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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 10:00 GMT
Malaysia's record-breaking obsession
Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
The world's tallest building is in Kuala Lumpur
The BBC's Jonathan Kent explains why the small country of Malaysia is so keen on beating world records, even those involving the world's longest buffet.

At Rawang, a little way outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, 300 people light little fires under clay pots.

They were attempting to set a new record for the largest ponggol cooking event in the world.

There was so much smoke from the little fires that my eyes started streaming.

One of the participants, Mrs Dasaratharaman, told me that Ponggol was a festival celebrated by Hindus.

"After harvesting, they have a festival to celebrate it. This pot is meant for cooking sweet rice with cow's milk," she said.

But what I really wanted to know was the answer to a much broader question - where does this Malaysian obsession with breaking records come from?

Sujartha Nair, who works for the Malaysian Book of Records, said Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad encouraged many of the country's record-breaking events.

He even turns up to some of the attempts himself, Sujartha Nair said.

Longest buffet queue

And it is not just ponggol cooking contests. Malaysians seem driven to make one bigger, better or tastier than everyone else.

So much so that the unofficial national motto - Malaysia Boleh, or Malaysia can - has become something of a joke, satirised in a spoof "Bolehwood" award ceremony.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
Malaysia's leader supports the record-breaking feats
Jo Kukathas, who co-wrote the show, said Malaysia Boleh had produced quite a list.

"The tallest flag poles, the tallest buildings, longest bridge," she said.

"Then of course we go from the sublime to the ridiculous. We have the world's largest park... the longest buffet line on the beach... the world's biggest lemang," she said.

A lemang, she explained, is a kind of rice cooked in bamboo.

"We had the biggest lemang in the world, but also the only lemang!" Jo Kukathas said.

The Bolehwood awards don't just send up Malaysia, they also poke fun at foreigners' perceptions of the country.

Malaysia has not been well served by Hollywood. The comedy Zoolander was banned here, not least for suggesting that Malaysia was a sweatshop economy.

The movie Entrapment angered Malaysians for showing the world's tallest buildings, the Petronas Twin Towers, next to imaginary slums.

"Did you see the background?" advertising company boss, Austen Zecha, asked me.

"He's in a boat, he's in a canal, and yet the twin towers in the background... there is no such scene in Malaysia. That's superimposed."

False perceptions

Mr Zecha's firm has been given the difficult task of branding the small multiracial, multicultural country for the tourist industry.

"We hit on the idea that the thematic tack line could not be anything else but to say that Malaysia is truly Asia," he said.

"You don't have to go to China to experience great, superb Chinese food. You don't have to go to India to experience great, superb Indian food. Or you don't have to go to Indonesia for great Indonesian food. It's all here."

But most of the foreign tourists I spoke to on the streets of Kuala Lumpur had a very different mental picture of Malaysia before they arrived.

"I didn't think it was such a developed country," said one person I met.

Most Americans know next to nothing about Malaysia. They would probably know that it's somewhere in the Pacific, but besides that, they would have trouble finding it on a map
Noah Morowitz, television producer
Another said he had an image of houses on stilts, and people going about their simple business in villages and boats on the river.

"All the women wear head dresses - that's the first thing I think of when I think of Malaysia," said another.

Noah Morowitz, a television producer making a programme about Malaysia for an American channel, said his audience was barely aware of the country at all.

"Most Americans know next to nothing about Malaysia," he said. "They would probably know that it's somewhere in the Pacific, but besides that, they would have trouble finding it on a map."

If Malaysia was just a small country with a big ego, its attempts to be noticed would simply seem funny.

But since 11 September and the Bali attacks, it has become deadly serious.

Bali may be 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Kuala Lumpur, but in the minds of much of the world it is right next door.

It has suddenly become vital that predominantly Muslim Malaysia gets out its message - that it is friendly, safe and open for business.

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