Malaysia: Farewell

My journey through portions of Southeast Asia has been fascinating.  I’ve previously visited other ASEAN nations such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Hong Kong, and have always found the region very compelling.  The mix of cultures, religions, and traditions create a unique and exciting environment.

Prior to arriving in Kuala Lumpur (“KL” to many), I read that KL is one of the most diverse places on earth.  A true melting pot… and my experience has been consistent with that description.  From the famous Petaling Street in Chinatown, one can visit Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim places of worship and contemplation by walking no more than 200 feet in any given direction.  The religious diversity in KL is matched by its ethnic diversity.

KL lacks the order and cleanliness of its cousin to the south, Singapore, despite their many similarities.  Both countries trace their founding back to a similar time just 50 years ago.  Malaya and Singapore were then two of four members of the Federated States of Malay.  These colonies were signed over from the Japanese to the British at the end of WWII.  Singapore pursued a certain path, Malaysia has pursued another.

 
 

It is interesting to see how the two countries have progressed since their founding.  Theoretically, they had a very similar starting point in terms of location, culture, and potential, yet the differences between the two countries 50 years later is quite striking.  Corruption and political instability has stifled Malaysia’s progress, but reforms and increased transparency is creating a more promising environment.  Malaysia is making strides in the right direction, which could result in a compelling investment thesis.

If Malaysia, whose population is 6 times the size of Singapore (30m in Malaysia vs. 5m in Singapore) and has far more in terms of natural resources, can harness some of its potential and replicate some of the successes enjoyed by Singapore, the growth in Malaysia could be quite dramatic.

An experience that illustrates some of the differences between Malaysia and Singapore happened as I finished my meeting at BNM.  As I concluded the meeting, the heavens opened up with an impressive downpour of rain.  I naively tried to call a taxi to get to my next meeting… and my naivety was met with a few polite smiles and looks of bewilderment from the security desk.  What I learned is that when there’s a downpour like that in Kuala Lumpur, the taxis effectively extort anyone who needs one.  Prices immediately skyrocket 4-8 times the normal fare.  No driver will run the meter – it’s a set price (and an uncomfortably high price, relatively speaking) or it’s nothing.  I found the opposite of this approach in Singapore.  Their structure and discipline mandates that the fare is always metered and the rate is always the same.

I waited it out in the lobby for 20-25 minutes and the brunt of the storm passed so I ran out to quickly film a summary video.  The video included with the blog posting was the first one I tried and it’s not great… but trust me, they didn’t get any better with a few more takes.  The light rain that was falling didn’t seem too bad, but I was soaked through in less than 10 minutes.  My meeting notes didn’t respond too well either to the warm rain – they completely blurred together into almost unrecognizable shapes in no time.

I continued to try to hail a taxi as I began briskly walking in the direction of my next meeting.  Virtually all taxis were occupied and the few that were open were unwilling to risk it with some strange looking foreigner who was completely soaked and didn’t have the common sense to get out the rain.  In KL, it’s more of a New York style where you try to flag down anything that moves.  In Singapore, you find a taxi stand and patiently wait in the queue.

As my desperation grew, I started opening taxi doors in hopes they’d take in a stranger.  In Singapore, this behavior would be offensive, and perhaps even illegal.  After a few unsuccessful attempts, I finally convinced an off-duty driver to let me in.  He was headed to the mechanic as his car was having some real trouble (the smoke is always a pretty solid give-away).  The car was relatively dry and, more importantly, was headed in the right direction, so it was a viable option for me.  The driver went as far as the auto shop where we pulled in sputtering.  I asked him how much, he said “no charge since I didn’t take you where you wanted to go.”  Don’t worry… I wasn’t the jerk American who left it at that.  Best 20 ringgit I’ve ever spent.

As I depart Malaysia, I get the sense that collectively, the nation feels like they haven’t quite arrived at their desired destination.  They have a sense of where they could go, when looking at Singapore to the south, and they’re working on getting there.  Political instability and corruption have slowed their progress, but signs suggest some of those issues are being resolved.  Malaysia is not Singapore, nor do they want to be Singapore.  They’re interested in charting their own course to success.  The clouds appear to be lifting for Malaysia and I, for one, hope their future is bright.