IT WAS the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim world’s holiest month of fasting, when the Muslim taxi driver drove us from the airport to a line of luxury hotels on an idyllic beach – most of which are less than a third full.
He shook our hands when we alighted, giving him a laughably small tip by British standards, and said: “Thank you for coming to our island. When you come from the West, we keep our jobs.”
This place is, by South East Asia standards, far from poor – but you can hire a man like Ali and his car for four pounds an hour and twenty five for a whole day. But Ali is in trouble because the tourist trade, already badly affected by terrorism and SARS, had just been delivered another explosive blow – by Malaysia’s own Prime Minister!
Back home, this column concentrates on countryside matters and, like it or not, one of the key supports of country life these days is the tourist trade. Foot and mouth proved that and no less than four of my favourite Dales pubs went out of business as a direct result.
But as our Government had absolutely no idea how to deal with FMD and its aftermath, Dr Mahathir had absolutely no idea what he was doing to the ordinary people of this country when he declared a week ago at an international conference that “Jews ruled the world by proxy” allowing other people to do their fighting and dying for them.
This, a direct jibe at the USA, he said just three days before he was about to meet President Bush who was swinging through the Pacific for a series of meetings to improve international trade and tackle world terrorism.
As a result, the Americans are now threatening to cut off aid to Malaysia. That, the Prime Minister says, doesn’t matter – the nation can afford it. Well, the rich people can. For the poor like taxi-driver Ali, it is a potential disaster.
Dr Mahathir retires today after 22 years in which he has done much to bring this former British colony into the First World. But he has done so by resolutely playing the Muslim card to keep in power, by jailing political opponents on trumped up charges, and by creating an over-class of cronies widely criticized as being riddled with corruption.
Yet Malaya is only just a Muslim nation. Islam barely outnumbers the Chinese, Christian and Hindu populations – but they have never been able to get their act together to create a united opposition.
The full implications of this came from another taxi driver, taking us to the wonderful old Orient and Eastern Hotel – the O&E as it was known throughout the British Raj – which was built by the same brothers who created the much more famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
He was Chinese and he said with quiet desperation: “Now the whole world thinks that Malaysia is a nation of Muslim fanatics who will bomb and shoot tourists. It will take years for us to recover – and how will I find another job to feed my family in that time.”
Strange, isn’t it, how tourism – which has just taken over from banking as the world’s biggest industry – can be cocked up by politicians who claim to represent ordinary folk but never take the time to meet them and listen to the world’s real problems?