Such are the wonders of modern technology that I usually skip the International pages in the South China Morning Post because I have read the stories the day before in the on-line New York Times and elsewhere. But one particular headline today leaps off the page and seizes my attention: Malaysia’s Prime Minister is defending plans for a US$100 billion skyscraper.
To put it in perspective, the project would cost over half of the country’s entire nominal GDP for 2009 of US$191 billion. For that, I would like to think, you should get a structure that is visible from Jupiter and would accommodate every commercial enterprise and government department in Southeast Asia, plus yet another world’s highest eight-star (or whatever the latest number is) hotel with rooftop helipads, ‘horizon pools’ and golf courses piercing the upper limits of the troposphere. The sort of thing Hopewell Holdings boss Gordon Wu would try to wedge into half a block and an alleyway in Wanchai.
While Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper drags another careless copy editor off for a taste of the bastinado, we should thank him for his typo. What else could tear us away from the gossipy diplomatic banalities of the US embassies’ cables on Wikileaks?
The very name of the proposed 100-storey monstrosity – Warisan Merdeka, or Legacy of Independence/Heritage of Freedom – should serve as a warning. Although dressed up as a private-sector scheme, it is government-led (hence the Prime Minister’s stance) and serves no obvious economic purpose in Kuala Lumpur’s over-supplied office market. Someone’s friends and nephews will of course make a mint out of the construction contracts. Most of all, it will flatter the egos of local leaders apparently desperate to make what must by now be an extremely tired and unoriginal point: look at the size of my latest erection, it’s bigger than yours.
Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Shanghai, Guangzhou (for heaven’s sake), Dubai, and now Kuala Lumpur again, have all been through this. Every loser city on the planet has to have a massive ugly concrete phallus surplus to infrastructural requirements (unlike Hong Kong’s, which are stuffed full of focused and dynamic investment bankers masterminding the Big Lychee’s chunk of global finance). It is a mental affliction with no known cure.
Or is there hope? Hong Kong, cursed with a 1970s bureaucracy suffering from obsessive-compulsive public works, has reached a stage where citizens are putting their foot down and making once-arrogant planning officials quiver. Maybe some people in Malaysia, which has a semi-free streak about it long wrung out of neighbouring Singapore, may also be seeing through all the civic/national pride flimflam and tempted to stand up and demand that their wealth be used less stupidly. Megatower opponents have organized cake-eating parties on Facebook, to which the cops duly turned up – not without good reason when you consider how these little popular movements have a habit of expanding in size and scope. Former Prime Minister and inveterate interferer Mahathir Mohamad can’t resist butting in as well.
All in all, a heart-warming story of the emergence of a civil society in the heartland of Asian Values. It goes beyond the stereotype Malaysia where a wealth-creating Chinese minority is gradually fleeing for more hospitable pastures, and the Malay Muslim majority either lives off government-engineered privilege or seethes in hatred at the mosque.
One commentator, noting the government’s claim that it wants the tower to raise Malaysians’ confidence in themselves, writes: “…only when future buildings are shorter will it have succeeded.” Leaders’ fixation with wasteful vanity projects is a sign of inadequacy – in the case of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang it is almost a security blanket. They won’t change without a kick up the backside, and it takes confidence to give them one. But, as Hong Kong has found following July 1 2003, it comes naturally after you first pluck up the courage to do it. Malaysia Boleh, as they say.
And the thing is decidedly grotesque to behold…