of potential problems that were facing the country.  But the press did not take apart his arguments to refute them, rather they attacked him as a second rate intellect and a mediocre diplomat.  Nowhere could I find an analysis of what he actually said.  It seems to me that this sensitivity to criticism is a real problem in determining the truths that are necessary to negotiate an uncertain future.

At some point Malaysia needs to become less sensitive and to face some potentially unpleasant realities.  The censorship of uncomfortable ideas, particularly around religion, needs to end.  In particular the Government needs to mend their bridges with ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.  They also need make sure that everyone can speak, read and write in an international language.  If English is no longer to their taste they should immediately begin to teach the remainder of their population Mandarin.

 

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Travel

Bridge over the River Kwai

 

 

In 1957-58 the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘ was ground breaking.  It was remarkable for being mainly shot on location (in Ceylon not Thailand) rather than in a studio and for involving the construction and demolition of a real, fully functioning rail bridge.   It's still regarded by many as one of the finest movies ever made. 

One of the things a tourist to Bangkok is encouraged to do is to take a day trip to the actual bridge.

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Fiction, Recollections & News

Australia in the 1930s

 

 

These recollections are by Ross Smith, written when he was only 86 years old; the same young man who subsequently went to war in New Britain; as related elsewhere on this website [read more...].  We learn about the development of the skills that later saved his life and those of others in his platoon.  We also get a sense of what it was to be poor in pre-war Australia; and the continuity of that experience from the earlier convict and pioneering days from which our Australia grew.                   *

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Opinions and Philosophy

Australia and Empire

 

 

 

The recent Australia Day verses Invasion Day dispute made me recall yet again the late, sometimes lamented, British Empire.

Because, after all, the Empire was the genesis of Australia Day.

For a brief history of that institution I can recommend Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Scottish historian Niall Campbell Ferguson.

My choice of this book was serendipitous, unless I was subconsciously aware that Australia Day was approaching.  I was cutting through our local bookshop on my way to catch a bus and wanted something to read.  I noticed this thick tomb, a new addition to the $10 Penguin Books (actually $13). 

On the bus I began to read and very soon I was hooked when I discovered references to places I'd been and written of myself.  Several of these 'potted histories' can be found in my various travel writings on this website (follow the links): India and the Raj; Malaya; Burma (Myanmar); Hong Kong; China; Taiwan; Egypt and the Middle East; Israel; and Europe (a number).  

Over the next ten days I made time to read the remainder of the book, finishing it on the morning of Australia Day, January the 26th, with a sense that Ferguson's Empire had been more about the sub-continent than the Empire I remembered.

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