Bigger than God

001 degrees 28.2′ N 103 degrees 43.4’E Danga Bay marina, Johor Bahru

If I was to ask you who you thought was the most famous person in the world, who transcended all geographical and cultural barriers and was known of in the remotest of jungle villages as well as revered in the most bustling of cities, who would you choose? Marilyn Monroe? President Obama? Allah?
Nope, it is apparently some pubescent American kid who wears his hair brushed down onto his forehead and croons about being in love even though he has only recently had the train tracks removed from his teeth. Justin Bieber is now bigger than God.
I had the delight of becoming aware of his “music” before I left the UK, the poppy strains of “Baby, baby, baby, Oh!” accosting me in the car, in the shops, on the TV. Then he popped up in Kota Kinabalu, being piped into the air-conditioned alleyways of Borneo’s shopping malls.
In Sandakan I took a step back to the 1930s, with a trip to the refurbished home of American writer Agnes Keith and enjoyed afternoon tea by a croquet lawn at the English Tea Rooms. When I left I stopped at a lookout to admire the view down onto Sandakan Bay. On one of the pillars, someone had graffitied “Justin Bieber #1”.
At Kuching we bought a local newspaper. “Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber to hit 1billion YouTube views” proclaimed one headline.
It was to be expected in Singapore. While I queued to pay for books in Borders, the woman ahead of me was buying a Justin Bieber 2011 calendar.
But one place I didn’t expect the Biebster to have infiltrated was Cambodia, the country with the highest proportion of poverty in Asia and where 85 per cent of the population are subsistence farmers earning $1 a day and with no spare income to spend on magazines, TVs and radios.
How wrong can you be? When I visited the Lighthouse Orphanage in Phnom Penh and got out my iPhone to take a picture, the kids grabbed it and started flicking through my iPod to see what music I had (these kids may have come from families too poor to feed them but they know how to work an Apple gadget). “You have Justin Bieber?” three or four asked me. “Erm, no. Sorry. I have Justin Timberlake?” Blank faces all round. It seems there’s only one Bieber in town these days and he ain’t duetting with Timbaland (yet). RIP Timberlake, Long live King Bieber.