The most striking image of Malaysia struck me on the January 12, 2013 in the MErdeka Stadium, where thousands of Malaysians gathered that day to protest against their oppressive dictatorship. The stadium was a sea of yellow, blue and green flags and T-shirts, chanting spirited slogans against the ‘illiberal and undemocratic coalition government’. The ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had been in power since 1954 and tales of its massive corruption, oppression and grueling censorship were public knowledge now.
I first heard of the phrase, “Malaysia truly Asia” when I was in college. It sounded more like a frisky pick-up line than an advertising slogan. I tried to find an internship in Jakarta, last winter, but it never materialised. I ended up going to Malaysia instead to intern in a Kuala Lumpur based e-zine called Malaysiakini — one of the first online papers in the world. Since the magazine is not printed, it does not depend on the government for ads, finances and is not very worried about censorship because it is subscription-based, immensely popular, especially among the opposition supporters, who are not given a platform elsewhere.
Malaysia is a few hours south of Hong Kong. When I first stepped out of the airport in Kuala Lumpur, which is a good one hour away from downtown, it was cloudy and about to rain. I later realised that it gets cloudy and rainy every evening for a brief period of time. A lush plain, with small green hills and rubber plants greeted me. It could not have seemed more tropical than this.
When we neared downtown, I could see the Patronas Towers — two enormous cobs of corn. At one time, they were amongst the tallest buildings in the world. At night, they look more like the tail of a comet than skyscrapers. They now housed government offices and were often not available for a public viewing.
Underneath them was a shopping mall, which had almost all the major brands in the world and was therefore too expensive to shop in. But those were Christmas days and the sales lowered the prices significantly.
I didn’t know anyone in the city. The trip was invigorating, after a hectic semester of arduous post-graduate work and a trading job. I had not known earlier that the room my friend had helped me book was in the centre of the city- Jalang Pataling( “jalang” means street). There was a China Town — which was not Chinese at all but rather Malaysian. Inside it was the Pataling Street, closed down for cars in the afternoon because of street-hawkers. These included food stalls, cafes with seats planted outside, fruit-vendors and shops selling Chinese goods of all kinds. One could hear “Gangnam Style” in every corner.
Malaysia from the outside seems to be a fast growing economy, modern, progressive and multi-cultural. In reality it is slow, has a lot of street crime, has suffered bouts of oppressive dictatorships and public unrest. The Malay community, who are natives of the land, have embraced Islam and included the religion in the definition of a “Malay” person in their constitution. And while I was there, there was considerable politics around the word “Allah”, because Muslims wanted to restrict its usage and to bar Malaysian Christians from using it. As is visible, I felt quite at home there.
Kuala Lumpur had a double transit system, one within KL’s central areas, another for the suburbs.
One of the few occasions I took the long distance train was to visit the Batu Caves with a Chinese friend. The caves have been converted to temples by South Asian settlers. On the entrance, just outside the train station, is a gigantic statue of the Lord Hanuman.
The worst part is the tapasya (enduring pain to achieve self-realisation), in which you climb the 3000 steps that lead to the caves. Ok, may be not that many but enough to test your joints and lungs. On the sides of the stairs, there are mammoth twin, golden statues of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of War and victory who deeply revered in South India. I reached the top of the stairs out of breath, turned around to see the view and saw a heavily pregnant woman climb the stairs in one go. My Chinese friends saw the irony and started giggling.
Inside the caves, there were huge natural halls of rocks, with rough, stony roofs and floors. Inside the walls there were caverns and in them were armies of small statues of Hindu gods. There were small holes in the roof and sunbeams casted a dusky hue on these gods. There was a light wind and from a distance, it seemed as if these gods had magically appeared in the caves one fine day. There was another set of stairs and on climbing them one reached an open area, without a roof, with one tree and a small but very active temple.
We sat there for rest but a tribe of monkeys appeared from nowhere. They were well-versed in the temples’ geography, could climb the walls, trees and temple roofs very quickly. Some of the females monkeys had their infants strapped to their backs. Though these monkeys looked innocent, they had a bad reputation for stealing and sometimes injuring their victim to grab his food.
There are two other major communities in Malaysia, the Malays and Chinese. And perhaps this is why a tourist company came up with the rhyme “Malaysia truly Asia”. The South Asian settlers in Malaysia have been there for four to five generations now. They were brought by the British, to build the Malaysian coal industry. These ethnic Indians come from all the states, including Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Karnataka- but the majority is from Tamil Nadu.
They give the city a different taste altogether. There are South Indian temples all over the place, embellished with stone and clay statues that tell complete mythological stories. They also use frescos, paintings and small dolls dressed as gods and goddesses to adorn these temples. The Tamil songs that played in taxis, the sari-clad women in the train, the stone temples that randomly appeared in the corners of the city and the small dosa stalls.
Underneath the Malaysiakini office was a café, that served South Indian delicacies and played Tamil songs. I used to stop there everyday to get Tamarind juice (another unique Malaysian luxury). His staff was always excited to receive me, thinking I am a Russian customer. Close to the office building was a basement that had small stalls of food set up by Malay women. They cooked Thai and Malaysian food on order. Those are possibly the best meals I have ever had, mostly consisting of black pepper chicken or beef with rice.
There was a Little India close to the Malaysiakini office, a street full of South Indian cuisine, dosa, sambar, idlee and the south Indian thali. But their best offering was the “Indian coffee”, which had three layers of color, from dark, darker to darkest in one cup. It was apparently dipped in sugar and served cold. This is the sweetest coffee ever.