This week, I’ve decided to become a part-time tourist. I’m in Kuala Lumpur , capital of Malaysia, bustling metropolis, city of gleaming skyscrapers. At least, that’s the image Tourism Malaysia likes to project. But this image, like many others, is part of a more complex reality.
So what’s Malaysia really like? In a series of short blog-posts, snapshots really, I’d like to share my personal impressions as a returning visitor. Most of these snapshots won’t relate directly to my novel, some will, but I hope all will help provide a better picture of what Malaysia has become today.
Although I know I’m not the average tourist, most people seem to assume I’m a foreigner. It must be the way I stride around. They’re usually shocked when I start speaking in Malay or Cantonese. Up till that moment, I’m sure my experience is as good as any tourist’s. So it only seems appropriate for my first snapshot to be about Malaysian hospitality.
Forgive me for beginning with a cliché: Malaysian hospitality really is as warm as that projected in advertisements. Thank goodness for that, because things often don’t work the way they’re supposed to in this country.
Take the online check-in process with Malaysian Airlines. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to check my partner and me in online (it turned out I wasn’t given an obscure piece of information which the website requires). So I called the helpline number on the website, and bingo! Problems resolved, with true Malaysian service in the process. The man who answered the call stayed with me throughout, listening to what I was doing, repeating numbers and letters, until I had checked us both in. Even though I was still in London at the time, the service struck me as different: there was warmth, a friendliness which I thought distinctly Malaysian. (Tip: if you ever need help on anything Malaysian, find a real person to speak to).
The same thing happened with my pre-paid SIM card. I had difficulty topping it up online. After fiddling for several hours, I gave up. I took it back to the shop, where the man remembered me from when I had bought the card. With a smile, he asked after my partner and topped up the SIM card in 3 seconds flat.
Examples like these happen all the time. I personally think that what we know today as Malaysian service comes from traditional Malay hospitality, which is gracious, gentle and full of warmth. I love it; it evokes a feeling which is distinctly Malaysian. For this, we have to thank our Malay fellow-citizens, whose language encapsulates the essence of this hospitality. ‘Thank You’ in Malay is ‘Terima Kasih.’ Literally translated, the words mean ‘Receive Love’. Long may Malaysian service continue being what it is.