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Michael’s Travel Diary

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Location: Malaysia

MapOur group of ten first year students from SAIS’ SE Asia dept is in Kuala Lumpur now on a study trip. Next week we’ll go to Phnom Penh together, then begin our internships around the region. We arrived on Saturday and spent the first day getting adjusted. We have a nice hotel downtown, and Professor Welsh will be here to help us get around. She’s spent a lot of time in the region, and has set up an amazing week of meetings for us.
Breakfast at the Corus Hotel is an endless spread of food that epitomizes the cultural diversity of Malaysia. Indian curry and nan bread, Thai rice porridge, coffee from the mountains of Borneo (I romantically presume), fresh papaya and pineapple, and Great Britain’s wonderful contribution: baked beans! People from Africa, India, China, Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia all queue up together, try new dishes, and wonder what bread pudding is made of.
Our first day we had a van and driver to take us to a Pondok (literally ‘little house’, it’s a traditional Islamic school). We drove up into the mountains for about an hour to their commune, and were greeted by ten Muslims in full dress. They welcomed us inside (with very good English), and the boys in our group sat with them and the girls sat across the room with their wives. After pleasantries we engaged in a q+a session about their lifestyle and religion (a branch of Sufism). While they did tend to preach a bit too much for my liking (Allah is closer to us all than our jugular veins, by the way), I couldn’t help but note how amazing it was that we sat there, near pictures of Bin Laden, and cordially told them that we came from Washington and New York. They also have schools in southern Thailand, and presumably know more about the insurgency there than most people in Bangkok or the State Dept… After seeing them pray and eating lunch together, I had a case of Mohammed’s Revenge and ran inside while my friends got a tour of their farm.
That night a few of us went out to a Malaysian club, which was not very cool compared to my sorties in Bangkok. No one even told me I looked like Brad Pitt!

On our second day we had meetings in KL. First we went to the office of Al-Jazeera, which just opened up on the 60th floor of the Petronas Twin Towers and broadcasts to TV stations worldwide. AJ is funded by a Middle Eastern sheik and got a bad rap during the Gulf War, but is actually a very progressive and liberal news agency. There’s very little bureaucracy and the reporters can air stories on just about anything they want. One we met had just returned from Cambodia, and another asked if any of us wanted to come intern with them…
After that we had lunch with Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and finance minister of Malaysia and current opposition party leader. He told us about running for office in a country where your opponents control the media, and about his six years in jail on trumped up charges. Our conversation was constantly interrupted by well-wishers coming over to shake his hand.
After that we went to the US Embassy to meet with their political officer (who was jealous of our schedule of meetings with many people he has no access to) and the Deputy Chief of Mission, who is a SAIS grad. They explained how Malaysia is surrounded by US partners (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia), but prefers to keep its distance from the US politically (except in trade, in which it’s our 10th largest partner worldwide). To learn more about that, we went next to the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce to talk to their Executive Director and also a regional VP for Boeing. They both love the country but don’t think it’s a good place for young Americans to look for jobs. Vietnam and Indonesia have equally vibrant economies and are more welcoming to foreign workers.
After that our group went out for some well-deserved beer and seventy sticks of chicken and lamb satay. We reviewed our budget (mostly a grant from the same foundation that provides scholastic scholarships to our department) and talked about our upcoming internships. I’m looking forward to working for the Cambodian government’s foreign trade office, and will keep you posted on how it goes.