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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 March 2006, 12:49 GMT
The changing face of Malaysian politics
By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

Recently the daughter of a former prime minister of Malaysia compared the fate of Muslim women to black South Africans under apartheid. And senior police officers received a public dressing-down by their chief for a lack of awareness of human rights. But Jonathan Kent is keen to put on record that, behind the headlines, lurks another, different, Malaysia.

Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party spiritual leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat
Nik Aziz Nik Mat has controversial views about women
On a good day I reckon I have the best job in the world.

It gives me an excuse to talk to people from every walk of life in Malaysia.

I have interviewed prime ministers and religious leaders and businessmen, but that also means spending inordinate amounts of time in smart residencies and marble dressed hotels and that is not the Malaysia I love.

There is a modest wooden house next to the mosque in Kampung Melaka.

The green paint is peeling and the door hinges could use a spot of oil. But it is home to Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the elderly chief minister of the state of Kelantan and the spiritual leader of Malaysia's conservative Islamic opposition party PAS.

Nik Aziz studied at the same religious school as all but one of the leaders of Afghanistan's Taleban.

In the past he has declared that wearing make-up can invite rape, that the state should offer jobs to ugly women because pretty ones can find husbands, and that TV sport shows featuring skimpily clad women should be banned.

But if you are picturing an irascible boggle-eyed firebrand think again.

He [Nik Aziz] may believe that I am going to burn in hell but he is always charming and welcoming, and there is always a mischievous sparkle in his eye

Nik Aziz embodies the deep-rooted gentility that is one of the defining characteristics of Malay culture.

He may believe that I am going to burn in hell but he is always charming and welcoming, and there is always a mischievous sparkle in his eye.

And however uncompromising his pronouncements, he always ends them by saying: "But that is just what I, an old man, believe. You must decide for yourselves."

It is a humility he shares with Malaysia's Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, a man whose heart belongs to the country's small towns and villages where decency can still prevail.

'Quiet dignity'

Halfway up the Cameron Highlands road, down a blink-and-you-miss-it turning, through a ramshackle village, across a river and through the forest, is another small home.

It belongs to Zaini, a member of one of Malaysia's indigenous communities collectively known as the orang asli.

It is a hut made of bamboo and thatched with palm leaves. The air flows though the slatted floor and it is perfectly cool even in the tropical heat.

Zaini brings pineapple from the field outside and you have never tasted fruit so sweet.

The orang alsi are defined by the land. Their relationship with it is spiritual as well as material.

And though nearly 50 years after independence Malaysia is yet to give most of its indigenous people ownership of their ancestral land, they struggle on with quiet dignity.

Indeed dignity is a quality I associate with many of the poorest Malaysians.

The rubber tappers, the farmers, the tea pickers, the hunter gatherers. They raise their families, put food on their tables, eke out the little money they have with great stoicism and hope for a better future.

'Extraordinary' food

A Penang Kopitiam
Some dishes are more exotic than others at the kopitiam
In Pulau Tikus on Penang Island there is a coffee shop - I forget its name - what locals call a kopitiam, in the hokkien Chinese dialect.

It is old and not particularly clean, its tables and chairs are plastic and the food is extraordinary only in the way that much of the food in Malaysia is extraordinary.

They do a few dishes and they do them well. This is the kind of place I meet up with friend or interviewees and where they ask the key Malaysian questions.

"Can you take spicy ah?" They push small bowls of hot chillies towards me and look coy.

"Spicy, no problem," I'll say and pop a chilli padi in my mouth.

"You can take belacan [dried shrimp paste]?" they ask.

"Belecan oso," I reply, "and petai."

Petai are crunchy beans with a metallic flavour whose essence comes back to haunt one hours or even days after they have been eaten.

They look impressed.

These last two years the quiet Malaysians have started to speak up

"What about durian?" Durian is a fruit the taste of which has been described as like eating cheese off a dead body.

"Aiyoh," I say "durian cannot," and screw up my face.

At this point everyone will laugh.

Political awakening

This kopitiam is the favourite of Lim Kean Chye. The doyen of Penang lawyers, 86-years-old and sharp as a pin.

I ask him what has changed here during his lifetime.

"Nothing," he says. And of course it has not.

The noodles are the same, the local coffee, the chatter as people meet friends and eat.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Photo: Tengku Bahar/Afp/Getty Images)
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became prime minister in October 2003
But then he tells me of the old days when doors were left unlocked, bullock carts were parked on Northam Road and there was always a free cup of tea for the rickshaw pullers.

There is a nation of quiet Malaysians out there.

Recently I recorded five from very different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds debating police reform, something I think they may have been too scared to do under the old premier, Mahathir Mohamad.

But these last two years the quiet Malaysians have started to speak up.

And though the braying benches of parliamentarians who call one another monkeys or racists warn that public debate will lead to race war, disorder and strife, the Malaysians I meet can thrash out the issues and get along with one another just fine.

And with a quiet Malaysian like Abdullah Badawi at the helm perhaps their time has come.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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