Malaysia Notes


I knew that Malaysia had the tallest building in the world, and that they were trying hard to modernize, but before I went, I had the impression that it would be very much a two-tier society. I imagined that there would be exactly one shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur (the capital). I imagined that the rich people would shop there and the poor people would come from miles around to ride the escalators. (Note: my mom saw exactly that in Namibia fifteen years ago, so this idea didn't come completely from thin air.)

Boy, was I wrong. The US has nothing on KL in terms of convenience, comfort, or cleanliness. KL was *cleaner* than any US big city that I've been to for a while (although that may be due to the upcoming Commonwealth Games, which was A Very Big Deal to the Malaysian government). There were lots of shopping malls that felt very much like US shopping malls, including the same shops.

For a little while, I was thinking, "Wow, they sure have a lot of US shops", but after a while, I realized I had no way of knowing where the companies are located. I'm pretty sure that Mrs. Fields, MacDonald's, and Pizza Hut are US companies, but I didn't know about e.g. Tie Rack. Maybe Tie Rack or the other shops are Malaysian companies that have lots of branches in the US? Salvatore Ferragamo (which seemed to be everywhere) is probably an Italian shop with outlets in Malaysia and the US. And what about the shoes? Nike may be headquartered in Oregon, but it certainly makes lots of shoes in Asia.

I was really struck by how interlinked the global economy is now.

Internet Access

We found an Internet cafe in Malaysia (right across from the S&M Market, which is NOT what you are thinking of) that had an absolutely amazing setup. Nice, fast computers with big, crisp monitors, and a connection so fast it felt no different from dialing in from home in Palo Alto. Ok, I may be fudging a bit. It felt faster than from home.


Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, and that was reflected in the architecture. Pointy arches and domes were everywhere; it was very pretty and just a little exotic.

In the first hotel we stayed at, there was an arrow painted on the ceiling that baffled us. It turned out to point towards Mecca. At the other hotels we stayed in, the arrow was always at the bottom of one of the drawers (the same drawer that held a Bible, in fact).


The amount of English everywhere was really odd. We'd go into department stores and see signs that said, "BIG SALE" - in English! "50% off", "Hanes pantyhose 16 [ringgit]", and "Bargain" were normal. All of the signs in at least one department store were in English. This one department store had a bookstore in it. About 75% of the books were in English, and 100% of the greeting cards were.

We also got stunned looks from people when we spoke our (limited) Malay. While in Bali, the locals gave us looks of, "Awwww, how cuuuute! The bignoses are trying to speak Bahasa Indonesia!", in Malaysia, they gave us looks that said, "Huh? I didn't know that elephants could dance!" It wasn't so much that the elephant danced well, but that the elephant danced at all.

We asked people about this, but it was like the teflon question. People would answer every question BUT the one we were interested in. When we asked "Why is there so much English, for example at this bookstore in some department store whose name we forget?" we were told

It's not like people didn't understand English, either. We had no problem asking people where to catch a taxi, what they thought of the Commonwealth Games, etc. We finally pieced together:


Background: There was a fellow named Anwar who had been groomed to replace the big boss, Dr. Mahathir. Mahathir had recently imposed some very strict currency controls that Anwar (the finance minister) disagreed with rather openly and publicly. Very shortly after that, Dr. Mahathir, discovered that Anwar was a sexual deviant - having sex with men (highly illegal) and with many women of different races!

(Personally, I think Anwar must be one really sharp cookie to be able to hide his scandalous nature from the brilliant Dr. Mahathir, what with them working together so closely for so many years. It's a pity that these allegations had to rise just exactly when Malaysia was having difficulties that called for party unity.)

The newspaper reporting of these affairs there was very different from how US newspapers would handle it. US newspapers would be getting names, dates, digging up dirt on these women of different races. Photos! Blue dresses! Dirt! Dirt! Dirt!

The Malaysian newspapers were above reporting that kind of fetid, unsavory factfinding. Instead, there were pages and pages of articles with headlines like "Women's Party Supports Dr. Mahathir" and "Youth Party Ousts Anwar", in which some faction of some group would affirm loyalty to Dr. Mahathir and denounce the promiscuous Anwar.

In the US, we get some analysis of the strength of relationships - "Republicans Blast Clinton" or "Clinton Still Riding High in Opinion Polls", but not pages and pages of it. The focus in the US was truly on facts.

In some sense, the facts don't matter in Malaysia. Malaysia is a relationship-based society, so even if Anwar is innocent, what is important is how the political landscape is being drawn. Dr. Mahathir doesn't like Anwar any more, and whether or not Anwar is unlikeable is sort of irrelevant.