Wednesday August 13, 2003

This article by Michelle Hsu of The China Post was written after a Malaysian tour in early 2003. It was originally published in four parts and appeared in The China Post of 16.06.03, 30.06.03, 14.07.03 and 04.08.03.

The new, modern Malaysia

From its gleaming new airport to the world tallest buildings, Malaysia is quickly shedding its former identity as it becomes a popular tourist haven

For most travelers, an airport is merely a transportation hub and transfer area where few people would like to stay long. Yet, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) could be one of the only exceptions to this generalization. Most people, upon arriving there, are impressed by its magnificent design at first glance, and are compelled to have a closer look at what is probably the most modern airport they have ever seen.
KLIA’s gleaming architectural delight comes from the design of Japan’s internationally reputed architect, Kisho Kurokawa. Since commencing operations in mid-1998, KLIA, located in Sepang of Selangor, has replaced the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport as the premier international gateway into Malaysia.
Fully computerized, the state-of-the-art airport is approximately 70 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur. It takes around one hour to travel down the Elite Expressway to and from the city.
The 11,000-hectare KLIA, constructed with a budget of 9 billion ringgits, or around US$2.368 billion, presents a modern architectural beauty while providing travelers with spacious comfort. Some waiting areas feature displays of the rainforest and the unique natural beauty of the country’s tropical landscape.
As one of the world’s newest international airports, the KLIA is a magnificent example of the sprit in Malaysia to pursue world-class excellence. The KLIA could very well single-handedly overturn some misconceptions of many people, who equate Malaysia only with its traditional, natural and cultural heritage.
In fact, Malaysia is not so traditional anymore. Located at the center of the Southeast Asia, Malaysia actually has impressed the world with one superb building after another, all of which were built in recent years.
Two years before the KLIA, Malaysia took center stage with the 452-meter Petronas Twin Towers, which so far remain being the tallest buildings in the world. Connected with a skybridge on the 41-42 floors, the 88-storey twin towers sprawl over 1.5 million square feet at the heart of the golden triangle of Kuala Lumpur, constituting a comprehensive one-stop shopping area in Malaysia, with fashion, entertainment, leisure and dining facilities all under one roof.
Another noticeable building in Kuala Lumpur is the 421-meter telecommunication tower, located in Menara Kuala Lumpur, allowing visitors to view the whole city with a 360-degree vantage point. While one can see as far as the Straits of Malacca on a clear day, the tower also amazes visitors with the 100-year-old Jelutong tree, preserved on the ground, which cost the Malaysian government around 430,000 ringgits to preserve during the construction of the tower.
Malaysia is one of the few Asian countries with Islam as its national religion. It’s proud to have built some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, which are the most eye-catching attractions of the scenery on the highway from the KLIA to downtown Kuala Lumpur.
Besides the native Malays, who account for around 60% of the 23.26 million inhabitants in Malaysia, there are 26 other races in the country. Chinese and Indians are the two largest immigrant groups, accounting for 24% and 10% of the total population, respectively.
As a fusion of such a big variety of cultures, Malaysia allows religious freedom while respecting the customs and the ways of lives of different peoples. “We don’t mix them up into a new culture, but encourage different peoples to preserve their cultural traditions and harmoniously get along with each other on the territory of Malaysia,” said Ng Yen Yen, deputy minister of Ministry of Culture, Arts, and Tourism Malaysia, as she received a mass media delegation from Taipei, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong in February 2003.
Tourists can experience the rich cultural diversity of Malaysia as simply as from the breakfasts served at most hotels in Kuala Lumpur. The Swiss-Garden Hotel, for example, simultaneously serves the food of Western and the local flavors of native Malays, Chinese and Indians in its breakfast cafeteria.
The Malaysian government manages to retain its rich heritage of culture and tradition during the course of modernization. As Ng stressed, Malaysia is a unique country distinguished by the harmonious relationships among its different peoples. Despite the international community’s fear of Islamic countries after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York in 2001, Malaysia has maintained a robust 4% growth in tourism business as it recorded 13.3 million international tourists last year.
Roughly since the mid-1980s has the tourism become the second largest industry of the country in terms of annual foreign exchange earnings, only trailing to the manufacturing industry. The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) estimates an annual earnings of 42.6 billion of the tourism industry in 2002, equivalent to 8.9% of the country’s GDP.
Abundant with natural beauty and cultural heritage, Malaysia is also a popular tourist destination for the people from its neighboring countries. Last year, the country received 7.55 million tourists from Singapore, and another 1.16 million from Thailand, accounting for 58% of the total foreign tourists. According to the tourism bureau, the tourists from mainland China have increased in numbers rapidly in recent years as a result of the burgeoning economy there. There were 557,647 tourists from the mainland in 2002, the fourth highest following the 769,128 of Indonesia and more than doubling the 209,706 of Taiwan.
Langkawi: lush, lovely, and laid-back

Langkawi, a popular Malaysian tourist destination, captivates travelers not only with its rustic beauty, but also with a heritage of fabulous myths and legends.
Its development seems to follow an old tale that saw the area cursed by Princess Mahsuri to remain barren for seven generations. The princess was sentenced to death for being accused of adultery, and maintained her innocence as white blood flew from her body during her execution.
Coincidentally, Langkawi in fact remained desolate for the nearly two hundred years due to one after another war until the late 1980s, roughly seven generations after the execution of Princess Mahsuri, who was finally laid to rest in a small village, around 12 km north of Langkawi’s largest town, Kuah. Her tomb, built with white marble in Muslim religious style, has become a renowned tourist spot, made all the more impressive by the traditional Malay movable wooden houses located there.
In this small town adjacent to Malaysia’s northern border with Thailand, products labeled "Made in Thailand" are popular, revealing the harmonious interaction between the Muslim residents of the village and the Buddhists of southern Thailand.
Langkawi began to divulge its secrets at a time when eco-tourism came out as a viable travel option in its own right during the late 1980s. Since then, the area has become one of the world's primary destinations for eco-tourism, a form of travel that combines ecology with tourism. Its verdant rural landscape, serene sky, forest, wildlife, jungle, and long sandy beach blend perfectly, making Langkawi an ideal place for both leisurely pursuits and adventures on land or sea.
Belonging to the agricultural Kedah state of northern Malaysia, Langkawi is composed of 104 islands and islets that are separated from peninsular Malaysia by the Straits of Malacca. The total land area covers 47,848 hectares, and the main island of Langkawi itself occupies 32,000 hectares.
It’s an exciting journey to take a boat sailing between Langkawi and the surrounding islands to enjoy the fascinating placid water and clear sky. Diving, swimming and fish feeding are other popular water activities in which many indulge when they travel to this part of the country.
What’s more, eagle feeding is another popular activity attracting many tourists who undertake sightseeing excursions in the mangrove forests of the area.
The eagle is the most representative wildlife of Langkawi, as the island derives its name from the eagle - lang - while Kawi denotes reddish brown. The magnificent eagle statue poised for flight in Eagle Square (Dataran Lang in Malay language) is the most prominent landmark for visitors from sea, a place most people should not miss when they travel to Langkawi.
Langkawi is also famous for its mangrove forests on its eastern and southern coasts. The forest is among the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, covering an area of 8,000 hectares. Located on the estuaries of four rivers, the mangrove forest preserves abundant natural resources, while the mangrove itself, with its roots extended deep into the mud, can help to stabilize the shoreline and help soil from being eroded by the salty water.
It’s a rare experience to glide on the tranquil river in the mangrove forest on a quiet boat, enjoying the intrinsic charming beauty of the mangrove forest. A famous cave of bats is beside the river, home to nearly one hundred bats that rest on the cave walls during the day. The cave is so dark that electric light is needed for those who wish to take a closer look inside the cave.
Langkawi’s highest point is Mount Raya, rising 869.4 meters above the sea. Travelers can get a good look at the mountain and the surrounding scenery, including cliffs, rainforest, waterfalls, and the ocean sea, by riding on the newly-completed electric cable cars from the Oriental Village on the island’s plain up to the top of Gunung Machinchang, as high as 708 meters above the sea. One of the most exciting views visible is the world’s oldest rock, calculated to be 500 million years old.
At the top, two 360-degree platforms have been built for the enjoyment of travelers as they take in views of the Andaman Sea. On a clear day, southern Thailand can even be spotted. Passengers can take the cable car back to the Oriental Village, which is 2.2 km away from Gunung Machinchang, and enjoy the same scenery from different angles.
The vertical cable system, completed in November 2002, is built with the world’s most advanced cable car technology, allowing the car to move vertically, conforming to the shape of the mountain. The cable system is composed of 35 cars, and is able to carry 700 passengers per hour.
The cable system was, moreover, designed with strict environmental protection protocols. It makes no pollution, and, during construction, all materials were delivered by helicopter or other aircraft so as to ensure perfect conservation of the natural landscape and resources located around the island.
The cable system is built with a budget of 4.6 million ringgits as a joint venture between Australian Dopple-Mayer and one Malaysian company.
Penang: Pearl of the Orient
For most Chinese, Penang is more than simply a Malaysian vacation resort with tropical palm-fringed sandy beaches and deep blue seas. It once served as the overseas base for Dr. Sun Yat-sen and other Chinese revolutionaries as they fought to overthrow the last Chinese dynasty and establish the first republican government in Asia.
The building, where Dr. Sun and other revolutionaries gathered to draw up their plans during the early 20th century, is still well protected as a heritage site in Penang, the fact of which points to a unique historical relationship between Malaysia and China.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who is respected as the Father of the Republic of China, dubbed overseas Chinese as the Father of the Chinese Revolution. Without their help, Dr. Sun and his revolutionary brethren could hardly have survived as they were being hunted by the Ching Dynasty government as seditionists, let alone eventually overthrowing the Manchu Empire in China in 1911.
The contribution made by Chinese expatriates to the Chinese Revolution remains a source of pride of today’s Chinese residents of Penang. The Kwang Hua Jih Pao, founded by Dr. Sun for advocating the revolution ideals to overseas Chinese in Malaysia, is still in circulation as the largest Chinese newspaper in Penang.
The two-story shop house where Dr. Sun stayed during the Chinese Revolution is located in the Armenian, which was a small but prominent merchant community built during the early years of Penang. Built by an overseas Chinese in the 1870s, the shop house maintains its original exterior and interior architecture, decorated with carved timber screens on the walls. The air wells in the garden adjacent to the living room were once a common residential facility, hallmarks of a wealthy family in ancient China.
In fact, several similar shop houses were built at the same time in the small Armenian alley where many Chinese businessmen clustered in the late 19th and early 20th century. The small community well reflects the lifestyles of the Chinese merchants at that time, combining a place of residence place on the second floor, with a shop on the first floor, of a same building.
As a well-preserved historic site in Penang’s capital Georgetown, the Armenian was one of the spots where the 20th Century Fox-produced movie “Anna and the King” was shot in 1999. The movie with its cast including Oscar-winner Jodie Foster and Asia’s “Movie King” Chow Yun-Fat actually spent 12 days shooting in Georgetown.
Claimed to have one of the largest collections of 19th and 20th century buildings in Southeast Asia, Georgetown protects its heritage under the most stringent standards in the state’s Rent Control Act, passed in 1948.
Named after Britain’s King George III, the city developed under the heavy influence of Great Britain as the first British trading post in the Far East in its early years after its founding by Captain Francis Light in 1786. The brilliant Western-styled architecture seems to preserve the glory of 18th century Great Britain.
Comprised of the 285-square-kilometer Penang Island as well as a narrow coastal strip on northern peninsular Malaysia, Penang is the only state where Chinese residents outnumber Malays at a ratio of almost 2 to 1. Chinese immigration dates back to the early 19th century, and Chinese immigrants have since sustained an increasingly influential community in the state.
Khoo Kongsi, also known as Leong Shan Tong, is one of the most magnificent temples in Penang, featuring ornate wood carvings, gilt work, colored tiles, and elaborate friezes of dragons, phoenixes and deities of the late Ching dynasty. The Khoo family invited renowned architectural and sculptural masters from its hometown in Fujian province, in southeastern China, to build the temple in Penang. Construction began in 1898, and was completed in 1906.
While devoted to protecting historical heritage and cultural tradition, Penang also presents a modern face with its skyscrapers, shopping malls, administrative buildings and recreational facilities. The 13.5-km Penang Bridge, between Penang Island and peninsular Malaysia, is the longest bridge in Asia. It’s not only a great transportation facility, but is also a sight to see in its own right.
As a tropical island lying in the northern Straits of Malacca, Penang perennially lures tourists from around the world with its palm trees, glittering sandy beaches and deep blue seas, with facilities to support all kinds of water sports.
As managers at the sea front hotels can attest, Penang is an ideal vacation resort for all seasons, especially for those from northern Europe in search of an escape from the chilly winter weather.
Genting Highlands: an upmost wonderland
The Genting Highlands Resort, around 50 kilometers or a one-hour drive from Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, is an incomparable leisure destination atop a plateau, 2,000 meters above sea level.
Expanding from a hilltop hotel founded 38 years ago, it has matured to become the country's premier highland resort, open 24 hours a day to provide visitors with endless fun through a comprehensive range of outdoor and indoor recreational facilities.
Perched majestically atop the Genting Highlands, the resort is accessible by road, air or cable car. Most travelers choose to take the Genting Skyway cable car system between Goh Tong Jaya and the highlands, the longest skyway of its kind in Southeast Asia. The 11-minute journey in the world’s fastest mono-car system takes riders high above the scenic Ulu Kali range of preserved tropical rainforest.
Located atop a plateau, the leisure destination offers a cool respite from the surrounding tropical countryside. Sometimes, the highlands are covered with heavy mist at night. For most travelers, it’s a rare chance to see Kuala Lumpur’s city-lights sparkling down amid the dense fog. Likewise, people can see the lights atop the highlands twinkling in the sky from Kuala Lumpur on a clear night.
When Genting Group Chairman Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong set up the first hilltop hotel on the highlands in 1965, the hotel was surrounded by primeval forest and mountainous terrain.
The hilltop hotel has since grown to combine all of the excitement, luxury and entertainment of an international resort destination.
The Genting Theme Park alone was built at a cost of 100 million ringgits. It currently covers 12 acres and is still growing. The park is comprised of all kinds of outdoor and indoor leisure facilities, providing a one-stop entertainment destination for travelers of different ages and tastes. It takes several days to play on all the leisure facilities in the park.
To accommodate more than 10 million visitors a year, the resort is composed of four primary hotels with almost 3,000 guestrooms, in addition to 300 serviced apartments and 35 food and beverage outlets, serving a wide range of Asian and Western culinary delights. It’s a real rarity to eat fresh jumbo crabs and other seafood on highlands that tower 2,000 meters above the sea.
The resort is also unique with its resplendent Casino de Genting. Created in exemption of the restrictive Muslin doctrines that prohibit any kind of gambling, the Casino de Genting is the only casino in Malaysia and the largest in Asia, offering a full range of modern gaming facilities - comparable to those in Las Vegas.
In addition to the Genting Highlands Resort, the Wilayah Batik Industry and Royal Selangor are another two popular locations for tourists to visit in the vicinity of Kuala Lumpur. Both present the pride and tradition of Malaysian craftsmanship.
The exclusive handmade Batik fabrics made by Wilaysh Batik are well known for their vibrant colors, bold prints and versatile designs. The high fashion batik pieces are mostly made from fine silk, with each design limited to only one piece to ensure exclusivity. Batik is a unique fabric art of Southeast Asia, with Malaysia and Indonesia as the two dominant producers.
Malaysia is also well known for its pewter craftsmanship, with its Royal Selangor as the world's largest quality pewter producer. The most valuable pewter is an alloy of 97% tin and a small portion of copper, added with a little antimony to strengthen the finished objects. Each pewter item is painstakingly handcrafted through the various stages of production.
Founded by a Chinese pewtersmith in 1885, Royal Selangor has a workforce of more than 600 skilled craftsmen with each having been trained for at least six months before formally working on the production line. Not only the largest producer, Royal Selangor has perhaps the most well-known brand names in pewter. It offers over one thousand different pewter items from traditional tankards and elegant tea sets to modern tableware, desk accessories, and gift items.
Good quality pewter is believed to be the best material for tankards, as the beer contained in a pewter tankard is reported to taste better. Royal Selangor made the world’s largest tankard, recognized by the Guinness Book of Records, to commemorate its centenary in 1985.
Pewter represents the unique traditional craftsmanship developed in the surrounding area of Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. In the Malaysian language, Kuala Lumpur literally means a muddy confluence at the port of two rivers. The abundance of tin in the two rivers contributed to the development of the tin-mining industry in the early years of the capital city.
Founded by Chinese pewtersmith Yong Koon, the Royal Selangor reflected Chinese art in its pewter items in the early years. Later the company was heavily influenced by British culture during the British colonial period in the 19th century.
Royal Selangor has since tailored its items to suit the tastes of European consumers. It now works with the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture in England on pewter design, while maintaining the origins of its Chinese founder on certain items.
The success of Royal Selangor reflects the successful mixture of Oriental and Western cultures in Malaysia.