Life in Kuala Lumpur: Culture, cuisine & the law
Our Malaysia correspondent offers a guide to life in Kuala Lumpur aka KL, from roti canai to a complex dual legal system
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur – more often referred to as KL – is something of an acquired taste, and it didn’t impress me much on my first, brief visit back in 1999. But nowadays, following a series of unexpected turns in my life, it’s my home, and there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Malaysia’s cultural and political context has paved the way for some inspiring arts and activism, and living in this country means that I keep learning, every day. So if you’re planning on coming here for the first time, get acquainted in advance with some things that are important to know.
Kuala Lumpur and Language
English is widely spoken, though levels of proficiency may vary. Malay is also widely spoken, and people frequently mix both Malay and English into their speech. Then there’s Chinese and Tamil, both of which have also made their mark on common parlance. Overall, you’re going to meet some glorious slang, together with the unique sentence construction of Malaysian English.
Food is huge in Malaysia. If in doubt, talk about food and everyone will be happy. The country’s ethnic mix has, not surprisingly, resulted in a vast array of wonderful things to eat. From bougie fusion eateries to mamaks, coffee shops and food courts where you can get a meal for less than a pound, you’re always going to have choices. Local favourites include roti canai (flatbread eaten with curry or dhal), nasi lemak (coconut rice with cucumber, anchovies, groundnuts and sambal), and char kwey teow (rice noodles stir-fried with egg, beansprouts, cockles and prawns). Head for Chinese establishments if you can’t live without pork; while if you’re vegetarian, afraid of spicy food, or craving something Western, don’t worry – everyone’s dietary needs get met, and met well.
It’s hot forever – usually in the low thirties. Rainy season is towards the end of the year, and the rain is epic. With plenty of potholes and uneven paving, together with flipflops being the most common form of footwear, be prepared to get your feet wet. The cinema is the only place you’ll definitely need long sleeves – the air con can get a little out of hand.
The ringgit. It’s having a hard time lately. This is good news for people coming here on holiday, and bad news for those of us who earn in it. Please bring us things.
Malls are everywhere in KL, and there’s a reasonable chance that you will end up in them even if you hate shopping. They’re attached to train stations; they contain pubs, theatres, art galleries. Low Yat is the one to visit if you’re looking for electronic goods – compare prices at a few outlets before committing, and check that your chosen items are genuine. Berjaya Times Square is the one if you want to go on an indoor roller coaster; Sunway Pyramid’s the one with the ice rink.
Kuala Lumpur Transport
The city sprawls for a considerable distance, and walking for even 20 minutes is going to shock and impress people, given the heat. The LRT (Light Rail Transport) is usually pretty reliable, connects to various useful parts of the city, and operates till past eleven at night. There are lots of bus routes too, but the website isn’t super helpful if you need to plan your journey. Taxis are required to use the meter, but in tourist hubs they often refuse; don’t waste your time arguing, just find another one. Many people use the MyTeksi and Uber apps, which help to bypass ripoffs and waiting. After midnight, taxi fares add an extra 50%.
Alcohol tends to be expensive – it comes with added sin tax – and binge-drinking is not exactly a national pastime, but there are certainly places to go if you want to get stuck in. The two main bar areas are Changkat in the city centre (touristy; can be wearying) and Telawi in Bangsar (a mix of foreign residents and bougie locals), but you’ll find some cheap and cheerful places dotted around the city. For a good night out, find your way to Merdekarya in Petaling Garden – it’s open Tuesday to Saturday with live music every night, cheap food and drink, and books and CDs by local writers and musicians.
Contrary to some people’s weird ideas, the capital city isn’t a jungle, and snakes and tigers do not abound in it. However, it has a lot of green spaces. Geckos and shrew-faced squirrels are common sights, and you may also spot monitor lizards. Monkeys and wild boar may be found on the outskirts of the city, particularly in the Ampang hills. Generally, none of these creatures are going to fuck with you, but keep an eye on your valuables if monkeys are around.
Don’t let food scraps, especially sweet things, sit around unattended, or cockroaches will show up. Those fuckers do their best to be indestructible, so aim for the head. Centipedes can give you nasty bites, though they’re less frequently encountered in the city. Besides these, your main concern is going to be nyamuk (the somewhat onomatopoeic Malay word for mosquito). There’s no need to bother with malaria pills if you’re not going deep into the jungle, but you will need to be vigilant about dengue fever, which has affected many people in KL, including some fatalities. Various products exist to help you protect yourself from mosquitoes; the most satisfying are electrified badminton rackets, which make a bzzzt noise every time one of them fries.
Malaysian and Malay are not interchangeable labels! Malaysian is the nationality; Malay is a race and the national language. The country has three main ethnic groups: in order of size, these are Malays, Chinese and Indians. The remaining Malaysians get to tick the ‘lain-lain’ (‘other’) box, and the Orang Asli get about as much consideration as their fellow indigenous people around the world, which is to say, not a lot.
Malaysia has a long-running policy of affirmative action which privileges the majority group, which is underscored every so often by political figures fanning racial tensions. Race is an inescapable topic, and you’ll quite likely be asked outright if you mention someone whose race can’t easily be guessed.
Malaysia’s state religion is Islam, and its coexistence with other religions makes for a curious mix: there are two legal systems, one for everyone and one just for Muslims. This means that a non-Muslim can comfortably drink alcohol, eat pork, get a tattoo, etc. It’s not to say that Muslims don’t do these things, but they need to look over their shoulder a bit more. Every Valentine’s Day, khalwat raids on cheap hotels catch young Muslim couples who were planning on pre-marital celebrations. Muslim trans women are severely impacted by religious laws against crossdressing. And while the tudung (hijab) is not mandatory, Muslim women who don’t cover may find that they’re treated with disdain by authority figures.
Unsurprisingly, not everybody is happy with this set-up. Many Muslims are calling for less regulation and more tolerance (‘moderate’ is a bit of a buzzword lately; it’s pretty dull, but you can see their point). Groups like Sisters in Islam campaign for women’s rights, and face harassment from both Islamophobes and religious extremists. And grassroots group Justice For Sisters has a legal fund to support trans women hauled into Sharia court.
Again, race and religion matter a lot in politics. The ruling party is overtly Malay-based and has been running the show ever since independence in 1957. There have been many complaints aired about this over the years: gerrymandering, vote buying, the apparent resurrection of the dead on voting registers … and now, the prime minister’s connection to the 1MDB financial scandal (see plummeting currency, above). The Opposition has been considerably weakened lately, with Anwar Ibrahim jailed for sodomy in a case that’s been criticised worldwide, and a massive spike in arrests for sedition – a convenient hangover from British colonial rule. If you want to get more of a handle on the political climate, try playing Politiko – the card game of Malaysian politics. For a sense of the marginalisation of East Malaysians, incorporate the Sabah & Sarawak expansion pack.
Not being Singapore
Malaysia and Singapore were briefly glued together in the Federation of Malaya, before differences of opinion got Singapore kicked out. It’s like an inverse Malaysia, an authoritarian state with a Chinese majority and its own party that’s been in charge since the fifties. The two countries have a rivalry that feels a bit Glasgow/Edinburgh. Malaysia is definitely Glasgow.