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the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48,
Malaysia: So Near, So Far
A.A. Patawaran, Manila
Standard (independent), Manila, the Philippines, June 26, 2001.
so near, yet so far, but only because it seems so different
from us. For one, everything seems to be going skyward, led
by the Petronas Twin Towers, which, at 452 meters, are the
worlds tallest, that is until China is done with its
construction of its record-breaker. In Kuala Lumpur, one is
reminded of Seattle or Sydney, what with steel and glass,
all shimmering in its ever-changing skyline, and the roads
well paved and clean and new, as clean and new as the cars
traveling on them. But in this Malaysian capital, one glimpses
relics of a golden age: domes and turrets and palaces, as
well as women clad in traditional costumes (although some
of them wear modern signatures for their headgear, a Dolce
& Gabbana scarf, for instance).
Kuala Lumpur is home to 1.5 million people, 40 percent of
whom are Chinese. It is roughly divided into three different
areas, namely the Golden Mile, otherwise known as Chinatown;
the Golden Triangle, where lies the business district; and
the Greenbelt, which is the lung of the city, with forests
of trees and no modern buildings, just colonial ones housing
government offices. Nevertheless, even outside the Greenbelt,
birds and trees are at home, despite the rapid pace of development
in the city. Frequent visitors are amazed at how fast Kuala
Lumpur is changing.
Only 10 years ago, according to them, the city was barely
a shadow of what it has become. Of course, many claim its
Malaysias Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamads no
fear, no excuses policy that is keeping it on its toes.
Kuala Lumpur began as a mining settlement in the late 1800s
with the discovery of tin at the confluence of the Klang and
Gombak rivers. Today, it is the pulse of the nation, leading
Malaysias fast-paced development in trade and commerce,
banking and finance, manufacturing, transportation, information
technology, and tourism.
Because Malaysia is in the neighborhood, I never quite thought
of it as an exciting, let alone exotic, destination. So I
was surprised that tourism plays a crucial role in Malaysias
continued success, being number four in its list of important
industries. Petroleum, of course, is the backbone of Malaysias
economy. It is the reason it is running into trouble with
its neighbors, specifically Indonesia and the Philippines,
with whom it has yet to conclude once and for all a tug-of-war
with Sabah playing the rope.
During my first visit, I stayed at the Melia, which is situated
in the center of the Golden Triangle. Just behind the hotel,
on Jalan Sultan Ismail, over which the Petronas Twin Towers
soar from a distance, I found myself inching my way through
a thick crowd at 2 a.m. On the sidewalks at this ungodly hour,
I found tourists reclining on chaisettes, availing themselves
of a foot massage, which a masseur told me would only cost
me 30 Malaysian ringgit (RM), about US$8.
Everywhere, tourists share the space with locals, whether
in the restaurants or in the bars, the Internet cafés
or the 24-hour convenience stores, or even the late-night
stalls peddling all manner of merchandise.
In nearby Chinatown on Jalan Petaling, there is almost no
room for buyers, as there are three rows of stalls occupying
this narrow street. It is the place to be if one is looking
for genuine imitations, unless one has been to
Guangzhou, China, where the fake items come with fake certificates
of authenticity. (Louis Vuitton, take note!)
But in Kuala Lumpur, there is much to buy for the counterfeit
addict. You can get a Rolex for RM25 ($7), and it will last
you three years, provided you buy a battery worth another
RM25. Its not so bad a deal, except that its not
the real thing.
Beyond Kuala Lumpur, it is just as exciting, albeit in a different
way. I heard so much about Kuala Selangor, barely an hour
away. This coastal riverine town is popular with birdwatchers
for its large population of marshland and migratory birds.
Within the vicinity is Kampung Kuantan, where fireflies at
dusk along the upper reaches of the river attract nature lovers.
I personally had the chance to visit Melaka. Perched midway
in the Strait of Malacca, it is a state so rich not only in
natural resources but also in history and folklore. Its tourism
slogan, in fact, only underscores its pride of place in the
history of Malaysia: Where it all began.
Founded in 1936 by Parameswara, who named his sultanate after
the melaka tree, this state, which lies next to
Singapore, has provided the stage on which the Chinese, Portuguese,
Dutch, and English played their roles in shaping history.
I was forewarned by friends to keep my pockets safe from the
lures of antiques there. Unfortunately, I was barely able
to explore Melaka by foot, save for a brief stop at the Baba
Nyonya Heritage Museum. Originally the home of three generations
of a Peranakan family, the museum is in the exquisite Chinese
Baroque style, characterized by neo-classical European elements
such as Greco-Roman columns, floral and pictorial motifs,
and gilt carvings. Although I did not have enough time to
experience more of it, I found Melaka quaint and charming,
with trishaws pacing up and down its narrow streets that wind
through a mishmash of architectural styles.
I also visited Genting Highlands, a poetic destination on
top of a mountain that, in the morning, seems to be afloat
on a bed of mist. The poetry, however, has to give way, as
it now houses a casino and a theme park, as well as a hotel
crowded with replicas of the worlds most famous landmarks
such as the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, and Big
If what one wants is peace and quiet, Genting is the last
place to be on Earth, but it is, in fact, teeming with people.
Soon to go full blast in this City of Entertainment is First
World Hotel, which is set to be Malaysias biggest hotel
with a total of 6,300 rooms.
Since December, 1,000 rooms have been ready for occupancy.
The rest will be opened in the next few weeks. What I found
exciting on Genting Highlands, however, is the cable ride
to the Genting Highlands Resort, which I do not recommend.
The Genting Cable System is the fastest in the world and the
safest route into the heart of the city. Whats more,
it plies a route breathtaking in its vista of lush vegetation
and steep mountainsides and, at certain times of the day,
awesome cloud formations.
Overall, I think Malaysias most irresistible attraction
is its people. Its not because of their smiles or their
hospitability. Malaysias wealth of history has wrought
a state of cultural diversity. The influx of immigrants and
traders from China, Arabia, and the surrounding nations of
the Malay Archipelago, as well as of seafaring conquerors
from the WestPortugal, the Netherlands, and Englandin
search of riches and resources has left an indelible imprint
on the country. As Leisure Guide Malaysia puts it,
Some stayed, Chinese and Indian immigrants chiefly,
to form part of the triumvirate that constitutes the majority
of Malaysias multiethnic, multi-religious population
today. Others left, but remained in spirit, as we are sometimes
reminded by a merry Portuguese jig, a dusky red church in
the center of an historic town, and cricket matches on a brilliant
Nevertheless, it is Malaysias national pride that best
lures in the tourist and, perhaps more important, the foreign
investor. Unlike us, the average Malaysian offers no apologies
about his country, where he is safe and secure and his needs
are met and where things continue to happen to make his life
better. Unlike the Filipino, the average Malaysian has all
the opportunity in the world to enjoy his country and share
it with the rest of the world.