A mile high and falling: Our legendary columnist has landed
10pm: The Beach Club Café
The Beach Club Café in downtown Kuala Lumpur offers a rare and bewildering experience to a heterosexual male like me: the sense of what it must be like to be a woman walking, on her own, into a bar full of men. Except here that picture is reversed: the room is full of women. There’s a frisson as I move towards the bar; a whistle, a tug on my arm, a smile. It feels aggressive, threatening. For me, getting a drink seems like a matter of life or death.
This is no sex club – South East Asia has plenty of those and they’re not for me. It’s a night club, a music bar. But like the rest of Malaysia, the Beach Club Café is something much more opaque and fascinating too.CLICK: Inside the Beach Club Cafe
The bar’s job is simple: to draw Western businessmen out of their multinational chain hotels and part with their dollars in a local business. The women’s job is simple too: to get Western men to stay and buy drinks for themselves and the other girls, and every time they do, the girls get a cut. In return, the reams of regular Joes who are drawn here feel attractive beyond their wildest dreams before they stagger back to their hotels alone.
At least, that’s the theory. In reality, it’s a place of uncomfortable compromises, of smoke and mirrors, much like Malaysia itself.
On the surface it seems like everyone wins at the Beach Club Café: the women, who are mainly poor and Vietnamese, get paid for being attractive, just like so many young men and women do in the West – the models, the soap stars and the pop idols; the nervous businessmen get to feel like Ryan Gosling for the cost of a drink; the bar owners and bartenders rake in the cash, and every runner and bouncer who works in this bees nest of alcohol and music gets their cut too.
Even the companies that fund the expense accounts win, because while the drinks are more expensive than in other local bars, they’re much cheaper than the chain hotels that ring the central park. But such a potent mix is never going to be as benign as it pretends, as the occasional grey-haired lothario leaving with a much younger girl reveals.
The Beach Club Café is a metaphor for the compromises that some make in the pursuit of cash. It’s the tip of an iceberg that gets darker the deeper down you go. It’s a brutally pragmatic business that matches the West’s desire to consume everything in its path with the hunger of a large population of transient, disenfranchised immigrants.
But in a way it’s a microcosm of what makes Malaysia a potent economic force, balancing the competing and – you’d think – mutually exclusive needs of a broad range of interests: post-colonial Western businesses; a devout Muslim majority; a territorially aggressive China across the water; close neighbours at different stages of economic renaissance; and a burgeoning population of poor, young immigrants and non-Malay nationals who are desperate to raise themselves up. You see, the bartenders are all ethnically Malay, the girls are not. And therein lies the fault line that runs through this country.
The modern nation
Malaysia’s modernisation can be traced to the vision of one man: Mahathir bin Mohamad, Prime Minister of the country from 1981 to 2003. It was he who set out a vision of building a Western-style, industrialised nation and who sanctioned the building of an ambitious infrastructure, including the stunning Petronas Towers that dominate the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
But it was also he that cemented ethnic tensions in the country by gifting and retaining privileges for ethnic Malays in return for their support – at the expense of the mainly Chinese minority. This invisible apartheid has been in place ever since the country became independent from Britain in 1957. The same party has run the country for 56 years and, until recently, the politest way to describe the democratic system was ‘managed’.
All that nearly changed at the last election. For the first time, the multi-ethnic opposition gave the party a run for its money. Many said that the voting was rigged.
This wasn’t a momentary surge or a protest vote; it reflected a change in the underlying society as a young, educated, ambitious Chinese Malay population – emulating the rise of China across the sea – become more assertive and bold. Next time they might win.
Western politicians often point at Turkey as a model of how Islam, economic growth and democracy can coexist, but unrest has shaken that image. Malaysia could become a new poster child if democracy really is allowed to flourish there.
But with or without that change, Malaysia is growing up fast. This struck me last year. In the opening race of the 2013 Grand Prix in Australia, it was the fifth-placed Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton that most obviously represented a Malaysian interest – with the logo of Petronas, the state oil company, emblazoned on both sides. But unknown to many, it was a Malaysian-owned team that won – Lotus, founded and based in the UK, but owned and strategically nurtured by Malaysian car company Proton since 1994. The Petronas logo also adorned Hamilton’s car when he won the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2014, of course. And it is a Malaysian firm that has acquired the colossal piece of London real estate that includes Battersea Power Station.
The point is that, once you look, you find Malaysian money all over the place. For a country with a population of less than 30 million, it punches way above it weight.
As I make it to the bar to nurse my drink and fend off the advances of two assertive and amused young women, I feel the world tilt on its axis – towards this place, this bar, this moment in time. There’s still a seat in the corner, but now I have to fight for my place. WW
Your correspondent, ‘WingWalker’. A mile high and falling… falling towards the next place to land.
Signal, not noise.