04.08.2008 30 °C
As in Singapore, commercial activities in Malaysia have always been dominated by the ethnic Chinese. Ever since independence in 1957, the Malaysian government has operated pro-Malay (in principle but not always in practice, pro-bumiputra), pro-Muslim policies. Another way to put it is that there are anti-Chinese and to a certain extent anti-Indian policies. Bumis are supposed to enjoy a discount when buying real property; it is easier for them to get into university and to obtain government posts; at least in Sabah, there are financial incentives to convert back to Islam; and as I mentioned before, Muslim Filipino immigrants are tacitly tolerated because of their religion.
Malays may have been economically underprivileged fifty years ago, and the orang asli still are. But surely a state with pretensions to modernity – as symbolised in Warisan 2020 - should, like Singapore, ignore the religious beliefs and ethnic origin of its citizens and offer colour-blind assistance to those in need. When a government officially regards a portion of its citizenry as being of less worth than another portion, private citizens are free to follow.
Oh, and Israeli passport holders are not permitted to enter Malaysia. Or, more strictly, Israeli citizens are required to apply for special approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs to enter. This places Malaysia with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan. Reciprocally, Israel does not recognise Malaysian passports. Perhaps there is a sound reason for this of which I am unaware, but it seems disgraceful.
In Malaysia sodomy is a criminal offence, for which there is no right of bail upon arrest, punishable upon conviction by up to twenty years in custody. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, spent six years in prison for sodomy; everyone knows that this was a politically-motivated conviction, sodomy merely being the convenient accusation (he was convicted of corruption at about the same time, but the conviction was quashed on appeal several years later). And he has recently been arrested and charged again; again, it’s convenient, since his opposition coalition has won 49% of parliamentary seats and could take power if there were a few defections.
Malaysia has been governed by the Alliance/Barisan Nasional since independence, so it is a Japanese-style non-democracy democracy. It may be an industrialised high-middle income country, but it has the politics of a banana republic.
Prosecutions are also used as a political tactic in Thailand. There, the best way to get rid of a troublesome foe is to bring a prosecution for lèse majesté. Since the king is revered, this is a very serious offence. The fact that the king himself has said clearly that he is not above criticism doesn’t stop the prosecutions.
And while we’re talking buggery, it’s no real surprise that homosexuality is very common here. The same phenomenon exists throughout the Middle East, where women are at least as unavailable (although they enjoy far greater civil rights in Malaysia except in the field of family law, where Muslims fall within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts). And (although it’s not the same thing) I have met more people here of whose gender I am completely uncertain than in Thailand, land of the ladyboy.
At last I have a plan, although I don’t yet know whether it’s feasible. I have a reasonable idea how I want to spend the next six weeks. To that end I have spent most of the day at the Indonesian Embassy. Visa sections around the world share the property of being the most inefficient agencies conceivable. It’s as if all the telephone receptionists from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy have come alive. Giggling cretins sit there stroking their little hard-ons at the vast power they wield. They demand three photocopies of your last-but-one tax bill, two of your appendix. Nowhere are the requirements set out; you have to intuit them before arriving. Payment in cash; the Indonesian government does not possess a bank account it seems; that would be one reason why, despite its natural resources, the country is poor.
I spent the time between embassy visits at the post office sending parcels in an effort to reduce the weight I’m carrying. It is fairly cheap, but it took even longer than it did in Vietnam. And I have had a haircut, so it really has been a day full of things I don’t like much.
One of my objectives is to eat interesting things, and for the last month or so I have failed. I just haven’t seen enough unusual stuff in Malaysia. Yesterday I had dim sum: fish maw dumpling; steamed shrimp dumpling; dried oyster dumpling; carrot cake and red bean pudding and that was probably the most unusual. Pathetic. Hopefully there will be interesting things in Indonesia.
But there are good things here. Belacan is a kind of chilli and shrimp paste. Sambal is a chilli paste. The curries are good. Nyonya food is excellent. And the salted broad beans are fantastic.
And how can you tell a shrimp from a prawn, by the way? Answer at the bottom of the page.
In Vietnam they eat noodle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vietnamese cooking has plenty of variety, but every day phở, or variants of it, comprises at least half of the meals eaten in Vietnam. I found it particularly unpalatable for breakfast, and would be happy never to eat it again. (A truly delicious exception is cau lầu in Hội An. The rice for the square-sectioned noodles is soaked in water from the Bá Lễ well and lye made from the ashes of the tro tree from nearby Cham island. You can’t make them anywhere else. You make stock from pork bones and add char siu, pork crackling, garlicky croutons, bean sprouts, water mint, coriander and chives.)
I can’t remember what they eat for breakfast in Thailand. In Malaysia I’ve been hooked on roti canai: roti with a spicy dal dip. But the classic breakfast dish is nasi lemak. It’s a pile of rice, with peanuts, ikan bilis, spicy potato, boiled egg and spicy meat. (Ikan bilis is spicy dried anchovy.) It’s eclectic, but it works. Presumably it was invented when someone got home after a bibulous evening and put everything he had in the house on his plate. I’ve invented some nauseating dishes that way.
I recently read that the grilled critters on sale in Bangkok are farmed in Isaan. Isaan is the poorest region of Thailand – the best career option for Isaan women is prostitution – and insect protein forms a significant fraction of protein in the diet; cricket contains more protein than the equivalent weight of beef or chicken. The insects are transported to the Klong Toey market in Bangkok, where the trolley-cooks buy them. The price at the market is 140 baht for a kilo of silkworms, 350 baht for a kilo of grasshoppers and 2,000 baht for 500 beetles.
When you are in a shop in Malaysia, a shop assistant follows you around. Perhaps they’re just being polite, but I find the attention burdensome, as if being followed by a store detective. They don’t exactly assist.
In the interests of research, I bought a packet of Bornean cigarillos. I tried one and it tasted horrible. But then I don’t smoke, so this is not an informed review.
A shrimp has two pairs of claws and no rostrum.