Sexy Tuesdays in Malaysia

by AFP/Lawrence Bartlett, Oct 13, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

"Sexy barmaids on Tuesdays" proclaims the sign outside a bar in Kuala Lumpur, begging the question: What do you get on the other six nights of the week? The answer, given that Malaysia's capital is preparing to host a major Islamic summit, must be: That depends on what you want, where you look and who you are.

If you like rock and roll you can celebrate the fact that major US group Linkin Park will play in a football stadium here the night before the summit of the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference. If you don't, you can get some satisfaction from the fact that they will have to cover themselves from chest to knee and won't be allowed to "leap around" or be "raunchy".

The strict stage rules, which boil down to "no drugs, no sex and a little bit of rock and roll" come from the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism. The same ministry has ensured that Arab women in town for the summit veiled in black from head to toe will feel as at home as the Western tourists slopping about in vests and shorts in the 33-degree heat.

Malaysia made a successful push recently for wealthy Middle Eastern tourists who feel unwanted in the terrorism-obsessed West; nobody here will pay them a second glance in the shopping malls and designer stores. At the same time, nobody will raise an eyebrow as the Westerners pop into a bar for a chilled, alcoholic, article. If it's Tuesday and they choose the Thai Club on P. Ramlee Street, they might even be served by a sexy barmaid.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad likes to call himself an "Islamic fundamentalist" and Malaysia a "model Islamic state". But he has run a multiracial country for the past 22 years, where large Chinese and Indian minorities have been allowed religious and cultural freedoms. The mix has produced a melting pot hailed as one of the world's most economically successful Muslim nations, famed for its wide range of Asian cuisine along with its jungles and beaches.

Unlike neighbouring Thailand, it is not famous for sex.

Visitors strolling through the centre of town in the evening, however, might be handed a menu offering a chance to "Sample our Oriental delights" -- and they are not talking about samosas or spring rolls. A newly-arrived expatriate from Britain sparked controversy recently after writing in "The Expat" magazine that he had fallen in love with Kuala Lumpur's beautiful women.

Local newspapers lapped it up, but not everyone was amused. The magazine's editor, Andrew Davidson, carried an apology in the next issue. He had received complaints, not from the Islamic clerics, but from the western wives of other expats "who felt the article encouraged their spouses to go chasing local women".

KL, as it the Malaysian capital is known, has long had a somewhat dour image in comparison to some of its freewheeling neighbours in Southeast Asia. But many of the five-star hotels hosting the kings, sheikhs and presidents attending the summit are amidst an increasingly lively -- perhaps even "raunchy" -- nightlife area. The Barfly on Sultan Ismail Street has introduced bar-top dancing by scantily-clad girls, a move cynics attribute to Malaysia's long-running game of one-upmanship with neighbouring Singapore.

The island state recently wrestled publicly with its famously conservative conscience, which in the past led it to outlaw chewing gum, and decided that bar-top dancing could give it a racy new image in a region competing for tourist dollars. Despite its conservatism, Singapore, a non-Muslim country, doesn't get the bad press that Malaysia does -- perhaps because its leaders don't make a habit of telling Westerners, like Mahathir does, that they are greedy, warmongering sexual deviants.

When Mahathir opens the summit on October 16, 2003, he is likely to repeat his favourite refrain: Muslims must acquire skills and technology so they can create modern weapons and "strike fear into the hearts of their enemies". By "enemies", Mahathir means Western countries, which he says are humiliating Muslims worldwide under the guise of the war on terrorism simply because they have the power to do so. But Mahathir is well known for his love of controversial rhetoric, and many Westerners will raise a glass in his honour when he retires on October 31. "Expat" editor Davidson writes: "Malaysia has been very fortunate to have a leader like Dr. Mahathir."

The clientele of the Thai Club no doubt agree, on Tuesdays at least.

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