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Truly KL: make money and makan [NYT]

Wed 2011-May-18 @ +08 01:16:41 am

The New York Times has yet another travel article on Malaysia that skims lightly over the usual suspects: KLCC, Kampung Baru, the Railway Station, Brickfields, Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Selangor Club, the Padang, Petaling Street, and of course the Twin Towers. But, surprise, there’s also a mention of thinking Malaysians, starring Nurul Izzah, Kam Raslan and Amir Muhammad. Even old Yap Ah Loy gets a mention — for his absence from official history. Naturally, that leads on to the KLite’s favourite talking points: race relations, food, making money and traffic jams. And all that in a travelogue, even. Someone’s been giving the NYT a nudge or two?

From a Malaysian point of view, it’s another typically superficial piece by a western newspaper. But for superficial Americans, it does give a quick but fairly rounded portrait of today’s Malaysia. Perhaps because it’s not written by a parachuted ang moh but by an Indian Indian. Here’s an excerpt:

I wasn’t surprised to learn that KL’s paternity is now disputed. Historically attested wisdom had the founder as the Chinese Yap Ah Loy, the largest landowner in the mid-19th century. But the nationalist Malays like to think it was the Malay aristocrat Raja Abdullah, and so Yap Ah Loy’s name has been virtually excised from textbooks.

But such sectarianism does a disservice to Kuala Lumpur, which contains the cultures of Asia and the West in startling new juxtapositions.

… whatever the intentions of the Malay nationalists, the shiny new buildings speak less of Malay identity than of a city where people know how to be rich, and learn how to spend money. Visiting the city in the 1930s, the French writer Jean Cocteau complained of “an atmosphere of over-rapid luxury, a glut of gold.” It still exists, nowhere more garishly than in the malls near the Petronas Towers, each vying to be more elegant than the rest, where white-robed Arabs, reluctant to travel to Western countries, stand checking their BlackBerrys while their wives, covered head to toe in black, shop for lingerie.

Freeways lead out of the rotting city core to the suburbs in the hills, where big S.U.V.’s hide behind foliage rich with jasmines and jacaranda. Here live the millionaire businessmen and the diplomats in burglar-alarmed homes with sprinklers swishing away and Filipino maids in the kitchen. Here are the smart cafes and restaurants where you can find practically every major cuisine respectably represented.

At dinner one evening in the elegant suburb of Damansara Heights, the city’s lights ablaze below us, guests argued passionately about Malaysia’s frustratingly racial politics and small-minded politicians, who, they say, keep the country from realizing its full potential.

It was left to me, an outsider, to point out that Malaysia was a country still relatively untouched by the many violent conflicts of class, caste, ethnicity and region that make the rise of India and China less self-evident than it looks. Malaysia is a middle-income country with a small population (28 million). There are no cruel disparities between rich and poor here; KL has none of the utter destitution that blights the downtowns of Indian cities. Though flawed and rowdy, Malaysia’s democracy is preferable to the nanny authoritarian state of neighboring Singapore, and it has lately thrown up some promising young politicians.

…For now, KL’s thinkers and writers forge their own, somewhat lonely paths in a materialist city that is not hospitable to activities other than making — and spending — money. … It’s true that KL won’t become famous overnight for its culture — even if, like Abu Dhabi and Qatar, it frantically buys up a lot of it. For now, this remains a city of modest pleasures, of malls and night markets. Indeed, its most resonant message to the world is to eat well and variously.

» FULL ARTICLE: NYT’s T magazine blog…

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One Comment
  1. Wed 2011-May-18 @ +08 12:55:33 pm 12:55

    Malaysia will never become famous for anything except for corruption and will remain in the third world always !

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