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Reach for the sky

Published: 02/11/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » November 2015 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Kuala Lumpur takes its name from the Malay words for “muddy confluence,” reflecting its location at the convergence of two rivers, the Gombak and the Klang. The Malaysian capital is a relatively new city, dating from the 1850s when tin was discovered in the area. The riverfronts are gradually being rehabilitated, in part through the River of Life project, which is opening up cycling and walking paths in the center of town.

The renewal of the natural space captures the energy that’s evident throughout much of the city. Malaysia’s GDP may have slowed to under 5 percent in this year thanks to the decline of oil revenues, but still the World Bank’s Report on Doing Business 2014 placed Malaysia 18th for ease of doing business among 183 economies. 

And it’s clear that the nation’s capital is expanding. The first and probably most enduring impression for most first-time visitors to KL is its choking traffic and the near impossibility of getting from Point A to Point B on anything like a schedule. All this is made worse by the construction taking place to implement what hopefully will act as a partial solution – a new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) rail system of, initially, 31 stops on Line 1, and a further 56 stops for Line 2 (Line 3 awaits a formal announcement). 

The good news is, there are reasonably efficient ways to get around town using the various rail options – in addition to the airport link, there’s the monorail and the light rail system each infinitely better than relying on taxis. 

A Rising Tide 

Regardless of the mode of transportation you choose, as you travel through the streets of KL you cannot help but notice the skyscrapers – many 60-stories-plus – springing up all over the city. The most famous of these, the twin Petronas Towers, provide an excellent vantage point for checking out all the new buildings rising out of the urban landscape.

These twin structures loom large over the city, and seem to dominate virtually every vista, rivaling even the surrounding mountains. Briefly the tallest buildings in the world (1998-2004), they still comprise the tallest twin-towered structure. They are on every tourist’s itinerary, but booking a ticket online minimizes the time spent standing on line, and the experience also gives a good sense of KL’s organization, both on a micro and macro scale. 

The micro part comes in the organization of it all as you are shepherded from one place to the next, along with school groups and tourists. The macro part is clear both at the 41st floor sky deck connecting the two towers – a good vantage point to check out the solar panels helping to power the Suria KLCC shopping center and Philharmonic Hall below – and higher still on the 86th floor observation deck. From here you can look down on the 50-acre park surrounding the towers, a feature that will continue with new construction since developers are required to set aside 10 percent of land they use for green space.

The Tower tours are available Tues-Sun 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM (closed Mon and 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM Fri); admission RM84.80 ($20).

The infrastructure works aren’t all high-rise, however. Malaysia is big on planning, and in May, Prime Minister Najib Razak unveiled the latest five-year economic development plan with the intention of Malaysia achieving developed economy status by 2020. The 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP), which is the final one in the lead-up to the 2020 goal, includes updated forecasts for the country’s economy and its finances, as well as proposals for new infrastructure projects.

The most anticipated new project is the $11 billion, 211-mile Kuala Lumpur to Singapore fast rail link, with seven stops in the country. In the latest milestone, the governments of the two countries have announced a joint request for information initiative to gauge the interest of the markets in the new rail service.

In a blog post reported by Singapore Today online, Singapore coordinating minister for infrastructure and minister of transport Khaw Boon Wan cited the need to bridge gaps “between the government’s ambitions and the market reality” to ensure the rail line succeeds.

Of course, business in Kuala Lumpur is more than the Petronas Towers and high-speed rail. Malaysia has had considerable success attracting multinational corporations, according to Tim Saw, director of communications for InvestKL, a government entity that, as its name implies, promotes investment in the city and across the nation. 

Among the incoming corporations are Japanese engineering and electronics conglomerate Hitachi Systems, Germany’s industrial gases and engineering company Linde, British business services group Rentokil Initial, Zurich Insurance, US food giant Cargill and the world’s largest oilfield service company, Schlumberger. 

“There are several initiatives for attracting businesses because it is seen as a way of employing and training up Malaysians,” Saw says, citing the ease of obtaining work permits in Malaysia as one concrete example. 

In addition, while corporate tax rates can be as high as 25 percent, various incentives can push this as low as 5 percent, or even zero, depending on whether companies are setting up a regional hub. 

The government’s goal is to get the entire population of the country earning the equivalent of at least $15,000 a year by 2020. In Kuala Lumpur that average has probably been achieved, but the greater KL region of more than seven million still has a way to go – and the population of the country as a whole is 30 million. In the meantime, the government has continued moves to reform the tax base and introduce a general sales tax of 6 percent. 

KL Welcome 

While corporate business is a key driver for Kuala Lumpur’s economy, tourism plays an important part as well. The city is attracting a growing number of visitors from across the region and beyond. 

For a quick trip through KL’s past, there’s no place quite like Dataran Merdeka. Known as the padang, or field, this expanse was once the cricket pitch of the Royal Selangor Club. Here a 300-foot-tall flagpole proudly bears the red- and white-striped Malaysian flag, first raised in 1957 when the nation gained independence from the British. The Club’s building, along with a number of other astounding architectural relics of Malaysia’s colonial past dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, still stand around the square. 

These include the National Textile Museum which started life as the Federated Malay States Railway station in 1905. Today it honors the techniques and artistry of Malaysia’s rich and diverse textile industry for which the country is justifiably world famous. Among the other denizens of the square are the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, at one time the government printing office, with its distinctive silhouette outlined by white cast iron columns. Nearby the former history museum has been reimagined as the elegant Restoran Warisan restaurant, specializing in traditional Malay cuisine.

The 1904 Mughal-inspired city hall has been repurposed as the Panggung Bandaraya theatre. Here you can take in a 50-minute Broadway quality musical with the unlikely title “Mud: Our Story of Kuala Lumpur.” The energetic and polished production traces KL’s earliest days as a mining outpost and the hardships and triumphs of its pioneering settlers. Admission is RM60 (about $16) and it runs through December 2016 (there are blackout dates, so check the schedule).

A few minutes south, beyond the point where the city’s two rivers meet is the Central Market. Established in 1888, it was originally a “wet” market selling meat and fish. The present art deco building in duck-egg blue is located at the junction of Jalan Benteng and Lebuh Pasar Besar. It underwent a renovation in the mid-1980s to become an arts and crafts center.

On one side of the market, an annex filled with art galleries leads on to Kasturi Walk, where you can pick up local snacks such as kuih (colorful rice dumplings) or roasted chestnuts. 

The dual hobbies of practically everyone in Kuala Lumpur seems to be shopping and eating. Both activities run the gamut from time-worn shops and street stalls to glitzy Fifth Avenue stores and high-rise haute cuisine. It’s hard to avoid the shopping bug – from the massive Suria KLCC shopping center at the base of the Petronas Towers to a whole string of exclusive names up and down virtually every thoroughfare in the city’s Golden Triangle. This relatively compact area is the retail and nightlife heartbeat of Kuala Lumpur, home to many of the city’s best hotels, sparkling high-end malls and, of course, amazing restaurants. 

When you go to Malaysia, expect to eat. Cuisine of all sorts in this culture is not just a sign of hospitality – the two go hand-in-hand (or hand-in-mouth). KL practically defines the idea of culinary fusion, bringing together – and yet keeping distinct – the tastes of China, India, southeast Asia and its own Malay flavors. For a sense of the diversity, take the one of the many Food Trails offered around the city. 

The Old Kuala Lumpur trail might start with a sit-down Indian tasting at the Betel Leaf (77A-79A Leboh Ampang Masjid Jamek) followed by a savory snack at Hon Kee Porridge (Lot 10 Jalan Sultan Ismail, Petaling Street) and wrap up with beef noodles at Lai Foong’s stall (138 Jalan Tun HS Lee).

However you approach Kuala Lumpur, consider your time there the way the locals think of theirs – with a certain nonchalance, relaxed but carefully planned. It’s a characteristic that has stood both the nation and its people in good stead as they continue to take bold steps toward prosperity. 

Of course, Malaysia isn’t alone in this intense central planning – its neighbor, Singapore, has achieved its remarkable success in much the same way. 

Time will tell if it’s a strategy that also works for Malaysia. But all the signs are pointing upward, so that KL fast becoming a place to watch.  

By Tom Otley and Dan Booth

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