Wednesday, December 28, 2005


This was written in March 2005. So some obs could be quite dated.

Spend a few days in Kuala Lumpur in a training session. Didn’t get much time to go around. Anyway the little time I had to spare, I generally roamed around mainly through buses and on foot. Jotting down the few things that remains on my mind towards the end of my stay – based on what I saw as well as what I’d read in the newspapers and tourist guide.

The usual disclaimers:
• Some remarks may seem politically incorrect, or even offensive. Plis to excuse. Views expressed are mine alone, and do not represent any other body or group.
• I’ve made many ‘general’ remarks based on extremely small sample observations, sometimes the population size being one. Therefore don’t take anything you read further as ‘the truth’.
• The text is not arranged in any logical order. The narrative would digress from the topic at hand quite frequently and go into some completely different subject. Blame it on parallel processing in the head and serial processing by the hand.
• The content certainly could have been briefer. Attribute the length of the article to the forced transit time in various airports. Would have been longer if the laptop battery hadn’t threatened to run out.
• All incidents and characters mentioned are based on (what is assumed to be) true-life incidents, and any resemblance to fiction maybe due the occasional tendency on my part to ‘slightly’ exaggerate.
• These provisos are actually a postscript. Thought it would be wiser to put in the beginning. A sort of pre-emptory bail.

Malays form around 50% of the population. They are predominantly Muslims. The Malaya ladies generally wear full sleeve blouse, full-length skirts or trousers and headscarves of varying colours. Women seem to form a very good proportion of the workforce. Good – as in relative to India. The men don’t appear to have any distinguishing dress and are generally seen in shirts and trousers. The traditional dress for both sexes seems to be a multi coloured lungi and similar patterned top.

Chinese form about 30% of the junta. They are mainly Buddhists, and a good number are Christians as well. They are generally the trading community and are the more prosperous of the various groups here. However the government seems to have been taking some affirmative action to promote the Malayas and this has not gone down too well with the others. The women generally dress in the Western style.

Indians form around 12%, mainly Tamilians. Look very similar to South Indians. Tamil is widely spoken here and is taught in all the Indian schools. Most of the people migrated here when both countries were under the British rule. Mainly brought here by the colonials to work on the rubber plantations, as local labour was in short supply. During my school years, I had very little exposure to the Tamil language. The few people I came across speaking it, in films or in real life, generally seemed to be abusing the listener. Until Mani Ratnam films came along, I had thought that the only way to speak the language was to have a frown on your face and shout out everything. The Malaysian brand of Tamil too seems soft spoken and well pronounced.

There is also a small indigenous population referred to as ‘Orang Asli’. Meaning the original people (or man). The term Orangataun (of the primates family) comes from Malaya meaning Old Man. The Orang Asli live primarily in the high lands and the forests, though there are some who have come into the mainstream. The Malayas are believed to have migrated from China. The difference between Malayas and the Chinese here is the period of Migration, with the Chinese being the more recent migrants. They are also visibly distinguishable with the Malayas having larger facial features and being more yellowish than the Chinese.

Madhavan appears to be the most popular Indian here, while Shah Rukh is also very famous. Of course my sample size is extremely small, and heavily skewed in favour of Taxi drivers and waiters in near empty cafes. Padayappa is not as admired here as in Japan, where his ‘Baasha’ was one of the biggest foreign film hit. Amithabh Bhachchan is well known, but not on the top of anyone’s list. A lot of people haven’t seen any of his films, but they know that he ‘was’ a famous film star. I guess he’d be classified the same way many of us would categorize Humphrey Bogart or even Marlon Brando. Extremely famous, lot of great movies, but we haven’t seen (m)any except some snippet caught on TNT when channel surfing.

A few people asked me where I’d come from or where I was going. Some hadn’t heard of Muscat or even Oman. (I didn’t even find any currency exchange centre where they converted Omani riyals. The nearest currencies they had were Saudi Riyals and UAE Dirhams). Had to explain it’s an Arab country next to Dubai. The known places are Dubai, Jeddah, Mekkah, & Medina. Of course India is known to everyone – a country ‘with as many people as in China’. I suppose most Omanis wouldn’t have heard of places like Laos and Cambodia either.

General response would be that I looked very much like an Indian. When I reply that I am an Indian working in Oman, they ask from which part of India. The next thing they want to know is how far it is from Madras. Even a Chinese guy and a Bangladeshi girl asked me this. The three most famous Indian towns seem to be Madras, Delhi and Bombay, in that order. Not all have heard of Chennai yet.

The main language here is Bahasa Malaya. The script is Roman. I vaguely recollect reading somewhere that this was a deliberate step some 30 years ago by the then dictator, so that the people would find it easier to learn the English language, it being in the same script. The advantage for tourists like moi is that all the name boards of places, shops, buses etc are readable and can be matched to the data in the guide map. All the currency notes and government offices etc have their names written in both the Roman and Arabic scripts (the same script that is used for Urdu & Persian). Most of the products in shops etc, have details written in Roman and Chinese scripts.

This is a relatively prosperous country with a population of 20 million. KL has some 3 million people. There are some 10 million mobile customers serviced by 3 cellular operators, all on GSM. At one point there existed 7 operators, which through M&A, came down to 2. A third one started recently on 1800. EDGE has also taken off well here with the Service providers having many applications. Shortage of EDGE handsets is seen as the big problem now. Two of the operators have also got licence for 3G based on WCDMA. They’re expected to launch services within a quarter or so.

One very popular application here using EDGE is ‘Voice Bubble’. This has been launched by one of the operators ‘DiGi’. The potential was grossly underestimated and just as for ‘Hello Tunes’ of Airtel, the servers are extremely overloaded. It is a sort of Voice Messaging service. You record a voice message of 30 sec duration. This can be sent to any number of customers, though at present all have to belong to the same operator. You press * followed by the customer number to send the message. The customer gets a notification saying that he’s got a voice bubble. She can listen to it any time. You first hear “blub blub blub…” – a lot of bubbles bursting, and then the message. This can be forwarded to others as well. Extremely popular for festival greetings, short love songs etc.

Malaysia at one time (early 90s) had the second largest NRI population after Nepal. This piece of trivia is from a quiz I’d attended at CUSAT in 93. Saudi and US were 3rd and 4th. The largest number of immigrants here comes from Indonesia. The island of Sumatra is just across the Strait of Malacca from Peninsular Malaysia. Recently some 500,000 illegal migrants from Indonesia were sent back under a general amnesty programme. The understanding was that they would return soon through the popular channel. However the Indonesian bureaucracy seems to be worse than the Indian, and only 5000 have returned so far. So Malaysia is now facing extreme shortage of labourers, chiefly in the construction and plantation sectors. The other large immigrant groups supplying the labour force are Bangladeshis, Chinese, Nepalese, Indians and Pakistanis. Surprisingly didn’t find many Filipinos, even though the country is quite close by.

Plenty of cheap goods available in the markets. There are also specific markets called China town and Little India. At one shop the shopkeeper was simultaneously bargaining with 4 customers, all in different languages. Some items were so cheap that I’m not sure if they were genuine or pirated.

Eating joints abound. Most of the restaurants and hotels have a service charge added to the bill, and separate tipping is not expected. Lot of Hawker stalls as well (Thattu Kada). Had the basic Malay food, Nasi Lemak (a rice dish) and Satay (Chicken) for 3 ringgit from a hawker. The main foods here are Rice, Chicken, Fish, & Beef.

Geographically the country consists of Peninsular Malaysia and the various islands. The vegetation is pretty similar to Kerala. So are the houses with tiled roofs. The climate is warm and humid, but cooler than Kerala or TN for this time of the year. It rains at different times of the year in various parts of the country. In KL the season is Oct to Dec.

The main games played are Soccer and Badminton. In fact our instructor for the course had to be changed at the last moment because the person who originally planned to take was hit in the eye by a shuttle cork while participating in the office games. He’s been hospitalised for a week, due to internal bleeding in the eyeball.

The currency is Ringgit and Sen with 100 Sens = 1 Ringgit = approx INR12. The Ringgit is pegged to the US dollar and fluctuates directly with it.

The Airport here is fantastic. One of the best I’ve come across. Seeing this, I wholly empathize with Sunil Mittal’s view that the condition of even the best Indian airports is pathetic. Along the lines of Singapore and Dubai, KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International airport) is more a mall than an Airport. It is 5 floors with some 25 odd eating joints and more number of shops. One sour point is the computer used in the check in terminals. They looked like relics of the 80s, with one crashing every few minutes. I have a suspicion that all the old 486 and Pentiums being recycled in the US and elsewhere is being consumed by 3rd World Governments for their various projects. This might form a huge chunk of the ‘aid’ that is announced from time to time. Probably lot of kickbacks as well. Still a cheap solution to disposal of hazardous e-waste.

The place is situated some 50km south of downtown. Taxi to town costs anywhere from 60 Ringitts to 120 depending on the type you choose. The upper end-ones are called Limousine and the lower-end ones, Budget. Bus and train services also exist, but I haven’t used them. They’re supposed to be pretty good. And based on my experience in using these when going around the city, I’d agree. The F1 track is pretty close to the airport. Very impressive set-up. David Coulthard apparently said last time that this was the best track of the 19 worldwide. Now he’s the second most famous driver here after Schumi.

There’s a separate set of terminals at KLIA away from the main building and these are connected by a train service. The main terminals can service 22 planes simultaneously and the annexe has an additional 39 gates. The head of KLIA talks enthusiastically about weaning customers away from Singapore and Bangkok airports. This month 5 more airlines are expected to start services from KLIA, including Jet and Sahara. Jet is even looking for setting up an office in the town, and KLIA is actively helping them.

Contrast this with the situation in Kerala, where budget airlines like Air Arabia want to come in, the other Middle East airlines like Emirates and Gulf Air want to increase services, but the central government is refusing permission so that Indian Airlines and Air India can milk the poor NRK labourers in the Gulf. Even Jet and Sahara have been given permission to fly to all places expect the Middle East. Rather than taking up these issues in Parliament our MPs seem more concerned about imaginary Forth Worlds and shabby Ice Cream Parlours. Today it’s cheaper to fly from Dubai to Sweden than to Kerala.

India is among the very few countries, along with the other SAARC and some African nations, whose people require a visa to visit Malaysia. Most other natives including Omanis (who the Malayas have not even heard about) are exempt. The visa had written in it, in bold red letters ‘Death Penalty for Drug Traffickers’. The girl at the ticket counter at Dubai airport found this extremely funny, and spend a few minutes showing it to all her colleagues. Then she wished me luck when giving the boarding pass.

A new town named Putrajaya has been set up off the KL – airport highway some 20km south. All the central government offices and ministries have shifted to this place. This place seems well planned. Another town named Cyberjaya has been set up further south. This is something similar to our IT parks, only much larger. The area is spread over 15km by 50km. All tech companies have been encouraged to move into this area with tax incentives. Ericsson is also located here. The building is a 5-storied Glass & Chrome structure, pretty similar to their Gurgaon office. And like in Gurgaon, this place doesn’t have any restaurants, taxi stands, residential plots etc, near the offices. So commute is a small problem. I think the idea is to reduce the busy hour traffic congestion in the capital. The Highways have Tollgates all over. Each gate has some 20-30 booths servicing. The general toll seems to be around 1 ringgit for around 20-30km

A British journalist who’s visiting the country is quoted as saying that whenever he visits any country one way he assesses the culture of the place is by going through the newspapers. He found that the Malaysian papers were generally reporting more relevant stuff, compared to the British papers, which focussed more heavily on gossip. However he was surprised to see the extent to which events in UK are covered here. There was even a poll in one of the papers on whether Charles and Camilla should marry. West Bromwich moving off the bottom of the English premier league merited a 3-column article. Even the Scottish League happenings are reported religiously.

The main headlines on the days I spent here were related to the Indonesian immigrant problem. A border dispute with Indonesia connected to some Oil drilling rights off Borneo also hit the top one day, with both the heads of state saying that it would be resolved through dialogue. This is interesting to us because Indonesia has territorial disputes with most of its neighbours including India. It had staked claim to some Nicobar Islands, which are much closer to Indonesia than the Indian mainland. India, in order to pre-empt any action from Indonesia, quickly moved in some people to settle in these places. Mainly families of ex-servicemen and Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. Now the Tsunami has put the Govt in a quandary. These islands were officially off limits to non-aboriginal people. Since the Govt has not formally acknowledged these settlers, it has been reported that even the death toll from these islands have not been fully accounted for. On top of this most of the settlers now want to get out of these islands and move to the mainland. And the govt is not prepared to allow that.

There was also a headline about a 17-year-old Malaya girl who set a record by getting A in 17 subjects in the school board exams. She opted for 7 additional subjects on top of the minimum 10, and aced every one of them. She mentions that her chief inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “when you do something you should focus on the effort and not on the result.” A couple of generations from now, the Great Soul MKG would be credited with authoring the entire Bhagavad-Gita Associated to the previous article there was also a report that scores in English in all classes were pretty low, and the Government was recommending that the kids watch more TV at home to improve their English. Channels such as Animal Planet would be preferred, but even Cartoon Network and Wrestling would be OK.

There was another interesting one about a MP and his second wife being send to prison for practising Bigamy. This from a country with a Muslim majority, a Muslim Government and part of the OIC. Our country had the NDA govt for 6 years and even they could not bring about a Uniform Civil code. And we have people like Dharmendra and Hema Malini converting to Islam in order to legitimise their crime. Any guesses what religion Sridevi belongs to?

One humorous article I came across was Malaysia’s space programme. An astronaut from here would be going to space on a Russian mission in 2007. A few have been short-listed and are undergoing training at the moment. A Russian team would be doing the selection some time this year. Meanwhile some culinary experts have gone to NASA to figure out how to pack traditional Malay food to take to space. And also if the selected astronaut is a Muslim, the chief Mullahs of the land would be consulted to determine which direction he should turn for prayers. Traditionally Muslims turn toward the Kaabah at Mecca for all prayers. It will be intriguing to find out what one does when in space or on the moon.

Unlike software and cell phones, most religions claim to be future proof and assert that they have solutions to problems for all times. I wonder how many are space proof.

And finally, to end, I visited the Petronas towers. Initially I’d planned to skip it since I was alone, and was not really in the mood for sight seeing. But everyone I asked for some good places to roam would ask me if I’d been to the Petronas. Fearing that the emigration wouldn’t clear me, if I didn’t go, I went there this morning.. The tower height is 450m. A Skybridge connects the two towers on the 41st floor. This place is open for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Entry is free, but limited to the first 1000 odd people who come each day.

The view is breathtaking.