These days, Malaysia's most enchanting celebrities are a furry, four-legged couple with black and white patches who just eat and sleep all day.
They are Xing Xing and Liang Liang, or "Prosperity" and "Pretty" in Mandarin, two giant pandas that are on loan to Malaysia for the next 10 years.
The loan is part of the Chinese government's renowned "panda diplomacy" programme and is meant to commemorate 40 years of Sino-Malaysian relations. It comes at a time when some issues threaten to strain ties between the states - territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March with 239 people including 153 Chinese nationals on board.
Before becoming China's newest and cuddliest diplomats, Xing Xing and Liang Liang were already celebrities as they were among the eight pandas on display at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"That makes them all the more precious and signify the special relationship that China and Malaysia have," Ms Nursolehah Abdul Rahim, Zoo Negara's public affairs head, told The Straits Times.
For the furry pair, it has been star treatment all the way. Upon flying in from Chengdu, China, on May 21 aboard a chartered plane, they were greeted at the airport by Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang and Malaysian government officials.
At Zoo Negara, located in a leafy suburb near the city centre, the pandas live in a 1.6ha conservation and exhibition centre with a price tag of RM25 million (S$9.8 million).
It is equipped with, among other things, air conditioning with controlled temperatures of 18-24 deg C. The 30kg load of bamboo the pandas eat daily is handpicked from swamps in the outskirts of Selangor state. Zookeepers also feed them "panda cakes" - a mixture of corn, soybeans, calcium pills, eggs, salt and sugar that is baked for four hours.
Ms Nursolehah said after the panda centre opened to the public on June 28, the zoo's visitor numbers jumped fourfold in the June 28-29 weekend with a combined figure of about 4,000.
This is not surprising as giant pandas, an endangered species native to China, are a rare sight outside the country.
Malaysia is just one of 14 countries that have pandas on loan from the Chinese government.
Negotiations for the loan of pandas can take years and taking care of them is not cheap. But nations have gladly welcomed giant pandas as a signal of improved ties with an ascendant China.
For Malaysia, the diplomatic gift also marks the fact that it was the first South-east Asian nation to establish ties with China in 1974 when the communist state still had a closed-door policy.
Then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein - the father of current Premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak - made a historic visit to Beijing that year after several years of diplomatic courtship through hand-delivered letters to Chinese officials.
Mr Razak had thought ties with China would bolster Malaysia's diplomatic standing globally and prevent the young nation from being seen too Western-leaning. Today, China is Malaysia's largest trade partner with trade hitting a record high of US$106 billion (S$132 billion) last year. Among the pacts signed recently are those for a Chinese-built industrial park in Pahang and a university campus and property development projects in Johor.
However, China's increasing assertiveness over its overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea has caused rising tensions in the region.
Also, the failure so far to find Flight MH370 has caused a backlash among Chinese nationals in recent months, with Chinese tourist arrivals to Malaysia having fallen drastically.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said both issues can be resolved in time.
"The MH370 incident is but an aberration in the otherwise extremely cordial relationship, while the territorial disputes will most likely culminate in some forms of joint exploitation of the resources," he told The Straits Times. "I think Malaysia can strike the balance well and convincingly" between maintaining good ties with China and not compromising on ASEAN's collective stance on the territorial disputes, he said.
In the meantime, the arrival of the furry ambassadors has dispelled the slight unease in ties for now, having created a stir among Malaysians.
"I am so excited as this is the first time I am seeing them live," said college student Amira Ahmad, 20, after taking photographs of female panda Liang Liang. "I am definitely coming back to see them."
This article was first published on July 07, 2014.
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