I was studying in Singapore when I decided to pay a trip to Malaysia. Actually I had only been there for orientation week in Singapore and had participated in almost none of the events. The orientation week was aimed at those who were spending a year in Singapore and I was only due to spend 6 weeks there. I had not bothered to get a student visa so I had to do a border run every couple of weeks.
My Singaporean mate Alexander advised me not to go by train to Malaysia but I decided to do so anyway. I like trains. One can get up and walk around, they tend to be quiet, they have lavatories, they have more leg room.
One Monday I got myself to the Singapore railway station in mid morning. It was yet another very bright day. The railway station was small and unimpressive. This was extraordinary for a nation of 4 000 000 people. That is the population of the Republic of Ireland.
I had my ticket and passport checked and walked along the concrete platform to where the train was. I saw a sign saying, ”Warning: death for drug trafficking in Malaysia.” That made me gulp. I had no drugs on me but I always fear having them planted on me.
The train was limpid and well air-conditioned. I got myself a seat and was pleased to see that it was largely empty. I dozed to catch up on some Zsss. It was outrageous to have to get up at 9am. A wild haired mustachioed Arab chap in Western clothing came along with his wife and gaggle of children. He asked me about the Malaysian immigration procedure and had to tell him that I was unable to help him.
Soon we were underway. The train slid silently and I slept with difficulty as it was a little too chilly aboard. I did not see the bridge from Singapore to Malaysia which is a pity. I glimpsed occasionally as we rushed through the jungles of Malaysia.
After four uneventful hours the train stopped at Sentral Station in Kuala Lumpur. Bahasa Malaysia is a pleasingly logical language. Since the 1940s it abandoned the Arabic script and has been written in the Latin alphabet ever since. Why mess about with a ‘c’ for central? When one sees ‘c’ one does not know whether it sounds like a ‘k’ or an ‘s’. So Bahasa Malaysia avoids any possibility of confusion by using an ‘s’.
At the barrier I met my mate Stephen as I shall call him. Stephen was a Chinese Malaysian who spoke impeccable English. I knew him from university. Stephen was a slightly built, tidy chap with small glasses. He was involved in right-wing politics at university. We chatted eagerly as we made our way to his blue jeep.
He drove us through light afternoon traffic. He told me that Kuala Lumpur means ”muddy delta’. Guess which word means muddy out of those two? Everybody gets it right – it is Lumpur. It is almost onomatopoeic. We passed the beige brick court building with a clock tower. We saw on our left an immaculately kept cricket crease with a dignified pavilion. Above it fluttered what must be the largest Malaysian flag of all. There are thirteen stripes on it – alternately white and red. They stand for the thirteen states of Malaysia. It is blatantly modeled on Old Glory.
We passed a hedge as the bank of earth sloped up away from the road to our right. I notice the topiary was cut to say 2020. I asked Stephen why this was. He told me it was because Malaysia intended to be declared a developed country by that time. Declared a developed country by whom I asked. By the United Nations he told me. There was well over 20 years to go at that stage but it seemed to me that they would make it handily.
It was not long before we arrived at his handsome house on a hillside not far from the city centre.
We walked in through the garden gate. The house was a very light beige and stood on three storeys. All the houses in this affluent suburb we about the same.
I met Stephen’s mother and his two oldish aunties. The house was spacious and boasted marble floors. Its furniture was tasteful but not new. There was a slight Chinese flavour to it. In one alcove there were the lares ac penates, as it were. These were framed black and white portrait photos of his ancestors and ancestresses dating back over a century. Some were in traditional Chinese dress. These stolid figures peered solemnly out. Stephen’s family followed no particular religion but ancestor worship. I sat down and was fed a snack. We relaxed and conversed fluently. He told me he also had a sister who was then visiting their uncle in the United States.
Stephen’s dad was at the office. I shall call the dad Geoffrey. Geoffrey had studied at Singapore University and been called to the bar of Malaysia. He practised there for some years before joining a company. That company was owned by none other that Mahathir Mohammad. Mahathir Mohammad was the Prime Minister of Malaysia known as Dr M. Dr M ruled the country for over 20 years. Dr M had just had a falling out with his Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar Ibrahim was found guilty of a most repulsive crime – anal sex with another man. Ibrahim was sent to prison for several years. Ibrahim vigorously protested his innocence and his wife campaigned for him. Many people believed that Ibrahim was innocent and that bogus charges were laid against him just because he had incurred the displeasure of Dr M. Stephen was certainly of the opinion that Anwar Ibrahim was innocent but Stephen shrugged it off. That is life. If you get on the wrong side of the government in Malaysia then you have to expect to suffer.
That evening Stephen and I got into his jeep and drove to the airport. Our mate Raymond was flying back from Australia. Raymond was going to spend a few days in Malaysia before returning to the United Kingdom. We did not have to wait long in Kuala Lumpur’s shining airport for the ever smiling Raymond to stroll out pushing his trolley. Ray is well-named, he IS a ray of sunshine. Soon we were in the car rolling home and Ray told us exuberantly about his few weeks Down Under. Raymond had landed in Sydney and done the usual thing of traveling all up the east coast. He raved about Australia. He was a real sportsman and so he was enthused by the Australian love of sport. He liked the laidback lifestyle and remarked that even bankers went home at 5pm. He had been camping in Australia. He had stayed in a youth hostel – in a mixed sex dorm. A couple in one bunk starting having sex. Instead of everyone pretending not to notice – as Britons would – everybody laughed themselves silly. The best thing about it is that the amorous pair did not stop! Quite right too what would have been the point. Unfortunately it did not turn into an orgy.
Ray also told me about camping in the Northern Territory. I should say they bivouacked. As he observed the recorded average rainfall for the Northern Territory in July is nought point nought – as in not a drop has ever fallen. They were ok to sleep out under the stars. They slept beside a crocodile infested river. However, crocs only attack in the summer. Remember, in the Southern Hemisphere July is the winter! Raymond was still not convinced. Without telling anyone his thinking he slept right in the middle of the group. If a hungry croc decided to drag someone off to munch then the reptile would surely pick someone from the edge.
Back at the house we got into our trunks and dived into the small swimming pool in the garden. I was able to hold my breath and swim two lengths under water. From the garden we had splendid view over the city – towards the skyscrapers and to the Petronas Twin Towers. At that time the Petronas Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world.
Geoffrey came home and I met him at last. He was a shortish, slim man. His thick hair was greying at the edges. He was an excellent talker.
The Ching family treated us with great liberality. We were taken out to dinner almost every night and they would not hear of us paying. They were very prosperous. Stephen had won a Maths scholarship to a minor public school in Britain. Even so there must have been considerable cost in attending it. These scholarships are often as little as 10% of the fees.
I was staying in the bedroom at the top of the house. It belonged to Stephen’s bachelor uncle but the uncle was in the US most of the time.
There was a small computer room. I used to late at night. When I was staying on as everyone went to bed Stephen said to me not to use it to download porn because the Malaysian authorities had a tracker to find that sort of thing. As Muslim country Malaysia did not think that porn was a private matter. How did Stephen read my mind. To my shame I abused his hospitality anyway. I was something of an addict at the time. Luckily I never got caught. If I had been it would have been too embarrassing to contemplate. What would have been worse is if they had been blamed for it! Such is the horn.
We walked around the central area of Kuala Lumpur. They call the city KL for short. One could see the city making the rapid transition from a down at heel South East Asian country to rich country. Some streets were full of dank, cracked buildings and potholed road surfaces. These would be cheek by jowl with soaring and shining office blocks. We wandered the markets and I bough some fake Ralph Lauren polo shirts – I am wearing one now as I write. It ought to get the long service medal for having lasted so long. I bought green, pink and yellow. In a shopping centre Charlie bought some £50 shirts. Lucky for him he went into a lucrative profession – the bar.
One time we got Geoffrey’s driver to take us to some caves. The driver was a smiling Indian named Ravi. Ravi’s dark complexion and overall look gave him away as a Tamil. We got to the car park for the caves just outside the city easily enough. The thing is the caves were in a mountain. One had to climb up at least a hundred steps at a very severe gradient. Not being a sportsman I was soon out of puff. Charlie was a physical fitness freak and he made short work of the steps. There was an Arab chap there – sensibly got up in shorts and a T-shirt because the temperature was roasting. His wife was clad head to toe in a black abayah. It was so long that she was almost tripping over the hem of her dress. If she had fallen over she would have tumbled to her death down the steps. Her husband was such an arsehole for making her wear that while he wore light clothes – I could have hit him. But oh yeah – Islam believes in equality for women. Yeah right! She should stifle while he should not. She should be in danger of death but he should not.
We got to the top of the steps and looked out. There was a terrific vista towards the distant city.
The cave was not large but its ceiling was very high. It was slightly open to the sky. There was a Hindu shrine there. I wondered whether the shrine dated from before the ISLAMic period or maybe Hindus from India set it up when the immigrated into Malaysia in the 19th century.
THE PETRONAS TWIN TOWERS.
These towers were about the only must-see in the city. We went there with Stephen and his mum Agrippina. We posed for a photo outside one hot day. I had no decent clothes – I wore some black cotton trousers, the only pair of long trousers I had with me. I wore a yellow and purple stripey shirt, the only long sleeved shirt I had. I wore trainers – had no good shoes.
The towers soared above us into the hazey sky. The dwarfed everything for miles around. There was nothing remotely like them. We went inside these shining shrines to capitalism. The lift brought us up a score of floors without anyone’s stomach flipping.
We went into a smart and serene Chinese restaurant with a tiny waterfall babbling in the corner. The gracious waiter ushered us to our table. We sat down and perused the menu. The decor was grey but somehow not drab. A table of Japanese business was close by. We had not had time to choose anything when a waiter came along. The Japanese had complained at our indecorous clothes – we were shown the door!
We youths dined out one evening at a shabby streetside restaurant. We watched a low quality film called Crocodilus and laughed at how inept it was. WE DIScussed the film Pearl Harbou. I discovered that Port Klang had also been bombed at the same time. I wondered aloud it is got its name from the clanging sound of metal things crushing down when bombs burst.
Ray and I were intp pornifying the names of normal films – taking them and making them sound porno. We did this with a few.
We went to a packed nightclub. There were some hot dancers on stage. I met Stephen’s fit friend who studied at Harvard. I wrote a text and showed it to her but hit one button I did not wish to. ”Kissy” it read. She did not go for it.
MR EVERS AND A PARTY,.
A teacher from Stephen’s former school in the UK came out. I shall call him Mr Evers. Mr Evers was a tall British with a silly moustache and an overly gregarious manner. His wife was also tall but was a bland, silent type. They had a daughter – not with them – who had been to university with us but none of us knew her. I was thinking of becoming a teacher and considered asking Mr Evers about it. Foolishly I never summoned up the courage to do so. I applied to his school later and did not get an interview. I tried this stinky fruit called Laichee there. I thought it was not bad and said so. ”Not bad?”’ said Mr Evers as he filmed with his video camera. He laughed boisterously. I found him a bit much. I cannot call him dull – unlike his wife.
One evening we went to a dinner party at the house of one of Stephen’s family friends. This man was Mr Yeoh who was hosting us. Everybody there was Chinese except Ray and I and of course Mr and Mrs Evers. There were easily 100 people there. It was in some ways an informal affair – we were all casually dressed. We dined in a marquee. Mr Yeoh’s teenage daughter wore tight jeans and an even tighter red spaghetti string top. I have never been very attracted to Chinese girls but I was attracted to this one. Over a loudspeaker system she gave a formal welcome to Mr Evers ”and his beautiful wife”. I thought this remarking on her pulchritude was demeaning.
Then came time for karaoke. Stephen said that Chinese people get drunk easily and like to sing. Someone with a book of songs came around to each table asking people to sing. Ray and I joked about singing a song about the Russian submarine tragedy to the tune of Yellow Submarine by the Beatles.
In the town where I was born/ There lived a man with a PhD/ And he told us of his life/ Designing faulty submarines. / We all died in a Russian submarine.
We sailed up to the north/ To the stormy Barents sea/ We sank beneath the waves/ In our Russian submarine./ We all died in a Russian submarine.
Radiation makes us hot/ hypothermia makes us not/ Turning red and flashing green/ In our Russian submarine.
Ray and I were chortling uncontrollably about doing a duet to these lyrics. Stephen firmly told us not to. The man with the book listing the karaoke tunes came around. We leafed through it and there we found it ”Yellow Submarine by the Beatles”. However, despite pressing invitations to regale everyone with our tuneful voice we resisted the temptation.
A Chinese chick asked me what I was doing in South-East Asia. I told her I was on exchange at the National University of Singapore and that I had spent a week there before coming to KL. ”It was that bad – you left NUS after a week?” she asked earnestly. I had to tell her no it was not bad I was just skiving.
We slipped away from the party a little early and went to the theatre. There we saw a show performed by two hefty Indian men in drag. It was about Malaysians moving to Australia. Much of it was a monologue. One Indian ‘woman’ was on the phone to her sister who had moved to Oz. The Indian who had remained in Malaysia asked after her nephews and nieces in Australia. What was her nephew doing – he was at some place, was it the statistics departments? Tower Records – oh it was a music shop. He was on the board? No – he was on his skateboard. He rode his skateboard outside Tower Records. He was unemployed. Oh well so long as they are happy. Why did you move to Australia again? Yes it was for the education wasn’t it. The son of the sister who remained in Malaysia was a brain surgeon. The audience laughed loudly a every revelation. What did it show? It showed the Malaysians had a slight inferiority complex towards their rich neighbour Australia but they were overcoming this. They were beginning to see that they could be just as good as the Australians – they could be better. There was no need to emigrate to a Western country for a better education or career.
Another gag was about the Indian ‘woman’ going up to a Chinese house and the old Chinawoman berating her in Chinese.
I went to parties in different people’s gardens most evenings. At one table I sat with a dozen young Chinese Malaysians. There were almost never Indian Malaysians or Malay Malaysians at these soirees. At that table every single one of them had been to school in the United Kingdom. This was the cream of Chinese Malaysian society. They Chinese in Malaysia embraced education under British rule. The Malays and Indians held back a little because they thought their own civilisations offered better and they also feared that British education would try to impose Christianity on them. The Malays held back more so than the Indians. China was in a state of seemingly terminal decline and constant civil war through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Many Chinamen concluded that they had a lot to learn from the Britishers.
The Chinese tended to prosper in business and thrive in the professions. After the Second World War there were stirrings for independence. India, Pakistan and Ceylon had gone independent. Indonesia had become independent. There was a communist rebellion in the jungles of Malaysia. The communist party in Malaysia was very Chinese dominated. It was mainly a revolt of Chinese labourers on plantations in the hills. Chinese people in Malaysia were also inspired by the communist takeover in China.
The British military ably assisted by the armed forces of New Zealand and Australia fought against the communists. The Malays were anti-communist almost to a man. The Indian community were more ambivalent as were the Chinese. It was only a minority of the Chinese who ever supported the communists. The British colonial authorities were looking to grant independence to Malaya as it was then called. Should Malaya include Singapore or not? At the beginning it was decided not. Was Malaya only to be the Peninsula or also the north of Borneo? It was decided that Borneo and Malaya would become Malaysia. Some Malays said that the Chinese came with the Britishers so they should leave with the Britishers. The Chinese caused trouble with communist terrorism so kick them out. Other ides were proposed. Maybe Chinese born in Malaysia should be allowed to remain and the rest be deported? The Britishers were good friends with the sultans but also felt a duty towards the Chinese. Too hardline a policy by the Malays would make more Chinese support the communists. The Chinese may figure that if Malaya went independent under the Malay sultans than they the Chinese would suffer so they must not let that happen. Only a communist government would benefit them.
Eventually the communists were crushed and Malaysia became independent. The Malay sultans took it in turns to be Agong (king) of Malaysia. One royal family holds the title Agong for five years. There are seven sultans so it takes 45 years for the whole cycle to be gone through. If an Agong dies part way through his term then his heir completes the remainder of his term.
A deal was worked out for harmony between the three major races. The major political parties representing the races all formed the Barisan Nasional translating as the National Front. The official language would be Malay. The Malays were given quotas to guarantee them plenty of jobs and places in higher education. This was because the Chinese were too smart and too hard-working. That is why many Chinese Malaysians study overseas because they are discriminated against in their own country.
Malaysia had an aristocracy. Some leading Chinese businessmen were given noble titles including one whom I met.
I spoke to Geoffrey about the limited freedom of expression in Malaysia and the anti-Chinese discrimination enshrined in law. He defended it saying there had been race riots in the 1960s and these laws prevented strife. His attitude was typical. The Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia have accepted the privileged position of the Malays and of Islam as the price of peace.
TIME TO GO.
I met some of Stephen’s friends from his school in the UK. They were a mixed bunch of nationalities. Some were Oriental and some German.
We went to see a Chinese film Crouching Tiger hidden dragon. I did not like it. Tha wire fighting is too far-fetched. I have never liked Kung Fu. The plot was too mazey for me.
Finally it came time to say goodbye to Raymond. We took him back to the airport.
Later that day I was dropped off at the busy bus station. I boarded a large silvery bus for Singapore. Alexander was right. The bus cheaper AND faster. The bus growled down the concrete road – almost free of traffic. The jungle was hewn back. We stopped at a service station half way as evening neared. I spoke to a tall, lean Australian who was too old for his grey ponytail. In fact I am against boys with long hair full stop but when one has grey hair it should never be long. He wore a small black cowboy hat – tight black jeans, a dark shirt and a small waistcoat. We chatted and he asked where I was from. When I told him I am Irish. He was surprised and remarked that I had an English accent. He expressed some ignorant and bigoted opinions about how Northern Ireland ought to be forced out of the United Kingdom and to join the Republic of Ireland.
RETURN TO MALAYSIA
I spent another few weeks in Singapore. At one point I needed to do another visa hop. I simply boarded the bus to the nearest Malaysian city . Johor Baru. This means New Jewel. Johor Baru is just across the water from Singapore – a birdge connects it. The bus stopped at a spanking new immigration and emigration terminal. I went through passport control very quickly. It being mid morning almost nobody was there. I noticed a ling with some machines and a sign saying this was for registered frequent users. Those who commuted from one country to the other regularly had special cards to zip through a machine.
I reboarded the bus and it took us over the bridge. I saw people jogging across. It is also possible to cross the mile or so of water by bum boats as they are called. I got to the Johor Baru bus station. This town is nothing to write home about. I simply waited for the next bus and went straight back to Singapore.
When I had spent a total of a month in Singapore I decided that it was time to head. I caught the bus to KL. At the bus station I was met by Geoffrey. This time his daughter was with him. I shall call her Eunice. She was a slim 15 year old. She was confident but not talkative.
I stayed with the family again. I spent a couple of days there. Stephen introduced me to one of his friends. She was a Chinese wild child who had been expelled from school in the UK. Almost alone of the Chinese Malaysians I met there she smoked. Later I asked Stephen whether I should get in touch with her when back in the UK with a view to shagging her. He firmly counselled against it.
I bought the family a picture book as a leaving present. Agrippina bought me some lovely silk material to give to my mum of whom she knew nothing.
I did not find KL to be a lovely city or an intriguing one. Maybe I ought to have visited other cities.
I decided to go to Thailand. They dropped me off at the railway station. I found out the train to Bangkok would take so long. I took a cab to the bus station and got myself a bus to Hat Yai in Thailand as night fell.
On the bus I found myself sitting beside another Irish boy. This chap was named Keith. He was much shorter than myself and as bald as a coot. He came from the same part of Ireland as myself. He was amiable but rather slow. From the schools he had attended I could tell he was a Protestant. His father was a solicitor and because Keith was obviously not over endowed with the grey matter he was a secuerity gaurd in a supermarket. I told him about Papillion which I had been reading in the English translation. He expressed surprise that these French fraudsters were imprisoned in South America. I had to tell him that Guyana was – is – part of France.
They were showing off with the air conditioning – it was much too strong. I had no layers I could put on because my other bags were in the hold of the bus. I therefore had to pull my arms inside my T-shirt to prevent them getting cold and to try and keep my stock warm. It was only semi-effective.
We reached the Thai border and we had to fill out arrival cards. Keith did not have a pen and was very distressed until I lent him mine.
We had to get out at the border crossing point. It was the middle of a very warm night. Dozens of buses and cars were there. A grumpy faced Thai border official in a grey uniform and one of those caps that curves up at the front inspected the passport, fuming. I was travelling on a British passport. I had written Brit for my nationality and he did not like this at all. He harrumphed and added in the ish on the end of the word stem. He stamped my passport violently – I was through.