The World Record-Breaking Capital

The strongest hair! The youngest sumo wrestler! The longest pencil! In Malaysia, making your mark – any mark – is a matter of national pride.

On a steamy morning in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the distinct smell of fresh dough and pepperoni permeates the usual smog. For the past 14 hours, a crew of 40 has been preparing to create an epic pizza. It’s going to be really long. The current Malaysian record is 272 feet, but today the staff of the Westin hotel is hoping to reach 492 feet – 150 meters – in five hours. Nobody is quite sure why they have only five hours; that just seems to be the rule of making unnecessarily long pizzas in Malaysia.

Banquet tables pushed end to end snake from the hotel’s front doors, around the corner, and down the block to a parking lot. Westin chef Rajesh Kanna ticks off the ingredients: 330 pounds of flour, 231 pounds of mozzarella, 18.5 gallons of tomato sauce. “Definitely we will do it!” he crows.

The madness begins at 9 am. Six assistant chefs dump ingredients onto 3- by 1-foot rectangles of dough and send them through a conveyor oven. After the cooked pizzas emerge, they’re positioned on the tables in a line. A second crew covers each seam with more toppings, using blowtorches to fuse the sections with a layer of melted cheese.

A sound system blasts party music by Cher, Bon Jovi, and C+C Music Factory. A spiky-haired emcee named DJ Naughty Puppy works the crowd: “Come on, let’s make some noise! You can do it!”

Finally, a clown sounds a bullhorn siren, signaling countdown time. When the crowd reaches zero, Naughty Puppy screams, “157 meters! We’ve got a record! We Malaysians have set the record, right here!”

The mob explodes into cheers and whistles. Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” pumps out over the PA. TV cameras descend for postgame interviews. Tearful chefs hug each other. And 515 feet of pizza is boxed up to be sold for charity.

From the dangerous (most days spent inside a box with 6,069 scorpions) to the inexplicable (most faces captured on a phonecam) and the outright banal (first independent tire-testing facility), not a week goes by without a record-setting event somewhere in Malaysia. The country might just be the world record holder in holding records.

The efforts are chronicled in the Malaysia Book of Records, a compendium of 2,005 of the country’s bests, firsts, biggests, and longests. Many attempts are so outlandish – most time spent cooped up in a vehicle – that they’re regularly slotted into the “wacky news” segments on newscasts around the world. To Western eyes, the country seems like a nation of attention-hungry circus freaks. But in Malaysia, the desire to build the largest tea bag or gather the most twins at a single location is a form of national pride.

The record frenzy began under the leadership of Mahathir bin Mohamad, the country’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003. He was obsessed with making his country one of the great nations of the world, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when neighbors Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan – other so-called Asian Tigers – grew to become more significant economic powers, giving Malaysia a serious inferiority complex.

Mahathir championed the motto Malaysia boleh! (Malaysia can do it!) as a way to motivate citizens to embrace modernity. It was a key pillar of his Vision 2020 campaign: If everyone strived for excellence, he promised, Malaysia would be a fully developed first world country by 2020.

Determined to raise Malaysia’s global profile, Mahathir drove the country into debt in the 1990s with a series of ambitious public works projects. In 1998, the 1,483-foot-tall twin Petronas towers opened in Kuala Lumpur, becoming the tallest buildings in the world (they’ve since been eclipsed by Taipei 101 in Taiwan). Kuala Lumpur unveiled a new public transit system, international airport, administrative capital, and technology corridor. An excellent nationwide highway system was constructed and is now filled with Protons, Malaysian-made cars driven by people who can’t afford Japanese or German vehicles.

Mega-projects are good for his country’s ego, Mahathir told the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1998. “Small people always like to appear tall,” he explained. “If you can’t get tall enough, you put a box under you.”

The Malaysia boleh! slogan took off. Advertising agencies used it to promote products; fans chanted the phrase at the Commonwealth Games and other sporting events. And along the way to courting national pride, the call to excellence somehow got translated into setting the record for creating the highest stack of cans in 15 minutes.

The Malaysia Book of Records is published every other year by Danny Ooi. At the product launch of the country’s first theft-resistant handbag, Ooi, 51, is wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt with the MBR logo stitched on one side, and danny on the other. He looks like a gas station attendant circa 1975.

Ooi published the first MBR in 1998; it combined a childhood fondness for the Guinness Book of Records, a formidable instinct for promotion, and an unabashed enthusiasm for boleh. He has since started a weekly TV show and is now raising funds to build an MBR museum and hall of records. Ooi also organizes beauty pageants throughout Asia. One night he might crown Miss Tourism International, the next day he is handing out an award to 8,000 people, all wearing clogs.

“Our book is a selling point for the country. If I go to your country, you don’t even have a book to show. Which is your tallest building, who is your tallest man?” Ooi says, spreading his arms wide. “It’s something to shout about!”

It’s also a manifesto for global peace. “If the whole world was trying for excellence, it would be the perfect world to stay in,” he says, “because we would no longer be talking about fighting. We’d be talking about breaking records.” Perhaps instead of disarming Iraqis, the US should be encouraging them to play checkers underwater.

The day-to-day operations at MBR’s publisher are handled by Sujatha Nair. When she signed on four years ago, Nair was skeptical about her job. But when she witnessed the attempt for the longest grill of satay (a Malay kebab), she saw how seriously her fellow Malaysians take records. “I saw the work put into it: 5,000 students in the hot sun, all sweaty,” she says. “Some of them were in tears.”

Nair’s daughter has since set the Malaysia children’s record for hula-hooping (two hours and 12 minutes). The accomplishment has made the

10-year-old a regular performer at fundraisers for AIDS research and other causes.

Nair manages a staff of 10, who scan newspapers for award ideas, attend and monitor record attempts, and review submissions from the public. During one week in January, they considered bids for the highest-altitude radio broadcast, the first technology that would let students take college entrance exams via SMS, and the first Malaysian to win a German embroidery competition. All were accepted.

The book sells for 88 ringgets (about $24). Publication of the updated edition every two years is heralded by a red carpet gala broadcast across the country. Record holders come from all over: Subang Jaya has the longest pencil. Kuala Lumpur has the largest pair of jeans. Sabah is home to the youngest sumo wrestler. Selangor has the largest leather shoe. Melaka boasts the oldest pharmacist. Sarawak offers up the first cat museum. And Penang has the largest pizza in the shape of Malaysia and the siblings with the most extra toes.

Jayabarathy Letchemanah drags cars with her hair. The 22-year-old set the women’s national record by pulling 5 tons of vehicles 73 feet.

Her father, Ramasamy Letchemanah, was the family’s first champion, setting multiple records for pulling heavy objects with his tresses. In 1990, he dragged a 32-ton Boeing 737 more than 50 feet, an achievement hailed by Hinduism Today as “an awesome demonstration of his yogic power.” But last October, the Malaysian “Mighty Man” died from heart failure at age 55. His obituary ran in newspapers around the world. Luckily he had already taught his daughter his secret technique.

Many record holders are like Jayabarathy – individuals who have found a way to show their boleh and enjoy a little fame. Some are participating in massive social events that serve as community fairs in the spirit of boleh. And some are business owners who either want to show their company’s nationalism or capitalize on the boleh phenomenon to increase sales.

Not all records are whimsical. Take former newscaster Ras Adiba Radzi, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. In 2003, she rolled her wheelchair 260 miles, from Johor Baharu to Putrajaya, to call attention to people with disabilities, setting the record for longest journey in a wheelchair.

The idea that Malaysia’s national image is burnished by, say, having its citizens parachute a car onto the North Pole doesn’t sit well with everyone. One woman in a Kuala Lumpur suburb put it this way: “It’s a waste of time. It doesn’t mean anything.” A letter in Malaysia’s New Straits Times lamented, “Here we are, a nation gearing itself for Vision 2020, proud of our largest Hari Raya greeting card or the longest performance of a lion dance.”

Sure, events like the largest gathering of people with teddy bears may trivialize the nation’s ambitions. But is it any less crazy when Americans wolf down worms for cash or sing off-key on television for a shot at a record deal?

In the southwestern city of Melaka, a man stands under a banner that reads MALAYSIA BOLEH! Four coconuts are set out in front of him. This is kung fu master Ho Eng Hui; he pierces coconuts with a finger faster than anyone else in Malaysia.

He addresses the crowd, describing boleh. His voice fills with emotion, and he frequently points to his heart. The spirit of doing the best you can, striving for achievement because you are Malaysian, he says, is the driving force behind his art.

He passes around a coconut for people to inspect. He shows his index finger, cruelly bent from previous coconut penetrations. And then he pauses to pitch a bottle of red-colored oil that supposedly eases pain, stimulates muscles, and saves marriages.

After an impassioned riff on his special elixir, the boleh spirit summons him. He emits several screams and jabs his finger into the shell over and over until it punches through, splattering coconut milk everywhere.

The crowd cheers. An assistant runs to help extricate the mangled digit, and then – in a masterful stroke of product placement – Ho dumps a bottle of his own miracle potion onto his hand and rubs it into the skin. He bends over and groans in a superior display of showbiz and promotional savvy.

Told about the coconut triumph later, Nair shrugs. “I know a guy who can do it faster,” she says. “He just hasn’t had time to set up the record.”

(A version of this story first appeared in Wired magazine)