Thursday, June 23, 2005

Melaka - Wiggly Bottoms


Schoolgirl bottoms wiggled on the open-air stage at one end of Jonkers Street in down town Melaka. It was non-stop karaoke performed by cute Chinese kids, to entertain the Saturday evening crowd, mainly local Chinese and Chinese from Taiwan and Singapore.

Jonkers Street is fun at traffic free weekends: red lanterns, oriental music, food stalls, crowds of people.... but, there isn't enough of this kind of thing in Melaka.

Too much of Melaka is fast dangerous traffic, ugly modern buildings, no pavements and the occasional mugger.

And, it's 90 degrees and ultra-humid.

I took a £2 taxi ride heading North along the coast. Curiosity took me into a block of grey flats: pealing paint, graffiti on some walls, litter. I got talking to a moustachioed man called Abdullah who invited me into his home.

"I earn about £150 a month as a general worker," said Abdullah, seated beneath a Moslem picture.

He and his wife and five children live in this tiny two bedroom flat in this low rent government-built block of flats on the edge of Melaka. The house has tap water. They are near a beautiful section of beach and a towering condominium called Ocean Palms, just before Tanjung Kling. The sea water is filthy.

"You are much better off than people in Indonesia," I told Abdullah. "The government here has done much better than the government in Indonesia. Most Indonesian workers live in home-made shacks with no tap water."

"But most people here are not rich. Only 20% of Malaysians are rich," said Abdullah.

"But, in Indonesia so many people die of Typhoid and TB," I pointed out. "So many children don't go to school. In Melaka, on the other hand, there's been no typhoid for years and kids go to school."

Abdullah's neighbour Siti said: "It's a struggle here. My husband ran off to K uala Lumpur and he doesn't give me a single Ringgit."

Siti's friend Milah said: "I'm divorced. It's very hard to pay the bills."

Abdullah's son, cute Yussuf, and Milah's son, tall Aziz, took me on a tour of Melaka. Their sisters chose not to accompany us.

First stop: a mildly interesting full-size replica of a Portuguese ship. The Portuguse were here in the 16th Century; the Dutch in the 17th Century; the British in the 19th Century.

Second stop: some tiny ruins on a hill: St Paul's Church built in 1521. On the way down: some rude schoolchildren of Indian origin.

Third stop: Melaka's main shopping mall at Mahkota Parade. Not as good as malls in Jakarta or Bangkok. Prices are much lower in Melaka's China Town or at Ocean Mall near the bus station.

"Where would you like to eat?" I asked Yussuf and Aziz.

"Kentucky Fried Chicken," said Yussuf. Aziz agreed.

After our tasteless meal I asked, "What next?"

They decided to play some arcade games on the top floor of the mall, while I looked at the bookshop.

I picked up a copy of Ian Buruma's excellent "Gold Dust" and read - "Happy to relax. It was the usual image of Malays in Malaysia, as common as the other image, of the corrupt Malay politician, living in his grotesquely palatial home, driving expensive European cars, keeping Chinese mistresses, and taking in kickbacks from every deal in town....

"The Malays regard the Chinese and Indians as immigrants...

"Islam is the official religion...

"It is government policy to favour Malays... It is the Malays who receive government grants, scholarships, special loans, and plum government jobs...

"Yet it is the Malays who look dispossessed in Kuala Lumpur, many of them huddled together in shabby estates on the city outskirts, their children skulking in shopping arcades with nothing to do, taking to drugs or religion, dressed like punks or in the pseudo-Arab gear of Muslim fundamentalists..."

According to Buruma, the British were happy to let the Chinese run the plantations and build the cities... the Malays were quite content to stay in the rural kampongs.


A big cheerful taxi driver called Hamid took me to his kampong house on the outskirts of Melaka. It was a simple wooden shack, in need of some repairs.

The hamlet was surrounded by coconut palms, rice fields, fruit trees and meadows containing cattle and buffalo.

"Want to see a bull having its neck cut?" asked Hamid, leading me towards a struggling creature. "My neighbour is about to kill an animal."

"No thank you," I said, changing direction. "Do you own any land?"

"No I sold it to a Chinese."

Happy to relax. Hamid seemed content with his shack, falling-to-bits taxi, and easy kampong life.


My hotel: The FIVE STAR Ramada Renaissance, managed by Marriot.

A huge oversupply of hotel rooms and the Asian financial crisis have pushed down the price of hotel rooms in Malaysia. I was paying £199 per week for half board.

The hotel was full of noisy school groups from Singapore and down-market Chinese package tourists from various countries.

In some rooms the wallpaper was stained, carpets were torn, baths were chipped, and dust gathered under cupboards. In corridors there were sometimes cigarette ends that remained on carpets for weeks. Parts of the hotel were in need of refurbishment.

The food in the three restaurants was stomach-wrenchingly poor: canned fruit, oven chips, stale pastries, reheated stew, cheap over-cooked meat, cold soup... A bluebottle sometimes hovered over the none-too-clean cutlery and cups. ..

The coffeeshop played rap music containing a certain four letter word.

"Here you get what you pay for," said the charming, urbane Chinese hospital doctor I was visiting due to an attack of diarrhoea. "The Renaissance is not really Five Star! In London I paid over £100 for one night in a small cupboard-sized room. London can do that because it has a huge number of world-class attractions. Not like Melaka."

"You can see most of Melaka's temples, mosques and other historical sites in one day," I commented.

"We have a Chief Minister, Ali Rustam, who has worked hard to promote Melaka. Over two million visitors this year. Yet, Melaka needs to offer more attractions," said the doctor.

"Why do so many Singaporeans come to Melaka?" I asked.

"Hospital treatment," said the doctor. "There are several top class hospitals here and you can see a specialist immediately. Treatment is very cheap."

"Is Malaysia a healthy place?" I inquired. "Any cholera?"

"Pretty healthy. There's cholera in the Klang Valley, next to Kuala Lumpur. Then there was that virus in the Port Dickson area that killed about a hundred people in 1999. You get that only by having very close contact with pigs."


"How safe is Malaysia?" I asked my pretty friend Sasha, who is a native of Sabah, and who works in computing.

"A friend of mine was in her car on the way from Melaka to KL," said Sasha, "and she was forced to stop. Robbers took all her valuables."

"Any street muggings?" I asked.

"Last week a couple of British tourists got robbed on the street next to the Renaissance Hotel and the Emperor Hotel. And in Kuala Lumpur, five British tourists with Saga holidays got mugged within 12 months. That's why you have to be careful."

"Are the police any good?" I asked.

"In Melaka, yes. They've got better," said Sasha. "In Kuala lumpur the Star newspaper reported recently that nine police officers, including 2 chief inspectors, had been involved in carrying out robberies and kidnappings."

"Sounds like Indonesia," I commented.

"Last year in Malaysia a church and a Hindu temple were bombed. A politician was shot dead. There is a small group that want a holy war or jihad," said Sasha.

"Could that small group be linked to the security services of a certain country? I have heard that a certain great power wants an excuse to station troops in this area," I commented. "They want to control the Melaka Strait because of all the oil that passes through there on its way to China and Japan."

Sasha decided not to comment.


I set off to explore some kampongs (simple wooden village houses).

Kampong Morten, near the Renaissance Hotel, is now a fairly prosperous Malay village where residents often drive Mercedes or BMWs.

Villa Sentosa, 138 Kampong Morten, which is both a museum and a lived-in house, takes you back to a 1920's middle-class Malay world. Fancy woodwork, pot plants, elaborate furniture, a courtyard, a simple kitchen... Charming.

Outside, some of the teenage children behave like British kids: a bit of mockery and the occasional one-finger salute.

A little further out from the centre of Melaka I visited a much poorer kampong: rows of simple wooden houses on stilts; red lanterns hanging outside ; fierce barking dogs; all Chinese families.

Immediately next to this Chinese hamlet was a Malay Kampong: more plain dark wood; lots of dark trees; a bunch of kids; a bit of mockery of the sweating tourist.

Malaysia is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

There are 12.7 million Malays, 5.5 million Chinese and 1.6 million Indians.

The Chinese control most of the wealth.

There is not enough inter-marriage. Moslems insist that anyone marrying a Moslem must be a Moslem.

The Chinese stick to their areas. The Chinese stick to their culture which is belief in spirits, Buddhism, Confucianism or Christianity; mini-skirts, dim sum, red and gold decoration, money ....

The Indians stick to their culture which is Gujarati, Tamil or whatever...

And the Malays stick to their culture which is Kentucky Fried Chicken or American break-dancing or rural kampong life or very occasionally Medieval Saudi Arabian fundamentalism....


In 1969 there was deadly rioting between Malays and Chinese. Hundreds (mainly Chinese) were killed as the police seemed to "stand and watch".

After this time of trouble, the coalition government of Malays (UMNO), Chinese (MCA) and Indians (MIC) tried very hard, and usually successfully, to prevent racial conflict.

Malaysia made dramatic progress - KL has the world's second tallest building; KL has one of the world's top airports; Malaysia produces the highly-rated Proton car; Malaysia's airline (MAS) seems streets ahead of British Airways, but not Singapore Airlines, in terms of quality in economy class; Malaysia is one of the world's biggest producers of computer disc drives....

HOWEVER, there are too many half-built or nearly empty condominiums and office blocks; Malaysian Airlines needs restructuring to bring it into profitability; recession is hurting manufacturing; palm oil and rubber sell at low prices; computer literacy and general levels of education still seem to be low for many Malays; there is still a huge gap between the rich Chinese businessmen and the mainly poor Malays and Indians. There is no common culture.

In March 2001, in Kuala Lumpur's Kampong Medan, six people were killed in bloody clashes between Malays and Indians.


MELAKA ESSENTIALS - Bus Station- Grotty place, but staff are helpful.

Dangdut night clubs around Taman Melaka Raya near the Equatorial Hotel;

Jonkers Street Friday-Sunday.

Take a taxi along the coast to Tanjung Bidara and stop off at any interesting bits of beach or any interesting kampong.

Talk to the locals in the kampongs. The Malay language is the easiest in the world.

Where to eat- Coffee Bean at Mahkota Parade mall. The girl will ask your name so she can call it out when your order is ready. Tell her your name is David Beckham or James Bond. It creates quite a stir when you go to collect your sandwich.


Anwar Ibrahim and sex and the CIA


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