I dropped into Malaysia armed with F. Spencer Chapman’s anti-Japanese guerrilla war memoir The Jungle is Neutral and took his words to heart. ‘It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive. There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Chapman survived the jungle’s ‘green hell’ — of blackwater fever, leeches, beriberi, sores, the Nips and a starvation diet of tapioca and rat (which he says is better than chicken) — for more than three years.
I lasted less than three weeks.
It was my first time in Malaysia, but I knew I had been here before, because it looks just like everywhere else in the world today. Tesco, KFC, the golden arches, Indian curry, Chinese noodles, air-conditioning. I could have been in Phoenix, or Slough. As we got sucked endlessly down eight-lane highways I pressed my nose against the car window. Once I glimpsed a hornbill soaring above a dwindling patch of mighty trees about to be bulldozed to make way for another food hall. Another day, in the Cameron Highlands, I saw a Sakai aboriginal smoking a ciggy on the porch of his delightfully constructed bamboo kongsi-house.
Otherwise I knew we were in Asia only because the high-rises were covered in pinkish tiles — typical for the Far East — of the kind you see in public lavatories. What is singularly Malaysian, however (apart from the Petronas Towers and a liking for 1980s pop music), is that everywhere you see teams of men cutting the grass. Once they had blowpipes. Now they have strimmers. And shop manikins dressed in cultural garb and plastic orchids.
Why am I so aggrieved? I have been conned, that’s why. Back home in Kenya we are always told that, in 1960, the average African country’s GNP was exactly the same as Malaysia’s. Today Malaysia is about to enter the G20. It’s the biggest manufacturer of surgical gloves in the world and, thanks to swine flu, the orders are piling up. It grows more rubber and palm oil than Africa. Every year, millions of holidaymakers say, ‘Malaysia, truly Asia.’ That’s success. That’s progress. Africa, meanwhile, has not done so well. We have about 22 trees still standing in the continent. We have no food but plenty of AK-47s. The fastest-growth industry is kidnapping — children and white females being favoured targets. I look at the choices: ultra-violent failed state or Starbucks and has-been rock band concerts.
One African who I know disagrees with me and definitely sees Malaysia as the future is Robert Mugabe. This is where he stashes all the money (wang, as the Malays call it) he stole from Zimbabwe, thereby helping Malaysia inch closer to G20 status. Bob and his shopping-mad wife Grace are banned from Knightsbridge. Not a problem. Harrods has opened a boutique branch at Kuala Lumpur airport. Here the Mugabes can, when they want a break from boring old sadza, buy their Earl Grey tea and chunky marmalade without fear of attack by Tony Blair’s ‘gay gangsters’.
During my visit Malaysia’s state news agency was claiming that homosexuality and masturbation cause swine flu. The state’s advice is that these activities cause ‘the body to develop friction heat’, which causes swine flu. The agency says straight sex does not cause friction heat, so no swine flu. Why does Malaysia get away with this — but Thabo Mbeki doesn’t? Every day I saw thousands of Malaysians wearing surgical facemasks. What a waste of effort, I thought. What if these people were letting H1N1 in through the back door? What if they were masturbating?
This is a country that canes women who drink beer. It imprisons and whips refugees fleeing the brutal military regime in Burma. I want Africa to be compared to a country other than Malaysia — and I want an alternative future to Kuala Lumpur food halls.
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