Two expats, one lost plane and a boomtown

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It’s not easy arguing with an old chum if he drops in unexpected, but I have the advantage over him of having covered the region for the past quarter century and more. Besides which, said I, rummaging for a cork screw, I actually lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur for six years and was even arrested, jailed and genitally abused there. Well, at least, verbally.

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But that’s the drill when hosting friends from the same hack pack. Even with world-beating growth, gleaming new skyscrapers, and local politicos just as ulterior in motive as the guys who shut down the American government with their bickering last year, the Western visitor will find reason to rant in KL or any Asian capital, for that matter.

So my chum Morven, unstoppable and a tad riled, bore supporting notebooks and thought he’d got it nailed and could banjax the expert. Natch, I resisted, but being a gent, I let him have his say, as one must of returning prodigals bearing Malbec wine and a cartwheel of Brie cheese, not to mention the wild boar pâté and a ponytail.

With nary a breath for a big black garlic’d olive, he claimed the MH370 incident showed just how much Malaysia had deteriorated. He really let rip: Asian misvalues, world’s highest personal debt rate, bent and inefficient police, communal and religious strife, co-opted judiciary and press, political instability. And haze, ha, ha, ha, ho!

He quoted Malaysian novelist Tash Aw: “Skyscrapers and luxury malls cannot mask the widest gap between rich and poor in Southeast Asia, persistent ethnic tensions, a fraught democracy and a wave of high-profile violent crimes.”

Wow. Malaysia Boleh! (Malaysia Go!) is a veneer, he trumpeted, a charade purveyed by a state-mollycoddled media, now exposed as bollock-naked and toothless by the airborne Sherlockian catastrophe.

He spouted MH370 analyst Jessica Trisko Darden: “Southeast Asian nations are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace, and poor at mounting a swift, coordinated response to disaster. They excel, however, at blaming each other.” That’s from one blame-gamer to another.

She does have a point, though. After all, did ever a politician act more like the proverbial deer in full beam than Malaysia’s acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein, one of the nation’s gravest thespians? Of course, when a 64-meter-long, 61-meter-wingspan plane goes missing without a trace, the official chief plane- and train-watcher tends to be at a loss for words, too.

Two m’s and two d’s, Hishammuddin had always told me, for I knew him long before he took up play-acting. He was a shyster even then, a lawyer to be precise, po-faced and ready to plunge a dagger in anyone’s back. Too many nights playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, perhaps?

Hisham’s youthful dalliances were over by the time I got to know him, though those past indiscretions may reappear in some scurrilous book or blog entitled “50 Reasons Why Hisham Cannot Be PM”, along with his affection for cow’s head satay (but not beer, not since his varsity days in Wales). Morven sniffed blood in the Malaysian minister’s wishy washy performance.

But I retorted: Hisham is an honorable man, a Pahang blueblood, a former player of the purple oboe. And despite his wayward ministerial career, we should not gloat when he’s spiked by a lost Boeing 777. At least, he’s publicly fretting over the 200-odd casualties, which is more than one could say about a certain Nobel Peace laureate keeping mum over Muslims pogrommed in Myanmar by the hundreds.

Besides, Hisham’s boss and cousin, recent Manila visitor Prime Minister Najib Razak, is hardly setting them alight in the stalls, what with voters deserting his coalition government, and the Islamist Perkasa brigade, led by the nutcase Ibrahim Ali, ascendent in the recent hustings. Talk about losing altitude.

Seeking to appease his Malay constituency, Najib has banned Bibles from referring to Allah, and has agreed to consider introducing huddud law, widely known as stonin’, whippin’, and beheadin’. Let’s hope the Bangsamoro pact his country brokered doesn’t bring those niceties into Muslim Mindanao.

Splutter, if you must, said Morven, most folks did when Kuala Lumpur’s lickspittle judges genuflected and sentenced opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim and Karpal Singh to the clink just days before the airliner vanished.

And the powers that be get away with it, at least until the world’s press descended on the Sama Sama Hotel — aptly, as reviews say, “in the middle of nowhere,” just like MH370 — and began grilling Hisham till his tash quivered.

Now, said Morven, two things will happen: Najib and Hisham will be further undercut from within, and more oppositionists will land in court charged with sodomizing goats or saying nice things about Singapore. Crash and burn ahead.

But wait a mo’, says I, you’ve given your forceful castigation of a country I know well and now it’s my turn to rebut. Yes, he says, wearily. Yes, go ahead. Well?

Well. It may be soon after April Fool’s Day, I say, but at least George Clooney was not on the plane. Not so far as we know. Or not so far as they are telling us. Or, well, maybe he was on it? Can’t tell with all those stolen passports bouncing in with the Pattaya surf.

Perhaps that’s why they are keeping it all so secret, the plane that went sailing? Really, it was the best I could do to defend the Asian way under the circumstances. I mean, I had no transponder to turn Morven off, lah.

And even if they do find the B-triple-7, there wouldn’t be any stopping the ponytailed pundit either. Ditto with the all-clear for Ninoy Aquino International Airport by US and EU aviation bosses, along with Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific (well done, NAIA). For ex-colonizers, it seems, nothing worthy can come out of ex-colonies.

And I guess when your host country’s economy and those of its neighbors are racing past the rest of the world, you gotta put up with visitors from the former imperial homeland picking on one wayward fly in a twelve-course KL dinner.

(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)

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