TOMORROWLAND WITH ISLAMIC SAUCE.
Tomorrowland with Islamic sauce.
Kuala Lumpur is not one of the most immediately appealing cities. As an Asian melting pot, its charm is as a place where east meets east. But it presents to the first time visitor something less attractive- a jumble of freeways and overhead railway lines, architecture that ranges from the globally spectacular Petronas Towers, to tawdry shopping malls, the mock Islamic of the main post office with its high rise faux carved screen facade, to the faded British Raj splendour of the old Central Railway Station.
There is even a high rise tower of the ever ruling UMNO political party with its walls a giant video screen pumping out a message appropriate to the political mood. A few blocks away in down market Chow Kit is the diminutive dowdy headquarters of PAS, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, the heavy duty Islamist opposition that dominates the two most north eastern states with Sharia law. It would like to do so to the whole country.
We chose to soak up the Malaysian urban experience and stay in an apartment in a huge high rise complex in what might be described as up market Chow Kit. It is up market in that it is on a hill and strangled by a spaghetti mess of freeways, overhead railway lines and even a monorail that cut it off so completely from the downmarket and more interesting Chow Kit, that the only easy way out was by taxi. You could, if someone showed you the way, get to one of the two nearby railway stations by foot, but the authorities don’t make it easy by providing anything like a proper footpath.
For me each trip to KL is sort of a trip down memory lane, except in this city many of the lanes have been widened into six lane freeways. I must have visited the city six times over the decades, but it holds a special place in my nostalgia nuerones because it was my first taste of Asia on the return leg of a trip that was my first taste of the world.
In the meantime the city has changed dramatically from the mainly low rise somewhat sleepy tropical town that I first encountered 40 years ago. I landed there for a couple of days with my then girlfriend on the way back from that first overseas trip. Ruth and I had met in Melbourne soon after I moved there the year before. She had just migrated from Scotland. Although we were about the same age, she had already lived in numerous places. Born in the working class west end of Glasgow, Ruth had gained a law degree and had already lived in South Africa and Israel and had spent a good deal of time in Greece, France and other parts of Europe. I had hardly been anywhere even in Australia and Melbourne was the most exciting place I had experienced after a childhood in Sydney’s western suburbs and subsequent years in Brisbane. I was therefore very enthusiastic, when after a year together, she said she wanted to go home to see her Scottish friends and offered to pay my fare because I was then an impoverished student.
The return trip was with Malaysian Airlines and I can’t remember whether it was her idea or due to airline scheduling that we ended up a few days in KL. Ruth had never been to anywhere in East Asia and having never before been out of Australia, I was going to be wowed by anything exotic. We stayed in what was then called the Hotel South East Asia. It was one of the city’s few high rise buildings, towards the south of the centre and although I stayed there on a subsequent trip, there are so many high rise in that part of town now, on this most recent trip I could not determine if it was still there.
Ruth was a bit of a gourmet, unusual for a Scot she liked good exotic food and KL offered tastes never before experienced. Firstly there was sate, great cheap fistfuls of them with never before experienced spicy peanut sauce. That was a revelation and a bit of a problem for me who had resolved to try to lose weight, so over a dish of spicy clams, we had a row. While I was trying to restrain myself she was agog with new culinary delights.
I know we took one trip down to the coast at Port Dickson. As a seaside location it was underwhelming with a rubbish strewn beach and filthy water. I believe it has since been cleaned up, but what I most remember was my first taste there of chili crab and the revelation of orange papaya, so much better than the dreadful bitter yellow ones from my parents’ Brisbane backyard.
Another memory was how few of the Malay Muslim women then wore the Islamic hijab headscarf. Now Malay women wear their religion if not on their sleeves, certainly all over their heads.
In 1987 my wife Jill, then a teacher at Melbourne’s Wesley College, had a Malaysian Muslim girl student, who was very bright and did not think her hair was something that needed to be shrouded. Jill remembers her laments, after returning from trips home during school holidays, that she was being harassed by other girls to cover her follicles in the interests of ”modesty.”
Now the city’s taxis and public transport display messages forbidding not only anti-social activity such as carrying explosive liquids, but the human interaction of lips upon lips that we call kissing, but which the morally uplifted here describe as “indecent behaviour.”
Another sign of just how far religion has penetrated the Malay mind, was an advertisement for a real estate development. It pictured not just water views but views across water to a mosque.
After that first visit, I returned to KL by myself in 1980, well after Ruth and I busted up, and stayed at a down at heel Chinese run cheap hotel, either the Tivoli or Rex which were almost next to each other in a street called Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. This is a long street in the city centre named after independent Malaysia’ first prime minister. I know I stayed at both of these hotels over the years. They were better than flop houses and offered clean sheets but smelly toilets. Under the creaking ceiling fans I would lie looking at the green panelled walls and think I was a character out of a Somerset Maugham novel.
This trip, before we paid a visit to this street, I had been told not to expect to find the old hotels, they would have been long demolished. We easily found the nearby Globe Silk Store which was still in business, so was the Minerva bookshop where I had once bought a Koran and also the Colosseum Picture Theatre and adjoining restaurant where I used to have breakfast and once ate a sizzling steak on an iron grill. There was also a heavy duty Islamic restaurant which I remembered, but I couldn’t locate either hotel, although there did not seem to be any new buildings in the area. I went to the Minerva bookshop, musing how strange an establishment with an emphasis on Islamic texts should be named after a pagan Roman goddess. Asking the guy behind the counter, he told me the two hotels had closed years ago and were transformed into shop/warehouses for the clothing trade. Indeed when I walked back along the street, I found the two buildings still there, one on the corner of a lane, the other a few buildings along, both now garishly painted, with women’s clothing on display.
Earlier in the morning we had visited the big local market back at lower Chow Kit. I have an obsession with collecting soaps from my travels and I bought some exotic examples there while Jill got some colourful cloth for our daughter. Late afternoon when we reached the southern extremity of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, we came across another market, this one apparently aimed at tourists and got some souvenirs for the grand daughters.
Beyond the market was an enormous underground train station named Masjid Jamek, named after the fine ancient mosque on the river junction nearby, which we had visited on previous trips. We had not travelled on the KL suburban railway system much on earlier visits, as most of it was not built. In the past the city had serious road traffic and pollution problems and then the government just decreed they would build a rapid transit system, mostly elevated rail and down the middle of streets if necessary. In our home city Melbourne, the government is considering elevating some sections of suburban train lines as an economical way of eliminating dozens of dangerous and congesting level crossings, but it is facing stiff opposition from NIMBY (not in my backyard) interests.
We were curious to experience the KL solution and we bought a ticket randomly selecting the Gombak Line. It heads to the north of the city towards the mountains of the Genting Highlands and near the Batu Caves an important Indian Hindu religious shrine, we have visited in the past. We boarded the train in time for the afternoon commute, and the carriage was packed with hijabed women all heading home to the suburbs.
What we didn’t realise until the train reached the Gombak terminus was there was no driver, it was fully automated. A young woman was present as a sort of safety overseer. She walked down to the rear end of the train as it was about to change direction and with a key opened a panel containing a whole suite of manual controls including an emergency brake, presumably in case someone fell or jumped onto the track, but she didn’t touch them as the train headed on the return 28 kilometre journey to Kelana Jaya south towards the sea. It is one of the longest fully automated train systems in the world, and made me feel just how conservative we are in Melbourne, still grumbling over and resenting the automated ticket vending system.
We had one contact in KL, a former student of Jill’s, Drew Ambrose who is based in KL as a senior correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network. As a retired journalist, I was keen to see how a fellow journalist viewed the social and political situation in the region and with his insights he didn’t disappoint. It was Chinese New Year and, some of the best eating places in the city were closed for the holiday. Instead we sampled the food delights of Malaysia’s third most numerous ethnic group, the Indians. Little India was all that could be expected, noisy, colourful and fragrant.
Finally we felt we had to visit one institution devoted to something at the very heart of the identity of the majority Malay population- Islam. Indeed despite the country being founded as a secular state, it curiously has Islam as the state religion and it is illegal for an ethnic Malay to be anything else. If they did want to convert they need permission from a Sharia Court and it is never granted. It is illegal to attempt to convert a Muslim to another religion, while it is fine to try to convert a non- Muslim to Islam. Make sense?
Other religions are tolerated for other ethnic groups, but atheists get a hard time of it if they come out of the closet. Better to stay in the closet with the equaly persecuted homosexuals.
The Muslim institution that attracted us was the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia. Like many of the other Islamic institutions in the city, it is impressive and impressively funded by the taxpayers irrespective of their beliefs. The displays offer everything from ancient korans, decorated weapons, pottery and clothing to models of different types of mosques from around the world. I was particularly taken by a mosque designed and built in the United States. Curiously there were a number of exhibits of Islamic curios from that most fanatically Christian country. I wonder what the museum was trying to demonstrate. I wonder if there are similarly characteristic churches in Saudi Arabia.
I must raise it with Donald Trump.