Column One: Malaysia bursts with pride over heaviest tapioca

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The Independent Online
FOR ALL its novelty value, a man who spent two days sitting in a chair dressed as Father Christmas would not, in most countries, be regarded as a national hero. In many cultures, collectors of large numbers of toy camels, bow ties or paper bags would be regarded with as much pity as admiration.

But Malaysia is no ordinary country. In its energetic quest for international status, this small developing nation has become a land obsessed with records, from the tallest building, to the smallest frog, to the heaviest chapati.

The focus of the record mania is a glossy hardback known as the MBR - the Malaysia Book of Records. Its 300 pages catalogue national sporting records, and natural wonders such as the largest turtle (300kg) and the heaviest tapioca (36kg). But its quirkiest and most characteristic pages are those dedicated to human achievement.

There are numerous outstanding Malaysian collections, from the Largest Eraser Collection (2,014, owned by 20-year-old Amy Lai Shook Foon), the Largest Whale Souvenir Collection (Melvin Low of Penang - 200 items) and the Largest Replica Camel Collection (Azman Hashim - 200 models). Other assorted records include Malaysia's First Cadaveric Liver Transplant, the country's Largest Corn and Ice-Cream Franchise, its Most Prolific Insurance Agent, and the Longest Hair on a Malaysian Barbie Doll. Despite a Malaysian population of only 22 million, the book's first edition alone contains 1,300 records. And more are being created every day.

Every month some 30 new records are added to the MBR's database - its second, millennium edition, due out next spring, will feature 400 new entries. A spate of new and ambitious records are being planned for New Year's Eve, including the Largest Mass Wedding, the Longest Abseil, the

Biggest Treasure Hunt and the Longest Rescue Attempt by a Handicapped Individual. Its first edition of 10,000 copies has all but sold out, and up to a million people watch a weekly TV series based on the book.

There is nothing accidental about this sudden explosion of record-breaking prowess for striving, conspicuous achievement, and self-assertion are government policy in Malaysia. The movement is summed up in the words, "Malaysia Boleh!", which have become a national slogan. It means, simply, "Malaysia Can", but it has come to stand for an entire attitude to Malaysia and its relations with the outside world.

The man behind it all is himself a record breaker: Mahathir Mohamed, Malaysia's Longest Serving Prime Minister. Throughout his 18 years in power, Dr Mahathir has encouraged and cajoled his countrymen into self- improvement, as part of his plan to transform Malaysia into a fully developed country by the year 2020. Dr Mahathir himself has presided over prestigious mega-projects like the new Formula One racing circuit which debuted last month, the new capital city, Putrajaya, and - grandest of all - Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers, the World's Tallest Building.

Unquestionably, Malaysian self-confidence has been boosted by Dr Mahathir's efforts, but they also have their darker side. The question remains whether a small country really needs a Formula One track or the stadiums built for last year's Commonwealth Games. More disturbing is the xenophobic side of all this competitiveness, and Dr Mahathir's frequently expressed conviction that outside forces, from foreign journalists to Jews, are conspiring to thwart Malaysia.

Amir Muhammad, a Malaysian journalist, spoke recently of the "prickly inferiority and childish, nouveau riche one-upmanship" that lies behind the record-breaking craze. "It's no accident that all the records we are so proud of don't require much intellectual input." Even some of the record breakers feel the same. "For me it's a private thing," says Fong Siling, a 60-year-old who possesses Malaysia'sLargest Collection of Company Annual Reports. "I didn't ask to be put in the book. OK, so we made the biggest cake in the world. What's the point of that?"