Travelling sometimes provides me with a wonderful opportunity to connect the most unlikely of dots, in the most unexpected of ways.
About a month ago, during the last school holidays, Linda brought our children to visit in Singapore for two weeks. This was their first time back in Singapore since she and the kids had moved to Australia late last year. The first week was spent revisiting the kids’ favourite places in Singapore.
During the second week of their visit, we decided to take the kids on a beach holiday to Malaysia, and instead of flying, we decided that we would drive there. Despite having lived in Singapore for more than eight years, we had never before made the relatively short car-hop into neighbouring Malaysia.
We set off early on a Monday morning and less than thirty minutes later we were at the super-efficient Singapore-Malaysia border crossing. A few painless border formalities followed, we drove across the narrow causeway that separates Singapore Island from the mainland, and just like that, we were in another country.
Our final destination was a resort near the town of Dungun, on Malaysia’s east coast, a full day’s drive north from Singapore. The eastern side of Malaysia is far-less developed than the west of the country, and so we drove northwards on semi-rural roads, our journey taking us through endless kilometres of palm oil and rubber plantations. Despite being billed as a “coastal road” we barely saw the ocean the whole time, except when occasionally the road would emerge from amongst the plantations to cross an estuarine bridge, where we would then catch fleeting glimpses of tucked-away fishing villages, brightly-coloured wooden boats packed into small, sheltered harbours.
Mainly, we saw monkeys sitting on the side of the roads, an endless stream of petrol-tankers and overloaded timber trucks, and some dare-devil driving from the locals, who evidently have a special fondness for overtaking on blind turns. At one point a car pulled out into the oncoming lane to overtake us. Another car then came from behind in a blur, pulling out across both lanes and into the far right shoulder of the road, so that it was now overtaking the overtaking car. For a brief moment we were part of a three car convoy all travelling side-by-side in the same direction, at high-speed, on a narrow, two-lane road with oncoming traffic rapidly closing on us in the distance. It was, to say the least, a little bit scary….
Along the way we stopped at the Bukkit Tingi waterfall “resort”, a run-down place that nonetheless appeared to be enormously popular with local day-trippers. I waded with the kids into a murky water-hole so that we could swim next to the falls. After, we hired some rubber tubes and used them to spin down a pair of rusting, decades-old water-slides that followed the path of the river beneath the falls. The children squealed with delight the whole time, our antics closely watched by a group of hijab-clad women sitting on a wooden bench besides the river.
After ten hours of driving we arrived at Tanjong Jara, a beach resort built in the style of a traditional Malay village and set facing onto a beautiful, almost deserted white-sand beach. We spent four days there, sun-baking and splashing in the hotel pool. It was marine stinger season, so the gorgeous azure ocean was filled with nasty stinging jellyfish of all sorts, and off-limits for swimming. Our beach-time was therefore limited to long strolls along the crescent of sand that stretched between two rocky headlands. The children searched for shells in shallow rock-pools, chased little crabs as they scuttled across the beach, and derived enormous pleasure, in only the way youngsters can, from stopping to inspect and prod with sticks the carcasses of jellyfish that had washed ashore.
At the end of the week we drove back to Singapore via an inland route that took us across the Malay peninsula, and then down the west-coast of Malaysia.
We stopped briefly at the Kuala Gundah Elephant Sanctuary, a shelter for homeless elephants. We were able to watch these mighty animals up close as they bathed in the river, and we held out peanuts and fruit for the elephants to gently pick out of our hands with their surprisingly delicate trunks.
We then continued on to spend a night in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, a prosperous and organised city of neat roads, high-rise apartment blocks and well laid-out parks. The KL skyline is dominated by the towering twin peaks of the Petronas Towers, for a while the world’s tallest buildings, made famous thanks to their starring roles in Hollywood action movies like Entrapment and Mission Impossible II.
Malaysia is a Muslim country, and it seems that the tourist authorities there have very successfully promoted it as being a sympathetic vacation destination for other Muslims. Our hotel, and Kuala Lumpur as a whole, seemed to be overflowing with an amazing cross-section of holiday-makers from around the Islamic world. There were Middle-Eastern men in flowing white robes and keffiyahs, men of Indian appearance in kameez, and tall African men in colourful bou-bous. The women, too, showed off a full gamut of different forms of Muslim head coverings – from fashionably coiffed hairdos to simple head-scarves; from colourful turbans to complete head coverings (hijabs). Some women had their full face covered by veils (niqabs) as well.
At breakfast in the hotel, a Middle Eastern couple was shown in and seated at the table beside ours. He was decked out in fashionable brand name sportswear, his watch and hand-jewellery a glittering display of expensive bling. His wife was in an all-black, full-length cloak (abaya) and her face was completely covered by a black veil, so that only her eyes were visible through a thin slit.
As soon as they sat down, Tali, our eight-year old daughter, immediately leaned over and whispered: “how will she eat her breakfast if her face is covered?” We all then watched as the woman proceeded to answer the question, by discreetly lifting her veil just enough so that she could slip her hand behind it and feed small morsels of food into her mouth. She was even able to raise a cup of tea to her lips, unseen behind the veil. Although when her husband went to refill his plate at the buffet, she quickly lifted her veil a bit higher than before, and while he was facing in the other direction she rapidly popped in as many mouthfuls of food as she could.
The final drive home was a motorist’s dream. Almost the entire 350 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur back to Singapore is a magnificent multi-lane highway, and which it seemed like we had virtually to ourselves. I was able to put my foot down, and at 160km an hour the journey back to Singapore took not much more than two hours to complete, with not a single policeman (corrupt or otherwise) anywhere to be seen. The kids sang Britney Spears songs in the back-seat the whole way back.
I have lived in Singapore for almost a decade, and Malaysia is right next door. The two countries share a common, albeit complex, history (indeed, the original plan in the 1960s was for Singapore to be part of a federated Malaysia, and not an independent state. Even the word “Malaysia” was derived from the original name for the area, Malaya, with the letters “si”, being the first two letters of Singapore, being inserted in the middle). But despite being so close, I have spent almost no time in Malaysia, apart from a few in-and-out business trips to Kuala Lumpur and some beach vacations on the slightly artificial, purpose-built resort island of Langkawi.
So in many respects, this visit was my first real experience of the country, and I found it to be a pleasant enough, slightly old-fashioned kind of place – relaxed, relatively prosperous in an Asian context, and sort of dull. The Malaysians we met seemed friendly and welcoming, although admittedly they were mainly hotel service staff. Linda said that the male-dominated Islamic character of the country felt slightly uncomfortable to her as a woman, although I didn’t feel this way, perhaps because I am a man. All in all, however, there was nothing that made Malaysia stand out to me as being particularly racy, adventurous or unsafe.
Now, I mention all this because had I listened to Singaporean friends and colleagues, I would never have gone there in the first place. You see, for the average Singaporean, Malaysia is akin to the Wild West: a lawless and dangerous jungle to be approached with extreme caution and trepidation, if not avoided altogether.
A few days before our trip to Malaysia, Linda had visited a nail salon in Singapore. There, the ladies having their nails done had implored her not to do something so foolish as to drive to Malaysia. According to these women, gangs of marauding Malaysians were literally waiting for us just over the causeway. They would identify us by the Singaporean licence plates on the car and pounce, the modus operandi of these gangs being to follow unsuspecting Singaporean motorists and car-jack them at the first opportune moment. Occasionally, according to the ladies in the nail salon, the thieves have even been known to drive off with young children still in the back-seat of the car.
Helen, a Singaporean lady who was the kids’ baby-sitter for many years while they lived in Singapore, came over to see them one day. When I mentioned to her that we would be driving to Malaysia, she was utterly aghast. She launched into a long monologue on the dangers of Malaysia, and listening to her I could have been forgiven for thinking that in travelling there we would be placing ourselves in mortal danger, and that we would be lucky if the worst thing that happened to us in Malaysia was merely being robbed at gunpoint.
Helen’s told us of the corrupt traffic police who would almost certainly stop us along the way and demand bribes, shop assistants who would cheat us and most likely skim my credit card, and lazy hotel wait-staff who would spit in our food with contempt. Oddly, on close questioning it seemed that Helen had never experienced any of this herself – it was always third-hand stories she had heard about friends of friends. But still, she painted such a vivid picture of rampant crime in Malaysia (especially towards visitors from Singapore) that I seriously began considering cancelling the trip.
I decided to check on the internet, and the first item I came across was a recent video from the Singaporean evening news, with the following tagline: “After a recent spate of crimes against Singaporeans in Malaysia, are we afraid of traveling to Malaysia?” I was now really beginning to get nervous. What on earth was I thinking in wanting to take my young children to this dangerous place?
But then, as I watched the full news report, it turned out that the supposed “spate of crimes” was actually remarkably timid, if not downright quaint. One Singaporean told of having his car stolen, from right where he had parked it in a public street, no less! Others interviewees recounted a litany of Malaysian “horror stories”, although as with Helen, usually not their own but those of friends of friends. Stories of people having had their mobile phones snatched, or their pockets picked. One man looked incredibly distraught as he described having been given incorrect change in a store – according to him, it was most definitely deliberate. Another lady nodded knowingly as she summed it up: “[Travelling to Malaysia] is something very scary, that I heard of from my sister personally, and my niece also ….” Of course, she hadn’t dared to set foot in the country for more than two years herself – the ferocious crime had stopped her from travelling there.
I then consulted the web-sites of the Australian and Singaporean Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Neither had issued anything that even vaguely approached being a travel advisory warning for Malaysia, and both governments deemed the place just fine for a visit. In fact, apart from Singaporeans, it seemed that no-one else in the world regarded Malaysia as anything other than a perfectly safe place for tourists.
It occurred to me that perhaps the problem was not with Malaysia per se, but rather a case of Singaporeans, used to their hyper-safe and hyper-secure life on Singapore island, being a touch precious. And indeed, a few more minutes on the internet confirmed as such. I found many web-sites and blogs on which local Singaporeans lamented about the incredible risks involved in visiting Malaysia; and in response expats living in Singapore explained how totally ridiculous and baseless these concerns are.
Hold that thought. Now roll forward in time to last week, when I was in Paris.
Not long after the end of the holiday in Malaysia, I had flown to London for a round of investor meetings. I found myself in London over a weekend, and I saw in the papers that the Tour de France cycle race would end in Paris on the Sunday. Some friends from Australia happened to be visiting Paris just then, and had suggested I meet them there and we could watch the final stage of the race together.
On the spur of the moment, I decided to go. I boarded the super-fast Eurostar train at London’s St Pancras Station on the Sunday morning. We sped along through the rolling green hills of the English countryside, descended into the tunnel below the Channel, and twenty minutes later, just like that, we were in another country. Two hours and seventeen minutes after leaving central London I was standing in the sunshine at Paris’ Gare du Nord station.
I checked into a small hotel in the Marais district (the old Jewish area of Paris, my experience of which I will write a separate piece on in the next few weeks), and set off by foot in the direction of the centre of town, to find a vantage point from where I could watch the arrival of the Tour.
As I was walking, map in hand, down a pedestrian mall near the Centre Pompidou, I noticed a tall, well-dressed Asian gentleman about twenty yards ahead of me. He had been shopping, and was carrying a number of bags with the labels of various boutiques printed on them.
I noticed the Asian man because as he walked along another man who looked like a panhandler or vagrant of sorts approached him, holding a large piece of white laminated cardboard, that had something written on it. He held the piece of cardboard right in front of the Asian man’s face, and started shaking it. The Asian man, assuming the vagrant was asking for money, politely shook his head and tried to side-step, but the man with the cardboard side-stepped as well, blocking the way, all the while continuing to obscure the Asian man’s vision with the piece of cardboard.
Within a few seconds, four other people – three ragged women and one unshaven man – emerged seemingly from nowhere. They were all holding similar cardboard sheets, and quickly circled the Asian man, who continued trying to step away, but now, wherever he turned, he was confronted with a piece of shaking white cardboard. Clearly beginning to panic, he started flailing about, as if he was trying to swat away a swarm of annoying flies. But the five people surrounding him kept moving around him just out of arm’s reach, all the while making sure he was trapped inside a ring of flapping white cardboard. It was like watching a pack of hyenas as they circled their prey.
Suddenly, two young children arrived on the scene, swooping in on the hapless Asian man, ducking swiftly under the arms of the encircling adults. One child ripped two shopping bags from out of the left hand of the stunned Asian man; the other child looked like she reached into his trouser pockets, lightening fast, and I guess in the process removing whatever may have been in them.
And then, their timing perfectly synchronised, the children and cardboard waving adults all turned around and fled. Each person ran in a different direction, so it was not possible to chase after any one of them in particular, even if the Asian man or one of the many bystanders watching had the presence of mind to do so. Within moments the entire group had vanished, melting away through the flow of pedestrians and into the side-streets.
I had just witnessed a gypsy attack on a tourist. The whole thing had taken less than fifteen seconds from beginning to end, and had been flawlessly carried out. It was like watching a mildly terrifying but perfectly executed ballet performance. A quick check on the internet later that evening confirmed that this was not an isolated incident, and robbery, pick-pocketing and various scams are endemic in the tourist areas of many of Europe’s great cities.
In this case no-one, myself included, had done anything to come to the assistance of the victim. To be fair, it had all happened in the blink of an eye and there was hardly any time in which to respond anyway. But now, those standing nearby who had watched this brazen crime occur right in front of them began to move on, as if nothing had happened. Only the poor Asian man continued to stand there, frozen to the spot, bewildered by what had just taken place. He knew he had been robbed, in the middle of the day on a bustling Parisian pedestrian mall, no less, but there was precious little he could do about it now.
I walked on, and kept wondering what would have happened had I been twenty seconds earlier – could it have been me getting fleeced in the centre of a gang of card-waving gypsies? But I think that the answer is “probably not”. It looked to me like the thieves had zoomed in on the Asian man specifically because he was Asian – a perfect target because they knew that he most likely came from a part of the world where even naive and unsuspecting tourists are entitled to expect, by and large, that they are safe. In a crowded downtown street of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Beijing, my experience is that something like this would just not happen.
I thought about all those people in Singapore who had been so eager to warn me of the over-hyped dangers of visiting Malaysia, and how they would almost certainly never think to issue the same kind of warning to anyone intending to visit Paris or any other European city. It would most likely never occur to a Singaporean that the odds of them getting gang-robbed on a crowded street in a first-world city like Paris are probably much higher than the odds of them falling victim to petty crime in neighbouring Malaysia.
Later that day, I joined a large crowd of flag-waving spectators on an embankment near the Jardin de Tuileries, to cheer on the Tour de France cyclists as they raced through the streets. But even in that setting, and for the rest of my time in Paris that weekend, I felt mildly uneasy about my personal security, in a way that I never felt in Malaysia, or indeed have ever felt anywhere in Asia. I couldn’t help but to clutch my bag a bit tighter than normal as I walked along, and I eyed with suspicion anyone who came a bit too close.
It is moments like these that make me sometimes wonder whether we have all got it the wrong way round. Perhaps the world has changed quite profoundly somewhere in the last few decades, so that nowadays it is really those living in Asia who are the lucky ones in the first-world. While those living in the debt-ridden countries of Europe and North America and even Australia, having grown numb to endemic background crime and third-world quality infrastructure and inadequate public services, don’t even notice how quickly they are falling behind.