Enjoying Malaysia’s Islamic flavour

On the way over we stayed in a low cost posh hotel in a seedy area of the city – and thoroughly enjoyed it. The hotel had an air of fading grandeur to it. In its dilapidated elegance it was faintly reminiscent of colonial days gone by. Like a setting from a Graham Greene novel. A forlorn reminder of earlier happier days when the hotel had perhaps been able to fully maintain the splendour it aspires to.

  Certainly it had all the trappings and rituals of opulence. Each time we went in and out of the main entrance a uniformed doorman sprang to attention to open the way for us. The odd thing, however, in all this was that we, and a sprinkling of others, seemed to be the only guests in the place. Each morning we had breakfast in the fully staffed and cafered for dining room. Just the two of us – and a few other guests dotted here and there around the expansive interior of the restaurant. Despite the emptiness all the service rituals were played out in full. A deferential waiter signed us into the breakfast room. Even though there was little chance of it happening food containers were regularly checked to ensure they weren’t running out. Enquiries were made about whether we were finding the food and service satisfactory. And so on. It was all efficiency and discipline – absolutely all systems go – in a setting in which hotel guests were eerily absent. Where were all the guests? We asked several times. “Ramadan,” we were told. “It’s Ramadan. When this is over the guests will be back again.” Around the corner from the hotel the opulence ended abruptly. There we found an atmosphere of crowding and hardship starkly different from the feeling of anachronistic wealth and privilege in the hotel. Small merchants crammed onto the pavement in a jumble of makeshift shops. A desperate looking character sitting alone with his eyes closed and swaying from side to side as if in a trance. Motor cycles weaving in and out of pedestrians on the pavement because there was no room on the road. A young Chinese prostitute lurking at the foot of a flight of stairs. Her expressionless gaze as she stared out into the street was pitiable. It was another posh hotel at an economical price for us in Kuala Lumpur on our way back to Australia. This return visit had an even stronger Islamic flavour. We arrived shortly after the assassination of the US ambassador in Libya and the fallout from the anti-Islamic film on YouTube in various places around the world including Malaysia. The worldwide Islamic outrage over the YouTube film was running strongly in the Malaysian media. Initially we encountered no such outrage in the capital. Certainly, there were plenty of general reminders that Malaysia is a strongly Islamic country. In our hotel room we found a copy of a Gideon’s Bible as well as a strongly state endorsed copy of the Koran. Prayer mats were available on request in the hotel. And guests were reminded of the need for conservative dress on hotel premises. But nothing relating directly to the film. We went down to the US Embassy in KL to have a look. To see what there might have been by way of protest there. History in the making and all that. It’s one of the ways Julie and I get our kicks as tourists. Disappointingly, we found no sign of protest whatever. There was nothing unusual about the embassy at all. A US flag hung limply at half-mast for the three diplomatic staff killed in Libya. Two security men sat in a small office on the embassy pavement. They smiled and waved at us as we walked past. It was a Sunday – and Malaysia Day (commemorating the establishment of the Malaysian federation) – and the site looked exactly as it ought to have done when it is closed for business. We also had a look at the nearby British High Commission. There, too, it was ‘all quiet on the western front’. Outside the US embassy a smartly dressed young man wheeling a motor scooter along the road yelled to me above the roar of the traffic as we passed each other: “Thank you for all you are doing for Malaysia.” I can’t be sure but it seems likely that despite my tawdry travel-worn appearance he mistook me for an American from the embassy and wanted to say something nice as an antidote to the anti-American sentiment evident in Malaysia at that time. In a swish café directly over the road from the embassy we asked the waiting staff about the YouTube film and the protest. There was initial reluctance to speak. But later some things were said. There had, indeed, been a protest over the road. But only a small one. About 20 protesters they thought. A young Malay waiter expressed his outrage over the film. He had viewed it on YouTube and found it utterly offensive. “I wouldn’t want my daughter to see that,” he said. “It’s bad – very, very bad.” Our Malay taxi driver taking us to the airport for our flight back to Australia held a similar view. “The whole thing is very, very sensitive in Malaysia. Very sensitive,” he said. Unsurprisingly, the strong theme of the celebrations on that Malaysia Day was national unity. A front page wrap-around of the New Straits Times for that day proclaimed: ‘A Nation Born in diversity – United under a Myriad of Colours’. Islam, and more generally Malay culture, has always been a crucial component in that diversity – a diversity that has not always been uncontentious in Malaysian history. Perhaps the Malaysian national elections to be held soon will be the next test of that national unity.  

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