The Insular and the Peninsular: Journey to Malaysia

Features Issue 18 Aug, 2010

They say traveling broadens the mind. So I set out to Malaysia to see, experience, and hopefully learn from a new country I had not visited before­thereby broadening the horizons of my mind (so limited by the high mountains surrounding Kathmandu valley!). Why Malaysia? Firstly because the tourism board there had invited a group of Nepalese, including myself, to visit their country- and secondly, because it occurred to me that this was a country with many similarities to Nepal.

What similarities? Both nations are constitutional monarchies and democratic states. Malaysia was formed in 1957 and began its path towards development at about the same time as Nepal opened up to the outside world- in the 1950s. The two countries have a population and demographic distribution that are strikingly similar, and had a mostly agrarian economy half a century ago, with nearly half their people living below the poverty line. In terms of administration, there are 14 zones in Nepal and 13 states in Malaysia (along with 2 federal territories), and both count on tourism as one of their main industries.

When I stepped out of the plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it became immediately obvious that this is a different world indeed. Here it’s all movement and flow ensconced within gleaming chrome and glass. Observing their efficiency and infrastructure, I wondered when, if ever, Nepal would have such infrastructure in our quiet little international airport. Already our similarities were becoming superficial, our differences apparent. It is said that to truly appreciate where you are, you have to remember where you came from. So I decided to settle into the role of the observer from Nepal.

The tour bus whisked us away from the airport and out onto the highway towards our next destination, Malacca, a name that conjured images of spices, sailboats and tropical torridity. Drowsily, we sped south on the highway in the early light, which revealed low rolling hills to the east, with neatly planted rows of palm trees stretching to the horizon - where there was the promise of a sea.

The highway we were on runs from Singapore in the south to Thailand in the north, and winds its way through a countryside that changes intermittently from tropical forest to neatly ordered rows of palm trees, that give way now and then to towns and cities. I think of our own east-west highway in Nepal and how different things are along this road. In Malaysia, the main highway represents a vein of commerce and development that connects pockets of teeming activity. On Nepal’s counterpart, it is not unusual to see bullock carts next to buses and trucks, as well as the odd stretch where grain is being dried on the tarmac. A different air pervades our highway; it may not be a throbbing vein of progress, but it’s got a rustic charm of its own.

Pointing out the neat towns and the occasional factories on the way, our guide tells us that here the government actively spreads industry and investment all over the country so that affluence and development is not concentrated in a few areas. We see this happening along the highway and it seemed to me a policy that would do well in Nepal if it could be adapted to circumstances here.

Through the window of our coach, I see Malaysia as a nation racing towards the next century on this highway, representative of an economy where major investment has been made in infrastructure. With over 47% of its people living below the poverty line half a century ago, Malaysia today is a forward moving economy with less than 7% below the poverty line, over 90% literacy and with a stable government represented by a prime minister who has held office for over 20 years. I think of the parallel figures back home and of how far we may need to travel on a road we have barely even begun to build. It’s a long way to go for us, but looking outside the window of this Malaysian bus, I see what can be possible. But then I wonder, do we have to come this way at all? Is there another way we can take that does not require so much concrete and steel? Perhaps.

The countryside gives way to construction, the construction gives way to homes, the homes turn into streets lined with shops, and we are in Malacca. On the way, I noticed that no town begins abruptly. It’s always preceded by new construction or some sort of infrastructural work in progress - which eventually gives way to a town or city (which in turn inevitably seemed to contain a shopping center!).

Driving through the empty midday streets of Malacca, with its mixed architecture reflecting its rich history, Malacca’s charming sunny air did not disappoint. The city is said to have been founded in 1600 by Sumatran prince Parameswara; the city’s name is believed to have been given for a species of tree he rested under. Subsequently a Portuguese, Dutch and British colony, in that order, Malacca today contains a rich mixture of all these heritages, and is also known as the most historical city of Malaysia. In one part of old Malacca, we walk in the afternoon heat through Harmony Street, where in the space of 200 yards we come across the oldest Chinese temple outside of China, an ancient mosque, and a church built in 1753. The architecture contains different European styles that coexist as peacefully here with local styles as the different religions do in Malaysia. This is a country that prides itself on its religious harmony. Through canny administrative policies and farsighted governance, it has managed to retain racial and religious harmony more successfully than most nations of such ethnic and religious diversity. It’s a daunting task in a nation of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, with a few local indigenous religions thrown in. Malaysia is a model in a time when religion seems to be such a cause for disharmony. Nepal fortunately also does rather well in this area!

Heading north from Malacca, on that impeccable highway, we draw into Kuala Lumpur, where the city’s skyline is proudly marked by the twin towers of Petrona ­ the tallest building in the world. Built by the state-run petroleum giant of the same name, the towers are symbolic of Malaysia and its economic pride. They have built the tallest building in the world while we were born with the tallest mountain around. One country building itself up on human endeavors, erecting monuments out of concrete and steel, and another pretty much the way it has been for centuries, living at a slow pace with its natural inheritance.

In Kuala Lumpur, affectionately called KL by those that know it, the city streets are full of people dining, shopping, commuting and generally living the lives they have made for themselves. It’s a young city full of young people and youth culture is evident every place you go. The shops are stocked with goods out of a glossy magazine advertisement. Affluence pervades every aspect of the cityscape, from the expensive cars to the clothes people wear. Not to say that everyone in KL is well off, but overall, it is a vibrant progressive city that has made itself very tourist friendly. We were warned about pickpockets, and so were on our guard, but did not come to an unhappy encounter with them. Crime is relatively low in Malaysia, including KL, as the nation offers its people many options for economic upliftment. There are also stiff penalties to discourage those that stray!

The city is clean and green, with many public areas that are well managed. Commenting on KL’s cleanliness, our guide jokes that the near daily downpours in the late afternoon here are the secret to the city¹s washed looks! The thought of this possibility and the impending monsoons back home cheers me a bit. On our last evening there, I sit in a café by the teeming commercial street of Jalan Bukit Bintang and watch an evening rush hour traffic jam pile up- I could be back in Kathmandu.

We move to the North after our days of taking in the city’s delights, including its wonderful variety of food, and the familiar highway takes us north, this time for about two hours. We then turn onto a smaller road that takes us into the countryside, and Malaysia reveals its rural face to us. We are in farmland and reclaimed tin mining areas, heading for the coast in the state of Perak, to a town named Lumut, and finally to a resort off the island of Pangkor, a tropical island getaway.