We were in Langkawi over the weekend and there’s something about the island that the rest of Malaysia might do well to emulate.
We saw little, or no, migrant labour, with locals doing everything from manning the hotels and waiting the tables to driving taxis – lots of female drivers, too – and working as guides. They were polite and, if you could speak reasonable Bahasa, were a lovely lot, always eager to help.
There isn’t a trace of Pas’ influence on the island and thank Heaven for that. By way of explanation, the chief minister of Kedah state, where Langkawi is located, is from the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas, which frowns on anything that’s remotely connected to joy or feelings of good cheer.
We went to Bon Ton for dinner one night to hear Joy Victor front a jazz band so smoking that the appreciative crowd of wall-to-wall Caucasians were besides themselves in rapture. But Norelle, the beanpole Aussie owner of the establishment, told me they were all “locals.” Norelle herself had been in the country for over twenty seven years.
In our party that night was a South American Ambassador who’d taken up his assignment two years ago and seemed fascinated with all things Malaysian.
But it was a comment he made that struck, and quietened, us.
He said before he arrived, the picture he’d envisaged of Malaysia was that of a Third World Southeast Asian developing economy. Not quite Singapore but not Somalia either. Which, if you think about it, isn’t far off the mark.
Then he landed and as his embassy’s car rolled towards Kuala Lumpur, he began asking the same question: “Where are the shanty towns?”
These were the unmistakable signs of urban blight, the slums indelibly associated with developing economies the world over, from Rio to Delhi, from Manila to Jakarta.
“My mother came down recently,” he told us. “And she asked the same question. Your country is fantastic and I don’t see what all the Malaysians I meet are constantly bitching about?”
I do because I’m in my sixties and I remember.
I remember having a leader like Hussein Onn who set great store on honesty which struck me as very impressive then. Yet I remember later assessments of his tenure being denigrated as slow and indecisive. Would that we still had that, rather than the grandiose megaprojects, the massive debt and the corruption that would characterise later leaders.
In the 70s, I remember attending a local university that was ranked higher in quality than its peer in Singapore, a time when our educational excellence was right up there with the best of them, a period when standards mattered, when English was taken matter-of- factly and not treated as some dirty word.
“Patriotism,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” That is self- evident in today’s Malaysia. In the name of nationalism, merit is shunned, corruption is tolerated if not quite extolled and smart people migrate the first chance they get. They don’t want to because what’s not to love about this country, but they see a future where they are not wanted. But most don’t have a choice.
If we are honest with ourselves, the signs of decay are everywhere. Potholes aren’t fixed, the water supply keeps breaking down. It’s scary the way the local colleges turn out graduates that are unemployable. It’s what happens when you drop standards and ignore merit.
Meanwhile, a resigned population accepts everything thrown at them because we have learned to live with third-best.
That’s what we’re bitching about Mr Ambassador.