Observations: What is it about Malaysia?

It's an odd lure that this faraway country holds, says Paul Vallely
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I am not making this up. A 17-year-old youth has been arrested, it was announced yesterday, trying to enter Malaysia illegally on his sister's passport. He was disguised as a girl.

The remarkable thing is that he was not British but a New Zealander, though that in the eyes of the Malay authorities is probably a pretty fine distinction. Such antics they have come to suspect from decadent English-speakers.

Who can blame them? In the past few days they have had to cope with Nick Leeson, the man who quit his Barings desk in neighbouring Singapore, leaving his colleagues to cope with unpaid bills of more than £750m. Leeson was last seen checking out of the Regent Hotel in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur on Friday, 24 hours before the magnitude of the losses became public.

Then there was Peter Kerry, the sullen 14-year-old British boy who evaded the eye of immigration officials and sneaked into the country using his father's passport. "I have wanted to go to Malaysia for quite a while. It's a nice country. I like travelling. I was interested to see what it would be like," the truculent teenager told reporters when he was dragged back to Heathrow.

So what is it about us and this exotic South Asian peninsula? This week's bout is only the latest example. It was Malaysia, you will recall, in whose jungles another party of Brits set out deliberately to lose themselves, with greater success than they intended. It was in the Malaysian province of Borneo that the hapless Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill led his near- disastrous army expedition to Mount Kinabalu. His attempt at the first descent of Low's Gully, the sheer 2,000ft canyon below the mountain, ended in an 11th-hour rescue operation, with much embarrassment at the ensuing worldwide media coverage.

There was an Anglo-Malaysian axis, too, at the heart of the unproven allegations of match-fixing surrounding Bruce Grobbelaar, the Southampton goalkeeper. Libel proceedings against the Sun are still pending, but what is beyond dispute is that corruption is endemic in the Malaysian game, where 90 per cent of the teams are said to contain at least one bent player prepared to throw a game at the behest of one of the myriad syndicates of gamblers.

Not that it does to be too frank about such matters. Look where it got Andrew Neil, sometime editor of the Sunday Times, who published claims that Malaysian companies had acted corruptly in deals over the Pergau dam. It was not exactly a one-sided allegation. After all, it was our lot who put up £234m in dodgy aid to sweeten Margaret Thatcher's £1.3bn arms deal with the Malaysian prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

But the good doctor, known delicately to his compatriots as a conviction politician (he is the man who banned Schindler's List as Jewish propaganda) was not amused. Nor was Rupert Murdoch, who wanted to keep on the right side of Dr Mahathir to smooth the way for his Asian satellite company, Star TV. Mr Neil resigned soon afterwards. The events were, of course, entirely unconnected.

It is perhaps with good reason, then, that we retain this horrid fascination with the land which, in days long before it was a British colony, was the demesne of the Dayaks. They were a race whose practice of head-hunting struck fear into the hearts of European traders lured to the region in search of gold, diamonds and pepper in the early 1600s.

A Portuguese apothecary of the time, Tom Pires, recorded that the indigenous men wore penis bells, "as many as nine gold ones, with beautiful treble, contralto and tenor tones". Which may explain where Stephen Fry is lurking.