Malaysia: past, present and future

The world class international hotels and the opulent shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur seem to embrace the twenty-first century with almost indecent haste!   The city’s museum offers grainy photographs of the past alongside a three-dimensional digital projection of a high tech vision of the city’s future. One has to wonder whether this is a forecast or a propaganda campaign for ever taller and ever more glitzy city skyscrapers by 2020?


One part of the city not dwarfed by modern developments is the Royal Selangor Club. As so often seems to be the case, the ubiquitous British gentleman’s club has cornered the most prestigious piece of real estate in the city. The mock Tudor building still stands beside the green though cricket is no longer played there. The little church still caters for Christian worshippers. The security at the club car park is still tight.



IMG_4629Wherever the British went they tended, above all, to seek out the cooler temperatures of the higher ground. The British built their bungalows along hillsides from whence they could engage socially in their overriding passion for getting out a pair of binoculars with which to observe the local birdlife.



The British also tended to hunger for well-maintained lawns. Drive to the top of Frasers Hill and you will find a still immaculately maintained golf course. Take the train to the top of Penang Hill (it is no longer the case that you will be carried up in a sedan chair) and you will find a charming little lawn in front of the quintessentially British Bellevue Hotel.


The British were responsible for encouraging the migration of Indians to Malaysia to work, particularly as labourers on tea and rubber plantations. Hindu temples at the Batu Caves and elsewhere, as well as colourful silk and cotton saris and fine curries are all an additional  cultural legacy associated with the period of British colonial rule.




Half buried beneath the sky-scrapers there is a great throbbing cacophony of life. The hawkers of the night-markets scuttle about for a living. Here, for a few pence, you can feast on satay, stir fry, fresh fruits and curries, all freshly-prepared and fabulously tasty. It is all wonderful to experience, as long as you are prepared to eat amongst the traffic and the noise of the city. Designer shops offer unbelievable catwalk glamour at prices that must appear totally obscene to any ordinary Malay alongside the street-food that is so mind-blowingly cheap and fabulously delicious!

Around the corner from Kuala Lumpur’s five-star hotels and multi-story shopping malls, squeezed into an unlikely spot by a busy road, sits a lovingly, and privately, preserved hundred year old, Malay house, relocated here from northern Malaysia. It once belonged to headman Abu Seman. The design of the house reveals much about Malay culture at the turn of the last century.


One side of the house is reserved exclusively for men. It is where village grievances would be dealt with and justice meted out. On the other side of the house the roof-line protects the privacy of women while allowing them a restricted view of the outside, and pint-sized steps up to their quarters discourage would-be male intruders. Lock-up rooms in the roof are to stop young girls escaping from arranged marriages. These lock-up rooms for daughters and concubines are a feature of many traditional Malay houses.

In Kuala Lumpur as in other parts of Malaysia Malay traditions nestle in amongst many others. On the outskirts of Melaka (aka Malacca) a community remains marked out by its Portuguese, Catholic, colonial heritage. Families here compete to outdo each other in the celebration of Christmas, and all the locals, judging from the huge crowds, join in merrily with the celebrations regardless of faith. Neon nativity scenes of Mary and Joseph sit merrily alongside plastic Santas in almost every  doorway!


The festival seems incongruous in the steamy Malaysian heat, all the more so as the Chinese add their own traditions and superstitions to the festivities by letting paper ‘wish’ lanterns lose to fly in the night sky. For a few pence you can buy a lantern, write a wish on it, light the tea light, wait for the paper balloon to fill with hot air, and let it fly away into the starry sky!

The Portuguese conquered Melaka in 1511, introducing Catholicism to the region. The  Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) took over from the Portuguese in 1602. Hanging on to the benefits of empire is none too easy a thing to do. Private gain usually requires heavy military support, demanding the political will ‘back home’ to finance it. In 1795 maintaining power grew too costly for the Dutch and the region was handed over to the British. 

One of the most interesting Museums in Melaka is the old customs building. It illustrates the various mechanisms for extracting taxes from burgeoning levels of international trade in such things as spices, rubber, tin, cocoa, coffee, tea and cloth.  With the rise in international trade also came the rise in trade in psychotic substances, including opium and cocaine.


During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the use of psychotic drugs grew widespread in Britain not just in opium dens but also as medicine, used by many, including literary figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and even, apparently, by Queen Victoria herself.

By the late nineteenth century the addictive nature of opium was becoming increasingly apparent to the British. While the Pharmacies Act of 1868 restricted drug trafficking in Britain, the Opium act of 1878 enabled traders to pursue an active policy of encouraging addiction abroad, thus underscoring the position of the British as the foremost drug traffickers of the world.  It is a surprising fact, however, that it was the Dutch who first invented the opium pipe in the seventeenth century.

On the road between Melaka and Penang is the province of Perak with its capital city, Kuala Kangsar. In Malaysia each province has a hereditary chief. Which of these Provincial chiefs, or Sultans, will be appointed King is determined by a vote amongst the chiefs themselves, although in practice the outcome is largely based on rotation and seniority, and so the vote is a mere formality. It is a system which helps to promote Malaysian national unity.


Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak Province became the elected King of Malaysia for the usual five year term in 1989. It seems extraordinary that it was only as late as 1985 that the Sultan, a noted international lawyer,  pushed through a change to the Malaysian constitution to remove the privy council in London from acting as the highest level of legal jurisdiction in Malaysia.

As King, Sultan Azlan arranged for extensive renovations and mighty extensions to the already vast and impressive mosque in the city centre. Alongside the mosque there is a gorgeous antique wooden Malay house. Once the home of the provincial chief it is now dwarfed by the mosque. It has been neglected and is in a state of near collapse while awaiting funds for restoration. Sultan Azlan died in April 2014IMG_4701.JPG

The traditional wood structure of the town’s mausoleum is also in need of restoration. It is riddled with termites and is closed to the public. In Kuala Kangsar and elsewhere in Malaysia, competing groups have to jostle with one another for public funds.


On the waterfront in Georgetown, Penang, is Fort Cornwallis, the largest fort in Malaysia. Built in the late eighteenth century its function was more administrative than military. Close by are other, rather grand, administrative buildings. The white walls  and open vistas of the European design offer virtually no shade. The result is that the steamy Malaysian heat is unpleasantly intensified for those passing by.

The Queen Victoria clock tower nearby was commissioned by the Chinese millionaire-philanthropist Cheong Fatt Tze. His intention was to impress the British with his loyalty to the crown, and to thereby to secure his role as a leading local trading partner. The clock tower stands incongruously suggesting a stubbornly overdressed monarch staunchly ignoring the tropical heat.

ChIMG_4746eong Fatt Tze also financed the construction of the enormous Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple at the base of Penang Hill. Vast and gaudy, surrounded by hawkers and holiday makers, the temple seems more of an amusement park than a holy and serene place of worship.


IMG_4763Cheong Fatt Tze’s home, now known as the Blue Mansion, is not far from the port district. It was built to show his immense personal fortune, and to underline both his Chinese origins and his ability to pander to European tastes. It was, in effect, his business calling card. When he died Cheong Fatt Tze left the house to his seventh wife, Tan Tay Po, whom he had married in his seventies when she was just seventeen. She was not even his last wife, but, apparently, though usually he had married for business reasons, in her case he had married for love, or so the story goes!

He left instructions in the will that the house could not be sold until both sIMG_4748he and the son she bore him had died. Left with insufficient funds to maintain an expensive property, and beset by ‘squatters’ in the extended family who took advantage of the situation and could not be turned away, Blue Mansion fell into a state of decay.  It has now been sold on and restored. It houses a museum and an expensive boutique hotel.

The Chinese contact with Malay people began some 2000 years ago. Many Chinese immigrants settled permanently in Malaysia and a number of them, like Cheong Fatt Tze, became exceptionally wealthy. Other Chinese immigrants intermarried with the local Malay people, mixing together the Malay and the Chinese cultures forming a new, distinctly identifiable culture in its own right known as Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya.


The Peranakan home known as the Green Mansion in Georgetown is delicately opulent and it contains a vast collection of fine silk clothing and golden jewellery. It also has a priceless collection of imported, Italian Murano glass, reminding visitors that the trade flows in more than one direction.


The Green Mansion has three dining rooms. One is for the family’s private use. It has two large mirrors, strategically placed so that the head of the table can see the main entrance as well as the back entrance of the house. Another dining room has a long oval table with kitsch figurines and chintz chairs. It is for entertaining British guests. The third dining room has the round table preferred by Chinese guests. In it there is a certificate indicating that the holder is licensed to trade in opium. There is a separate room at the back of the dining rooms containing an opium bed, complete with the requisite wooden cushions for helping users avoid accidental suffocation.

IMG_4860According to the Peranakan way of thinking, money, like water, should never be stagnant. It should arrive quickly and leave slowly. Underlining this philosophy the house has an open central courtyard to let in the rain and the wind, swirl it around, and let it out again slowly, thus achieving ‘Fang Shue’ peace and harmony. Just in case the Fang Shue design does not ensure that peace and harmony prevails the house is also equipped with a lock up room for preventing the escape of the young concubines.

IMG_4868 The Green Mansion has several rooms for use during the twelve-day wedding ceremony. These are not rooms in which the bride and groom might live, only where the wedding vows are to be consummated. Many young brides were forced into arranged marriages having barely come of age. Reluctant brides in the Peranakan culture might be locked up as easily as concubines whenever necessary.

IMG_4793In Chinese culture, in business as well as in domestic life, family bonds are all important. This attitude is cemented in the traditional practices of ancestor worship.  In the centre of Georgetown the Khoo Kangsi clan have lived for generations in residences clustered around the clan’s ornately decorated theatre and Taoist Temple.

IMG_4825At the other end of the social scale, houses built on stilts along jetties that reach out into the sea along the Penang coastline are dedicated to a particular Chinese clan, such as the Chew or the Tan. The Chinese and the Peranakan can best be see as two distinct cultures with something of a common base in history.


UNESCO granted Melaka and Georgetown joint status  as world heritage sites in 2008. This has opened up a new chapter of preservation and restoration. Lithuanian street artist, Ernest Zacharevic,  was motivated, as part of the cultural upsurge in Georgetown, to depict scenes of ordinary everyday life in various street locations around the city.

IMG_4890These scenes are now much loved by tourists and locals alike. They have been added to by other artists in the city.

Contemporary life is part of the ever-changing cultural landscape of any country. Culture is not frozen in time, it is a living thing and it is fragile. It must be handled with loving care. According to the Malaysian constitution the country is a secular state, but as Islam was introduced centuries ago through links with Arab states, the Sultans, along with two thirds of the people, are Muslim. There is, therefore, something of a balancing act going on between these two tranches of governance. This colourful and diverse nation has so much to offer the world. My hope for Malaysia is that this rich embrace survives and strengthens as we go into the twenty-first century. The signs are good, but they must be nourished.




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