Wednesday, December 12, 2007

'Mr Bean' In Political Malaysia

You’d think that buying batteries would be a quick-and-easy transaction in any part of the world, but at a 7-11 store in Brickfields in central Kuala Lumpur last week, I ran into a rather curious, and comical, situation. For some unfathomable reason, the counter-clerk, a young Malay male, refused to acknowledge my request for batteries, and kept staring at me.

Diagnosing this as a 'communication gap' disorder, I pointed to the battery packs stacked right behind him, and threw in a few well-chosen Malay words to articulate my interest in procuring them. This time, he did respond, but only to hail his colleague, a girl barely in her teens, who rushed over excitedly — and joined him in gawking at me.

A rush of Malay words, and intermittent giggles, flew back and forth, while I stood around, feeling rather like an orang-utan at a zoo at showtime. The spell was broken only when the girl stopped giggling long enough to sputter: “You're Mr Bean!”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for Rowen Atkinson, or rather for the bumbling character he so comically portrays. Last year, a linesman shunting engines on the train to Lhasa asked me if I was “the stupid Mr Bean” and had a photograph taken with me. And at the Hong Kong Sixes cricket tournament last month, kids waiting to get star cricketers' autographs abandoned their quest upon sighting Mr Bean and came squealing in hot pursuit of me. Ever gracious, I humoured them with my autograph!

I honestly don't know why this should be so: I don't think I bear even a faint facial or personality resemblance to Mr Bean. But since denials are disbelieved, I play along and savour my 15 minutes of look-alike fame.

My dashing good looks — ahem! — also led me to many interesting experiences in Malaysia, which are representative of popular responses to the colour of one's skin in large parts of East Asia. At a Sessions Court in Shah Alam, where 31 Hindraf supporters were being tried, the court security guard disallowed local Tamil-language journalists from entering the courtroom on the specious ground that the room was full. But when I showed up right behind them, I was admitted without even an identity card check, evidently in the belief that, being fair of skin, I represented a Western news organisation (and must therefore not be trifled with).

Once, while taking a taxi, I got talking to the driver, a Malay Muslim, about the ethnic Indians' situation. “You must be British,” he speculated, eyeing me in the rear-view mirror. “So you might know something about the Indians here. They are dirty, lazy, drunkards.” After letting him rant for a bit, I revealed to him that I was an Indian national of Tamil stock.

For the rest of the journey, the hitherto-garrulous driver confined himself to meditative monosyllables.

DNA gained two unlikely — and wholly unwelcome — ‘brand ambassadors’ last week in Malaysia: Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and International Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz. Aziz, in fact, flaunted a copy of the November 28 edition of DNA at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur and ranted about a front-page report that quoted a poet who had spent 17 years in Malaysia as saying that the racial discrimination that ethnic Indians there face smacked of apartheid. Prime Minister Badawi followed up on that, denouncing the report as unrepresentative of the Malaysian situation.

However, the DNA report was picked up — and endorsed — in Malaysia’s vibrant blogosphere (check out, for two representative blog-posts), but the poet herself was subjected to some scurrilous personal criticism.

Perhaps momentarily rattled by the bilious rage, she disassociated herself from the DNA article, but has since clarified that the article as published had her written approval.

In the interests of her safety and protecting her privacy, I’ll say no more on the subject… (By Venkatesan Vembu - DNA)
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