When you arrive into Kuala Lumpur airport, you are warned in writing and by the air stewards that the mandatory death penalty is in force for drug smugglers in Malaysia. For some strange reason, this warning makes you feel guilty: could someone have secretly loaded your luggage with drugs between check-in and boarding?

Surely the policy keeps Malaysia drug-free? But I learnt, in the first newspaper that I read after arriving, that Malaysia intends to start a needle-exchange scheme and institute a methadone-substitution program for its drug addicts, all in the name of harm reduction. The death penalty for drug smugglers notwithstanding, Malaysia seems to have quite an HIV problem: officially 60,000 people are seropositive, though unofficial estimates put the real number at 300,000—5 times the rate of the United States.

Curiously, the existence of the death penalty in Malaysia (there were 12 executions last year) does not seem to arouse the same degree of international indignation as it does in the United States. Perhaps, in a way, this is flattering of the United States: you only grow indignant about those of whom you have high expectations.

Malaysia really is a multicultural society. Sometimes the multiculturalism extends to a single family. At breakfast in my hotel I noticed several men dressed as for the beach in California, accompanied by wives dressed so modestly that not an inch of their skin, apart from their hands, was visible. Eating in the restaurant was not easy for them: they had to insinuate the food under their veil without, of course, revealing anything to the lascivious gaze of outsiders. I suppose it is a skill like any other. Try as I might to be broadminded about this, I found that I could not be. The men were too obviously having their cake and eating it. Then I overheard some of the couples speak: one or two spoke in obviously British tones, and another in French.

I had the newspaper with me: the lead story was about the 5,000 Malaysians who disappear each year. Most of them turn up again, but more important, most of them—the vast majority, as the newspaper put it—were young girls, escaping from their families.

Malaysia’s press is lively and nothing if not entertaining. It records the contradictions of a country that wants to modernize without abandoning all of its traditions. A few days after the story about the needle exchange, I read in a newspaper that the government’s “religious department” had raided the commune of a religious cult called the Sky Kingdom, whose leader, however, had escaped, possibly because of a tip-off from within the department.

Twenty-one of the followers of the cult wound up arrested. The leader, Ariffin Mohamad, had previously spent 11 months in jail for having “humiliated Islamic teachings,” but his cult’s beliefs—he wanted, apparently, to unite the teachings of all religious—seemed innocuous enough to me, and none was antisocial. As an apostate, he faced the accusation of having taken part in “un-Islamic rituals,” such as visiting a Hindu temple, where priests garlanded him, and inviting Christians to his commune. Officials charged his followers with non-adherence to the state fatwa, which branded the sect’s teachings as deviant.

Such sensitivity is surely morbid, a recognition of the fragility of the belief system that state fatwas supposedly protect.

Yet Malaysia doesn’t feel completely intolerant. It is intolerant by fits and starts. A story in the same newspaper, told with deadpan irony rather than indignation or moral outrage, began: “A transvestite wept for half an hour after he injured his right ankle in a frantic bid to flee from the police but his cries fell on deaf ears. Passers-by just gawked at the 34-year-old man who had long, silky hair and was wearing a dazzling pink outfit. An ambulance called by the police eventually came to his aid.” A large picture of the man in the dazzling pink outfit, sitting in a shallow hole in the road with a grimace on his face, accompanied the story.

During the same raid, police arrested 33 Indonesian women in their twenties, and four men suspected of being what the police delicately called their “guardians,” as well as six suspected customers from Bangladesh and Nepal, suggesting that, as in many other places, the pays réel and the pays legal in Malaysia are not entirely coterminous. Long may it remain that way.


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