Kuala Lumpur looks like a modern, bustling city that works. Its skyscrapers are modern and counted in the hundreds. Their architectural styles are bold and aggressive. The streets are wide and well-designed for the loads they need to carry. The ancient monuments and mosques are treated with reverence yet integrated into the overall design of the city. There is plenty of off-street parking so the streets are not cluttered with vehicles that pedestrians need to navigate around. The streets are well-lit at night. There are skywalks (or plus-15s as they are called in Calgary) to provide easy passage in air-conditioned comfort between the major buildings and transportation hubs in the city. I felt safe walking with friends or alone at any time of the day or night anywhere in the city (of course, one would be a fool not to expect some shenanigans in any large city, but it was not an undue concern in Kuala Lumpur, or KL, as the locals call it.)
KL is home to the Petronas Towers. Petronas is short for Petroliam Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s fully-integrated oil and gas multinational ranked among the largest corporations on FORTUNE Global 500. It is the custodian for Malaysia’s national oil and gas resources. The Petronas Towers make a very clear statement about the importance Petronas plays in the everyday life of the country.
The Petronas Towers were the tallest towers in the world from 1998 to 2004. Taipei 101 (in Taipei, Taiwan) surpassed the towers in 2004, but is only a single tower, which left the Petronas Towers to continue to hold the title of the world’s tallest twin towers. They continue to do so to this day. The towers are 88 stories tall and have a skybridge connecting them above the half-way point. The steel and glass façade is designed to resemble Islamic motifs, since Islam is the predominant religion in Malaysia. The bottom six floors are allocated to a shopping complex featuring the preeminent brand names in clothing, shoes, watches and jewelry in the world. Of course, it has the usual assortment of mid-range and upscale restaurants. I wandered around in the shopping area for a few hours – remarkable, because I have had my fill of shopping and generally don’t feel attracted to shopping centres in the least.
The Petronas Towers is the flagship of the Kuala Lumpur City Center or KLCC. Its developers call it ‘a city within a city.’ KLCC offers a myriad of interesting attractions, including plenty of nightlife, dining and shopping options. KLCC is readily accessible via public transport, with many buses operating on various routes within the area and a few train stations nearby. There are dozens of impressive skyscrapers in the KLCC complex. Although it would be easy for such a large and imposing complex to be overwhelming, it wasn’t. In fact, it was quite manageable.
The wealth in KL is palpable. Even the older buildings are maintained in good repair. Although I rarely saw a uniformed policeman, I always felt the presence of a commitment to law and order without a sense that it was repressive. Even though Malaysia is a Muslim country and most women dressed with the hijab covering their hair, very few wore the niqab covering their faces except for their eyes. As far as I could tell, women held a wide range of professional positions with considerable authority, although it was difficult to tell for sure as a tourist.
In the West, we hear far too much about Muslim extremists and the hatred Muslims have for Westerners. Based on my personal experience, I can say for certain that there is no basis for that fear whatsoever in Malaysia. It is a total myth. I was welcomed everywhere and treated with respect. I got into debates with taxi drivers about taxi fares, but it was no different than a debate in a Western city.
I saw billboards at colleges and universities that made it clear that a mastery of English is essential to integrating effectively into the international community. I was stunned to read that, over the last decade, 200,000 health care professionals had finished their studies, but 50,000 never received their professional designations because they failed to master English. This is hardly a sign of a country that rejects the West. Instead, I saw it as a sign that modern-day Malaysia is committed to integrating its historical traditions and values with the demands of the modern, international community.
I travelled from Johor Bahru in the south of the peninsula to Langkawi in the far north. Everywhere throughout this country I was well-received and safe. I was also impressed with how modern the country is everywhere, not just the major cities, as is the case in the Philippines and Vietnam.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved