Monday, August 9, 2010

The land of great contradiction

I was at the Malaysian Law Conference recently. It was my first time stepping foot in the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and it knocked the breath out of me.

The view from the tall glass windows protecting all four corners of the convention centre was nothing short of magnificent. As I stood there appreciating the sight of the Petronas Twin Towers looming splendidly from above, I felt a sudden rush of pride.

Temple of Baalbek

Picture above: Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek, Lebanon

During my travels, I’ve managed to see many places and human-made structures which have blown my mind. If you really must know, the Petronas Twin Towers’ magnificent facade is pale in comparison to structures such as the Angkor Wat, Al-Hambra Palace, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Temple of Baalbek, Taj-Mahal, Mont St. Michel, Stonehenge, and even the remnants of the Buddhas of Bamyan.


Picture above: Borobudur Temple, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Of course, you can say that this is not a fair comparison and one which is likened to comparing apples with oranges since these structures were all built at different time periods and hence bear far more weight than our very own modern mega-structure.

You are absolutely right, but my point is not about how shabby the Petronas Twin Towers are.  It’s about how I find the more I’m blessed with the good fortune of being able to witness the wonderful work of humankind everywhere in the world, the harder it is to take my breath away.

I am no longer amazed by the mystical beauty of Borobudur Temple just because I’ve seen the Angkor Wat or that I’m less impressed by the Ancient City of Carthage because I’ve seen the Temple of Baalbek and think the latter is far superior.

All right, my shameless boasting above is not the point. The point is, as I stood on the third floor of the convention centre that day, I felt that tingling sensation down my spine and my cheeks grew hot as my heart fluttered at a quicker pace than normal. It has been awhile since I have had that feeling and I was just honoured and thankful to be a part of this civilisation.

The one simple thought that came to my mind was this: We are a civilised nation after all.

Sadly, this feeling of pride and gratitude lasted for only as long as I was still at the convention centre. The moment I stepped out from the spacious, plush carpeted and pristinely clean building, I felt as if I had lived in a dream for the past few hours.

After spending a whole day trying to avoid judges and lawyers while hunting down belligerent student volunteers, I dragged my sore feet and tired body to the LRT station. I was mortified to find that the LRT had broken down that night as I tried to get home from the convention centre as quickly as I could.

There were long queues of hot, sweaty and quick-tempered people straining their necks trying to find out the root cause of the unwelcome event.  The staff on duty did not even think about putting a sign up at the entrance so that people didn’t have to walk that far in only to find out that the LRT was not going anywhere.

Unwilling to wait, I decided to take a taxi and that was when I quickly discovered how undisciplined and anarchic Malaysians are, far removed from the frozen civilised world I had experienced earlier on that same day.

None of the taxi drivers were willing to take me home. The excuse was one I’ve heard far too many times. “Jam-lah.” Spoken in a manner that seemed to indicate as if the meter doesn’t run while being stuck in traffic. I wondered whether it was they who are providing us a service or the other way round.

I spent about 20 minutes waiting in total chaos. There were taxis that stopped right in the middle of a busy intersection to pick up customers, causing traffic to come to a standstill.

Traffic policemen were completely oblivious to the cantankerous honks of angry drivers, involuntarily delayed for dinner with their families or lovers, as they focused their attention on a motorcyclist parked on the curb.

I also heard loud cries of frustration as people cursed and spat on taxi drivers who had shamelessly asked for exorbitant fees rather than abiding by the meter and most of the time used as an excuse to pick up Middle-Eastern customers.

As soon as I thought I wouldn’t make it home before midnight that day, I managed to hop on a bus that took me to the LRT station at Masjid Jamek.

From there, I was delayed again by a good 10 minutes because the three ticket machines were not working and I had to queue along with 20 other passengers at the ticket counter. By the time I made it home at around 10pm, I had cursed a million times under my breath.

If Malaysia were a movie, it wouldn’t be called “Pleasantville”. Instead, “Misery” may be more befitting. I personally see Malaysia as “In Pursuit of Happyness.”

I fancy myself as Chris Gardner going on a chilling roller-coaster ride, never knowing which steep bend would throw me off guard and send me howling and crying out for mercy. My heart is palpitating because I would never know what will go wrong and what challenges will be waiting for me around the corner.

All I know is this: I am just pursuing my happiness in this great land that is filled with contradiction.

This article was first published here at The Malaysian Insider on the same day.

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