Sunday, July 22, 2012

Recalcitrance is a wonderful word

KL has not been great at persevering its physical history. Roads are constantly being remade. Ugly flyovers are being built. I hope Melbourne never has flyovers and a couple we did have, King Street and at Port Melbourne, have been demolished. Clifton Hill is somewhat spoilt by flyovers. After seeing KL and its hundreds of flyovers, I can inform you that they may only improve traffic in the short term.

Amazingly when searching for something, I discovered that the marvellous website SkyscraperCity has a forum of some forty pages devoted to the old Kuala Lumpur.  There are some fabulous photos there, but I don't know where they are taken because the street names used, with exceptions, are as they are now named. Malay names don't stick in my brain as English names would and while the roads are being altered all the time, some remain that had grand names.

KL has all but obliterated its English street name history.  Obliterating history is one thing, but this would have happened for purely political populist reasons and I think it is unfortunate. Malaysia may not have liked being a colony but it was and that is its history and that is why the streets had English names.

Gone is Mountbatten Road, Foch Avenue and many similarly English named roads. They were not even happy with them being described by their street name such Jalan Mountbatten.

One local Malaysian person in the forum lamented that the street names had been changed and was thankful that it had not happened in Malacca or Penang. I have news for him. Many have been now. More history gone.

As I said, I suspect it was done for political reasons, a bit of nationalism.

Malaysia did truly surprise me though. It is modern and functioning western style city. While the roads are on a par with the sophisticated Singapore, there is little law enforcement as in Singapore. As Manny said, the traffic light was only dark green, which is actually a red light. Pedestrians, fend for your selves. God help cyclists. Like in western countries, freeways have emergency lanes, but in Malaysia these are for travelling along if there is a traffic delay. Once all freeway lanes are full and stationary, then you fill the emergency lane.

Police do pull drivers up and set up road blocks, but the penalty generally seems to be an 'on the spot fine', graded according to your perceived wealth.

My first real knowledge of Malaysia came when I started studying colonial history but I knew little of the modern Malaysia. In my past life I was a colonial administrator in India and Malaysia who spent the hot seasons at the cooler hill stations, taking my retinue of servants with me. Malaysia kind of popped up onto my horizon when Australian's Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were hung(hanged?) after being convicted of drug trafficking. Our then Prime Minister Bob Hawke called the punishment barbaric. Malaysia's PM, the larger than life Dr Mahathir Mohamad, responded to a question about the right to take someone's life with 'You should tell that to the drug traffickers'.

Malaysia and Australia were not good friends anymore, the relationship further damaged by our next PM Paul Keating who referred to Dr Mahathir Mohamad as recalcitrant when he refused to attend an APEC summit.

Mahathir was Malaysia's PM from 1981 to 2003 and while he advanced and modernised the country significantly, it came at a great cost to civil liberties. Like in many countries, if you kept your head down and got on with life, you were probably ok but if you rebelled against the government, then draconian laws are in place to deal with you. As Opposition lead Anwar Ibrahim discovered, if there isn't a law to deal with you 'circumstances can be constructed'. Anwar has been gaoled twice, once for corruption and once for sodomy. He was acquitted of a second charge of sodomy.

Malaysian politics is very complex and not for me to understand but I expect Anwar Ibrahim will become PM at some point. While with high religious ideals, which is a worry, he does believe in an open press, an independent judiciary and recognises the extreme corruption endemic in the country and needs addressing. Now where have I heard those words before?

Although most of the local Malays who we came across were clearly moderate in their beliefs, some areas of Malaysia are not, but they are not tourist areas. Old Mahathir had some unpleasant things to say about Jews and even now citizens of Israel are not welcome, perhaps not allowed, into the country. (what if you are a Moslem from Israel? I assume some of the Arab citizens are)

One piece I have just read states that Malaysia is almost a failed state. If you can go by appearances, it is most certainly not. It is a progressive country where there are not the extremes of poverty that can be seen in some countries, like its neighbour to the north, Thailand. I expect once the tech generation come through, it will be even better.

And now to keep you on your toes, what is this arrow for? We had them in our hotels in Malaysia, except ours were on the ceiling. A hint is it would have been very disrespectful to unpeel the arrow and point it in a different direction.


  1. I will guess that the arrow points to Mecca so that muslims know which way to face to pray. I noticed this in KL airport and Malaysia airlines.
    We enjoyed KL and thought it was a nice city. Although I can remember being scared witless by the taxi drive back to the airport. I don't agree with their style of politics or religious customs like female genital mutilation, if they still do it. However, I can understand them wanting to change English street names. Although, I can understand your concern about obliterating history. However, look at South Australia where hundreds of small towns had their name changed from the original German names imported by early settlers,because of the wars.(silly I know) I don't think the German settler history has been obliterated though. Then there is the story of Ayres Rock and Uluru and that list could go on.

  2. As Diane said, the direction of Mecca, for prayer purposes.

  3. Anonymous10:31 am

    Yep, my vote is as above. V.

  4. Coliin2:45 pm

    I never thought I would put another comment on your blog, but necessity prompts this one.
    Your analysis is spot on.
    Seems that the Malayasians have coventiently forgotten that Australia assisted them when Soekarno of Indonesia was sabre rattling.
    As for Foch Avenue, well Foch was a Marshall of France in WW1. Pretty hopeless he turned out to be. Thus the famous carriage that Herr Hitler used in WW2.
    I think all Australian PM's have had trouble with KL! Now a starting point for the Muslim "boat people".
    I have no sympathy with the demise of Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, they obviously were unable to read signs at the airport, or did they hope to bring back drugs for profit here to Australian? Same goes for the fools in Bali. Idiots!
    At the airport in multiply languages are signs - Drugs probited with the penalties that will be carried out.
    It is a case of when visiting other countries, remember the expression - "When in Rome, do as the Romans do"!
    Sorry if this outburst offends, I make no apologies.

  5. I'm with the others, the arrow points towards Mecca so the muslims know which direction to face to pray.

  6. Diane, I suppose you can't really obliterate history but I still think it is a shame. I do understand national pride and what names the Malays know from their own language is important to them. I think it would be good to return the original German names to SA. It wasn't until I was home that I thought about the arrows. At the time I barely noticed them and without conciousness, thought they pointed to the exits.

    Indeed Victor. I was going to be make a naughty comment but I won't.

    V, as a person who is sensitive to cultural differences, I expected you would know.

    Hi Colin. I don't recall you commenting on my blog but I like your comments on Diane's blog, so you are most welcome. Of course I do recall an exchange of emails. But your comment is hardly an outburst.

    I didn't offer an opinion on Barlow and Chambers as who does have much sympathy for drug traffickers. Although I don't believe in the death penalty, I shan't lose sleep over them. Same goes for those in Bali although I do think the behaviour of the Australian Federal Police was disgraceful.

    It strikes me as ironic that I used Foch Avenue as an example of English place names, when the person after it was names was French. There is a Foch Street in Melbourne somewhere.

    I have kind of addressed your comments backwards, so to conclude, I think it was Suharto who sabre rattled, but so did Sukarno. Just boys playing politics for their respective domestic markets. Who ever heard of a Moslem country against another Moslem country.

  7. Correct River, but no prize sorry. Someone at my work prays to Mecca. I need to think about if he is facing the correct direction.

  8. I've been fascinated by your Malaysia trip - thanx for the stories!!

  9. Well well Andrew, I do believe Australia was a British colony and here you are wanting to 'chop off her head' so to speak hahaha!

  10. Thanks Red. Bit of a dream now.

    Grace, chop whose head off?