October 4, 2009
Few countries are more preoccupied with their global image than Malaysia . Billions have been spent on everything from megaprojects to slogans to put the Southeast Asian country of 27 million “on the map.” And yet few countries have done more to undermine their intent. During my visit to the US this summer, it seemed hard to click a mouse or pass a newsstand without catching a disturbing headline out of Malaysia – a woman sentenced to caning for drinking a beer, protestors who desecrated a cow head over the planned construction of a Hindu temple, the government banning Muslim Malaysians from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert because Guinness was sponsoring the event. (For more on the Malaysian government’s hardline stance against foreign performers click here.)
For the last two weeks Malaysia has been making news of a more positive sort, hosting the first ever Proton Malaysian Open, which drew some of the world’s top men tennis players.
The walls behind the baseline were tagged with the “Malaysia Truly Asia” logo no fewer than 10 times each. “Kuala Lumpur ” was emblazoned behind each baseline. “1Malaysia,” the name of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s plan to ease racial tensions, was splashed about the arena.
Malaysia it would seem is feeling a little underappreciated. Whatever the case may be, Najib’s administration has scored a fine coup for Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur appeared on TVs and in newspapers around the world. (It was my brother back in LA who alerted me the tournament was taking place.) The government didn’t trivialize or politicize the contest with race or religion and, from my vantage point, proved to be competent hosts. Fans who turned up were at once enthusiastic and mindful – the best you could ask for at a tennis match.
And then there’s the city itself. Kuala Lumpur makes a great impression on first-time visitors, with its thickets of modern skyscrapers, coils of smooth highways, and energetic nightlife. If you’re in town only for the duration of a tennis tournament you may actually leave with the impression that you had visited a developed beacon of moderation and racial harmony. Players were checked in at the Mandarin Oriental, adjacent to the Petronas Towers with its ample supply of shopping and bars and restaurants.
“I would definitely come back,” said Mariusz Fyrstenberg after winning the doubles final on Sunday.
“We love this place and the people are real nice,” said Jaroslav Levinsky, who was on the losing end of that match.
Malaysia is set to host the tournament for four more years, giving the nation a potent tool to offset some of the negative perceptions it has created for itself of late.
Continuing to host the tournament should also in its own subtle way build awareness among Malaysians that the outside world isn’t as wicked as some ministers and religious factions would have them believe; that it’s much healthier to embrace it than to be found snarling in the media glare with atavistic rage.