Perspectives on Kuala Lumpur


The air sticks to you like a second skin, clotted in a layer of dust rising from the highways or woks where rice noodles are fried with eggs and pieces of meat. The city’s close knit buildings act like an oven, heat trapped between gleaming glass walls behind which suited analysts assess the workings of an economy on the brink of disaster, while the handrails of escalators melt away in subway station where armed policemen stand guard.

Fortunately the Olympics have shown up to distract us from petty problems of corruption and kidnappings and grenade bombings. In Rio, the ageing Lee Chong Wei picks up his racquet to face off against Lin Dan, muscles bulging from his training in the People’s Liberation Army. Millions throng the 24-hour restaurants, sipping sweet milk tea and screaming obscenities at the Chinese rival. Both men throw away one set apiece, and the final one sees sweat freely falling from Lee Chong Wei’s face as Lin Dan gesticulates at the camera. In the end it boils down to a 22-20 score and 30 million people are elated-we have won, we have won, we will go to the finals and win a gold medal at last. It is so emotional to see the Malaysian representative edge out his old enemy after losses in Beijing and London that the reaction to his eventual defeat at the hands of Chen Long is simply mild disappointment.


Needless to say the country returns to normal. It simply waits for something to happen next, yet more distractions or humiliating exposes to distract the people from the fact that food prices have skyrocketed and the devaluating ringgit can only buy much less than what it used to. The moneychangers are having a bumper year as crowds gather daily to buy American and British currency, while vacationing Arabs cart their shopping bags past them through a massive tacky mall complete with concrete pyramids and obelisks.

This is Kuala Lumpur. Back here after five years the city feels the same, but I am now different, pulled by different currents. 

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