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Sunday Sentiments

  • A Kuala Lumpur diary

    Posted On September 30, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    I had no idea it could be so traumatic to leave India. One usually looks forward to it. With eager anticipation you count the days. Going abroad, after all, is fun. But these days the hurtful part is the shock of how far behind the world outside has left us. We dream of economic liberalisation and development hastened by NRI funds. The reality, however, is different. Last week I visited Malaysia and found out for myself. This diary is therefore as much a record of my sense of wonder and amazement as it is of my inescapable feelings of discontent.

    With hindsight the airport at Kaula Lumpur is a perfect indication of what to expect. It makes Changi at Singapore look old-fashioned whilst in comparison Heathrow, JFK and even Charles de Gaulle feel grimy and tired. But when you first arrive you don’t yet know this.

    “It makes me feel sick” said M.J. Akbar. He meant sick with envy. We had arrived together from Delhi. MJ was, I presume, on work. I had come to judge the Asian Television Awards.

    The airport comprises three satellite terminals linked by a monorail to a central building. The whole thing is built of chrome and glass. It’s large, bright and airy and it gleams. It’s located 70 kilometres from the city centre but the five lane highway into town is a dream drive. The S320 Mercedes covered the distance in just 40 minutes.

    If this is my introduction to KL, I said to myself, I can’t wait to see what the city itself has to offer. Airports reflect a city’s character even if they are designed as attempts to flatter and deceive. Palam is exactly what you would expect the airport in Delhi to be like once you have experienced the city. Would KL the town live up to its airport?

    What I saw of KL was small, smart, stylish and occasionally very sophisticated. It’s a modern city but still unaware of its developed character. In places it resembles Singapore but its ambience is less rushed and more friendly. At night the lights of Jalan Bukit Bintang invite you to stop by for coffee or ice cream. Like Paris you sit outside savouring the cool night breeze. During the day the shops in the twin tower complex or Star Hill are a shopper’s delight. From Audemars Piguet to Zegna it’s all there – although surprisingly you won’t find Church’s shoes nor Lacoste shirts. But the truly amazing part is the service in the hotels. I was staying at the Ritz-Carlton. Usually that’s not a hotel I would choose. I used to think of it as fussy and over decorated. I was wrong. It’s elegant yet comforting. But what I was most wrong about was how welcoming it proved to be. The doorman who greeted me when I first arrived knew my name. I never found out how. And thereafter everyone I met – from the elevator operator to the housekeeping lady – seemed to know it as well. Of course, it was a PR trick but it’s one that works. “Welcome back Mr. Thapar” is a lovely greeting when you return to the hotel after a long day at work.

    Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography is the big reading sensation in this part of the world. No doubt the Malaysians are a lot less keen on it than their neighbours and former compatriots across the Straits. But that was only to be expected. Nonetheless the Malays have by no means overlooked it. Both the second volume – which is new – and the older first one are displayed prominently in all the bookshops. They are big, heavy books although the style is easy and the content gripping and controversial. Much like the author they cannot be ignored.

    On the flight in I read a large extract serialised in The Straits Times. It described how Lee Kuan Yew realised that Singapore needed a new generation of politicians to succeed him. It happened when he noticed that his ministers were using electric heaters under the cabinet table to warm their feet. And can you guess how he found the replacements? Unhappy with the available selection of MPs he organised a talent search amongst the top echelons of academia and business. Of this lot those who showed promise were further tested by psychologists to ascertain their suitability. What was he looking for? Not simply

    talent or a successful track record. That was to be assumed. No, he wanted character. He defined it in terms of the ability to take initiatives including well-planned risks. The ability to play safe was simply not considered.

    When the Malaysians constructed the Petronas Towers their aim was to build higher than New York’s World Trade Centre or Toronto’s Sears Tower. Now, I’m told, the good burghers of Shanghai are planning their own highrise to outdo KL. This architectural one up-manship may be foolish but it certainly is fun. I’ve been to all three and I’ve little hesitation in stating that the KL twin towers look the prettiest. By day they all seem alike. But at night KL steals a march on its competitors. Bathed in white light, each floor of the Petronas Towers looks like a diamond choker sparkling on the neck of a well-dressed woman. The sad part is you cannot go all the way to the top. But give the Malaysians time. I’m sure it won’t take them long to create their own equivalent of New York’s Windows of the World. The only problem is you might end up seeing the bright lights of Singapore. I doubt if the locals would want that.

    I’ve heard the most amazing story about the Managing Director of Pakistan Television. He was invited to judge one of the earlier rounds of the Asian Television Awards. This one was held in Singapore. Having availed of a free ticket and after checking in to a luxury hotel at the organiser’s expense he decided he was too tired to do any judging on the first day. The next morning he had a different excuse. He told Jonathan Hallett, the Chairman of the jury and his host, that he could not be bothered to watch more than five minutes of any one programme. That, he announced, was sufficient to judge its merit. When Jonathan pointed out that the rules required the programmes be watched in full this gentleman claimed that was exploitation. When his persistence started to irritate the other judges Jonathan asked if he wanted to opt out. With unbecoming alacrity the answer was yes. But what surprised everyone was that the visiting MD continued to stay in the hotel – as a guest of the organisers – and after a few days of undeserved holiday flew back at their expense. “What hurt” Jonathan added “was that he didn’t have the courtesy to say goodbye!”

    There is one thing I didn’t like about Malaysia but it’s probably the only thing – Malaysian Airways. Despite the fact I had a confirmed seat for my return and quite overlooking the trouble the hotel had taken to re-confirm my passage, I arrived at the airport to find I had been struck off the passenger list.

    No amount of explanation or pleading would change the obdurate attitude of the airline staff. In all honesty, it was a confrontation I was destined to lose. In the end I was forced to buy a new ticket at a much higher price to get back. And what did I find when I boarded the benighted flight? There were at least four empty seats in the section I was originally booked to fly. When I asked the airhostess on board how this had happened she said, with disarming honesty : “Who knows Sir! They neither tell us when the plane is full nor when it is absolutely empty. The ground staff have a mind of their own and are not accountable to anyone.”

    Now where have I heard that before?

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