Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur
I was born and bred in Malaysia but I moved to the Netherlands in the early-90’s. I return to Kuala Lumpur at least once a year to visit my family and childhood friends, and I always have a wonderful time – that’s not too difficult when the company AND the food are simply superb! Though I have retained my Malaysian ‘roots’, I realised at an early stage that I was like a tourist visiting my own country each time I returned. Living in another, totally different environment certainly changes your general perception of things but it’s not until I touch down at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, that this ‘afterthought’ becomes a glaring fact. I don’t even have to mention that I live overseas – most Malaysians (such as taxi drivers) pick up on that fact within seconds (probably due to my patchy Malay) and accept me as a ‘for-cal’ (foreign local! ). This ‘neither here nor there’ position, or limbo, feeling is weird and sometimes unsettling but I’ve learned to accept it as a natural development. It’s fascinating to be in limbo as I get to experience the country through the eyes of a ‘local’ but one with foreign perspectives and ideas.
Through the years, I’ve been very privileged to experience the rapid development of this country as a ‘for-cal’. During the roaring 90’s when the sky was the limit, the obvious signs of the impressive economic growth were the constant change of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline (with the Petronas twin towers as the crown jewels), the increasing number of high-end car brands on the road, and the explosion of the restaurant and shopping scenes. As in other rapidly developing countries around the world, these changes had both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, Malaysians were getting richer and their standard of living grew accordingly. On the other hand, the traffic jams were unbearable, proper city planning became a secondary concern and the clearing of pristine rainforests for new houses, industrial complexes and highways was devastating for the environment.
Talking to the locals, it seemed as though everyone had just one thing on their mind, which was making money. It was often difficult to have a decent conversation without the topic changing eventually to … money! It was for me sometimes annoying but I understood the reality of it – it was a period of seemingly boundless opportunities and everyone wanted a piece of the pie A.S.A.P.!
In the past five years, I’ve started to see a somewhat more balanced approach to growth. The state of the environment is receiving more attention and city planners are more meticulous when approving or implementing new development projects. Returning to Kuala Lumpur every year, it was fascinating to experience this gradual change as the country became wealthier. Children who were sent overseas to study have returned, bringing with them new ideas and perspectives, and they now spearhead the future of the country.
Ten years ago, ‘quality of life’ was something only the very wealthy could consider. Nowadays, a sizeable middle-class dominate the urban landscape and ‘quality of life’ is accessible to a larger public – each time I return, I’m amazed by the increasing number of trendy restaurants (with cuisines from every corner of the planet) and bars, as well as flashy malls and spas. The custom of sitting out on a terrace with a cold glass of beer or wine was rare 20 years ago. Now, terraces are packed with people sipping chilled wines and pricking their forks into little tapas dishes. Conversations no longer revolve exclusively around money, politics and sports. ‘Lifestyle’ topics like travel, wellness and gastronomy have become equally important. Symbols like expensive cars and homes are no longer sufficient to show off their status in the society. Rather, I sense that a growing number of Malaysians have embraced ‘lifestyle’ as a further distinction of their status.
My family sometimes ask me if I’ll ever return to Malaysia for good. I’m not sure about that. If I ever do, I’ll have an interesting task adjusting my ‘for-cal’ lenses and blending back in!