We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
The island of Borneo is very special. Its territory is divided up between Malaysia (the Borneo part), Indonesia (Kalimantan), and the tiny sultanate of Brunei. Brunei is currently in the news as the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who also acts as prime minister, insists that Brunei will implement sharia law. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled non-stop for 52 years.
Harsh penalties have been in force since 2014; the second and third stages to the penal code just went into effect a few weeks ago on April 3. People convicted of being gay men or adulterers die by stoning. Thieves lose the right hand for a first offense, and the left foot for the second. Blasphemy or leaving the Muslim faith earns the death penalty. The new laws criminalize ‘exposing’ Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. Cross dressing earns imprisonment. Abortion shall be punished with public flogging. Lesbians get flogged with 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in prison.
These laws mostly effect Muslims, though some aspects apply to non-Muslims. One-third of the country’s population is not Muslim.
Human Rights Watch condemns the new penal code as “barbaric to the core”. In ‘fairness’, it’s not entirely clear whether death by stoning will actually be implemented. A high burden of proof is needed.
We just finished up a trip to that part of the world and had an amazing time on Borneo. It repels me beyond words to think that we might have visited this barbaric regime.
But I digress. I wanted to tell you about our trip. Come back later; I promise I’ll be in a better mood. I’ll have stories about orangutans, rare frogs, and Dayak shaman medicine to share with you.