A theme of these columns has been that some places, for many reasons, carry before them more mental associations than others. For me, Malaysia was one of those that remained hazy. Many of its neighbours - Vietnam, Thailand, Java, Bali - called a set of images,rightly or wrongly, to mind. However, Malaysia was never really a country that figured much in my consciousness and before going there I had no real idea what to expect. What notions of the place I had came from a random mix of sources over the years. I had no real picture of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, other than knowing that for a while it had the tallest building in the world, the Petronas Towers. The Straits of Malacca, with a history of piracy, sounded wildly exotic. The Tea Plantations of the Cameron Highlands sounded like a genteel echo of a colonial past.
There had also been the occasional old films on TV set in Malaya: The Long, The Short and the Tall, based on a play about British soldiers in Malaya in WW2, and A Town Like Alice. There were sometimes reminiscences in the paper or on the radio of British National Service time spent in Malaya, with memories of the jungle and Kuala Lumpur and Tiger Beer. National Service in the UK ended in 1960 so there was a short overlap with the rise of British rock and roll and pop and the odd musician – like Danny Thompson of Pentangle - found themselves doing their bit overseas in Penang. However, not only did national service seem incompatible with the ethos of rock and roll but the time out of civilian life could also end a pop career before it had really got going. Singer Terry Dene was probably the biggest pop casualty of this at the time but Adam Faith apparently considered having one of his toes cut off to avoid call-up and his career crashing. It was therefore ironic when the cry from Middle England went up at the sight of the early Rolling Stones - “What they need is a bath and a hair cut and a spell of national service would do them all good” . This overlooked the fact that one of the band, Bill Wyman, had already done his National Service – 1955-1958, RAF Oldenburg, Germany –and look what it did for him.
There seemed few non-Malaysian songs about the country. The Small Faces gave the capital a mention in their 1968 song, Rene, “romping with a stoker from the coast of Kuala Lumpur”. More recently American outfit Bombadil also sang of Kuala Lumpur: ”monsoon winds will take you home to my Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur all day, so much to say”. There seemed little else. When I went to Malaysia, therefore, I went with no set expectations. Parts of Kuala Lumpur , with the Petronas Towers, the huge artificially lit shopping malls of consumer goods and elevated rail system, seemed ultra-modern, rather like those futuristic drawings people in 1960 produced when imagining the cities of 2000. However, a train and boat ride away there was Crab Island - Pulau Ketam, an island fishing village built on stilts – and which sounds like the title of a really exciting Famous Five adventure story (The only flaw in going is that if you are not that keen on crab, you are a bit stuck as to what to choose in the restaurant there).
A couple of hours to the south, Malacca lived up to its exotic image, with the bonus of a canal system from a Dutch past and the Dutch Harbour Cafe, serving hagelslag and apple cake. There were also unexpected musical delights. At the Geographer Cafe on Jonker Street in the Chinese quarter, Mr Burns, the coolest cat in town, entertains most evenings with an eclectic range of songs from early rock and roll through the Bee Gees to J J Cale and all points in between. One evening his version of Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones floated incongruously over the nearby street stalls selling frog porridge , mingling with the sounds of outdoor Chinese karaoke.
What was also apparent was the wide mix of cultures - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian - and the active promotion of a sense of national unity and ‘one Malaysia’. This is reflected in different ways by the two songs here. The first is Made in Malaysia, a patriotic anthem by Roots n Boots, a Malaysian skinhead punk band influenced by the Oi! sound. Though it sounds like something Sham 69 might have done in 1978, it came from their 2000 album Working Class Heroes, part of a largely underground music scene. The other is the 2008 Here in My Home by Malaysian Artists for Unity: a more ‘official’ musical statement and a kind of Malaysian We Are the World.
The visit also gave rise to a common holiday experience. A glass of retsina can taste wonderfully authentic in an outdoor Athens cafe in the shadow of the Acropolis but can start you worrying if you have mixed it up with the Jeyes pine disinfectant when tasted in the front room at home. A CD of Croatian folk music can suddenly sound less interesting when heard again out of context. And a sketch of Malacca purchased from its Chinese artist in his shop can seem not really naïf art when opened up after the journey back to England. What remained, however, was a sense of a kaleidoscope of a place: shifting images of colour and sound. It is then not hard to see where the Tourist Board marketing slogan of 'Malaysia, Truly Asia' came from.