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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 10:41 GMT
Mahathir leaves mark on skyline

By Jonathan Kent
BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur

Many natives of Kuala Lumpur complain that when they go abroad for a couple of years they return to find a city they hardly recognise.

This was never more true than in the mid 1990s when the Malaysian tiger economy was in full stride. Tall buildings shot up seemingly overnight, as newly rich Malaysian companies asserted themselves through architecture.

Kuala Lumpur's imposing architecture

The Kuala Lumpur of 1981, the year Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister, was in many ways still the city that the British had left at independence 24 years earlier.

The main railway station was a colonial fantasy of what tropical Islamic architecture should be, a mixture of the Moorish and the Mogul. There was no skyscraper of note to be seen.

Today, Kuala Lumpur's skyline is dominated by the monuments to the boom that followed, not least by the Petronas Twin Towers, still officially the world's tallest buildings.

Petronas is Malaysia's National Petroleum company, and the building's vast towers are an indicator of just how important a role oil money has played in driving the country's shift from a commodities-based economy to one where manufacturing and high tech now dominate.

The towers have become a symbol of modern Malaysia, and although their reign as the world's tallest will formally end when tenants occupy Taipei 101 in Taiwan, they still hold a special place in Malaysian hearts.

Buildings have also played a part in cementing Dr Mahathir's idea's of Malaysia's modern identity

Mohamad Shaid, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur, is one of many people who feels the twin towers has put his city on the map.

"That is a landmark," he said. "When we talk about the world's tallest building we know it is Kuala Lumpur."

That the twin towers were built at all, though, is testament to Dr Mahathir's hands-on involvement in just about every aspect of the economy.

Over the years he has gathered around him a coterie of powerful businessman.

"He only deals with billionaires," one acquaintance said, "the others don't get a foot in the door."

Tabung Haji
The Tabung Haji building evokes a drum calling Muslims to pilgrimage
The Kuala Lumpur City Centre project, which includes the twin towers, was the brainchild of one of them, Ananda Krishnan, reputedly Malaysia's richest man.

The latest addition to the skyline, the two monoliths that tower over Times Square, a gargantuan shopping mall and entertainment complex, were built by another close Mahathir associate, Vincent Tan.

Some see in these business associations the signs of cronyism.

Those allegations stem from the lack of transparency in the many privatisations and allocation of government contracts during Dr Mahathir's time in office.

The prime minister's supporters would argue that he simply picks the best person to do a job.

But a perceived lack of checks and balances has led to some questionable projects going ahead.

Malaysians have always complained how far out of town their airports are. But Kuala Lumpur International Airport really is - 72km from central Kuala Lumpur, or a good 50-minute drive.

The KL Tower, a communications mast, is decked out in spotlights - during Chinese New Year they light up red, during the recent Hindu festival of lights they're purple, and for Ramadan they're green
Compared to the squalor of London's Heathrow, it is palatial, but it is also rather empty. It does not yet show signs it will fulfil Malaysia's dream of becoming the region's air transport hub.

Then there is Putrajaya, built as the new city of government. Critics say it sucked up billions of dollars that could have been spent on schools or hospitals.

Building for the future

Some new buildings are starting to play a part in Malaysia's cultural life.

The KL Tower, a communications mast, is decked out in spotlights. During Chinese New Year they light up red, during the recent Hindu festival of lights, here called Deepavali, they're purple, and for Ramadan, now upon us, they're green.

Buildings have also played a part in cementing Dr Mahathir's idea's of Malaysia's modern identity.

Architect Hijjas Kasturi and his associates, have managed to find a Malaysian vernacular for modern architecture.

The building he designed for Tabung Haji, the organisation that helps arrange pilgrimages to Mecca, is shaped like a drum - the drum that is supposed to summon pilgrims. The structure has five main pillars, evoking the pillars of the Muslim faith.

The new Telekom Malaysia tower borrows its shape from a bamboo shoot. The one Hijjas designed for local bank Maybank invokes the scabbard of the traditional Malay dagger, the Kris.

Joseph Lam, a designer and architect, credits Hijjas with "creating the language of Malaysian architecture".

It is harder to find good old buildings in Kuala Lumpur.

Dr Mahathir's Malaysia is in love with the future rather than the past.

Developers are ripping down old Chinese shop-houses, and traditional Malay wooden houses are not built to last - weather and termites take their toll.

But there are still remnants of years gone by in Kuala Lumpur.

On Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Coliseum Hotel has hardly changed since it opened in the 1920s. The guest rooms still have iron bedsteads, lino floors, varnished wooden walls and bakelite fittings.

The menu is much the same as it was in the days when the British planters would come here for a steak, and some of the waiters still remember that era.

Its bar is an ideal spot from which to contemplate the whirlwind of change that surrounds it.

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