I’m a proud KL-ite born and bred. One of my favorite pastimes is strolling through KLCC Park, under the watchful gaze of the Petronas Twin Towers – the RM4 billion brainchild of a certain former dictator. They’re certainly impressive, useful for projecting the image of a modern Malaysia. His modern Malaysia at least.
And that’s the problem. Lately, I find myself coming back to one question: Would my life and the lives of most Malaysians be materially different if the towers never existed in the first place? Bear in mind, I’m not asking for the towers to be demolished – far from it. I’m just asking what their purpose is.
Think about it. Who, among us, benefits from Mahathir’s KLCC megaproject? I mean, truly benefits. Aside from putting Malaysia on the world map, it only serves as lepak-ing hotspot for affluent tourists. They ooh and they ahh, they snap pictures, they come and they go. That’s about it. Locals, you’d be surprised to learn, tend to do their shopping elsewhere – prices at Suria KLCC mall being notoriously high.
Still, aren’t the towers really, really nice to look at? The great con of the Mahathir era was always the illusion of confidence propped by obscene government spending. Convincing the public that vanity equals prosperity, he repeatedly indulged in megaprojects with eye-catching pizzaz but dubious economic benefits.
In other words, all we got in the end were showroom Lamborghinis.
Take his Sepang International Circuit, for example. Built for RM280 million, the previous venue of heady F1 races has seen interest wane and ticket sales plummet. The last we heard, the government had been spending a whopping RM300 million per year to host the race there.
And for what? Sure, it’s thrilling to watch sportscars buzz about in seemingly endless loops. Sure, it’s cool to have the word ‘Malaysia’ plastered on sports channels around the world. (Whee!) But what the hell was the point of all that?
And what about the RM20 billion Mahathir poured into building Putrajaya? Anyone who’s been to our so-called ‘administrative’ capital will attest that, but for the civil servants occupying its grand structures, the place is virtually a ghost town. It’s no more a capital than the capitalized ego of a man eager to prove himself the equal of the pharaohs of old.
Now, how’s all that relevant to our current political situation? I’ll tell you: Najib gets routinely blamed for all of our country’s problems. But at the very least, his signature achievements and policies have meaningfully benefited the middle and working classes.
It really boils down to a stark difference in economic philosophies: While Mahathir believed that the economic windfall from his megaprojects would inevitably trickle down to the masses – and they largely didn’t – Najib cuts out the ‘middlemen’ and caters directly to the masses.
The BR1M program is perhaps the most famous manifestation of this. The government hands cash over to the poor and underprivileged, helping to lessen their burdens while also stimulating the economy through increased consumption. The program, expected to benefit 7 million Malaysians in 2018, has proven so effective and popular that now even Pakatan wants to retain some form of it.
Then there are the other programs parked under the 1Malaysia rubric: Klinik 1Malaysia, clinics strategically established across the country, offering treatment for only RM1; Perumahan Rakyat 1Malaysia (PR1MA), affordable housing made available for middle-income earners. Sure, they’ll never inspire as much awe as skyscrapers or racing circuits, but they make a tremendous difference in the lives of ordinary Malaysians.
The same applies to Najib’s ambitious MRT projects, which will eventually provide affordable and accessible transportation for millions. You may point out that Mahathir established the LRT and monorail lines. But as I wrote previously, those projects eventually went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the government. Moreover, there’s simply no comparison: Take a ride on the MRT one of these days, and you’d discover that it’s far more spacious, comfortable, and connected than the LRT of the Mahathir days.
If only Mahathir had put as much effort in the LRT as he did in Proton and Putrajaya. But our so-called Bapa Pemodenan was always more pretentious than pragmatic – his motto could very well be ‘bling is king’. But bling doesn’t put food on the table – it doesn’t make our lives any easier or secure the future for our children.
Ultimately, far more Malaysians benefited from Najib’s most modest initiatives than Mahathir’s most expensive megaprojects. Our former dictator gets points for style, but it was Najib who delivered on the substance. I will always be marveled by the Petronas Twin Towers – too bad they were hatched as a monument to ego, not an enabler of broad prosperity.