I was probably ten the last time I came to Melaka or maybe a bit older, I can’t quite remember now but the only thing that is at all familiar is the four hundred year old portugese church up on the hill in central Melaka. Everything else is strange and new, not because the town has been developed but because I didn’t see any of it when I was that young or if I had, none of it made much of an impact for me to remember now.
I certainly do not remember the narrow twisty streets of chinatown that must be almost as old as the fort and which is pretty much everything the chinatown of singapore is not: poor, crowded, smelly, full of traffic, falling to bits and alive. Melaka’s chinatown does have tacky bars and lots of empty shops and it does have an influx of money as can be seen by assorted well-designed asian chic shopfronts amidst the tacky chinese souvenier stands. But it still feels more like the chinatown of my childhood when the GDP in PPP terms of Malaysia more resembled contemporary Vietnam.
I have mixed reactions about this. While it is pleasant to walk through the crumbling streets and look at packed in general shops, old style coffee houses and know that the shopfronts are inhabited from the occasional glimpse of laundry hanging from second storey windows, a lot of the nostalgic exotica is the result of poverty.
I can’t help but think that if the people became wealthier in this part of town, many of shophouses would either be renovated into offices, converted into trendy apartments or preserved as olde-style themed restaurants. The night markets will be replaced by Orchard Road shopping malls selling real deal Zegna and Gucci (why bother with the fake stuff if you can afford the real?) and the hawker stalls will become permenant restaurants, small stalls in airconditioned foodcourts or international franchises.
As a result, it will be a much better place to live in for the locals if not as fun or as cheap for western tourists.
And the thing is, it should be doable (and to an extent is already happening) in Malaysia.
I spent a productive afternoon in Singapore’s bookshops browsing through various books on its economy and government policies. It’s easy to dismiss Lee Kuan Yew as a lucky authoritarian whose latest self-created post as Minister Mentor signifies a Howard like inability to let go of power, but this is too glib. The fact is Singapore works and is where it is today because of him. In spite of a complete lack of natural resources, has a GDP nearly level with Australia, which in PPP terms is even higher than Australia.
I’d love to study singapore more and look forward to seeing how it does over the next few years but from what i’ve managed to glean, some of the factors contributing to its success in no particular order is:
– an early liberalisation to MNC and FDI before it became popular
– a committed, talented and flexible beaurocracy
– a population with high savings
– an english speaking population
– a strategic trading geographical location
– a trade and business literate culture
– a stable poltical climate with a commitment to anti-corruption
But having said all that, I am still happier in Melaka’s chinatown even if I hope that in 2020 (Malaysia’s self set deadline to become a developed country) I will be nostalgic for it.