September 28, 2013
Sharia and skyscrapers: Malaysia’s artificial wonderland
Impressions from an eight-day visit to a country of massive towers and Russian architecture, where Israel is put on mock trial and Muslims and Chinese coexist.
KUALA LUMPUR − Two hardscrabble Malaysian fishermen, wearing wide-brimmed straw hats, were busy repairing their traps this week. Made out of twigs, their contraptions each consisted of a cage designed to catch fish and other marine creatures, which are supposed to enter it through a narrow sleeve, never to escape again. A warm tropical sun hung overhead, and the low tide exposed a wide stretch of beach. Thousands of tiny crabs scampered across the sand while the fishermen were fixing the primitive cages.
The beach was deserted. Behind it stood the gleaming new buildings of the Malaysian Military Academy for Officers, also deserted. On the horizon, one could see dozens of oil tankers and cargo ships as they passed through the Strait of Malacca, through which commercial vessels sailing between India and China, and East and West in general, have been passing for centuries.
At the bar of the Thistle Hotel in Port Dickson, on one bank of the Strait, just south of Kuala Lumpur, dozens of employees of the Malaysian offices of Hewlett-Packard were enjoying their annual summer party. (In fact, there is neither summer nor winter in this country with its equatorial climate, only one long season.) Tablet computers were being handed out to the outstanding HP employees, as they drank gin-and-tonics and danced to the sounds of Lady Gaga.
An hour away, by way of a fast toll road lined with plantations of green oil-palm trees, the Suria KLCC shopping center, located at the base of the huge, twin Petronas Towers, was teeming with shoppers. There is hardly any international brand name that cannot be found at the center, situated in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. It is but one of many upscale shopping malls in a city of malls. (By comparison, our luxurious Ramat Aviv mall looks like a collection of marketplace stalls.) The IDF Spokesman’s blog recently “relocated” the Suria KLCC center after inadvertently describing photographs of it as pictures taken of a mall in the Gaza Strip. But Gaza is not here. It couldn’t be further away.
Malaysia is in the midst of an economic boom. Fifteen years ago, it decided to build a huge new federal government center, and this has now been achieved. There are few more impressive, megalomaniacal or artificial cities than this one, called Putrajaya. It contains intimdating public buildings, including a royal palace for a king who doesn’t even like coming here. (Malaysia is a federation of 13 kingdoms, the respective hereditary rulers of which choose a supreme king every five years.) There is also a Prime Minister’s residence that could rival any royal one, and a Prime Minister’s office that is supposed to resemble the Kremlin.
Putrajaya’s wide avenues make the Champs Elysees look like a narrow alley. The city boasts exact replicas of the Pont Alexander III bridge in Paris, another of a span in Isfahan, Iran, as well as a gigantic botanical garden in a pavilion designed in a Moroccan style. The bridges here were apparently constructed even before the canals and artificial lakes that flow underneath them were dug. The whole city is temperature-regulated through a central air-conditioning system. The underground railway system has not been put into service since there is not yet a need for it. All of the utility cables are subterranean, so as not to detract from the scenery.
Every detail attests to meticulous care, without one traffic circle or road divider out of place, and with the entire landscape smacking of artificiality and megalomania.
At the top of a hill with a commanding view of the city is the Putrajaya International Conference Center, which was built at a cost of a half-billion ringgits (about NIS 500 million). The central hall seats 5,000 people, while 3,000 can enjoy a sitdown meal in the banquet room. The electronic message board at the auditorium entrance flashes quotes, such as this one from Albert Einstein: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” Or Mahatma Gandhi: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Others quotes are from such diverse personages as Michael Jordan (“Always turn a negative situation into a positive one”), Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte.
A total of 20 billion ringgits have already been sunk into Putrajaya, with an additional 30 billion budgeted for planned, but as-yet un-built, governmental, commercial and residential structures. Twenty-thousand housing units are already occupied, mainly by government workers who have relocated here. When Kazakhstan embarked on a similar venture in its capital city of Almaty, the Kazakhs visited Putrajaya to learn how to do it.
Malaysia is experiencing an economic miracle. The country, with its so-called tiger economy − which benefits mainly from a vibrant oil and gas industry, from exports such as palm oil and rubber − is prospering. Even after a recent slowdown, annual growth stands at 5.5 percent, with privatization proceeding at full steam. Some 25 percent of the government budget is devoted to education.
This is a land of contradictions. Malaysia is a Muslim country where sharia law is the rule, although it is not always enforced. However, that law applies only to the Muslim majority, comprising 60 percent of the population, whereas, for example, Malaysia’s large Chinese minority (25 percent) is allowed to sell and consume pork and alcohol without hindrance. The country is seemingly democratic, although the same ruling party has been in power for a very long time. The governing coalition is determined before, rather than after, elections. There are 3 million foreign workers from poorer Asian countries, who carry the brunt of labor on their shoulders, constructing first-world-quality infrastructure. Poverty seems to be evident only in rural areas, and is not apparent in Kuala Lumpur.
This impressive economic feat can be ascribed to Tun (an honorific title) Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, the local version of David Ben-Gurion, who served as prime minister for 22 consecutive years until 2003, when he was forced out of office. I met Mahathir at a conference this week called “Global Peace Efforts: What Went Wrong?”, sponsored by the Perdana Global Peace Foundation, which he helped found. At 88, this spry, impressive man and his wife are accorded royal treatment. He sat through a whole day of sessions, listening to lectures by scholars from abroad and taking notes.
The former Premier can hardly be called a fan of Israel, but his speech at the conference on various conflicts around the globe was reserved, with the opinions he expressed about Israel not much harsher than what one hears these days in Europe. Shortly before he stepped down as Prime Minister in 2003, Mahathir raised an international storm when he claimed that Jews dominate the world.
The conference organizer, Dr. Samsudin Hitam, counts in shekels. When he organized for a boat to carry sewage pipes to Gaza two years ago, he discovered that the ringgit and shekel are of approximately equal value. During my eight-day visit to Malaysia, a country closed to Israelis (I received a special pass), he made all references in shekels during our conversations.
Samsudin is former Secretary-General of both Malaysia’s Finance Ministry and its Ministry for Economic Development. Now retired, he is am activist on behalf of Perdana. He organizes peace conferences and humanitarian-aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip, which he visited last December.
A round, energetic and friendly man, Samsudin is definitely not a hater of Israel. The conference he organized was marked more by an anti-American stance, although Israel, too, did not escape criticism.
A few days before the gathering began there was supposed to be a public “tribunal” at the same venue, where Israel was to be tried for genocide. Well-known jurists from around the world were to be part of the event, but it was cancelled immediately after it opened, after the prosecution panel, consisting of two law professors, Gurdial Singh, from Malaysia, and Francis Boyle, from the United States, attempted to disqualify one of the judges, Prof. Eric David, from Belgium, claiming he was a Mossad agent. This farce went on for two days, until the public trial was cancelled. The team that was presenting Israel’s case consisted of an Australian professor donning a white wig, like a British jurist, as well as an Iranian legal expert, no less. No Israeli jurist agreed to come, according to the organizers.
Awakening Malaysia raises mixed emotions. There is something artificial in its accelerated pace of development, and it’s not easy to get the measure of the country’s character in a single visit. The relations between the Muslim majority and the large Chinese minority are muted. The last bloody inter-communal riots occurred in 1969. Meanwhile, the Chinese-Malaysian community dominates the economy, yet claims to be discriminated against on an ethnic basis. The Muslims claim that all the Chinese care about is money.
In a marketplace in Bukit Tinggi, a “new Chinese village” (the term used for internment camps for Chinese Malays during the war waged in the 1960s against the communists, in the thick jungles of the mountains surrounding Kuala Lumpur), vegetable sellers market their cheap wares while calculating their profits on tablet computers. Not far from this mountainous village is a resort called Colmar Tropicale, another fanciful tourist project − an exact replica of the French vacation town of Colmar, complete with turrets and the voice of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” coming over the sound system.
Almost 20 million tourists visit Malaysia each year, comprising mainly Arabs and Asians, but also a fair number of Europeans. The goal is to welcome one tourist per citizen: 29 million a year. Tourists come for the beaches and malls, where prices are low. Salaries are also low.
In fact, former police chief Tan Sri Norian Mai told me, over a wonderful Malaysian meal, that a policeman’s starting salary is NIS 1,000 a month. Those towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world, serve as Kuala Lumpur’s commercial “logo.” In order to be the tallest, a turret of several meters was added to the top.
Minarets are rarely seen in the city; indeed, a Malaysian mosque often looks like a pagoda. But the muezzin’s call can be heard in several of the city’s neighborhoods.
Kuala Lumpur is now decked in flags in advance of the upcoming celebration of Independence Day, which falls tomorrow, August 31. Even the flag is a replica of something else. Like the American flag, it depicts 13 red and white stripes, symbolizing the 13 states that make up Malaysia, to which are added the Muslim crescent and a star. The country’s international advertising slogan, “Malaysia, Truly Asia,” is appropriate.
During one of my evenings here, at a beach that is one of the country’s most beautiful, as I watched the children of Saudi, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Qatari and Indonesian tourists playing in the pool, I witnessed a new world, one so unfamiliar to Israelis.