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Sport 6: Autumn 1991

Wings of Gold: A Week Among Poets

page 37

Wings of Gold: A Week Among Poets

A few years ago one of the present authors, then in Malaysia, was approached by a visiting New Zealand Member of Parliament. 'I have just two important questions for you,' he said. 'What is really going on in this country, and what are the names of the two main types of dress worn by Chinese women here?'

R.S. Milne and Diane K. Mauzy, Malaysia: Tradition, Modernity, and Islam


High above the Australian interior I sit in a Malaysia Airlines DC10—knees under my chin, Wings of Gold on my knees. I am on my way to the Third Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading. I open and re-read the letter that came with my flight ticket.

I am faintly confused about my name. In this letter I am addressed as Manhire, but an earlier fax from the organisers came to Billo Manhire. They are probably confused because they had been banking on getting Cilla McQueen. Cilla has had to pull out in favour of her theatre piece, Red Rose Café, which is about to premiere in Dunedin. But the Billo is rather good. Friends have debated its appropriateness: does it suggest a failed Hobbit or a mild abrasive? Or is Billo built on the model of the missing Cilla? 'From Cilla to Billo'—it has a certain ring. There might be an essay on New Zealand poetry here.

The in-flight magazine, Wings of Gold, is written mostly in English. Alas, the only item written entirely in Bahasa Malaysia is the three-page spread devoted to the Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading, and I understand none of it, although the word puisi has begun to acquire some meaning. Further on, a section called Dateline Malaysia explains that there are two particularly exciting events taking place in Kuala Lumpur in the last week of October. One is the World Poetry Reading. 'More than 40 international poets are expected to take part in the Third Kuala Lumpur World Poetry page 38Reading. Twenty-two of the countries confirmed are Jordan, West Germany, Turkey, Soviet Union, Belgium and France.'

The other event is the World Body Building Championships.

The guidebooks give you facts: 330,000 square kilometres, only 40 per cent of it in Peninsular Malaysia, where about 85 per cent of the population live. The population is about 14 million; 54 per cent are Malays and other indigenous people; Chinese are 35 per cent, Indians 10 per cent. Freedom of worship is guaranteed in Malaysia, but it is essentially an Islamic nation. The constitution even defines a Malay as a person who habitually speaks Malay (Bahasa Malaysia), conforms to Malay custom, and follows Islam. And although Kuala Lumpur now calls itself the City of Light (1990 is 'Visit Malaysia Year'), the name in fact means Muddy Estuary. The city is built where a bunch of 19th-century tin prospectors set up camp at the confluence of two rivers. (These days the rivers flow through huge concrete drainage channels—gigantic versions of Dunedin's Leith Stream.)

Before I left New Zealand, long before the cabin crew turned on the musak ('Harbour Lights') and demonstrated safety procedures, I asked people about Malaysia. One friend told me about the bumiputra policies. Bumiputra means 'sons of the soil' and Malaysia has a range of measures designed to discriminate in favour of the indigenous peoples, mainly the ethnic Malays, so that they can gain a more equitable share of the nation's wealth. There are Malay privileges in business licences, land ownership, government jobs, tertiary opportunities. Someone else explained that Malaysia was one of the powerhouses of the new Asia: its economic success made the New Zealand of Roger Douglas look absurd.

But most people made dark jokes about drugs. Some mentioned Lorraine and Aaron Cohen. One night I turned on a BBC television play, Among Barbarians, about young English drug smugglers in Malaysia. I thought there might be some establishing shots, a few images to give the feel of the place: mosques, perhaps, or majestic rainforest. But all I could see was an anxious British family arriving at an airport, then a hotel. I went back to marking end-of-year exams. 'Katherine Mansfield talked of seeing her world in glimpses. How does she make such apparently insignificant moments worth writing about?' After about an hour I flicked on the set again, just in time to see two bodies plummeting through the hangman's trapdoor.

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My arrival card says:

And just as we land there is a brief announcement about drug smuggling. 'Such an offence will carry a mandatory sentence. Thank you.'

It is raining as we land, 7.40 pm local time in a steaming, equatorial world. Two men stand around the baggage claim, both wearing face masks, like surgeons in an operating theatre. A young German drifts through the arrival hall asking people to lend him his airfare home. I am luckier than him. Someone holds a sheet of paper saying 'Manhire'. I have been looked for, I am safe, I do not worry. There are several young men to meet me, and even another poet who has just stepped off a flight from Brunei. One man does all the talking: he is small, all in black, and keeps breaking into nervous, high-pitched laughter. He reminds me of Joel Garner in Cabaret.

'Mr Bill,' he says, laughing and thrusting an envelope into my hand. 'Hundred ringgit. Is all for you from us. You sign.'

He has a form which says I have received the money. I sign it. Malaysia will turn out to be a land of forms and form-filling.

'You are at Holiday Inn ok? Sharing the rooms. This is how it is happening, ok?' There is an edge to his voice. 'OK?'

I must look faintly puzzled. So he adds: 'Englishman won't. Sebastian! But you are not Englishman, Mr Bill, you New Zealand.' A wild laugh leaves his body in high little ripples. He stops laughing and cries, 'English poet!' Then he says something in Bahasa Malaysia to his colleagues. They all laugh—a sort of anxious hysteria. Then we are in a car, on a motorway, and the neon signs say Guinness, Toyota, Hilton.

At the Holiday Inn, someone darts away with my bag. Someone else tells me that I am sharing a room with a Thai poet. But there is only one key, the Thai poet already has it, and anyway we must go to the dinner! Moments later I am sitting at a table. It is some sort of banquet hall. In fact, many people sit at many tables; there is one of those low ceilings made of smoky steel. The table is set with jugs of water and glasses of orange cordial—which for some page 40reason remind me of a childhood holiday at Pounawea.

I am with a bunch of young Malay men and the poet from Brunei. Food is brought and we smile at one another between mouthfuls. Someone manages to explain that the dinner is sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. The Minister of Tourism himself is here. He is pleased: his government has just been re-elected. The idea of poetry as news is news to me—whatever Ezra Pound said about it. But photographers race about the banquet hall, darting out of the way of the arc lights and cables trailed by television news teams. (TV3, one of the cameras says. Can that be right?) The room is full of poets and photo opportunities. The Minister makes a long speech in Bahasa Malaysia. People chat and sip their orange cordial. The Minister appends a brief English summary. He uses phrases like 'the betterment of mankind'. He suggests that poets should 'highlight positive values'. In a world which is too individualistic, he says, poets 'can act as the stablising factor that contributes to human development'.

Then the Minister sets off around the room. He shakes hands with the international guest poets, who seem mostly to be clustered at tables masked by a couple of pillars on the far side of the hall. The Minister is trailed by light: subordinates, press photographers and the television crews. Many of the poets are armed with their own cameras and they too join the media throng. By the time the Minister reaches my table, his hand extended, half the banquet hall is travelling with him.

There is entertainment. A Malay band plays music; elegantly costumed men and women dance. Like all the Malay bands I meet during the week, this one has fiddle, flute, piano accordion and an astonishing variety of drums. It is like an Irish pub band with a huge percussion section. The players are all young, except for an elderly bald man on fiddle. His fiddle is painted blue and white, like waves and ocean, like (I think later) doves and clouds crossing a perfect sky. The music itself is both background and foreground: familiar and strange, insistent, swooping through the room and about the heads of the international poets who crowd around the band with cameras.

I meet Kemala, the author of my letter of invitation. He leads me about the room, introducing me to the poets of the world. I hear names but remember countries. Sri Lanka is here, and Turkey. So are Korea, Canada, Nepal, Switzerland, Japan, England, China. Australia is an amiable, slow-motion Tom Shapcott, who is also just off the plane. Then there are Jordan, page 41Romania, Philippines, Germany—and Pakistan, who will pursue and persecute me during the week with reports on the progress of the New Zealand cricket tour. Also there are Egypt, a couple of Norways, and a small delegation of very big poets from Yugoslavia. No sign of America. I meet my room-mate, the Thai poet, Prayom Songthong. The prayer and song in his name help me remember it. Prayom is in his late 50s or early 60s—courtly, gentle, softly spoken.

I have entered a situation familiar to all New Zealanders who go away from home. I have none of Prayom's language; he has a little of mine. But it is surprising how much we can talk about. Back in New Zealand it is 4.30 am, but in Room 1613 in the Holiday Inn Kuala Lumpur City Centre, it is 11.30 at night, and Prayom explains that he likes to have the television on late while he writes. 'Mostly letters,' he says. 'TV and write.' I climb into bed, anyway, half aware of an American car chase. I close my eyes and Prayom writes in his notebook. Then there is news. I sleep, or imagine I sleep, very briefly. When I wake, half-an-hour later, I can hear the over-excited music that signals television news. What is happening in Malaysia round about midnight? Ah, there are the bodybuilders, lines and lines of them, meeting the Prime Minister, busting out of their jackets. Then there is something about the new Malaysian cabinet, then something about (I think) Tasmania, then something else altogether: a room full of people sitting at tables, and the Minister of Tourism, Dattuk Sabbaruddin Chik, reaching across to shake my hand.

A Mysterious Poem

From afar we saw the sea flickered
in a festival of lights. Fishermen
told us fluorescent lamps attracted sotongs
to the hook or 'candat' at the end of the line.
The hook reflected in the water.

Sotongs were curious with the way
lights played on the hook. A sotong
wobbled up from the deep
and lingered by it. I waited
till it was close enough

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when I jerked the line up
along with the sotong
whose limbs were tangled up
by the hook. The sotong discharged
black liquid all over my face.

26. 10. 90

The morning paper, the New Straits Times, slides under the door. There is a lot of stuff about the recent Malaysian election and the divvying up of perks and power—who will be in the new cabinet, and so on. And one fascinating sentence: 'Penang is set to enjoy greater development as the new State Government is composed of intellectuals.' There is a list of Ministers: they all have PhDs.

New Zealand is there on the international page, too. Even in Kuala Lumpur, things look disastrous for Labour.

I bump into a blackboard in the lobby which says there is a registration room for poets. I find it and register. This involves paying a sum of US$100.00—a good deal more than the 100 ringgits I was given at the airport. I am given an extraordinary folder. It is imitation leather; it has a clipboard and many pockets, and there are many things in the pockets: a 52-page full-colour programme, car stickers promoting the World Poetry Reading, various small booklets and invitations.

I discover that the detail of the formal readings is already settled. I am to read 'Zoetropes' and 'Megasin' (sic)—the last poems I would think to read to a non-English audience normally. The organisers had asked for sample poems, and I faxed them through from Wellington at the last minute simply because they were short. Fortunately I can worry about this later. My first reading duty will be in Shah Alam late tomorrow afternoon. I'm not down to read in tonight's big opening ceremony in the Kuala Lumpur City Hall. Phew!

Black and White Illustration

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At 3.30, there is an introductions session. 'At the Introductory Meeting, we will introduce you one by one to the other participants. The Director General of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the principal sponsor of this Festival, will give greetings. Foreign as well as local journalists will freely interview you at this meeting. We appreciate your cooperation. High Tea (consisting of various tasty local dishes) will be served at 5.00 p.m.' The New Zealand High Commissioner is coming to this session to present books of New Zealand poetry to the Festival organisers. About 20 minutes it should take, one of his staff thinks. It's not clear if I will have to speak.

In the event everyone will have to speak.

The Introductory session begins with a very long speech in Bahasa Malaysia from the Director of Dewan Bahasa to a room containing almost no Malays but many uncomprehending foreign poets.

Then a Yugoslav woman makes a very long speech in Serbo-Croatian. She is the editor of an anthology of Malaysian poetry translated into Serbo-Croatian. This strikes me as a wonderful cross-city bus—though as the speech goes on, I realise that the speaker, like many Yugoslavs, is Islamic, and that the poetry bus she travels on is powered by an engine called Islamic Revival. All the same, it makes you realise how few and how predictable are New Zealand's international connections. The editor's speech is then translated into English. Then three poems are read in Serbo-Croatian; then there are English translations. Then there is a long speech of thanks in several languages. There is a formal presentation of the anthology. The editor shakes the hand of the Director of the Dewan Bahasar. The room is page 44suddenly full of photographers; and there is TV3 again.

Now one by one the poets mount the rostrum and introduce themselves. There's competition between the guest poets at flattering the hosts. Something both ingratiating and patronising is going on, but in a long-winded way both sides end up satisfied. 'It is good to make love in Malay,' says a Malay poet, proud of his language. 'I have tried it and it works.' I say something fatuous about being born in Invercargill. Each of us shakes the Director's hand.

We are each given a present, a large bundle wrapped in pink ribbon. There are posters advertising the World Poetry Reading. There is a gold and green cushion, which turns out to containor bea writing pad; there is a Parker pen. There are also several books, mostly about Malay literature, but one turns out to be an anthology of work from the last World Poetry Reading. Merpati Putih Dan Pelangi / The White Dove and the Rainbow is 300 pages long, published by the Dewan Bahasa, and has a colour frontispiece showing Kuala Lumpur: 'the city of light and the city of poet'. The poems are all in English and Bahasa Malaysia. The Soviet poet, Bella Akhmadulina, was here last time! Her poems have been translated from Russian into Bahasa Malaysia and thence into English, and have filled with mysterious swerves and wobbles.

October sums up withering.
Nature around is heavy and serious.
In Autumn's late hour—it's so tedious
Again to hurt my elbows against orphanhood's corner.
The neighbour couple's overlong visit
is dragging on and on, and I getting tired with all my soul,
cannot utter a word—in my throat hangs
some sort of deaf-and-dumb vagueness.
In Autumn's late hour—when light is put out
and all of a sudden, when falling asleep, I hearten up with the guess
that I was invited to guest
at an artist's place . . .

From now on, wherever the poets go, presentations will take place. If I remember anything from this week, it will be presentations, flashes of photographic light, little ripples of applause.

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Throughout all this Mike Chilton, the NZ High Commissioner, has been sitting on the dais, maintaining an attentive look. Beside him are the Director of Dewan Bahasa and a couple of the organisers of the World Poetry Reading. Now he is allowed to make a speech. It is nicely judgedelegant and brief, and it generates much goodwill, not to mention genial sounds of envy from Thomas Shapcott (who in an earlier incarnation ran the Australian Literature Board and presumably knows a good move when he sees it). There is a handing over of New Zealand poetry and a shaking of hands. But alas the photo opportunites all went to Yugoslavia. The photographers have departed.

Then it is high tea. The High Commissioner detaches himself as fast as decency permits and makes a dash for a waiting limousine. He has to get back to the High Commission, where he is the Chief Returning Officer. They should even have the election results late tomorrow afternoon. Would I like to call round? But tomorrow, along with other poets of the world, I will be in Shah Alam.


The Dewan Bahasa is Malaysia's language and literature agency. It was originally set up as a small government bureau within the old Department of Education. After independence, Malay became an official language of the new nation, and in 1967 the National Language Act made it the sole official language. Back in 1956 the Dewan Bahasa had a staff of 60. Now a vast office block houses about 1200 people; the Dewan has grown with the language it fosters.

The history of modern Malaysia could be written as a history of the Malay language. In 1969 hundreds were killed in language riots. The Dewan Bahasa is funded by the government to promote a single tongue, Bahasa Malaysia. It plans language campaigns, and it examines and coins the terms that Bahasa Malaysia needs to cope with the specialist terminologies of science, government, technology. In the last 30 years it has compiled and standardised about 600,000 istilah or specialised terms. This has made it possible for Malay to become the language of instruction not only in schools but also at university level.

Dewan Bahasa is also a major publisher. As the whole of the Malaysian page 46education system has moved into Bahasa Malaysia, Dewan Bahasa has supplied the textbooks: over 1000 published for schools (many of them translations of English texts); and over the next five years, 800 to be published for university courses. Part of the publishing programme is designed 'to encourage literary and creative growth'. The Dewan runs awards and competitions, workshops and literature forums, and has published about 250 literary titles in the last decade. Some of these are Malay texts translated into other languages (French, English).

Translation can be a problem, however, as Bella Akhmadulina might tell you. Because English is the language of the Raj, it is vigorously discouraged. But it is also the language of trade and international chit-chatnot easily avoided. Because Malaysia has not yet stepped fully clear of the shadow of the Raj, it has hardly become clear to most Malaysians that English is a very, very difficult foreign language. Thus Empire has its mischievous aftermath. Even very weak Malay speakers of English believe their command of the language is wonderfully good. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation; but when Malays translate Malay poetry into English, linguistic competence gets lost: the poets sound inept and silly.


Standing room only in the huge auditorium of Kuala Lumpur's City Hall. There are speeches of welcome, and a formal launching of The White Dove and the Rainbow by the poet Usman Awang (there is a booklet about him tucked into our conference folder). The international poets loll in the front rows while presentations to dignitaries take place.

Suddenly a man rushes up to me and whispers loudly that I am number four.

'You are France! You read, Mr Bill! You read!'

'No,' I say serenely, 'I am New Zealand.'

'No,' he says. 'You read! Tonight you read! I am warning you!'

I open the programme and point. 'Look, France is there. Number four: France.'

'But France is not here!' he cries. 'France never came to Malaysia. It is you, Mr Bill; when you are called, go quickly!'

I look at the stage with renewed attention. A huge perspex screen hangs page 47at the back. The words Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading are there, along with the logo of the Dewan Bahasa, while a stylised dove tows the Malaysian flag through a clear sky. Further back, a diorama of clouds streams constantly from left to right. At various points on the stage rainbow banners are strung on wild verticals; white doves hang among them. Suddenly a symphony orchestra pours rich musak through the hall's sound system. Beautiful girls clad all in white leap nimbly about the stage, vaguely courted by men with streamers. For ten minutes they dance—a vision of doves and rainbows. Then the stage is empty.

One by one, we are called—the poet's name and land, and then the poem. One by one we stumble onto the stage. I follow England, Sebastian Barker, whose poem is called 'Thank God Poets Can't Spell'. Because the voice through the loudspeaker says so, I read 'Magasin', a poem about a boy visiting his very sick father, which ends with what must be an impenetrable reference to the second leg at Trentham. Translated into Bahasa Malaysia and declaimed by a very theatrical young woman, it is twice as long as the original and filled with a passion I never knew I was possessed of. The word Trentham lingers in the hushed auditorium.

My friend Prayom has a new video camera; he spends the week taking aim around the fringes of events. When I eventually settle exhausted in my seat, he shows me what I look like—swaying among the streamers, muttering nervously as the clouds pour across the sky behind me.

There is theatre in the slow ascent of the elderly Sri Lankan poet, Wimal Abhayasundere, and in his puzzled blinking once he stands in the lights of centre-stage. He begins to sing in a quavering voice. The audience break into spontaneous applause as the first notes sound, then begin to talk loudly through the rest of the poem, 'Conquering Hearts', which is indeed rather long. Wimal reads the English version in a thoroughly prose voice:

The King of Ethina in the gambling arena
Forced in a moment a princess to strip-tease
Out flowed the wailing of the awakening of
the offspring of the earth—the female

Immoralities that prompt the living patterns to go astray
Makes one to abandon good morals
And lays the foundations for commitments of misdeeds . . .

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The talking goes on. Cameras flash. Eventually Wimal finishes. He makes his way down from the stage. His fellow poets rise to take his hand. 'Very interesting,' says Jordan. 'Very interesting, yes,' replies the poet. He is back in his seat by the time the Bahasa Malaysian translation gets underway; he talks animatedly throughout his own translation.

The Chinese poet, Wang Fei-Bai, reads a rhyming poem filled with quotations from Mayakovsky, Lorca, Mallarmé and Matthew Arnold. He wrote his poem in English, so he does it in English first, then in Chinese. 'The world is a watery star/ When we behold it from afar.' Turkey reads. Japan reads. Adam Puslojic—a huge bearded Yugoslavian who is already one of the characters of the week—reads a poem called 'Breath and Ice'. Afterwards he pauses and cries: ' Little poem for Kuala Lumpur!'

Lord, what age is this one,

when my love is gone?

Adam dashes from the stage, and a moment later tiptoes back to photograph the young woman who is reading the Bahasa Malaysia version of his poem. The auditorium fills with flashlights and applause. The air is dense with the sound of a hundred films automatically rewinding.

Subdued excitement greets the poet from Indonesia. He is famous—a performance reader—and in Malaysia Indonesians are a kind of family. His poem is comic ('naughty', someone tells me later), which may explain why he delivers it like a general declaring war in some terrible movie. He strikes poses—left profile, right profile, head tossed back, eyes widening and narrowing with the meaning of his lines—looking for all the world like the front half of a bulldog.

The Romanian poet, Radu Carneci , gives his name, then says the single English sentence he has learnt by heart: ' I am happy to be away from home. '

Thomas Shapcott is the last reader. As he advances towards the stage, the voice cries through the public address system: 'Thomas Shapcott: The Crippled Poet!' But the reference is not to Thomas Shapcott. 'The Crippled Poet' is the name of his poem, which is about a visit to the Malay poet, J.M. Aziz.

At refreshments afterwards, I talk to a distinguished looking man—ex-MP, banker, lawyer and writer of poetry. He has been to Invercargill. We talk about the popularity of poetry in Malaysia. I ask him how well a book page 49of his poems would sell. 'Oh, not well at all. Say 10-15,000 copies.' He asks me why New Zealand never plays any part in the Asia Pacific Film Festival, of which he is one of the organisers. 'We write to them year after year, but no one ever comes.'


Shah Alam is the new capital city of Selangor—some 30 kilometres west of Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital. It is grand and wealthy, still being carved out of the landscape—a confident invention. The state mosque is huge—blues and whites, spires like rocket ships, and its aluminium dome is said to be the largest of its kind in the world.

New Zealand voters are going to the polls as our international poetry coach glides past the mosque. We draw up outside a modern museum. There is a dance of welcome in the foyer; then we file up a staircase to find ourselves in a lecture hall. This is the morning called 'Poets Dialogue'. Poets had been invited to prepare papers on 'The Role of Poetry in a World of Cultural Change' or 'My Creative Experience.' It is not wholly clear who will participate in the dialogue. The programme lists several poets' names, then adds an ominous etc. First there are two keynote lectures. Hafiz Arif (aka Harry Aveling, an Australian who is writer in residence at the Dewan Bahasa) gives a brief historical outline of Malay poetry. The Malaysian writer, Baha Zain, delivers a paper called 'Poetry, Poet and Humanity'.

Both men are interested in the question of what is common among cultures and what is culturally distinctive—and what sort of balance needs to be struck between these things. Both clearly believe in belief, and are disturbed, as Harry Aveling puts it, by the common assumption that modern culture is or ought to be secular. Baha Zain refers to Octavio Paz, the latest Nobel prize-winner, as evidence of poetry's importance in public affairs, but the main drive of his speech is against godless ideologies—he attacks several influential but slightly dated Western thinkers: Marx, Freud, Sartre. His paper is a plea for poetry sustained by religious—and especially Islamic—values. 'Poetry was given to us,' he concludes, 'so that we might translate our humanity and the love of God for all.'

Baha Zain's paper is given in Bahasa Malaysia; but we have a typewritten English translation we can follow. During both papers there has been a sort page 50of continuous muttering from the Soviet quarter. Has Baha Zain offended with his comments on Marx? But no, the Soviet poet has a personal translator, Dr Boris Panikov. Dr Panikov has been giving a running translation into Russian; the whole morning's proceedings are accompanied by a low Cyrillic grumble.

In fact, David Kugultinov—though he looks like a man who has just come from reviewing the troops on Red Square—can hardly be upset by attacks on godless ideologies. He is a Buddhist. And he is a Kalmyk, from Mongolia. He published his first book at 18, fought in the Second World War, spent ten years in a detention camp under Stalin. Now he is a people's representative and a member of the Presidium of the Soviet Supreme Council. Occasionally he refers to his friendship with Gorbachev.

He reads his paper in Russian. Boris Panikov translates it into Bahasa Malaysia. Words like perestroika occasionally float clear. But we can read the printed English translation. Some of what the poet says sounds interesting. He thinks that language has something to do with poetry. Words vary according to region. Thus the Russian word for sun is hotter than the word used by the Arctic coastal tribe, the Yakut. 'Whereas the word "narn" in my mother tongue of the Kalmyk tribe is hotter than the word "matahari" in the Malay Language, possibly hotter.' Hotter and possibly hotter? It is hard to follow this sort of English. But it is hardly David Kugultinov's fault. His paper is in Russian; it has been put into English by someone whose English wasn't good enough:

Word is dynamic in its true sense. Allow me to enlighten participants present regarding an invention advocated by a group of scholars of the Institute of Advanced Neural Activities and Neurophysiology in Moscow, headed by an imminent scholar, Paul Simonov. A group of biologists undertook a research on revival of life of a few human who were clinically dead in a ward. The revival was indicated by light impulses emitted from the speech section of the brain projected on the TV. I was astounded by this news. A member of the Ovcinnikov Soviet Academy who passed away recently once told the Soviet people regarding a fact of equal importance. He and his colleagues discovered the human speech gene. Whereas the said gene is not found in the organism of the primetes, such as the gorilla and the chimpanzee or in the organism of the dolphins. As such, it is pointless to attempt to teach animals to talk because only human beings have such ability. This is one of the reasons he rejected the Charles Darwin theory of evolution that human beings are the descendents of the apes. We are the descendents of our parents and our forefathers, and not from the apes. This fact page 51means that the apes that do not possess the speech gene cannot possibly attain the intellectual status of the human being. Although a human possesses the said gene, it can easily deteriorate and be like that of the ape.

This is hard work. Still, as the poet says at the end: 'I feel elated to know that everyone on this earth, be he the follower of Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, whether a capitalist or a communist, can understand our prime need, namely, the preservation of life in our world that is full of beauty and conflict. Long live POETRY!'

Turkey's paper is called ' The Mysterious Sounds Under the Blue Vault (of Heaven)'. He has hardly any English but he is determined to read an English translation he has brought with him. The physical agony he goes through is extraordinaryhe makes sounds rather than meanings, his voice tightens and knots; each word, each noise, brings a fresh measure of pain:

The harmonious order of words leads us to poem, the mysterious thing. Poet wraps the skeleton of poem with tulle and produces this pure and great poem. This poem is the harmonious language of poet's inner world henceforth. Perhaps it is the common voice of humanity rising to the blue vault (of heaven). Which language the poet speaks or what nationality he is is not important because all the poets share the same common and universal language. Poet is the person who sees the things which we cannot see and understands the language of lines, figures and harmony, and then who teaches us this magical language. Poet constructs new musical structures by adding words to his poem. He sends mysterious messages. He travels us on different climates. In fact, poet is the person who searches for the 'absolute' existence and the poems written by him are the mysterious name of this search.

      And there are many secrets and treasure under this blue vault and the keys of these are given to the poet's tongue to open them.

Afterwards he collapses—exhausted by language.

During the week my need for 'correct' English vanishes. Talking will do, saying things which mean things. After a day or two I find I have stopped using the definite article. Deviations from the norm become the norm.

Bahasa Malaysia is interesting. Malaysia is a culture without irony, and I find myself wondering what, as it were, lies behind this absence. It may be a matter of belief. But the language makes many of its plurals by repeating words— buku buku is books—and it is hard to be sure that such a language page 52could accommodate irony and survive. Nevertheless, there are some interesting repetitions. Someone tells me that child child can sometimes mean adult; and pig pig, piggy bank.

The poets come and go. 'Ladies and gentlemen, hello from England,' says Sebastian Barker. The Chinese poet mounts the platform at the start of what is announced as an open question session. He stands at the microphone and tells us about himself. He is not supposed to do this; he is supposed to ask questions, but he has a long paper which he had been expecting to read, 'My Creative Experiences'. He explains that he is a translator and Professor of World Poetry. His pen-name means 'spray of the brine'. He was in a camp during the Cultural Revolution. 'I have good luck to experience life in its vivid variety . . . Poetry is the best language of understanding . . . the shortest route between people's hearts.' This is the first time he has left China, the first time he has been able to talk to English speakers in his almost perfect English.

We break for lunch at the Shah Alam Holiday Inn. The lunch is hosted by the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Selangor. There is another poetry reading, and though I am not in the programme I am summoned to read 'Megasin'.

Later we visit the mosque. It is impressive, all right—space, water, tiles and silence. I am most impressed by the shoe racks, and the various prohibitions which deal with dress, with menstruating women.

We look around the museum. There is a wonderful framed enlargement of a photograph showing the Kuala Lumpur flood of 1926. The pith-helmeted men of the British army stand in water up to their waists in the middle of a city street. They face the camera as if nothing unusual is happening.

The museum has several glass cases full of tiny cannons. 'Ho ho, excuse me,' says Dr Boris Panikov. 'Do you know, these cannons, they are small. This is because the Dutch are knowing Malays are very little people.' He chuckles and repeats his joke to all who come along.

The poetry coach takes us into the jungle—a rather Disneylandish jungle called the Malaysian Agriculture Park. This is a 1300 hectare project run by the Agriculture Ministry both as a research and education centre and as a tourist attraction. It is divided into various sections: a padi garden, a spice page 53and beverage garden, a mushroom museum, an animal park, even an Idlyllic Village:

Come to the Idlyllic Village and the visitor may see for himself the various aspects that make up the ideal homestead Malaysian farmers themselves seek to make their own. Peaceful and laid back, yet vibrant in its make up, this beautiful setting is every farmer's dream of the perfect village . . .

Our destination is the Peak of Fine Arts, a mid-jungle open-air stage on the Greek model. It is the home of the wonderfully named Agro-Theatre, brainchild of the Minister of Agriculture himself. The Agro-Theatre troupe are all fulltime employees of the Minstry of Agriculture. 'They are talented and familiar with the vision of the Agricultural policy. In today's presentation, songs, dances and poetry will be rendered in a message-oriented package, depicting the effort of the government and the people of this country to eradicate poverty.'

We watch the performance, along with large bands of schoolchildren who stay on for the international poetry reading which follows. Serbo-Croatian in the manicured jungle. 'Lord, what age is this one / when my love is gone?' I am listed to read on the printed programme, but am not called. One addition to the programme is Maralia Gozo, 'renowned singer and poet from Brazil'. She attended the last World Poetry Reading with her Japanese husband, who was one of the guest poets. (They met at Iowa—where several of the international poets seem to have spent time as students. So America is here after all.) Maralia is a real performer, and has a range of bright costumes which emphasize her body. She puts her mouth around the microphone and makes moaning noises to a backdrop of electronic sound. Before each performance she says: 'Hello, my name is Maralia. I am from Brazil, and I am happy to share my songs with you.' Her first song has a title which seems to be 'Janola'. She is amplified voice and amplified body: total presence. The small Malay men whoop and shriek; their trousers fill with tiny cannons.

Prayom reads today—a poem called ' Missing ', which he performs in three absolutely different styles. The first is a sort of prose rendition of the words; the other versions are sung and chanted. Each seems sadder than the last:

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I nearly cry at the thought of home.
I've been away because of dismay:
My home disappeared in the fire;
Who will wipe the ashes from my eyes.

Prayom lives in Bangkok, but comes from a provincial village in the north which was burned by Communist insurgents:

'Sweet vegetables, sweet tamarind, white rice,
Beautiful women, virtuous men,'
O the days that sleep forever in the earth,
Is your name dead or alive, o Nakae?

Throughout the performance I watch him, a small figure in black and white, through the viewfinder of his video camera. I am filming Prayom for his family and friends at home, and vaguely aware that his poem is about the impossibility of going home.

At the hotel, he tells me about Thai poetry: the different ways of rendering each poem, the complex systems of rhyme and assonance, cadence and repetition. I always thought skaldic verse must be impossibly difficult to write; but this sounds like the hardest poetry in the world.

We exchange books—and he also gives me a keyring with a tiny Thai cushion attached to it. His wife gave him a plastic bag filled with souvenir keyrings before he left. In my book he writes: 'For Bill, my dear room-mate.'

An evening reading at Central Market. Central Market is in downtown KL. It is rather like London's Covent Garden—an up-market market, a recycled version of a place which was once scruffy, old, real. It is now part of tourist Malaysia; its beautifully preserved exterior houses souvenir stalls, boutiques and restaurants. The poets dismount from their coach and are greeted by a band of small boys doing stylised martial arts.

As we enter the market, young women drape our upper bodies with coloured sashes. We shine in the night, marked out and important, uncomfortably like Miss Universe contestants. We, too, are part of tourist Malaysia. Puzzled shoppers draw back as we promenade among them in our sashes. There is a sprinkling of applause. We pass through a display of our own books and photographs. There is Zoetropes. And there is my face beside page 55it: a Robert Cross shot, xeroxed from his book of writers' portraits, faxed through to Kuala Lumpur, then xeroxed once again. Most of the international poets just look ten years younger, but I have dissolved and drifted and am hardly there at all.

The display includes sample verses. Some of the English versions have interesting moments, like this one from a poem by Germany:

The method of abroad
just brought me strepafaction
—not the inner freedom

We leave the market by another door and find ourselves at a small sound-shell on the riverbank. We sit, distinctive in our poetry sashes, while Malay and Chinese children perform traditional dances. Lizards scuttle up and down the stage backdrop. It is cute and multicultural. A small Tamil girl reads a poem she has written for the international poets:

Malaysia is a lovely land
Everyone will lend a helping hand
The food is quite massive
Everything is here to receive

The poets read. Children crowd around asking for autographs. This must be how John Kirwan feels. My pen knocks against something metallic on my sash. It is a badge with a cheerful monkey on it. 'Central Market!' says the monkey. 'Visit Malaysia Year 1990.'


Today we are travelling to the state of Negeri Sembilan. Meantime the morning paper carries the New Zealand election results. Annihilated is the word used to describe what has happened to Labour.

There are two coaches, one loaded with international poets, the other with local poets. For a moment we stop by a cemetery. It is a Christian graveyard full of Second World War dead. The large flat field contains many small unmarked stones, like distance markers on a roadway. A car is parked page 56beside one grave. A middle-aged Chinese couple have placed six candles on the slab. They light them and stand still a moment. Then they get in the car and drive across the grass to another grave where they light more candles. They come back to check the first grave. The flames seem to sputter out in the breeze, then spring back to life like trick candles from a joke shop. Now the couple get in their car and drive away.

Negeri Sembilan is south of Selangor. After we cross the state boundary, we stop at a cultural complex, whose main building—though it now houses an exhibition of traditional costumes—was originally constructed as the pavilion for the 1984 International Koran Reading Competition. There is dance and music, some menhirs which I photograph, buildings whose rooflines follow the Minangkabau style said to be based on buffalo horns. Each of the poets is presented with a hardboiled egg attached to a paper flower.

The coaches move on. Something must be wrong: the sound of wailing sirens can be heard. But we have been picked up by a police escort—sirens proclaim us as we go, red lights flash. Throughout the day all other traffic pulls over to the side of the road as our poetry motorcade zooms by. We visit a Sultan's palace. Lunch is a banquet with the Chief Minister of Selangor—a diminutive version of David Lange who makes a long, witty, wholly impromptu speech in Bahasa Malaysia which none of the poets understand. The Malaysians roar with laughter. The Chief Minister presents us each with a specially-inscribed lacquered coconut shell. We present him with framed posters promoting the World Poetry Reading. Back on the bus, someone explains that the video team which dogs us everywhere we go is making a permanent record of the week for Dewan Bahasa. We can order copies: US$10.00.

Much later in the day—after the motorcade has passed through rustic scenery and undulating hills, rubber plantations and palm oil groves, pausing only to allow Pakistan to pee—we arrive in the grounds of a pseudo-Tudor guesthouse, a seaside retreat which dates from the days of the Raj. We can eat here, swim if we like. There is an abandoned summerhouse on an island at the end of pier. It is hot and steamy—vaguely vandalised. Some of the Muslim poets go out to the island and pray.

It is not quite clear who is who; but we are meeting with some of the writers of Negeri Sembilan, the local PEN branch. There is a banquet under page 57marquees; and an impromptu poetry reading through a portable sound system. Norway reads. Switzerland reads. Then there is an interruption. A furious man yells at the compere. The poetry reading has gone on too long; it is preventing people from observing evening prayers. 'So we will be stopped,' says the compere, 'for our ten minutes or so for those of the prayerful to have a wash and say their prayers, and then our readings will continue.'

The readings never resume, and eventually we are taken by coach, a ten minute ride through the dark, to Port Dickson's Festival arena. We descend into a giant amusement park. There are lights and crowds of people—sideshows, merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels. The poets are the evening concert's highlight. Seasoned troupers by now, we cheer each other and strut our stuff. I read 'Zoetropes' through a sound system which easily drowns out the chattering teenagers drifting by, the girls screaming from the nearby Horror House, the motorbikes which roar around the Wall of Death.


In the hotel lobby poets sign each other's programmes. 'Thank you,' says Sri Lanka, 'it is for my history.' Jordan writes a message in every programme: 'Hello! Be happy, unhappy, be whatever you want. You are a poet.' Someone says that yesterday's lunchtime readings were on television.

Today we visit the Dewan Bahasa. We are greeted by the Director, who makes a speech. We watch a split-screen audiovisual display about the Dewan and applaud when it ends. 'Multi-vision show' says the programme. We ascend by lift to the top of the building where we find ourselves in a great council room with a horseshoe-shaped seating plan. The room is full of flags and portable shrubs; there is an expensive parquet floor. It looks like one of those chambers where international conferences take place. But then, we are an international conference: we even sit behind individual microphones. This must be the 'Discussion on World Contemporary Issues'.

The moderator tells us that this is meant to be informal. 'Any topic under the sun except poetry.' He beams.

The international poets who happen to be women have been waiting for a forum like this one. Each of them wants to ask the same question. In the page 58event it is Mousse Boulanger from Switzerland who speaks.

'I wonder if the Malaysian poets here, women or men, will say something about the position of women in this country? Some of us are a little puzzled about it, you see.'

The moderator sits a little straighter. 'All is equal in Malaysia,' he says. 'But let me say, Islam, as for Islam, well, we should have a separate section where we will discuss this. But put aside this question for the mean time, I thank you.'

Black clouds have been gathering at the windows; now the moderator's words are accompanied by rolling thunder. Rain rattles on the roof above our heads.

A long silence produces a more specific question. The questioner is an elegant, middle-aged Japanese woman, with short blue hair. Where has she come from? She wishes to know about polygamy. Is it a Malaysian matter or an Islamic matter? A Malaysian woman at one end of the horseshoe raises her hand—she would like to make a reply, or add a comment. The chair ignores her, looking anxiously around the room. Kemala comes to the rescue.

'In Malaysia, unlike Islam, men have to have first wife's permission before taking another wife. So this is very different from Islam. But actually women are very privileged in our society. It is great privilege here for women. They are not inferior, they are not even equal, no, in Malaysia they are privileged indeed.'

The Western women look astonished. But now a poet from the Middle East is on his feet, quaking with fury. 'These matters,' he says, 'they are entirely accidental. I know people who sometimes have three wives. For example, the first wife is a cousin who gets no husband and because he is good to his family he has her out of pity. Yes pity. This is goodness, you see, absolute goodness.' His voice gets louder as he goes on. 'So there was a second wife. Of course there would be. So now the second wife, she gets handicapped. And there is the third wife therefore. This is how such things happen. And so I say to you: Don't you compare cultures! There are things we do not like in your culture. But do I say them? So this is not a great issue, I think. Three wives, and it is all fine. This is cultures and how they work. The world is a place of conscience and judgement and these are all for us to show. Now let us get rid of this issue and go to other things.'

But the astonished room cannot get rid of the issue. The Malaysian page 59woman—a Tamil, I realise—still has her hand up. There is a sort of smile on her face; she knows she will never get the nod from the chair. Some of the Western men have decided to be peacemakers. Dr Boris Panikov rises.

'I am wishing to warn the women gathered here of the dangers of revolution. Progress, yes. But revolution, it is very dangerous. Very dangerous indeed. I am from Soviet Union, as you know. We know revolution. Oh how we know revolution. So abstain from revolution if you can. This is what I have to say to you women of the world. Thank you.'

He sits but the thunder and the rain go on. People glance around the unlucky horseshoe. Mousse Boulanger decides to defuse things herself. She shifts discussion to the political structure of Malaysia. How many states are there in Malaysia? How do central and district governments work together and divide responsibilities?

At this point a chair is pushed back on my left, and Merlinda C. Bobis (Philippines) walks from the room. She has had enough. On my right Anne Szumigalski (Canada) has made a page-size doodle on her pad—a giant tree-like woman totters on spindly shoes; her body flaps and flows, giving birth to a hundred faces.

Sebastian Barker asks a question. 'I wonder what is the writer's responsibility to the United Nations and to individual politicians? What is the writer's role really?' Silence. 'What do you think?' says the moderator. 'Oh. What do I think? Well I'm just asking the question to get the discussion going again. But if you really want to know, I think we need to talk to individual politicians when we meet them. This is what poets everywhere must do.'

Anne Szumigalski throws down her doodle and begins to speak into her microphone. Around the horseshoe men look anxious. Then there is a deafening crash from the skythe lights go out, our microphones go dead, the thunder rolls.


Prayom departs; we photograph each other and shake hands. The Norwegians and Sebastian Barker are off to Bangkok, too. I find Chinatown's Petaling Street and buy fake designer gear—hammering the prices down by about 25 per cent, feeling pleased in the way that only someone who knows page 60he has not really bargained at all feels pleased.

The formalities of the week are over. No more readings. But in the afternoon we are on the coach again. Someone whispers to me that the furious Middle Eastern poet had been describing himself. He currently has two wives—each in a different country. We find ourselves at the National University. Malay nationalism and Islam are serious on this campus, hard to separate one from the other. Most female students are fully covered, and peer through pillarbox eye openings. The University is devoted to Malay culture, we are told, and is mostly a research institute—no undergraduate students.

We meet the Director of the Institute of Malay Culture, who makes a small speech about Bahasa Malaysia and gives us a book of his own, a collection of polemical pieces on nationalist and ethnic matters.

The international poets take turns reading poems to one another around the table. This impromptu session is the most enjoyable and useful reading of all: something to do with poetry and cultural exchange begins to happen. Our host, the director, listens for a few minutes—then makes his way to an adjoining room where, fully visible and audible through a glass wall, he engages in animated conversation with a colleague.

The final event, the final evening. We are to dine at the house of the poet, Usman Awang. We have been told that it will be possible to drink alcohol this evening: the age of orange cordial is over. The coach will make a special stop at a bottle store. The international poets, led by the Eastern Europeans, descend on the bottle store. I buy half-a-dozen cans of Tiger lager. The Pakistani poet buys two large bottles of codliver oil—for some reason sales of codliver oil are prohibited in Pakistan. He is happy: already he can see his family rejoicing, running to meet him from the plane.

When we get to Usman Awang's, we are told to leave our purchases on the bus; we may be able to fetch them later—but first someone must ascertain that it is really all right. Usman Awang has a large, elegant residence. There are tables on a patio, a small band, many people milling about, stumbling over the roaming video crew. I find myself at a table next to a man who introduces himself as the Prime Minister's Secretary. Anne Szumigalski is at the table; also Merlinda C. Bobis from the Philippines, Tom Shapcott, and a young North American who teaches law at a local university. We eat and discuss Malaysian fruit—its variety, its abundance.

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'And yet the oddest thing,' says the young lawyer, 'I bought some bananas the other day which came from the Philippines.'

'Excuse me,' says the Prime Minister's Secretary, addressing the table generally, 'excuse me but I must tell you that this is untrue.'

'Oh it's true,' says the lawyer, sipping his orange cordial. 'I saw the little stickers on them: "Produce of the Philippines".'

'We do grow a lot of bananas in the Philippines,' says Merlinda.

'No, no, no, this is impossible! Malaysia does not import bananas, it exports them!'

'But I had to peel the little stickers off.'

'You are wrong! You are wrong! I declare that you are wrong!' The Prime Minister's Secretary will brook no further argument. He rises and leaves the table.

Word is passed around that we may fetch our alcohol. But rain is pouring, and the coach is parked a block away. Anyway, now a microphone has appeared and guests and hosts sing songs. The Malays sing pantoums, which turn out to be lively improvisational choral pieces; the international poets sing their national songs. I grind through a rousing version of 'Tutira mai', and when the party is about to break up and our hosts are half-heartedly humming 'Auld Lang Syne' to an insecure guitar—at a loss both for words and for melody—I find myself seized by a strange desire to assert whatever cultural heritage I have. Swept forward on the tide of my own foolishness, I seize the microphone and lead the assembled poets in several rounds of 'Auld Lang Syne'. Tom Shapcott is pushed forward to join me, and together we drift around the text. I am beginning to enjoy this—perhaps I could go on to 'Now is the Hour'? Or 'Ten Guitars'? 'You are My Sunshine'?—no trouble, just let me get organised here, whatever does Usman Awang put in his orange cordial?—but in fact we seem to be on the bus again, groaning through the night towards the Holiday Inn, downtown Kuala Lumpur, where as I climb into my own wee bed it occurs to me that all of this will be on the official video.


People are leaving today. Many of the poets have cards and exchange them. Sri Lanka's card says:

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Pandit Wimal Abhayasundere:
     Poet, Writer, Lyricist.

Turkey has a printed card which says: Mehmed Atilla Maras—Engineer; underneath he has written in blue ink: poet.

At breakfast Merlinda C. Bobis talks about the Russians. After the scene at the Dewan Bahasa, David Kugultinov, foe of Stalin and comrade of Gorbachev, explained to her, through his interpreter, Dr Boris Panikov, that such a beautiful girl as she should be having babies, not writing poems. In fact, he explained, it is a well known fact that to men falls the task of making beautiful poems. It is hard work, man's work. Merlinda does not need to write poems; she can simply look beautiful; she is a poem.


I go shopping and come across the Kuala Lumpur McDonalds, where I order a shake and a McRendan, a spiced Malaysian burger. I meet my first dubious fellow, who lurks nearby, then slips across and asks about my shake. 'Is icecream in there? How you like Kuala Lumpur? How long you here?' When he discovers I've been here a week and am leaving later today, his face drops, he slides away. I tuck into my McRendan.

Then my friend is back, he sits and gives me his name. I give him mine, and he calls me Mr Bill.

'You would like my sister, Mr Bill. She is going to your country. New Zealand isn't it? She will study, you can come to our house and tell her all these things. She will be grateful.'

The circumstances of his story grow more elaborate as he goes along. He names the city she will go to—'Where you from? Wellington? Well, amazing! This is where she is going, Mr Bill, she will be please to see you.'—and throws in a sick mother, whom his sister nurses. He himself is in the import/export business. If only I were staying longer, he would take me to see his sister, I could give her advice, and she is very friendly, very loving.

'Do you have time for today perhaps Mr Bill? A quick visit to my sister?'

No, I say, I must catch my aeroplane and before that I must buy gifts for my wife and children. Can my friend suggest any good places to shop?

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'Oh, anywhere at all. Well, very nice to see you.' He shakes my hand and is gone.

I have hardly seen Malaysia. Air-conditioned coaches, international hotels, lecture halls. But the country is an economic prodigy. Last year the state of Johore created 130,000 jobs and is anxious about how it can fill the 250,000 new job vacancies which are projected in the next decade. The country as a whole expects a 10 per cent growth rate during 1991. I have met something of the Malaysia that is trying to create the culture to match the economic growth. The government has made huge investments in culture and education; even its combining of the Tourism and Culture portfolios in a single ministry seems obviously sensible.

When I get back home, I will learn that New Zealand's new Minister of Tourism is John Banks, who is also the Minister of Police.

The Kuala Lumpur World Poetry Reading has very little to do with world poetry. But it is not just an item on the Malaysian tourist calendar. It is mostly about Malay nationalism and self-esteem; a small part of the process by which Malay culture is being transformed into Malaysian culture. Bahasa Malaya is now called Bahasa Malaysia: it is to be the language of all the peoples of the nation. As for the world, its languages and poets are here as part of that nation-building exercise: our job is to dignify the single language, the single culture, of our hosts. Of course one or two of us, as usual, are learning the extent of our own ignorance.

The Malays are quiet, watchful, generous people. Anxiety and hospitality are equally matched in many of those I meet. In that sense it is just like being at home. The Prime Minister's Secretary's preoccupation with bananas is simply one way in which anxiety surfaces. Throughout the week people ask me if the Fan Cluba New Zealand pop group which has (I think) a Malay singeris as much admired in New Zealand as in Malaysia. Since I have never heard of the Fan Club, my answers are rather evasive, and the watchful faces grow even more watchful.

On the day I leave Malaysia it is announced that the price of soft drinks is going up. The Australian and New Zealand Graduates Association of Malaysia is gathering for a talk on air-conditioning systems by engineer Paul Lau. At the Sapphire Discotheque there will be an attractive gift for the page 64Most Outrageous Halloween guest. My horoscope says: `You have nowhere to go today but back to the beginning—and where is that? You'll know before the day is out.'


Yesterday Malaysia Airlines—which has just taken on 20 ex-Air New Zealand pilots—made its inaugural flight to Vienna. They imported the Vienna Ladies Orchestra to mark the occasion. The Vienna Ladies Orchestra is a remarkable combo—it can split into three groups to perform in three different countries simultaneously.

And today it is Malaysia Airlines' inaugural flight to Brisbane. My journey home will be via Australia. Glamorous hostesses prowl about the departure lounge, distributing tiny koalas and promotional brochures for the Gold Coast. High above us a large television screen is filled with skyscrapers and ocean, the joys of Surfers.

A giant koala bear is waddling around the lounge. It poses with Japanese tourists for photographs. It snuggles up to a pair of puzzled body builders. Small Malay children scream and burst into tears. The koala bear advances mercilessly through the room, flanked by airline staff, holding out its hand to everyone it passes.

`Giddy might!' says a high-pitched Asian voice.

I look up. The koala bear is standing beside me. `Giddy might!' says the tiny voice from deep inside the costume. It holds out its paw.

At this very moment—it is exactly 7.00 pm—the voice of the muezzin summoning the faithful to prayers calls from the airport public address system. Above us the television screen fills with all the domes and spires of Islam.

I look back at the koala. `Giddy might,' it says.

`Gidday,' I say, and reach to take its hand.