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Please view the East Malaysia Photo Album on this site!

Wow!

Kota Kanabalu, the small Malaysian city on the west coast of Borneo, and Sabah, the lush Malaysian state in which KK (everyone’s affectionate name for the city) is located, has stolen our hearts.

What an absolutely delightful place this is! Our ship is securely docked at the beautiful new marina here at Sutera Harbour – a resort that features not only the marina, but golf (including fully-lighted nighttime golf, until 9 PM), a country club, a spa, and two world-class hotels.

I am writing this from my eleventh floor room at The Pacific Sutera, a luxury resort that rivals the best Maui has to offer. I overlook the lush, sprawling hotel pool area, the marina and our ship, and KK’s spectacular bay as I avail myself of both WIFI and fire-wire high speed internet on my two computers.

An easy walk around the Marina, past tennis courts covered by a huge canvas canopy, and past the massive club house for the Country Club, is the Magellan Hotel. I would rate it only a small notch blow the Pacific Sutera, yet larger and perhaps more fun for families.

I watch as jet skiers, scuba-, paragliding-, and water-skiing boats crisscross the beautiful harbor here. The sun is shining, the water is blue, the hills are covered with rain forests and lush jungles, the streets are clean and safe, and the largely Islamic population is enthusiastically tolerant, well educated and genuinely friendly.

Background

Malaysia, home to about 26 million people – most of them on the Malay Peninsula – was once a group of petty kingdoms. There are about three million people living in the State of Sabah here in East Malaysia, including about 300,000 who live in the City of Kota Kanabalu.

All Malaysians victims of Japanese occupation during WWII, and became British protectorates after the war. They overcame regional differences sufficiently to pull together as the single nation of Malaysia, gaining full independence 1957. The island of Singapore initially joined the nation, but two years later it declared itself an independent city state. Regardless, it remains the financial center of the region. On August 31st, Malaysia will celebrate 50 years of remarkable progress under their constitutional monarchy.

The Malaysian Ringgit is their currency. The average family earns about $1500 Ringgits per month – or about U.S. $500 per month – approximately U.S. $6,000 per year.

Their goal is to eradicate poverty here by 2010; and from what I’ve seen I would say they are well on their way, at least in East Malaysia. They apparently define the hard-core poverty income level as about $500 Ringgits – about U.S. $165 – per month for the average family of five.

It may appear they are being a bit too easy on themselves in setting as a goal the elimination of family incomes of less than about U.S. $2,000 per year. That’s not much for a family of five.

But U.S. $2,000 per year is positively opulent when compared to the 36 million people nearby in, say, The Philippines who live on less than U.S. $2 per day. Also, it is especially comfortable (relatively speaking) thanks to massive government subsidies for everything from fuel to bottled water. These keep the cost of living modest, in a country that is expected to grow economically at a rate of 5.5 percent per year between now and 2020.

That growth fuels Malaysia’s plan to become a “first world” country by 2020. Based strictly on what I’ve seen in East Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo, I would not be at all surprised if they succeed.

I have not formed an opinion yet on whether or how best to invest in Malaysia, and will reserve judgment until late September when we have our first opportunity to visit the Malay Peninsula, where most Malaysians live.

My Tour With Mr. Ibrahim Tamanan

When you arrive in KK call tour guide Ibrahim Tamanan at 013-858-6018, or ask Jack, the head bellman at the Pacific Sutera, to contact him for you.

Ibrahim and his wife (they have six children) own Borneo Full Force Tours. Ask for Ibrahim specifically as your driver. In a late model air-conditioned KIA mini-van, he will take you on the local tour of your choice. You pick the itinerary, or change it along the way.

Ibrahim is an excellent tour guide and the consummate entrepreneur. One suggestion: Ask him to turn off his cell phone at the start of the trip.

Be sure to set aside a full day to visit the Kinabalu National Park at the base of the 13,000-foot-high spectacular Mount Kinabalu. Enjoy the amazing scenery as you ascend the Crocker Mountain Range, driving from sea level to an elevation of nearly one mile at the visitor’s center.

Incidentally, Kinabalu National Park is 750 square kilometers in size, and there are vast additional tracts of protected rain forest, jungle, river and wilderness areas within Malaysia’s boundaries on Borneo.

If you are the eco-hiker type , and enjoy a rugged but not particularly dangerous (unless you blow out the old aorta along the way) two-day outing, arrange for guides to assist you up the mountain. You will pass through magnificent strata of rain forest, spend the first night at a lodge half way up, and enjoy the view from thousands of feet above the tree line at the summit.

If you are less ambitious, enjoy the relatively tame and very beautiful park rainforest trails in the vicinity of the visitor’s center, and the exhibits at the center itself.

I learned many interesting things about Sabah and East Malaysia in particular, and about Malaysia in general, from Ibrahim during our full-day tour. And, of course, supplemented by some homework of my own, I had the opportunity to observe and form impressions as we embarked from the Pacific Sutera Resort to the visitor center at Mount Kinabalu.

Head Hunters and Pirates!

There are two dominant peoples in Sabah, East Malaysia: The Baju and the Kadazan Dusun.

The Baju traditionally lived near the sea, fished, and were often pirates. They were particularly receptive to British systems of government when the area was a British protectorate.

The Kadazan Dusun lived in the surrounding mountains. They were excellent farmers – and headhunters.

These days, according to Ibrahim, the only thing either group hunts is money.

Shopping

Center Point Mall, and the upscale Heritage Square attached to it, comprises the primary shopping area in downtown KK. However, street-front shops also abound, and a new “hyper-mall” is being constructed just outside of town. You won’t find traditional Asian-style market areas here, however. The stores are nicer, cleaner, and more spacious. The place has much the feel of a rapidly growing mid-size U.S. city – Malaysian style.

The Malaysian Flag

The Malaysian flag bears a striking resemblance to Old Glory. Instead of thirteen alternating red and white stripes (for our thirteen colonies), it has fourteen such stripes – one for each Malaysian state.

While the blue rectangle on the upper hoist side of our flag contains fifty five-pointed stars in nine horizontal offset rows, theirs contains one large star with fourteen points (again, for their states) and Islam’s crescent moon.

Race and Religious Relations in Malaysia

Malaysia’s population is about 86% Muslim, and while I know of no non-Muslims who hold high elective office here, the government adamantly promotes harmony and tolerance. I saw several large and beautiful mosques here, and also some Christian churches.

The local papers seem to acknowledge that some friction does exist between various ethnic and religious groups, but the government insists that intolerance and extremism is unacceptable.

Not-Such-a-Fantasy Island for Budding Terrorists

According to Ibrahim the government employs a very popular law called the International Security Act to contain budding extremists of any persuasion. Here’s Ibrahim’s unofficial explanation of how it works:

The law uses a system of bottom-up reporting and enforcement. There is a strong sense of community in the villages and neighborhoods here so that people tend to know each other’s business.

If local citizens become concerned by someone’s comments or activities, and if they believe that person represents a threat to others, they report their concerns to the village chief or to local officials. The local officials investigate, and if the activity persists, they attempt to take videos or recordings of the offending words or actions.

If the local authorities believe the matter is sufficiently serious, they route the evidence though state officials who will likely route the matter to the appropriate national ministry. If the suspect activity or speech seems to represent a violent perversion of Islam or of any other faith, the ministry will consult with applicable religious leaders for their evaluation as well.

At each step of the process, the offending individual may be counseled by local, state, national or religious officials, and encouraged to desist.

But if the behavior persists, and appears dangerous to others, the individual will be sent – without trial — to an unidentified Malaysian island where he will spend two years under close scrutiny.

The prisoner will be kept safe, treated with respect, and fed well, according to Ibrahim. However, no communication with the outside world is allowed. No letters, internet, newspapers, magazines, radio or TV. Prisoners may visit with clergy of their faith, and throughout their stay they are counseled on, for example, the precepts of peace and tolerance that are the cornerstones of true Islam.

After two years, the prisoner is sent home. If he behaves, that’s the end of the matter. If he persists, he will again spend time on the island.

Human Capital

The Malaysian government is making a major effort to develop the nation’s “human capital.” The beautiful 14,000-student University of Malaysia, Sabah, is an example of the strong emphasis on higher, and continuing, education here.

In particular, during a visit to East Malaysia contemporaneous with my own, Prime Minister Abdullah Bin Ahmad Badawi, and several of the ministers accompanying him, repeatedly emphasized the importance to all Malaysians of becoming proficient in information communications technology (ICT).

While the government is currently awash in oil revenues, they appear to be taking the long view toward developing a self-sustaining economy replete with light clean commerce.

Goodbye Logging, Hello Eco-Tourism

While logging is not banned throughout Malaysia, it is now, according to the government, closely controlled in a “sustainable” fashion. According to Ibrahim, logging is, however, now banned entirely in East Malaysia. And there is an effort to replant logged areas.

Unfortunately, East Malaysia shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia. Indonesia has made far less progress at protecting the island’s rain forests. Brunei is also located here, but I am unaware of any significant forest depletion problems emanating from that incredibly oil-rich nation of less than 400,000 people.

East Malaysia at least has seen the future, and it comes in the form of tourists who will pay dearly to walk in rain forests, climb their mountains, and dive in their waters, to see remarkable marine life, orangutans, elephants and a seemingly endless variety of plants and other animals.

Here’s an example of their eminently sensible approach to conservation: The Kinabalu National Park is owned and administered by a non-governmental organization precisely because, according to Ibrahim, the people don’t trust the politicians to properly protect the place. In addition, all of the park rangers are given shares in the entity and participate in the profits it generates from tourism. This keeps them highly motivated to protect the park.

The entire region here is also incredibly clean; and you feel safe virtually anywhere. In sum, the people here have worked hard to make East Malaysia a highly desirable, world-class tourist destination.

In my opinion, they have largely succeeded.

Real Estate and Business Ownership in Malaysia

Many Pacific and Asian nations prohibit foreigners from owning real estate or businesses. Not Malaysia. Here they employ more eminently sensible approaches:

Foreigners may not own Malaysian real estate valued at under $350 Ringgits (about U.S. $120,000). But foreigners may buy all the real estate they want if valued above that amount.

This brilliantly simple approach prevents foreigners from speculating in the local housing market of the vast majority of Malaysians. It prevents foreign-capital-driven inflation in that market.

However, by permitting investment in more expensive condos and homes, Malaysia not only adds billions to its local economy, it creates jobs in its burgeoning construction industry for Malaysians. Those jobs are not limited to the construction of high-priced homes. They include the construction of the offices, shopping centers, and infrastructure that support a more affluent population. Everybody wins.

Meanwhile, foreigners may own up to sixty percent of any Malaysian company. Obviously, foreign companies may easily avoid even this requirement by incorporating elsewhere while opening branches in Malaysia.

Our Departure

Our weather routing service has told us to get out of Dodge in order to avoid some weather later this week. We are therefore shoving off immediately after we broadcast our radio show tonight:

We had wanted to stop in Brunei, but when driving a small boat across the South China Sea, you do what the weather dictates; and the weather says, “Get thee to Bangkok.”

Please view the East Malaysia photo album on this site!

–Keith

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i. Eco-Hikers may be identified by the following characteristics: Heavy boots, short pants, beige shirt with lots of pockets, bandanna (cap optional), REI collapsible walking stick, modest back pack with carefully selected contents, no makeup, a vague bewildered look when embarking up the path, and an exhausted “this was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done” look upon return. May also belong to the Sierra Club, thinks they are liberal (until they pay their taxes), and are probably registered as Democrats.


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