Malaysia... Tolerance, the Essence of Modernity

Malaysia... Tolerance, the Essence of Modernity

Malaysia s experiment in turning into a new Asian tiger is extremely important in the Muslim world as it is a vivid example of achieving progress in a predominantly Muslim country with other ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic minorities who all have the same rights and duties under a single national flag.

There are many mosaic (rainbow) nations in the world. This is not interesting per se, but what is interesting in Malaysia is coexistence among its diverse components. In this country we saw a real rainbow, not a child s imagination or an artist s painting, and touched its colours which are full of joy, vitality and ambition that Malaysia s dream of becoming a developed country by 2020 on the basis of participation and integration will come true.

Progress and aspirations

A rule we learned from travel is that a good country is one you can discover within a short period. I visited Malaysia for a few days in the late 1990s when I had the impression that this country had a lot to do to reveal its hidden attractions and treasures. We couldn t easily recognize what we read in books about it no efficient transport network or tourist services.

Many transformations have taken place since then, particularly after the many reports about Malaysia becoming a tourist hub with a standard of services not below that of neighbouring countries, such as Thailand. We saw the first of these transformations at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which covers an area of 25,000 hectares and can handle seventy airliners per hour. This modern airport connects Malaysia with more than 100 major stations, and is thus a hub airport in that part of Asia.

In Kuala Lumpur, sandy streets and old buildings have disappeared, and a modern city has emerged combining originality and development: well-planned streets and clear traffic signs, and, like any European city, has monorails which connect all parts of the city in a quiet, accurate operation. Above all transformations stand Petronas twin towers, the tallest in the world now after the collapse of World Trade Center twin towers in New York in 2001.

Petronas twins, which rose 88 floors a few years after my first visit, were not the city s doll intended to be media bubbles, but a symbol of Malaysia s progress and outlook for the future. They consist of offices which pay a high rent for being in that vital place.

Kuala Lumpur is full of skyscrapers and countless huge shopping malls which were not there ten years ago, but it seems that good economic conditions and the huge influx of tourists have boosted this consumerist trend. Changing to gas instead of petrol has considerably reduced pollution in Kuala Lumpur and encouraged people to walk, but because of humidity and high temperatures on sunny days walking is very tiring and many people therefore wear masks.

In its constant effort to be distinguished it sent one of its nationals into outer space on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz, the ninth Muslim astronaut, but the first to travel in outer space while fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Malaysia has an ambitious plan to have a Malaysian man land on the moon by 2020.

A historic moment

We didn t know that we were in luck until our arrival in Malaysia which coincided with a historic moment we watched on TV: the smooth transition of power from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who developed the theory of civilized Islam, to his deputy Najeeb Abdul-Razzaq, who will continue fulfilling the dream which former Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammad started.

Ordinary Malaysians have become interested in such a political event, not out of curiosity or fun making, but because they felt that the modernity issue affected their lives directly. We felt that everywhere we went, and some comments were almost identical. They praised the infrastructure, particularly the paved streets which made life easier. In this way we monitored Malaysians bright outlook for the future and their big dream of their country becoming part of the developed world.

Now back to the historic moment, which, though important, was an exciting opportunity to see the Sultan assuming power in a smooth transition. It is just a formal procedure, as, under Malaysia s constitution, most powers are in the hands of the prime minister and the ruling party. The king is elected from nine Sultans for a five-year term in rotation.

Malaysia is a federation consisting of 13 states: Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Pinang, Perek, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu.

A homeland for all

Our daily tours of Kuala Lumpur allowed us to identify its ethnic diversity which represents the three main nationalities in Malaysia: the Malays, the Chinese and he Indians who make up 60%, 30, and 10% of the population respectively. Places of worship with different architectural styles give a touch of beauty to the emerging city. Shop names are in many languages, as if they were press cuttings collected in one place. The capital s picture is not complete without visiting Chinatown and the Indian quarter, or Little India . In the former quarter China is present with all its cooking styles and eating habits. The latter quarter contains nothing more than cloth and gold shops. Arabic enjoys a high status in Malaysia. It if found, e.g., on banknotes and traffic and road signs. Conditions in Malaysia during the British occupation were different in terms of the relationship among the three main nationalities. Occupation authorities conditioned their social and economic structure in such a manner that would trigger ethnic strife at any time after their departure. They forced the Malays, the majority of the population, to live in the countryside to grow rice, settled the Chinese in cities and towns to carry on commerce, and assigned the job of rubber collection to the Indians.

As a result of this division, the Chinese became the wealthiest; the Muslim Malays the poorest. After independence, decision-makers did not oppress the Chinese or expel them but followed a policy of equal opportunities for the Malays to acquire wealth, power sharing, an education system which promotes the principle of a homeland for all, and criminalizing insulting different religious beliefs, even for fun. This policy took some time to bear fruit, and the imbalance in the distribution of wealth was redressed, and except for the 1969 confrontations between the Malays and the Chinese, no incidents of ethnic strife have been recorded since then.

Our daily visits to Malaysia s mosaic did not fully satisfy us, and so we had a wonderful time exploring Malaysia differently through an evening of Malaysian folk music and art representing all Malaysia s ethnic communities. About fifteen male and female dancers wearing embroidered clothes gave a number of Indian and Chinese folklore performances, the strangest of which shows primitive man who still lives in Malaysia. The most enjoyable scene was the Indian one which two dancers in traditional saris performed to the sound of music getting louder and the dancer's anklets in sync with the drum beats. That scene would have been more beautiful if the music had been live rather than recorded.

Malacca, Islam s gateway to Malaysia

This time we decided to get out of Kuala Lumpur and go to the city of Malacca (Melaca in the local dialect), which is famous for being the gate through which Islam entered Malaysia. It was a two-hour journey during which our guide gave us some information about its history.

Before Islam, Malacca was a major trading centre. That was a mixed blessing. Besides Islam, it was occupied by the bloodthirsty Portuguese commander Alfonso Alborcurc in 1511 ushering successive periods of colonial rulers who wanted to control the spice sea route which Muslim merchants had dominated for centuries.

The story of the spread of Islam in Malaysia may not be separate from its spread at the hands of merchants through the Archipelago of Malacca and later by Arab immigrants who helped spread and promote Islam in these areas.

The Dutch obelisk, St. Paul s Church and John Fort are major remnants of colonial epochs. Like Kuala Lumpur, the city s inhabitants are mixed, but predominantly Chinese. We also stopped at very old Buddhist temples. The heart of the city is bustling with life, with affirms its commercial nature.

Malaysia and the financial crisis

The global financial crisis affected our Exploration and caused a key question to come to mind: How will Malaysian ambitions cope with the severe crisis which hit the world s strongest economy? We put this question to Dr Ahmad Al-Farra, the researcher in the Malaysian Institute of Strategic Studies, whose answer reviewed some of Malaysia s experiments in the face of the 1997 economic crisis: Of all the tigers, Malaysia was the least affected in the global financial crisis which bit the world in the 1990s because it didn t rely on foreign cash. It took a number of measures, including fixing the value of the Malaysian dollar against the US dollar and prevented dealing in the latter. Former Prime Minister Mahatir Muhammad gave Malaysian businessmen a three-month period to repatriate their funds in Malaysian dollars, otherwise they would be deemed illegal. Within a week of that decision $3 bn entered Malaysia, all from Singapore.

Due to the fall in the value of the dollar, imports were reduced to a minimum to meet basic needs and depend on local products. Mergers between small and large banks were allowed. Banks stopped giving loans, and interest on deposits was raised. Mahatir said this formula suited other countries, but Malaysia would face its economic crisis its own way. His economic policy drew a lot of internal and external criticism.

Anti-corruption commissions were set up. The first was in AMNU, the majority party in the government coalition and parliament; the second in the governing coalition; the third, a general commission authorized to summon any senior government official, including Mahatir himself. A judicial system was set up with a special court for litigation against the king, sultans and members of the ruling families.

Concluding, Al-Farra emphasized that all those measures helped save Malaysia s economy from collapse and reduced the effects of the pervious ad current financial crises.

An alternative tourist destination

As previously mentioned, Kuala Lumpur has undergone dramatic transformations which made it an ideal modern city. After the September 11 attacks in New York, Malaysia introduced itself to the world as the best tourist destination and adopted the slogan Malaysia, Truly Asia , in direct reference to the fact that it represents all Asia.

Malaysia had previously taken an important decision cancelling all entry visas. Moreover, the media machine launched a campaign to attract Arab - especially Gulf tourists promoting the so-called Islamic Tourism which highlights Malaysians conservative environment and its agreement with the Gulf region s social customs, in addition to the many mosques and Muslim Malaysian women wearing headscarves.

Reasonable prices in Malaysia may also make it an alternative tourist destination to the European countries where tourism is extremely expensive. This may imply that Malaysia is only Kuala Lumpur, but other areas, such as the island of Pinang, attract Malaysia s visitors, especially as many parts of Europe are covered in snow.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


A panoramic view of the quiet town of Putra Jaya, which aspires to be Malaysia’s administrative capital in a few years’ time now that Kuala Lumpur suffers traffic congestion and air pollution

Beside the gate of the Sultan of Malaysia’s palace this guard in his uniform and traditional loincloth stands motionless in spite of the many visitors and bright camera flashes

A monorail crosses the city, reflecting the significant development in Kuala Lumpur’s transport network

The 88- storey Petronas twin towers, a symbol of Malaysia’s progress and future aspirations

Despite the modern building revolution in Kuala Lumpur, Islamic architecture still has a good place among skyscrapers and high-rise towers

The Chinese are keen to decorate and distinguish the entrances to the roads leading to their quarter. Pictured is an entrance to Chinatown in the state of Malacca

During our stay, Malaysia hosted Formula One Race. This Important world sporting event was widely advertised

A Malaysian girl performs her religious rituals in a Buddhist temple

A breathtaking view of Putra Jaya Mosque on Lake Putra Jaya

Primitive man still lives in some regions in Malaysia

A conspicuous-looking artist selling his paintings near an archaeological site in Malacca

Dr Ahmad Al-Farra

A busy Chinatown street

In the National Museum: A diorama of an Arab merchant prompting the Sultan of Malacca to bear witness to embracing Islam, a historic event which paved the way for the entry of Islam into all parts of Malaysia

A Buddhist monk blessing a Malaysian man of Indian origin

A pitcher and cup from the Malaysian National Museum

A Malaysian woman of Indian origin sells souvenirs to foreign tourists who flock to Malaysia

Al-Bukhari Mosque, one of the largest in the capital Kuala Lumpur

Muslim Malaysian women of Malayan origin always wear headscarves. Pictured are girls who have just performed the Friday prayer

The entrance to John Fort, a prominent landmark in the state of Malacca

A bronze memorial put up in 1966 dedicated to those killed in the 12-year confrontations with Communist rebels which ended in 1960

Ice-skating is a pleasure in a hot equatorial country like Malaysia. A huge ground floor ice-skating rink in a modern shopping mall

Two faces from the folklore evening which represented all ethnic groups in Malaysia

Two faces from the folklore evening which represented all ethnic groups in Malaysia

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