Penman No. 1: Mall-Asia, Truly Asia

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Penman for Monday, June 25, 2012

EVERY TIME I visit Malaysia, I can’t help thinking that this is the country we could have been, had our history taken another turn—with wide, perfectly flat roads, tall, smartly designed buildings, swaths of greenery, speeding trains, and bustling industry.

Singapore gives me the same feeling, but it’s much too small for true comparison’s sake; Malaysia, on the other hand, is just slightly larger than the Philippines in terms of land area, although its population of 28 million is less than a third of our 93 million, and there’s surely a point to be made there somewhere. Malaysia today is predominantly Muslim and we identify ourselves as Christian, but let’s not forget that Manila began as a Muslim settlement.

Both countries underwent long and painful periods of colonial rule, and Malaysia’s experience—at least in parts of it like Malacca—was even more complicated than ours, with Portuguese, Dutch, British, and Japanese invaders successively lording it over the land. When Malaysia declared its independence in 1957, we Filipinos might have had reason to think of this neighbor as a backwater good for little more than rubber trees.

Today, of course, the laugh is on us. Somewhere along the way, both Malaysia and the Philippines endured long stretches of strongman rule—Malaysia got Mahathir, we got Marcos. Guess who got the better autocrat. We can argue that Malaysia’s had all that petroleum and palm oil to bank on, but it’s not as if we started out with nothing.

These impressions bore down heavily on me last week as I touched down in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian Airlines with a media group from Manila and was whisked away for a lakeside lunch in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s gleaming new federal capital district just outside KL. Like many things Malaysian, Putrajaya was thoroughly planned, and incorporates cutting-edge green technology. “There’s no airconditioning in these buildings,” our guide Jeffrey pointed out in the 32-degree heat. “They use a watercooling system to keep the temperature down.”

We were in Malaysia to cover the launch of the 1Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival, an annual extravaganza (ongoing until September 2) featuring massive discounts nationwide on goods, including luxury branded items prized by visitors such as affluent Singaporeans, who stream across the border for fun and shopping. Such sales may seem like exercises in frivolous excess to plebeians like me more accustomed to dumpster diving in the nearest ukay-ukay, but it’s big and serious business to Malaysia, which attracts over 24 million tourists—just a few million short of its total population—every year. Last year, Malaysia earned 58.8 billion ringgit—almost P800 billion—from tourism, the third-largest dollar-earning sector of the Malaysian economy. About a third of that, P250 billion, was accounted for by shopping.

Except for a few items like cars (which are highly taxed to encourage the use of mass transit), shopping is largely duty-free in Malaysia, and you don’t have to go to the international airport to get the best prices. (While nowhere near as comprehensive as Singapore’s Changi and Hong Kong’s airport, KLIA has much more to offer than Narita or Incheon—and free wifi.)

Malaysia may be best known to outsiders for its resorts, beaches and nature walks in Penang, Langkawi, Kota Kinabalu, and the Genting Highlands—the kind of dreamy getaways you see on those distressingly effective “Malaysia, Truly Asia” ads (which scuttlebutt has it were conceived by a Filipino)—but shoppers around the region equally appreciate the fact that the country has 300 shopping malls and centers covering 90 million square feet. Including office space, its biggest mall—Berjaya Times Square in KL—sprawls across 7.5 million sqft, nearly twice the footprint of our Mall of Asia.

The malls serve the full range of clienteles and price points, from the upscale Starhill and Pavilion in downtown KL to the more pedestrian-friendly BB Plaza a few blocks away. Even the landmark 88-story Petronas Towers have an in-house mall. “Within a one-kilometer radius in Bukit Bintang, you can find 3,000 shops,” said Joyce Yap, the head of a merchants’ association in that prime shopping district. The malls attract not only shoppers but diners as well. “Food and beverages are a huge draw—nobody here has time to cook!” said Kung Suan Ai, VP of the Malaysia Shopping Association.

The proliferation of shopping centers was such that I told Jeffrey, “Your country should be called Mall-Asia.” Three generations of malls have now been built since the first mall, Ampang Park, was built in 1973. We were billeted in the four-star Boulevard Hotel in Mid Valley, a KL suburb that sprang up 15 years ago apparently for one main purpose: yes, shopping, and the hotels to house the shoppers in. The Boulevard is connected to its two sister hotels—the Cititel and the Garden—by an underground walkway that is in fact the basement level of the huge Mid Valley Megamall.

The Mega Sale’s formal launch was held at the Sunway resort complex, another example of private enterprise turning a hole in the ground—in this case a lagoon left by a disused tin mine—into a business opportunity. Sunway is a water theme park, hotel, and mall all in one, and if it’s a bit over the top—it’s Egypt, Vegas, and Versailles altogether—the locals don’t seem to mind, trooping to the resort in family-size droves.

Our visit included an overnight side trip to historic Malacca, two hours away by van—a city of 20 museums, a busy night market on Jonker Street, a river cruise, and a spectacular view from a revolving tower more than 300 feet high. Lunch at the Restoran Peranakan gave us a taste of traditional Chinese-Malay cuisine, but it was the dinner fare at Capitol Satay—a fourth-generation family concern whose special peanut sauce has become so legendary that customers queue up for three hours at the door—that occasioned a feeding frenzy among us. The gustatory treats continued the next day with heaping servings of shaved ice laced with fruits, beans, and corn, which the locals call cendol; a fancier dessert closer to our halo-halo is air batu campur or “ABC.”

The Mega Sale was a huge success with my young Filipino companions, who had the fashion sense, the budgets, and the bodies to deserve and display the pretty things that lend glamor to days that begin at noon and end with the next dawn. Me, I found the one store that had the most special objects I desired in Malaysia—a shop called PenGallery in downtown KL—and walked out with another fountain pen I surely didn’t need but just as surely wanted. After I found a lovely pewter-and-onyx pendant for Beng at the Royal Selangor boutique, my shopping was over, and so was our journey to another future we might have had.

Next week, I’ll relate the highlights of my conversations with three outstanding and yet very different Malaysian artists—the iconic cartoonist Lat, the shoe designer Jimmy Choo, and the maverick painter Charles Cham.

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