No feat too minor for Malaysia's record breakers
From ultra-long hula hoop sessions to living in a glass cage with scorpions, Malaysians are piling up world's-best titles.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — The tallest pencil. The fastest pizza eater. The longest nonstop escalator walk.
When it comes to breaking records, it's hard to beat Malaysia. Almost no feat is too minor or outlandish for the Malaysian Book of Records, a biannual compendium of more than 2,000 national achievements that is a riposte of sorts to the gate-keepers of Guinness World Records. Barely a week goes by without another record-breaking attempt on local TV.
For a nation of 27 million people keen to punch above its weight, this frenzy of firsts and bests is a source of pride, even if urban sophisticates groan at its mention. Government ministers oversee record-breaking bids, lending an official seal of approval, though none made it through the longest underwater checkers marathon (70 games played over 24 hours).
Malaysians trace their zeal for records to the go-getting 1990s when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad coined the slogan "Malaysia Boleh!" (Malaysia Can!) to hustle the country forward. He ramped up economic growth, erected the world's tallest building – the 1,482-foot Petronas twin towers – and predicted that Malaysia would be a first-world country by 2020 if it kept reaching for the sky.
The Asian financial crisis in 1998 clipped Malaysia's wings, though, and Taiwan's Taipei 101 has since sneaked past Kuala Lumpur on the skyscraper charts. Mr. Mahathir retired in 2003, and the breakneck growth of the 1990s has proved hard to emulate as China thunders past Malaysia and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
But that hasn't dampened the can-do spirit of Danny Ooi, the local entrepreneur who published the first Malaysian Book of Records (MBR) in 1998. He says the idea isn't to outshine Guinness World Records and its more famous book. Rather, he wants to inspire his countrymen to dizzying feats, and then to bask in the admiration of the world.
"We're not competing with world record books. We're doing our own. People come to Malaysia and they will know what we have and our highest achievements," he says.
The next edition of the book, due in April, will have 30 percent more entries, but fewer that are as hazardous as the most days spent inside a box of scorpions, for example. "Safety is important," says Mr. Ooi. The book retails for 98 ringgit ($30) in Malaysia, and is supported by dozens of pages of advertisements.
Eventually Ooi plans to build a Hall of Fame with displays of memorabilia and an arena for record-breaking attempts. A tireless publicist who wears monogrammed sky-blue flak jackets with "MBR Official" on the back, Ooi oversees a skeleton staff of 10 in charge of certifying national records. Some attend record-breaking events, others monitor public submissions, send guidelines to events organizers, and judge which merit inclusion. A website offers another way to send entries (www.malaysiarecords.com.my).
Many records are surprisingly humdrum: longest jetty, largest kitchen sink producer, biggest inflatable mascot.
As national record keepers, MBR spreads the awards between different areas of the country, making sure nobody feels left out.
The state of Sarawak, for instance, boasts the nation's first, and only, cat museum. Left unsaid is the global singularity of its feline theme.
The book doubles as a civics class, listing elected leaders since independence in 1957 and profiling deceased national heroes.
Ooi says his all-time favorite was a successful team attempt in 2003 to drape a Malaysian flag along the Great Wall of China. Twenty-three university students took 4 hours and 17 minutes to unfurl their 3.2-kilometer (2 mile) flag, beating the record set in 2000 by another Malaysian team who brought a 2-kilometer (1.2 mile) flag. "It's not easy to put a flag on one of the seven wonders of the world," says Ooi reverently.
Such record-breaking zeal is amply documented in MBR, but largely absent from the Guinness World Records, which has been compiling records since 1955. A spokeswoman says Malaysia represents a very low percentage of entries in its database of over 40,000 records (the US leads the pack, followed by Britain).
Guinness's loss is Malaysia's gain
On average, Guinness rejects 80 percent of submissions, whether for incompleteness, irrelevance, or sheer idiocy. That kind of cold shoulder was a crucial spur for Malaysia's go-it-alone book, says Ricky Yap, an editorial assistant at MBR. "Guinness didn't give enough recognition to Malaysia. We wanted to have our own book," he says.
Not everyone in Malaysia is wowed by the book and its circus sideshow superlatives. Some roll their eyes at its triviality. "Breaking the world record for the 100 meters, now that's something. Not eating the most sausages in one go. I mean, who cares?" says Shazli, a banker.
At an awards ceremony for the National Zoo, which holds a record for breeding birds in captivity, Ooi is too busy extolling the benefits of record-breaking to pay much heed to his critics. Why not focus on the positive and allow people their 15 minutes of fame? "It's inspirational," he says. "Seeing people strive can inspire the nation to excellence."