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Subject:      The biggest, the best, the first -- Malaysia's mania for records
Date:         Mon, 13 Mar 2000 18:36:13 -0800
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The biggest, the best, the first -- Malaysia's mania for records March 13, 2000 Web posted at: 11:28 a.m. HKT (0328 GMT) KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- The records keep rolling in: the man who climbs thousands of steps backward, the largest gathering of old people at a circus, the smallest frog. Not to mention, of course, the world's tallest skyscrapers. Record-breaking feats have become something of an obsession in this Southeast Asian nation. Barely a week goes by without some novel -- some would say dubious -- feat being attempted by a man, woman or child somewhere in Malaysia. Among the dozens of records set just this year: the longest variety show (13 hours), the highest backward climb up a staircase (2,058 steps) and the most number of heads shampooed in one day at a shopping mall (1,068). Leading the drive is 74-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad -- himself a record-holder as Asia's longest serving ruler. In his 18 years as leader, Mahathir has transformed Kuala Lumpur into a showcase of superlatives. The capital's skyline holds the 88-story Petronas Towers, the world's tallest buildings; Southeast Asia's highest tower; and a newly opened shopping mall that is touted as Asia's largest. Mahathir defends the megaprojects as "good for the ego" of a developing nation. "It is important because small people always like to appear tall. If you can't get tall enough, you put a box under you," he once said. His favorite phrase -- "Malaysia Boleh!" or "Malaysia Can Do It!" -- has become a national slogan intended to assure the country's 22 million people of their potential and nudge them along the path to self-improvement. With records rolling in, someone needed to write them down. And so was born the Malaysia Book of Records. A coffee-table hardcover published in 1997, it aims to "inspire greatness within all Malaysians," according to its forward. Its 300 glossy pages feature 1,300 records in 11 categories ranging from sports and technology to buildings and human achievements. There's the largest replica camel collection (200), the most frequent best man (1,069 weddings), the first blind lawyer (he reads his briefs in Braille), the 10-year-old girl who is the youngest person to pull a van, which was packed with seven bodybuilders. The book's second edition, due out in April, will include 400 new entries. Part of the book's allure is its accessibility, says editor Danny Ooi. "We will encourage any record people want to create," he said. "It's not that easy to get into the Guinness Book of Records. To get into Malaysia's book is easier." Unlike its international model, Malaysia's book turns no one away. But more than low hurdles, the book offers Malaysians "a way to be nationalistic" and to do "a lot of positive things for the country," said Ooi, a former beauty pageant organizer. That spirit was what drew many on a recent Saturday to a suburban mall, where a small army of hairstylists shampooed through 1,068 scalps to wash the most heads at a shopping mall. "I came to set a world record. It makes me proud to do this for my country," said 29-year-old Anne Ong Yoke Kwan, while waiting in line. But patriotism isn't the only motivation. Record mania can be good for business, too. Proctor & Gamble, which sponsored the shampoo-a-thon to promote a new shampoo, took out half-page advertisements in local newspapers for 10 days leading up to the event. Come the big day, the multinational set up 20 mobile sinks under a giant tent, paid local TV personalities to rally the crowd and kept energy high with free-flowing Starbucks coffee. "We thought what better way to sell the product -- wash a lot of heads and help set a record," said Charmaine Wong, Proctor & Gamble's brand manager for Malaysia and Singapore. Critics say that as competition heats up with attempts to set outlandish new records, the country's image will pay the price. National shame came in January when a team of Malaysian skydivers -- who claimed to be the first Asians to parachute to the South Pole -- returned home and begrudgingly confessed they had fibbed. Pressed by reporters, they admitted they had jumped 1,100 miles from their goal. After the botched parachute attempt, Sports Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said the nation needs to put on the brakes in the superlatives race. "Everybody seems to be proposing the best, the first, the largest, the biggest, the smallest, the highest," the minister said. "But from now on, we will be very strict with these proposals to safeguard the country's reputation."