I was last in Malaysia as a backpacker in 1994. Kuala Lumpur was already a modern city with wide roads and high-rise buildings, but much remained dirty and backward. How times change. Now there is a flash new multibillion-dollar airport, skyscrapers including the world’s tallest, Petronas Towers, the latest IT industries — and I’m staying at the five-star Sheraton Imperial.
The 50km motorway journey from the airport to the Petronas Towers epitomises Malaysia’s rapid transformation. The entire route has been designated the “multimedia super corridor” — another multibillion-dollar project. The Multimedia Development Corporation envisages the 15km-wide corridor will take 20 years to complete, including its two “smart cities” — Putrajaya and Cyberjaya.
Putrajaya is the new seat of government while Cyberjaya will be an “intelligent” city with multimedia industries, R&D centres, a university and operational headquarters and testing centres for multinational companies.
Many, I was told, are already there, including Intel, Ericsson, NTT and Microsoft, on what was previously a palm oil estate.
Malaysia suffered along with the rest in the 1998 “Asian crisis”, whose legacy remains a half-built monorail system in Kuala Lumpur and several abandoned luxury hotels and high-rise projects. But poverty is declining, the country appears to be prospering and economic growth remains a healthy 3.2%, after 6% to 8% last year.
Its government has taken a proactive role in its economic direction. Some years ago, the country’s prime minister of 18 years, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, launched “Vision 2020”, setting a target when the country was to become a mature, fully developed economy.
The above projects are part of this, with the government wheeling the oils of commerce with a range of incentives; including a tax rate of 11% for five years (with 100% tax exemption for certain projects), 70% investment tax allowances and 40 to 50% re-investment allowances.
The media seems tame and stories abound of how the government regularly keeps an eye on its reporting and threatens them to not cause “mischief”. A “pull-yourself-up-by-bootstraps” slant is apparent even in the lively Sunday tabloid. Amid the gory tales of jealous wives butchering unfaithful husbands are pages of features stressing the importance of education.
Malay society is officially secular but has a strong Muslim influence. Heavy “sin” taxes are applied to cigarettes, booze and the like. Often, you will see women covered head-to-feet in a black chador, with just a slit for their eyes.
“Researching” the rural “digital divide” in undeveloped Tioman Island, I discovered an unreliable cardphone service, but there was some internet access (albeit slow) and many youth had cellphones. While KL is almost there in its development, the provinces still have a long way to go.
Back on dry land, having initially refused the $50 taxi fares from the old to the new airport, I relented when an enterprising local offered to take me for the same fee.
Racing along the quiet, new often eight-lane motorway at 130km/h, I could only conclude Malaysia was indeed moving ahead, while New Zealand chugs along in a congested slow lane.
Malaysia is a land of future industries, gleaming towers, shiny modern airports, wide new motorways, eager workers and a determination to succeed. If only we had the same vision.