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Southeast Asia

Mega-projects are back to boost Malaysian egos
By Anil Netto

KUALA LUMPUR - They had been shelved in late 1997, soon after the economic crisis hit Asia. But now the so-called ''mega-projects'' of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are back, and indications are that there is no stopping the government from pushing through with them this time.

One of the highlights of Malaysia's Independence Day celebrations held early this week was the official opening of the 1.8 billion ringgit ($474 million) Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

The towers, which pierce the capital's sky like rockets on their launch pads, are the world's tallest buildings. They are also among the most maligned state projects in Malaysia. Says social activist Jubal Lourdes: ''As society progresses, one should be focusing on freedom of the soul. In Malaysia, it looks as if we are going back to the time of the pharaohs, who erected huge monuments for people to pay homage to.''

''These monuments,'' he adds, ''become the measurement of success rather than any improvement in civil rights and social justice.''

In August, Mahathir was showing off the finished parts of the mammoth Putrajaya project, which is supposed to be the new administrative capital. Costing $5.26 billion, Putrajaya includes a palatial prime minister's mansion.

South of the capital, in Sepang, lies a new $75 million Formula One Grand Prix race track - another of the premier's grand visions realized. Not far from it is the futuristic Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which set the government back $2.36 billion.

Some observers say these projects are an attempt to bolster public confidence and put a seal on the country's economic recovery after a demoralizing recession. In truth, at the Petronas Towers inauguration, Mahathir acknowledged the intrinsic psychological value of such projects saying a ''country needs something to look up to''.

''And we certainly have to look up to see the towers,'' he said. ''When one is short, one should stand on a box to get a better view. The Twin Towers is to our ego what the box is to the shorties.''

But critics say the country is paying too high a price for ego-boosters, and express doubts that Malaysia's resources are being put to the best and most productive use. Already, some economists are worried that the next generation of Malaysians will be saddled with huge debts, bonds to repay, and depleted natural resources. Proponents say, however, that the improvements in the economy - which has just marked a year of capital controls - make some of the projects possible.

In his speech on August 31 at the Petronas inauguration, however, Mahathir said that the mega-projects have not put such a financial burden on Malaysia ''that we have to beg for money''. ''We are neither a big country nor a very rich one,'' he added. ''But we build what we can afford, and we can afford the Twin Towers.''

The premier also said the controversy and snide remarks over the Petronas Towers in particular would cease over time and the twin buildings would come to symbolize the country's progress ''in an unfriendly world''.

Others cannot see the need for projects such as Petronas Towers. They note that the 88-storey towers have contributed to a massive commercial property glut, which continues to weigh down on the economy. While one of the towers is being used as the offices of the national petroleum corporation Petronas, which bankrolled the project, the other building is half empty.

Some observers have also pointed out the irony of having the towers in a city where there is an acute shortage of affordable housing, forcing many of Kuala Lumpur's poorer residents to live in hidden slum and squatter settlements.

Likewise, critics have already begun picking apart three other mega-projects that the government announced recently. Among these are the 338 kilometer East Coast Highway and the ''Southern International Gateway'', a 1.5km bridge that will replace an existing causeway linking Malaysia's southern Johor state with the island republic of Singapore. There is also a land reclamation project in Mahathir's northern home state of Kedah.

The three projects will cost Malaysia some $9.06 billion, with the Kedah project taking almost 90 percent of that amount. This project has drawn fire from environmental activists, who fear it will destroy coral reefs and marine life along the coast. There has also been criticism of the project's provision for a new northern region international airport. They say it is unnecessary, since the Penang International Airport is only a few dozen kilometres away.

Meanwhile, in Johor, activists are wondering why there is a need for the Southern International Gateway when another new causeway - the Second Link - to Singapore is still struggling to break even. On average, the number of car and bus passengers using the new Second Link is fewer than 10,000 a day, compared with the 80,000 that commute along the old causeway daily. More than anything else, this is because the Second Link happens to have exorbitant toll charges.

At present, the debate still rages over the wisdom of having all these big projects. But even the prime minister's most vociferous critics admit that one thing is for sure: long after Mahathir is gone, these mega-projects will still be around as visible reminders of his rule.

(Inter Press Service)



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