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Kuala Lumpur's Renaissance

François Dischinger Inside chef Kelly Brennan's Kuala Lumpur restaurant, Senses.

Photo: François Dischinger

Though it's well into the morning hours on Kuala Lumpur's trendy Beach Club strip, the nightclub Ibiza is just starting to heat up. Hip-hop (right now, it's "In Da Club" by 50 Cent) is blasting out of giant speakers onstage, the music so loud that the glasses on the tables are vibrating. The entire dimly lit basement room is heaving with moving bodies. Every so often someone swings up onto the stage to join the two dozen dancers gyrating there, mostly young girls in tight jeans and bare-midriff tops, their swaying and shaking only intermittently visible through the strobe flashes and dense clouds of cigarette smoke. I lean over toward my tablemate, a genial twentysomething in a backward baseball cap. He says his name is Saleh. "Aren't you worried about being raided?" I yell in the Malay I've picked up during my seven years as a journalist here.

The police have been known to descend on the clubs that have cropped up in Malaysia's capital in recent years, mostly searching for ecstasy and amphetamines. But I'm referring to the religious police, another issue altogether. As Saleh and pretty much everyone else in the club are Muslims, just being there could get them hauled up in front of the Islamic law courts by officers of Kuala Lumpur's Religious Department. (These sharia courts deal with all noncriminal matters for Muslims.) The charge for clubbing would likely be "indecent behavior," a catchall favorite of the department. Never mind the bottles of Jack Daniels that stand on almost every table in the place, or the clothes the girls are wearing, which might make even Shakira blush. Either of those could theoretically draw a penalty of fines or jail time if the judge happened to be in a bad mood. But Saleh's response is nonchalant. "Ever since that raid at Zouk, those guys have been lying low," he says, referring to an incident last year, at another velvet-rope club just around the corner, that still lingers in the popular consciousness. The Religious Department officers rounded up some 100 young Muslims and detained them overnight; many of those nabbed, it turned out, were children of Kuala Lumpur's most influential political families, and the controversy that ensued eventually reached the ears of the most senior lawmakers. The raid received considerable unfriendly coverage in the media, and charges against the clubbers were quietly dropped. "And anyway," he continues, "some friends of mine were told that this place definitely won't get busted tonight." He grins and rubs his fingers and thumb together in the universal gesture for money.

The young crowd's flaunting of rules they consider irrelevant typifies the electrified atmosphere that rapid change has sparked in this city. Combine multiple races and religions anywhere and you have a volatile mix; stir in one of the fastest economic growth rates in history for the past 30 years, and you get Kuala Lumpur, a city still a little dazed by its arrival at the crossroads where development, multiculturalism, and Islam collide. The tension is understandable: barely a generation ago, Malaysia was a rural backwater still largely dependent on natural resources (it was the world's largest producer of tin) and agriculture (ditto for rubber and palm oil). Then, in 1981, a zealous medical doctor named Mahathir Mohamad took over as prime minister and began an ambitious program of export-led industrialization. By the turn of the last century, Malaysia's economy was powered by the manufacturing of everything from semiconductors and hard drives to air conditioners (of which it is one of the world's biggest producers). As the capital city, Kuala Lumpur welcomed the rural laborers who poured in from the countryside eager to work in the factories that had sprung up in the suburbs.

Most of these newcomers were descendants of the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, a long finger of once densely forested land hanging off Thailand like an exclamation mark, pointed by the island of Singapore. Just over half of the population of the country today are Malays, and thus also Muslims, their ancestors having been converted by Arab traders several centuries ago. The arrival of so many Malays in what had been, until the mid-eighties, a largely Chinese city was a tectonic break with the country's colonial past. In the early 20th century, the entire peninsula was controlled by Britain, whose officers found, to their irritation, that the Malays had no interest (understandably) in working the colonial rubber plantations and tin mines, preferring instead to tend their own rice fields. So the British simply imported laborers from China and India who were willing to do the backbreaking, often life-threatening (malaria was rife and untreatable) work. The descendants of those immigrants form nearly half of Malaysia's current population, which stands at about 25 percent Chinese, 7 percent Indian, and the rest people of indigenous or mixed heritage.


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