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Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia

Greetings from the holiday island of Langkawi, it's the first one I'll be visiting in the next few weeks that you've probably heard of and it's the most cosmopolitan resort I can remember going to. Dutch backpackers sunbathe alongside Russian dollybirds haranguing their much less attractive (but nouveau riche) husbands but definitely the most amusing sight I've seen was of an Arab woman in a full burkha paragliding and getting really upset when she got a bit wet on landing!

It has been a very enjoyable couple of weeks spent firstly amongst the notoriously uptight Singaporeans then afterwards amidst the extremely friendly and laid back Malaysians, they have 18 bank holidays for pete sakes!
After 2 months of slumming it somewhat in Indonesia I must admit I really enjoyed spending time in the developed 'Lion city" that is Singapore. In the post World War 2 period perhaps no other country has grown its economy so successfully and whilst some people say it's draconian or even boring you can't help but admire all that has been achieved in the Singapore story.
It was kicked out of Malaysia in the early 1960's in theory because of political differences but in reality because Singapore's inclusion in Malaysia would mean that Malays would no longer be the majority race; and with no natural resources it's future prospects looked dim. However, Singapore had a leader in Lee Kuan Yew who, aside from apparently still holding the record mark in the Cambridge Law Tripos has become the model leader for developing countries. He instituted a strict 'one party democracy' where the government played a very big role in the planning of the economy for growth and allowed no anti social or subversive behavior. Few restrictions were placed on the market attracting overseas firms to invest and various social measures were instituted including high priority placed on education and a one child per family policy. Over time these planning methods have become ever more sophisticated to go beyond mere economic goals to improve the population's work/life balance. The government still plays a massive role in lots of aspects of the daily lives of the population and it's almost like a capitalist version of China.

It's successes are multitudinous and Singapore is arguably the best run city in the world. The Metro system is fantastic, intensive and long sighted land use planning means that seemingly everything works perfectly and is pleasant to look at; and of course it's the cleanest country in the world. The fines are incredible for anti-social behavior and when you hear anecdotes of 13yr olds being fined $350 merely for eating (not even littering) on the metro or the sporadic death sentences for drug smugglers there's a pretty strong argument that they've just gone too far. However, after having traveled most of the last few months in Indonesia and the Philippines where there's a very poor sense of civic pride it made a lot more sense to me. After constantly seeing people smoking 2ft from fellow diners in restaurants, spitting anywhere they liked and the incessant littering which ruins the looks of those countries it was a very pleasant change to be in the order of Singapore. The joke here is that if there's one thing the Chinese will respect it's damage to their wallets and if it needs financial penalties to stop the anti-social behaviour described above then I would take the Singapore method every time.
In it's incessant sale of itself to the international business community it likes to present a vision of 'urban perfection' but of course it's not quite like that.

The newspapers are heavily censored by the government and would have to rate as some of the worst I've read anywhere in the world, (e.g. worse even than The Guardian).
Due to government censorship the newspapers virtually never report anything which could be construed as negative about the country (i.e. no crime reports) and so the pages are filled with celebrity gossip and hilarious letters pages whereby readers are encouraged to write in and report fellow citizens of minor misdemeanors. Therefore you have letters saying things like 'This morning @ 7.25am I saw car registration XYZ123 doing an illegal u-turn at Springfield Junction"; which in a national newspaper in a country of 5million people is absolutely ridiculous, if inadvertently hilarious.
Their education system is also famously good and they regularly come top of various international tables but there are definite weaknesses in the system. A complete preoccupation with business and earning money means that for example 11yr olds are taught accounting as a separate subject but they can't do things like Sociology even at university. The system is also a bit of a 'teachers nightmare' as there's a preoccupation with by rote, spoon fed learning with little encouragement given to unorthodox creative thinking and the creation of a somewhat supine, overworked student population. This translates to most companies having to hire foreigners for the top jobs and for all their focus on maths and sciences Singapore has still to produce a Nobel prize winner.
There are various other complaints you could make about the country such as the limited health service and social welfare provisions but with one of the lowest tax rates and highest standard of living in the world, any criticisms that are made I think are really quite minor.

Singapore is also often criticised for being a bit of a cultural vacuum with there being little more of interest past the 2 national obsessions of eating and shopping but I didn't find this to be the case. Whilst I was happy to eat 4-5 meals a day but less interested in going into Louis Vuittion stores that limit numbers of visitors and have a dress code to ensure its exclusivity there was a lot more to Singapore. It's got a very multi-cultural population with many expats and different areas of the city reflect that with the architecture and sights being enjoyably varied. The government has also worked hard to bring in culture to this very small island and so there's plenty of events like the F1 Grand Prix and concerts going on alongside more permanent attractions like theatres and galleries.
After not having been to a big city I've liked since starting my trip in Taipei it was a very enjoyable wk wondering amongst the skyscrapers. I also got to visit and stay with some friends whilst I was there and really enjoyed the decadence the city can offer. Rather than find it boring I just found myself in awe of everything that's been achieved there and can easily see why it's the model for the developing world to copy.

From Singapore I took the sleeper train into Malaysia and once again got confirmation of what a great place it is. Of other places I've been to it reminds me of Panama or Ecuador in that you just have a fantastic variety of things to do in such a small area. From the perfect white beaches of the coasts and islands, to unspoilt jungle and tea plantations in the interior, a couple of cracking World Heritage coastal cities and the vibrant capital of Kuala Lumpur it's got nearly anything you'd want. As nowhere is ever more than a night bus away traveling around is really easy but what makes it such a perfect holiday destination is the value for money here. The accommodation, transport and other infrastructure are seriously good and in a country composed of Malays, Chinese and Indians the food is absolutely out of this world; but I'm only spending about $15 a day. Decades of export led growth have kept the currency value enjoyable low and it's just an awesome place to travel in.

I've found it culturally a really fascinating place too with it's multifaceted population and somewhat unusual geographical set up (2 very different parts that are not all that close).
For 20 years Malaysia was led by Mahathir who despite being something of an iconoclast in his anti western sentiments proved to be an inspirational leader who dragged Malaysia forward from a fairly poor agricultural society at independence into it's successful 'Asian Tiger' position today. Mahathir set a long-term goal of being a developed nation by 2020 and they've made excellent progress in many ways. Malaysia is blessed with many natural resources including the timber of the Bornean forests and the vast offshore oil deposits as can be seen in what's now the national symbol of the Petronas (the national oil company) Towers. The money generated has been harnessed to greatly improve the nations infrastructure and (most of) the populations basic standards of living but as with most of its neighbors, Malaysia has a terrible corruption problem.
As in the Philippines I've found reading the newspapers to be really quite a dull activity as most of the news consists of the opposition making accusations of corruption against the government, and then the governments strident denials of any wrongdoing. Before I came to this part of the world I had no idea corruption was quite so bad and it's been quite a depressing feature of traveling here. Whilst I've been to a couple places like Kenya and Paraguay which are rated as some of the most corrupt in the world the amounts grafted at the top level here are far more than any other area I've been to. It seems the difference here is the resources that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia possess in comparison with the countries mentioned above. I suppose the logic is that if you have $100 to spend and $15 is creamed off you still have $85 to spend, but if you only have $50 to spend and $10 is creamed off then you only have $40 left. As in the Philippines and Indonesia (both of whose presidents are now in serious hot water in corruption cases) the corruption has created a very visible rich poor gap here.

Whilst in KL and other parts of the West coast peninsula there are plenty of signs of wealth verging on conspicuous consumption, elsewhere it's a very different picture. In the more remote East coast, economic development has been much more limited in the Malay villages and despite generating vast amounts of wealth through it's oil and timber reserves a mere 5% of earnings are reinvested into Borneo. The indigenous population have seen virtually none of the earnings made from their land and the quality of life gap between the high rises of KL and the stilt houses in the poorer communities is probably the single biggest issue Malaysia needs to address if it wants to reach the 'developed nation' by 2020 goal.

Malaysia also likes to pride itself on being a racially harmonious nation but on the ground I found that to be a somewhat specious claim.
There were big riots against the Chinese community in the late '60's and since then there seems to be an unwritten agreement that the Chinese would stay out of politics, provided they could run their businesses undisturbed. There's now a somewhat odd situation where the Chinese are visibly the wealthiest group (and there's little intermarriage) but despite making up nearly a third of the population occupy none of the top political posts or even any jobs in the civil service. On top of this the Chinese have traditionally been far more successful in education but the government give virtually all university scholarships to Malay students citing positive discrimination- but I don't think the different communities agree on that phrase as virtually any conversation with a chinese person here has shown.

Perhaps the one thing which stops Malaysia being a really great tourist destination is the lack of a party scene and that's due wholly to the price of alcohol. A couple of years ago the government increased the taxes on it to such an extent that a pint costs 50% more than accommodation does- and that's from a supermarket. In London it would be the equivalent of 30quid a pint and so it's safe to say I haven't gone beyond a couple of quiet ones with dinner many times in the month I've been here. The Malays are Muslim so in theory it shouldn't affect them and is widely seen as a none too subtle 'extra tax' on the Chinese community but I think it also reflects the slight identity crisis the country seems to be facing. The government has worked hard trying to attract foreign investment over the years and KL is now after Singapore the secondary business hub of the region; but at the same time the Islamic parties have been gaining influence and this has led to a couple of embarrassing cultural clashes in recent years which don't portray the country in a good light. Sharia law has been brought in (but only to apply to Muslims) and in August a Malay woman was given the sentence of a public caning for being caught drinking a beer. After a worldwide uproar they had to let her go amidst fierce public debate here but the other major case has still not been decided. For the second time the charismatic leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim has been arrested for sodomy and his trial is going on at the moment. Aside from the obvious accusation that the government simply trumped up the charges, the idea of someone so senior being on trial for such an offence doesn't look good for Malaysia and underlines the desire to grow on the world stage being perhaps held back by its more traditional beliefs.

After having weaved an incredibly lucky path on my traveling so far, avoiding flooding in Taiwan and the Philippines and 4 earthquakes in Indonesia I'll finish with a cautionary tale.
Today I went to a waterfall and got in to start swimming leaving my stuff in a bag by the side, after a couple of minutes a monkey came along took my bag and ran away. In the bag was my passport, money, camera- basically everything. Still in the water I was fairly petrified about what might happened and scrambled out after him. He ran into some undergrowth and after finding some abandoned trainers I had to crawl about 10m in but thankfully managed to retrieve everything as they'd slowly fallen out of the bag.
I've learned to really hate monkeys. As pets they just stink and do nothing but masturbate all day (you can make your own 'men' jokes) and in the wild they're just thieving, bigger, smarter more aggressive versions of rats. So yeah I was very very relieved, but I still really, really hate monkeys.

Now realizing that I've mentioned lions, tigers and monkeys I take the boat to the land of the elephants that is Thailand tomorrow. Heading to all the famous beaches I know I should write "at this time of year you should be jealous" etc but if it's any consolation, despite now being the dry season it flooded here earlier this week and has been overcast ever since.

From Langkawi,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:42 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore malaysia

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