Flashback No. 3: The Anti-Rant Rant

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2007 

(This went viral when I first came out with it five years ago, and I’m republishing it here to show that, hey, we haven’t changed one bit!)

IT COULD be that I’m just getting old, but lately I’ve been dismayed and depressed by the state of manners on the Internet. I help moderate a message board (www.philmug.ph) that now has over 9,000 members, and I’m a member myself of several more such virtual hangouts devoted to everything from electronic gadgets like iPods and Palm PDAs to fountain pens and heritage conservation. (The one thing I avoid, perhaps surprisingly, is any public forum made up of writers and wannabe writers, for reasons you’ll find shortly.)

Our Apple users and fans club (that’s basically what it is) has been a generally pleasant and helpful group, ever ready to dispense free and quick advice about everything from the difference between SATA and PATA drives and between FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 (and, of course, between Mac OS X and Windows Whatever). But some weeks on the board can be more vexatious than others, and last week was one of those, with an inordinate number of people, it seemed to me, venting their assorted resentments, rages, and anxieties, caring little if their rants produced or provoked similarly negative vibes in others.

Never mind what those specific issues were; they matter little to anyone but geeks. It wasn’t the questions or issues that disturbed me so much as the way they were raised and pursued—often with undisguised meanness, if not malice aforethought, and with no concessions to diplomacy, compromise, and good-natured humor. Indeed, what used to be the domain and the art of ironic humor has been taken over by sarcasm and verbal battery.

It isn’t just on this message board I moderate, either; it’s all over the Internet, this creeping outbreak of ill will and gutter behavior that ironically seems to afflict those with the money and the education to buy computers and get DSL service. Over at another forum I frequent—devoted to the arcane pursuit of fountain pen collecting—two grown men were bashing each other a couple of weeks ago over, believe it or not, the exact configuration of solid-gold 1940s Sheaffer pens. Here’s how part of that discussion went:

“I would be most interested in your assertion that in general, a sample size of 0.1% of the subject population cannot produce a statistically significant result. Merely characterizing a survey’s characteristics as ‘lunacy’ without providing a shred of supporting math is, to put it mildly, uncompelling, and your embedded assertion that the ratio of sample size to population is the determinant of statistical significance calls into question your grasp of statistical theory.”

That, at least, was an intelligent and even illuminating if occasionally pungent debate. (The other side responded: ‘Your penchant for avoiding the issue being discussed and branching off on some tangent is pretty typical of your discourse. Try and stay focused.”) Most “flame wars”—as these long-distance quarrels are called—employ considerably blunter language, chiefly because, I suspect, the antagonists possess the linguistic skills of ten-year-olds, and in many cases are just a bit older. Endearments like “Moron!” routinely get exchanged in these flame wars, which erupt with the spontaneity of a scuffle in the schoolyard during recess, usually between boys trying to sound like men, and also usually over the presumption of some exotic expertise, although I’ve yet to witness a flame war over prescriptions to end global hunger.

It’s in the nature of the Internet, of course, to host these brutal and often unrefereed skirmishes. Some surfers see the Internet as an open and wide frontier where no rules obtain and manners don’t matter. The Web’s anonymity encourages boorishness, recklessness, and other behavior that might land you in court, in jail, or in the hospital in the real world. People tend to shoot their mouths off and say the cruelest things online because there’s no sense of public accountability. Slinging mud from behind an alias, you can’t get sued, you can’t get slugged, and your mother won’t even know.

Some people mistakenly presume that what’s said on the Internet will stay there. (Well, here’s proof that it won’t; there’s no such thing as an online whisper—and, surprise, print still matters.) I’ll bet anything that the people in my forum who feel alluded to in this piece will be caterwauling again tomorrow, to screech that I dragged their private plaints and torments out into the open—as if posting a message that could reach 9,000 members weren’t public enough.

Now, we didn’t need the Internet to realize that the world is full of idiots and bigots, and that most of us, yours truly included, will occasionally be a bit of both, given the right astral configuration and the way we wake up in the morning. One thing I happen to be openly and proudly biased about is Apple and nearly anything that rolls out of its Cupertino, CA plant. (And yes, friends, I’ll be first in line for the iPhone when they release it here next year.) But when Apple drops the ball—as, like any other big company, it will from time to time—there will be no louder complainers than we the faithful, who should justly feel abandoned and betrayed. So admittedly we’re not immune to these seizures of what will seem to others a silly passion, and now and then we might even raise our voices in defense of a block of plastic.

But that’s entertainment, and it has little to do with the witless vitriol that I’ve been catching around the Web—again, not only here, and not only now. Years ago, almost when the Internet was just beginning to take root in this country, I joined an online group of Filipino writers based here and in the US, and for a time that exchange proved useful and cordial. But as the group grew in size and variety, the chemistry changed; one day I found myself being savaged by a fellow I’d never met and never heard of, for some strange reason I couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t worth the aggravation; I had better things to do than to explain or defend my writing and myself to complete strangers, and I swore from then on to limit my Web time to things I could enjoy as a respite from literature, which I reserved to my private practice.

But even in literature—and especially in its newest form, the blog—it seems that ranting has taken over prose and poetry. Many blogs are amusing, a few are highly informative and thought-provoking, but a vast multitude barely get beyond retching, whining, venting, cursing, and putting everybody else down.

Aside from the pervasive meanness, I’ve been bothered by another recurrent note in the message traffic: the brazen sense of entitlement that many young people seem to possess and brandish, almost like a weapon. Over at PhilMUG, we’ve had an 18-year-old brashly demanding that someone give him/her (on the Web, where people use pseudonymous nicknames or “handles”, you never know) a free computer. “Gimme a Mac!” cried this newbie in his/her very first post. “I damn need one!”

In this “gimme, gimme, gimme” culture, the world owes everyone a Lamborghini, and people don’t need to work or suffer for the things they want. All they have to do is scream like they did for their baby food, and the object of their desire should appear at their feet and make mewling sounds. If it doesn’t, then that’s good enough reason for another rant.

Forgive me if I suspect that these are people—many of them in their surly mid-twenties—who’ve never been truly whacked by life over the head, who’ve never laid their lives on the line for a cause larger than themselves, who’ve never stared into the barrel of a gun, who’ve never spent a day in jail, and whose daily crises consist of having to choose between the mocha latte and the cappuccino.

Thankfully, some of them grow up. I once had a student who kept loudly complaining that the Palanca Awards for Literature were rigged, because he joined them year after year and never won a thing. Surely there was some grand conspiracy to deny him his due. When I could no longer stand his whining, I lost my temper in public (think of it as doing a Pinatubo after 600 years of dormancy) and suggested to him, perhaps a bit too sharply, that the simpler reason for his spectacular string of losses was to be found in himself. (I could’ve added—meaning no offense to the generous Palancas—that with the number of prize categories open at that time, any fool and his dog was bound to win one sooner or later, if you just submitted enough entries with the consistency of a parking-ticket dispenser.) Well, either my sermon challenged his spirit or his number was up, but he soon won a Palanca, and I was truly happy for him; I doubt that he’ll be thinking the same sullen thoughts now.

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to discuss the poetry of Anne Sexton in class, and if you know anything about her—apart from her plaintively powerful poetry—it would be the inescapable fact that she committed suicide, in 1974. A beautiful and brilliant woman, Sexton had grappled with her demons all her life, and took to poetry as a means of taming them. She would even write that “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately took her own life doesn’t detract from the quality and the legacy of her poetry. (In “Wanting to Die,” she would say that “… Suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.”) This leads me to think that those who can write poetry, do; those who can’t, rant.

Can’t the world use a little kvetching, however inartistic? Sure, it can—it had better, or otherwise we’ll end up wallowing in treacly (and very possibly shallow) good feelings. But there’s a difference between the ranter who just rants, and the ranter who disses the world then picks up a chisel or a compass to change it—or a pen, to write beautifully and even blissfully of one’s pain, ultimately to transform it into something more valuable and enduring than this season’s hemline or tomorrow’s gadget.

Flashback No. 2: Watch That Watch

Man Overboard, October 1999

WE PINOYS love watches; it’s the timekeeping we hate, or at least ignore. While an American without a wristwatch is a pretty common sight (and not for lack of money, either), a Filipino without one might as well be naked. If we have cash to blow, a new watch will be up there somewhere on our “wannabuy” list.

It’s never enough that we have one watch to mark the days, hours and minutes by; there’s nothing duller for Juan than to be looking at the same old clockface and wristband day in and day out. And so we acquire a few—one for the office, one for the beach, one for the evenings, and a couple of spares, just to be sure. The only thing we may each have more of than watches is shoes, but that’s another story.

An awareness of time—or the time—is one of the things you usually pick up from years of living abroad, in places where buses and trains miraculously arrive and depart on schedule, as though their drivers’ lives depended on it (and they do!). The balikbayan comes home hoping to see the same—and immediately gets discombobulated by the two-hour wait for his baggage at the airport, and the four hours it takes him to get from one end of EDSA to the other. Over the next few days, he gets stood up at three appointments, he hears the maid get on the phone to her cousin in Tacloban for an hour, and he misses the start of a movie because the theater’s clock was running ten minutes ahead. Soon he gets the idea that no one really knows what time it is, and even if they did, nobody particularly cares.

It’s one reason why Western-style terrorism is never going to get off the ground in this country. You can’t have clockwork precision if no one gives a hoot about the clockwork. What would be the point of exploding a bomb, say, at precisely 10:15:30 am, at which instant the President is supposed to be entering the hallway to address a group of reformed investigative journalists, if the bomber’s clock runs five minutes behind Malacañang’s? (And this presumes, of course, that the President—did I say this President?—got up from bed when he was supposed to.)

Yes, sir: time to the Pinoy is an infinite resource, spent by the wise and saved by the stupid. It does make some sense, given our fatalistic streak. Que sera, sera, no matter what you put down on your Palm Pilot or Claris Organizer, right? We count our lives in the grand sweep of years and cycles, not in the loose change of minutes and seconds: “Hey, it’s May! Time to dance in Obando and see in the carabaos in Pulilan!” and “Did you see that downpour yesterday? My, my, the rainy season has indeed begun!”

I felt mighty proud the other day when I set all the computers, watches and clocks I found around the house to Vremya time (a little redundancy there, “vremya” being the Russian word for “time”, and also a nifty piece of software that synchronizes your Mac over the Internet with the exact time kept by the world’s atomic clocks). At last, I thought, here was world-class precision down to the second, right at home!

The pointlessness of the whole exercise became obvious when I hurried my wife Beng along to catch a merienda meeting with her friends that was due to start in 35 minutes and 23 seconds, halfway across the planet. “What’s the rush?” she protested, trying to choose between the red blouse and the green one. “No one will be there for another hour, and I’m not even sure that So-and-So’s coming.” She was, of course, late—and wondered why no one showed up, granting even the ample privilege of “Filipino time”—until she realized that she had the wrong day.

Still, just between us ube-and-macapuno, puto-and-dinuguan-loving Pinoys, you’d have to admit that a new watch on the wrist is always cool. You feel a new sense of purpose; you want to check the time every 30 seconds or so, and you keep wishing someone on the street would ask you, too. The feeling lasts for about two to three days—and then you forget about your new toy; a week later, you scratch the glass while trying to fix a flat, or worse, when you trip one the sidewalk while adoring your wrist. Grumble, grumble: it looks like Julia Roberts with a surgical stitch running across her nose down to her neck. You toss the watch into the desk drawer to join half a dozen others in various states of disfavor or disrepair.

I’ll admit to having three or four wristwatches beneath the bedside lamp—but none of them too precious to mourn the eventual loss of, and nearly all of them a few years old. Hmmm.… Sure sounds like time to get a new one!

Flashback No. 1: Another Pen Story

Since I’ve opened this new blog with very little in it yet, I thought I might as well fill the wait between my weekly Star columns with selected reposts (or, in some cases, just posts, since they’d never been posted before) from columns past—from Penman, which began in the Star in 2000; Barfly, which ran in Today from 1994 to 1999; Man Overboard, from Men’s Zone in the early 2000s; T3; and Manileño from Filipinas magazine from 2003 to 2010. So here goes.)

Penman for August 21, 2000

FOR PHILIPPINE Star readers who may not know me from my earlier incarnations (no offense meant to the Gautama; the only thing Buddha-like about this Butch is his midsection) and who may be wondering about the column title, “Penman” refers both to a story I wrote a few years ago, “Penmanship,” and to my long and abiding fascination with old fountain pens, about a hundred of which I’ve collected over the past 15 years.

Most of these beauties from the 1920s up to the 1940s came from antique fairs and garage sales in the American Midwest, where I lived for a few years, and from more exotic nooks and crannies such as a backstreet pen shop in Edinburgh and a sidewalk vendor in Saigon. Some I’ve received as generous gifts from friends (a clutch of Parkers and Sheaffers from Franz Arcellana—pens he actually wrote his stories with—and a breathtaking Japanese maki-e lacquered pen from poet Jimmy Abad).

Now and then—say, after a few months without adding a new-old pen to the trove—I satisfy my urges by getting one on the Internet or, less often, by taking a deep breath and paying full price at the local mall (although I once found a very nice pair of new Parker Duofolds selling at practically half-price in a department store in Cebu). Still even more rarely, I’ve come across some astounding bargains in my own backyard—an antique stall in Ermita (a Montblanc 146 and a much-sought-after 1959 Sheaffer PFM V for P650 each), and a stationery shop in Binondo (a rather uncommon Parker VP for P350).

Never mind what these names mean, if you know or care nothing about pens: just think of them as exquisitely lovely, useful, and—to some people who collect them for more than aesthetic reasons—quite valuable objects, some which have sold at auction for over $10,000 (no, that’s not your grandfather’s Wearever or Esterbrook, for which you’d be lucky to get enough for a movie and a hotdog sandwich). I have an awful suspicion that most of the good pens we must have once had in this country—any colony with a highly-literate bureaucracy should have been swimming in a sea of blue-black ink—would have long had their gold nibs pulled and melted down in the smithies of Meycauayan to make someone a pretty trinket or a gleaming incisor.

Imagine my surprise when, last weekend—on one of those trips to the mall where the sleepy-eyed husband gets deputized by the wife in resolute quest of a wedding present—I strayed into a tiangge stall selling the usual santos and hardwood benches and spotted, in a corner of a glass case, the unmistakable flat-top cap and gold pocket clip of a 1920s pen. I asked to see it, and my hands shook as I confirmed that I was holding a near-perfect example of a Swan Eternal No. 48, a huge fountain pen as fat as a cigar (it’s a boy thing, this pen envy) in a gold-trimmed rosewood finish and the biggest nib you ever saw, a No. 8 (most fountain pens, by comparison, sport nothing bigger than a No. 2). The patent date on the clip said “Jan. 19, 1915” although the pen itself was made, according to my trusty references, between 1924 and 1929. Hallelujah! But first I had to ask, in a dry croak, “How much?”

The man behind the counter consulted a woman who was doing the books. “Five hundred,” she said casually. I felt faint: P500 for a fancy Bic may be outrageous to you, but if they had ten of these and I had P5,000 on me I would have bought them up and retired on the profits. The pricing also told me that the sellers had probably found the pen among other effects in a large estate (you had to be very rich to own an accessory like this in the late ’20s) and had, themselves, paid very little if anything for it; many old pens come as bonuses to buyers of many-drawered antique cabinets, or even of cigar boxes, where they tended to be kept and forgotten.

I forked the money over. The man hesitated and my heart skipped a beat. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we don’t have a small box to put it in.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” I managed to say, taking full and final possession of the Swan and sticking it into my pocket, where I was certain that God Almighty had always intended it to belong. Surely, there was more than a touch of justice here. How many times, during my months in England, had I revisited and salivated over the fabulous pens on Portobello Road, going home to Norwich with little more than a jar of bagoong and a packet of Chippy from the Filipino food store at Earls Court? Just how many of the half-dozen Pinoys who can tell a Swan Eternal from a Rubber Ducky stumble into one, in a mall buzzing with Nokia ringtones, and get to bring it home for the price of a phone card?

I treated Beng out to a lunch of noodles and siopao and proudly showed her my prize find. She herself prefers to pick up old blue and ruby-red bottles, but has developed a grudging respect for and even some expertise in my objects of choice—once spotting, at a cowshed fair in Ohio, a circa-1930 lapis-blue Parker Duofold Junior which I bought for $5 and later traded for my first Montblanc. “It’s gorgeous,” she agreed, “but you should have asked for a discount.” Spoken, I suppose, like a true shopper.

But this wasn’t shopping, Beng. This was serendipity, for which I can only thank my lucky stars and, yes, you, for dragging me out of my Sunday-morning stupor to find kitchenware for newlyweds.

Penman No. 2: Three Malaysian Artists

Penman for Monday, July 2, 2012

I REPORTED last week on our visit to Malaysia for the launch of the 1Malaysia Mega Sale Carnival—which is running until September 2—and on how impressed I was by Malaysia’s strides in its economy, particularly its infrastructure and tourism. The shopping aside, another part of that visit that I looked forward to was a chat with several Malaysian artists, feeling that, wherever you go, you can come closest to the earthly truth (and to visions of heaven and hell) by talking to the artists.

I’d arranged a meeting with a personal friend, Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, known to all Malaysians simply as Lat, the cartoonist behind the iconic Kampung Boy, published in 1979. His artistic talent was discovered at age 13, and Lat gained quick and enduring fame, endearing himself to his countrymen for his affectionate but also often mordant depictions of rural Malaysian life. Born in the village or kampung of Kota Bharu in Perak in 1951, Lat (short for bulat or round, which he was as a boy) worked briefly as a police reporter for the New Straits Times (serving under a colorful Filipino named Rudy Beltran who also played piano at night with a band called Rudy and the Gypsies, but that’s another story) before returning to his true vocation, cartooning.

I met and became friends with Lat when we were both Civitella Ranieri fellows in Italy a year ago. As the only Southeast Asians in the program, we bonded naturally; since neither of us had been to Venice before, we traveled there together, sharing a tiny room just outside the city center to save our euros. I was mightily impressed when, promenading along the canals, Lat was recognized and pounced upon by Malaysian tourists who asked him to pose with them for a souvenir shot taken by, of course, yours truly.

A simple, easygoing guy, Lat picked me up at our KL hotel in a cab—and again, our tour guides rushed across the lobby to greet him reverentially—and took me for coffee to the posh Royal Selangor Club, where he ruminated on how Malaysian life had changed since he left the kampung (having sworn not to live in KL, he now stays with his wife in Ipoh, about two hours away). Like his cartoons, his speech is laced by much laughter and more than a tinge of sadness.

“Many people have moved out of the kampung,” Lat said. “In my village there are only six houses left. My dad sold the house in the 1960s, but I bought it back in the 1990s. I would love to see the young sons and daughters of the kampung people do something about the places they left behind. The cement factories are taking over the countryside…. There used to be hundreds of us in Kota Bharu, but now, you can hold a feast for 70 people at most. Today we have roads, but all you see are lorries that carry sand, but no people.”

He adds: “Many Malaysians are rich with money, yes, but that’s all. You go to the fish market, most of the sellers there are millionaires—they earn more than one million ringgit (about P14 million) a year—but being a millionaire doesn’t mean much anymore. Even the poor can expect their basic needs to be met. Basic education is free, and students can get loans for college. But now we’re producing too many graduates and not enough good jobs.” His four children are all artistically inclined, working in media, theater, and communications, although none of them draw.

Lat acknowledges that a new generation of artists has taken over. “Young cartoonists today are mostly into manga. They should make their work more Malaysian. I don’t do much political commentary anymore, but new talent is emerging. There’s a young cartoonist named Zunar, who draws for the opposition newspaper—always controversial, but he’s very sharp and very steady.” Lat is, however, a firm supporter of former PM Mahathir, and later in his life became a devout Muslim, even as he idolizes Elvis Presley and can sing a mean tune. Important commissions still come his way, but, he says sagely, “The successful person is the one who can say ‘I don’t feel like doing it, I just want to relax.’”

My next interviewee was the world-renowned shoe designer Jimmy Choo, born in Penang, Malaysia in 1961 but a resident of the UK since the early 1980s. Our Philippine media group had been told that we would have ten minutes with the fashion icon, and since this was way out of my league, I prepared by reading everything I could about the man, poring over scores of shoe pictures, preparing half a dozen questions (including brilliant ones that never got asked like, “Is one shoe just a mirror of the other? Do you begin by designing the right shoe, or the left?”) and not the least by bringing along black leather loafers to supplant my scruffy Sanuks on interview day.

Jimmy Choo turned out to be a slim, avuncular figure, nattily dressed in an almost businesslike way. I made a point of taking a picture of his shoes—which he made himself, for himself—black, wingtip loafers. I popped my first question about the story or the narrative behind the shoe, any shoe.

Jimmy said: “When I design a shoe, the first thing I think of is the season—spring, summer, fall, winter. This year being the Year of the Dragon, I think of different dragons, and of the stories that can come out of them that can be linked to the shoe shape, the motion, the material, the story that could be presented to the press and the buyers that could answer the question of ‘Why was the shoe designed this way?’… The shape is very important. When I designed my first collection in 1988 for London Fashion Week, I had to think about how to catch the attention of the press. My designs are feminine—elegant, pretty.”

But the most important point that Jimmy made in those allotted minutes had to do less with the designer’s vision than the craftsman’s skills: “My father was a shoe designer. Forty years ago there were no computer games, so when I finished school and finished my homework, I watched my father make shoes. When I was eleven, I made shoes for my mum for her birthday. Designers are great and I respect them, but designers need skills as well. Not all of them can cut the patterns for the shoes they want. I’m very lucky to have this skill. When I went to the UK and I entered the Cordwainers College, I learned how to draw a shoe. I knew how to make them on the mold, but I couldn’t draw them. So it’s important to have all these skills…. It’s no different designing for men or women. My father did that for both men and women, so I learned to do that myself. I wear my own men’s shoes.”

A final, funny factoid came up when someone asked him about bags: “I carry my own bag. I’m a funny guy—I travel with four, five phones. I’ve got two SIM cards from HK, two from China, two from the UK, and so on, plus two or three cameras.”

And lastly, there was Charles Cham in Malacca. I can’t help assuming, when I’m about to meet an artist I don’t know, that the guy is going to be rock-star surly, especially at nine in the morning, when even I don’t want to be bothered by pesky questions about my work. That’s when we were scheduled to meet Charles in his shop, and it didn’t help that the bearded picture in his press handout and the impressive credentials that accompanied it—stints in France, New York, and Budapest, a write-up in the International Herald Tribune—suggested a formidable talent.

As it turned out, Charles—smiling Charles—was the gentlest, most congenial artist anyone could expect to meet, and it didn’t bother him to have to open his shop, called The Orangutan House, an hour early just to entertain us. The shop displayed some of his witty, whimsical paintings—he likes African masks, animal figures, and bright colors—and also served as a gallery of T-shirts, all of them for sale at very reasonable prices. The T-shirts are marked by his characteristic humor: one says—in Malacca’s heavily touristic context—“No pictures, please!” and another, showing the unmistakable profile of a condom, says “Play safe—Use Malaysian Rubber!”, an endorsement of Malaysia’s most traditional export and also of safe sex.

When I asked him about how he saw himself in relation to the contemporary Malaysian art scene, Charles said, without losing his wry smile, that he was definitely “an outsider.” His reported brushes with Malaysian officialdom may have caused him, not to mention his targets, some grief, but these, he said, were “unintentional.” Here, clearly, was a clever talent seeking to survive while pushing the limits of the possible in a society still bound by the rules in many ways. In his IHT interview, Charles Cham committed himself to “staying here and fighting.” From what I saw of his country, it was certainly worth staying in and fighting for.

(Lat’s cartoon above courtesy of etawau.com)

Penman No. 1: Mall-Asia, Truly Asia


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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Hi, folks! Because of a recent change in Apple’s policy (the discontinuation of MobileMe), I’ve had to move my blog once again, this time I hope for good, to WordPress. Please bear with me as I familiarize myself with the software and the new format. You can leave comments using the balloons above. You can still email me anytime at pinoypenman@me.com. Maraming salamat!