People and Places

Report from KL

Posted on April 21, 2012

Usually on a trip like this there are some breaks to explore the local scene, to slip away to a museum, walk the street markets (really one of the great charms of Asian cities), or eat something exotic.   In the case of Kuala Lumpur, this time I went from the airport to the hotel and have not yet set a foot outside.  My time here has been entirely booked and all of it in the hotel where I had an initial work dinner on Friday night, the conference all day yesterday, HELP University’s gala last night, and the graduation ceremony today.  What a strange way to sample a place.

I have been to KL before and have gotten to know it a bit, so despite being hotel bound on this visit, I took solace in meeting an extraordinary Malay at the dinner last night.  Seated next to me was Tan Sri Lin.  Tan Sri is the Malay equivalent of “Sir” and is an honor bestowed by one of Malaysia’s 13 sultans (the country was originally 13 kingdoms).  Tan Sri Lin is 95-years old and still lives on his own and drives.  Claims he has never had an accident, though I wondered afterwards if maybe he hasn’t caused scores of them driving ten miles an hour with his right blinker on (they drive on the other side of the road here, so it’d be his right blinker).  Anyway, the retired head of the equivalent of the Malaysian IRS, he has lived through the British colonial period, WW II and the Japanese occupation, the British retaking of the country, independence in 1957, the race riots of the late 1960s, the expelling of Singapore in 1965, and the birth of this modern economy.  Amazing.  And as a history buff I felt like I was having one of those old Walter Cronkite “You Are There” moments (now that reference is really aging oneself).

The Portuguese first took over the place in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641, and the English sort of elbowed their way in around 1819.  In other words, the kingdoms, their natural wealth, and the strategically located port cities have been a pawn of colonial powers for centuries and it was only when the Second World War put a final nail in the notion of European empires did the place have a chance to re-invent itself.  Like so many nations arbitrarily created by outsiders, the new country has had its challenges, especially with a sometimes volatile mix of ethnic and religious tensions that have greatly eased in a kind of uneasy order.  The Muslim Malay population is the majority and dominate government, ethnic Chinese play a large role in the economic power base, and ethnic Indians (originally brought in by the Brits to build railroads and roads and bridges) make up much of the merchant and professional class. 

Tan Sri Lin saw a good chunk of this history.  He told me about growing up in the land of plantations.  The Japanese invasion, the looting, the near starvation.  He described the Japanese marching men through the town and collaborators pointing out suspected Communists who were then pulled out of line and summarily executed.  I wish I had a tape recorder and urged him to write down his stories.

Malaysian politics are not for the faint of heart, with essentially only one ruling party and all sorts of fierce divisions within that include jailing one’s opponents (including accusing one national leader of sodomy — makes the Republican debates look downright tepid) — and a fair bit of corruption.  Malaysia ranks a pretty poor #66 in Transparency International’s list and people complain openly about wasted billions, kickback schemes, and insider dealing.  That said, the country is one of the Asian “tigers” economically with a reasonably strong growth rate, modern electronic manufacturing, and still has agricultural exports like rubber and palm oil.  I got quite a response when I asked about the health issues around palm oil.  “A plot by the American soybean industry,” was the united and immediately indignant response at the table.  Whew….note to self: don’t question the health dimensions of palm oil. 

I also sat with the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, a lovely guy who had the best line of the night: That Santorum guy? He was really way out there, wasn’t he?” I was going to tell him about Gingrich and Cain and about Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car (have you seen the Dogs Against Romney web site?), but then Malaysian politics started to sound really good to me and I decided not to disillusion him.

In all events, it is a fascinating place and worth more exploration some day.  It has the oldest rain forest in the world, the largest caves (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the amazing jungles of Borneo, and stunning beaches.  It also has the added the benefit of being so unbelievably humid that you can simply hang your suits outside for five minutes and all the wrinkles will come out.  Just try that in NH in January!  For another time maybe.

This journey will be confined to work.  For anyone without a social life or cable, my presentation is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8X764S2_Dg&feature=youtu.be

I fly home to NH tomorrow.  It takes three flights, one of them being the single longest nonstop that can be flown anywhere: the 19 hour trip from Singapore to Newark.  I am fortifying myself for the arduous journey with a big helping palm oil at dinner tonight.  No really, my Malaysian friends, I am.

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