As the stewardess announced that our Air Malaysia flight was to land in Kuala Lumpur in 30 minutes, I tried to remember everything I had ever heard about the country. That could be summed up by the movie Return to Paradise (Malaysia is definitely not the place to explore the recreational drug culture), a few outrageous quotes about Hitler and Jews from former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the haunting "Malaysia - truly Asia" promo featured on CNN.
During our seven-hour flight from Dubai, my enthusiastic Malaysian neighbor had informed me that for more than a decade Malaysia has been actively trying to outshine the rest of the world in almost every possible field. The Kuala Lumpur airport was chosen "the best airport in the world" in 2005 and 2006, the Petronas Towers held the title of the world's highest buildings for a few years and the Negara Mosque is the largest in Southeast Asia. And there is of course Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor - the first Muslim astronaut - "whose name fills the heart of every Malaysian with pride." According to the New Straights Times I read on board, the country is also aspiring to become the leader of Islamic world and one of the regional economic leaders by 2020.
Quite a lot of ambitions for a medium-size country of 26 million located on the fringes of the Islamic world and surrounded by the Southeast Asian "tigers" - Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
It was probably the horrible jet lag which made me confuse the striped Malaysian flags which decorated every window, wall and electricity pole in the city with the "stars and stripes" of the US. "There is no way a Muslim country will be covered with American flags," I thought to myself, rubbing my eyes. With it's red-and-white stripes (14 in all) and blue field, the Malaysian flag does bear a striking resemblance to that of America, but a closer examination reveals a star and crescent instead of the familiar 50 stars in the blue field.
Fifty years of 'Merdeka'
This year Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence (Merdeka), and the authorities decided to prolong the festivities for the entire year. The newspapers are filled with special Merdeka reports dedicated to Malaysia's achievements and goals for the future. Indeed, Kuala Lumpur, which in Malay means "cloudy waters," has come a long way during those 50 years. From a small, colonial town in a swamp (hence the name), it has grown into an ultramodern hub, in which a forest of elegant concrete and glass skyscrapers coexist with colonial buildings and colorful markets. It reminded me of neighboring Thailand, but with one significant difference - it is glaringly clean.
Malaysia is super clean, not only around the capital, but also in the most remote districts. To Malaysians, who live in close proximity to Singapore, the world capital of neatness, it is a matter of pride. A university student wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Keep Malaysia clean, leave your garbage in Singapore" told me that although the city is "quite clean today," he still saw room for improvement.
Since achieving independence in 1957, Malaysia has not only cleaned up, but developed into one of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) leading exporters of palm oil, furniture, rubber and oil, showing impressive economic growth rates. Today it is investing billions of dollars in its tourism industry, trying to benefit from world travel fever, and fighting aggressively for a slice of the European, Australian and Middle Eastern markets.
English is the country's second language and the vast of majority of people have a decent command of it. Most tourists spend a day or two in Kuala Lumpur, and then head to the islands - Penang or Langkawi, where hordes of Japanese, Australian, Russian, British and Saudi tourists find a refuge from either the freezing cold or sizzling sun of home.
In addition to CNN, Malaysia is promoted heavily on Arabic satellite channels, where the "Malaysia - truly Asia" commercial is "slightly" modified for local audiences. Instead of girls in bikinis strolling on white powder beaches, happy Gulf families, dressed in traditional galabiyas and abayas, hold hands against the background of the Petronas Towers. "Here you can feel at home," the commercial says, appealing to rich Gulf tourists who after 9/11 feel unwelcome in Europe and the US. The easy availability of mosques and halal food makes Malaysia an ideal destination for Arab tourists.
Tourists are cherished in Malaysia, which is not called the "land of 1,000 smiles" for nothing. Every Malaysian, whether at the hotel or on the street, greets you with a smile so wide and hearty that there's nothing you can do but smile back. By the end of the day, your facial muscles hurt so much you can smile only with your eyes.
They're not smiling at too many Israelis, however. According to the Malaysian Tourist Ministry's web site, "Nationals of Israel, Yugoslavia and Montenegro require special approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs to enter Malaysia."
While there is no official ban on Israelis visiting the country, a stream of Israeli tourists is not yet something Malaysia can openly deal with. The telephone lines to Israel aren't blocked like in Lebanon, and Israeli Web sites aren't restricted, like in Dubai; there is no ban on Jews visiting Malaysia like in Saudi Arabia, and Israel even has "under-the-table" trade with Malaysia in the millions of dollars, but the two countries still have a long way to go before normal diplomatic and economic ties will be established.
"Our refusal to enter into dialogue [with Israel] has nothing to do with race or religion. If they continue to trample international law, how can we sit and hold a dialogue with them," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid said in an interview with the Malay language Utusan Malaysia newspaper.
"It will be very difficult for Malaysia to sign a peace treaty with Israel or to give the existing relationship - in trade, for instance - an official dimension," says Dr. Yitzhak Kfir, of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi isn't interested in enraging the radicals in the country which can interfere with his internal reforms."
Historically, Malaysia has always had close ties to the Palestinian leadership and supported the Palestinian case. Today it's one of the countries which grants Palestinians a visa-free entry. At the same time, most of the people I interviewed on the street didn't have any opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and many didn't even know where Israel is.
Truly Asia or truly Islamic?
"Students at Kuala Lumpur University agreed that the food stands at the university would remain open during Ramadan for the sake of their non-Muslim schoolmates," said a short article in a local newspaper that had caught my eye while I was turning the pages during a short flight to Langkawi island. A few pages away, another article said that in conservative Kelatan state, special "Ramadan squads" stopped fast violators on the streets and demanded they stop eating. This kind of contradiction is not unusual for Malaysia, with its multicultural and multireligious makeup.
Approximately 55 percent of Malaysia's residents are Malay Muslims, 30% are Chinese and 15% Hindu. The state religion is Islam, and the head of state is always a Muslim. However, freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, and in Kuala Lumpur a Hindu temple and a Chinese pagoda are situated not far from the ultramodern Negara Mosque.
It was neither a holiday nor a religious festival, yet in Sri Mahamariamman Temple located next to a Hindu market, I found dozens of young men and women making their offerings - an act considered idolatry by Islam. "I'm a Malaysian of Hindu origin, and I was never confronted by any Muslim in regard to my faith" said Aasha, 25, a teacher.
On the surface, the country seems the picture perfect of tolerance and coexistence, and this is exactly the image its leaders are interested in projecting to the West. Badawi, who replaced the infamous Mahathir in 2004, works hard on improving Malaysia's image by promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogue at home, as well as between Malaysia and other countries. He is a strong advocate of Islam Hadhari, which maintains that Islam and economic and technological development are not incompatible. "Muslims must have zero tolerance for extremist voices and promote Islam's modern face instead," he told Malaysian television in January.
Yet Malaysia, like any other country, has its share of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance. Rajaa, a taxi driver of Indian origin, made sure I was neither recording what he said nor taking pictures of him before saying that his family has been in Malaysia for 200 years, but he is still registered as Indian by the Interior Ministry, which mean fewer benefits and fewer opportunities. "This country is primarily for Muslims, then for everybody else," he said.
And still, in comparison to neighboring Indonesia, where non-Muslim places of worship are burned and worshipers harassed, and the pressure to convert to Islam constantly grows, Malaysia looks like a role model of coexistence in the region. The country has acted as president of the Organization of Islamic Conference for the last five years, but can it really become a new leader of Islamic world? Robert Zoellick, America's deputy secretary of state, who recently described Malaysia as a potential model for fledgling democratic regimes in places like Iraq and Palestine, believes so, as do many other Western and Muslim politicians and religious leaders.
The IDC's Kfir said that while Mahathir was more focused on Malaysia's role as a potential leader of the Third World, Badawi aspires for his country to become part of the international A-list. "Badawi's reference point is the advanced, modern world. He invests a lot in development and looks into the future. This kind of attitude is good for business and he knows it," Kfir said. Yet, he added, for some time during Mahathir's era, Malaysia was a refuge for extremists from neighboring Thailand, which caused a lot of problems with the Thais.
Egyptian born Imam Feisal Abd ar-Rauf, a founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement and spiritual leader of New York mosque located just five blocks from Ground Zero, said during a Ramadan visit that "Malaysia's experience going through independence, establishing a Malaysian identity, creating a coalition government and finding a mechanism for different racial communities to share the power and the economic pies could be an example to many Islamic countries. Malaysia should be more proactive in sharing its experience with the others."
The most vivid proof of Malaysia's religious tolerance is probably the food markets which are wide open during Ramadan. Most of the restaurants offer special iftar fast-breaking meals, when alcohol is also served to non-Muslims and foreigners. What if a Muslim orders wine in a hotel or a restaurant? Dozens of trendy young Malays, looking just like their peers in London, Sydney or elsewhere, who were having a drink in Kuala Lumpur's fashionable Muse club, seemed to not understand the question. "Yes, of course we can have a drink - there are no bans on alcohol in Malaysia," Ahmad, 22, told me, but still asked not to be photographed. However, in 2005 two men were caned in for drinking alcohol in public.
Driving away from the club - it was the first night of Ramadan - I passed a few mosques which were no less crowded that the trendy club I just left. Yet another Malaysian paradox?
Jews in Malaysia
Long before Malaysia's ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad made his infamous remark on Jews, Hitler and Holocaust, a Jewish community made home in a beautiful island of Penang. The Jewish cemetery on the island is believed to be the oldest in the country and probably in the whole region. The oldest legible grave is dated 1805, with the latest one from 1976.
Some graves belong to Jewish soldiers in British army who were killed during their service in World War II. It's believed that there are no Jews left in Malaysia.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>