Thursday, October 28th, 2010 12:45:00
King Nimrod was a cruel ruler and probably would go to hell, but he wanted to go to heaven. So he said to build a tall tower with a diving board on one side to jump onto heaven when it floated by on it's cloud! If the people of Babylon didn't build the tower, they were threatened with death! — from answers.com, Why did the people of Babel build a tower?
I WAS asked by a new acquaintance over lunch that ended with the biggest headache in my life what my stand was on Permodalan Nasional Berhad's (PNB) proposed Warisan Merdeka tower, a structure 100 storeys tall, one of the tallest in this world.
This was, more or less, the conversation that took place. I'm usually the listener but this guy was all ears, so I ordered my second cup of coffee, which probably triggered the headache.
So, are you for or against the Tower?
"Well, you must understand that I am not an economist and all I know is that the proposed headquarters of the PNB has been categorised by its opponents as a mega project, which is loosely defined as an infrastructure project that would cost over a billion dollars/ringgit to build but which is not worth that billion spent.
"And you must understand that my views are that of a layman's, and one who has never been against the so-called mega projects. For example, while Lim Kit Siang (the Opposition leader then and now) was opposing the North-South Highway, which was probably the first billion-ringgit project planned by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister from 1981-2003, I was waiting for its completion rather impatiently. You see, I was traveling quite regularly between Singapore and Melaka back in the 70s and 80s, and anyone who's driven or ridden on the old Federal roads can tell you what killers they were. And they still are today, especially during the festive seasons!
"Neither was I opposed to the construction of the Penang bridge, the KL International Airport, the new administration centre Putrajaya or the KLCC (once the tallest towers in the world) — all multi-billion ringgit projects under Dr Mahathir's grand plans.
"In my opinion, these projects have transformed our country. We were once the backwater of Southeast Asia but we now have some of the best infrastructure in the world, too good that we sometimes chide ourselves for having first-world facility but third-world mentality, which is quite true sometimes. But opposing the construction of those facilities, in the first place, was a backward stance, too. But this is my personal opinion, of course.
"Now, as for the proposed 100-storey building, as far as I am concerned the fault lies only on one factor — that the Prime Minister announced it in his 2011 Budget. So a lot of people think that Datuk Seri Najib Razak was going to start taxing people more in order to build this magnificent structure. Which isn't the case. The PNB has come out, belatedly, to explain that Warisan Merdeka is their project using their money, et cetera, but by that time the proposed tower has become a victim of Malaysian politics.
"Najib was not announcing a new project. The PNB had made statements in the Press about the 100-storey tower late last year. No hoo-ha then. But when the PM included it in his Budget, wham bang! I was going to say, perhaps, he should not have included it in his budget, but then that would be strange — the tower is supposed to be one of his "high-impact" projects.
"Obviously, the Najib administration is banking big time on construction and property development to get the economy going for the next few years and Warisan Merdeka is one of them. The others are the RM15 billion Matrade project (several tall towers will be built by Naza-TTDI), the redevelopment of the Pudu jail by the Urban Development Authority (around RM10 billion), and sprawling Sungai Besi development, the RM40 billion Rapid Transit Project the KL-JB fast train project, and the massive Iskandar Development (10 times the size of Subang Jaya).
"Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Tokyo all have very tall towers. In recent years, Shanghai and Dubai have been building them. South Korea is also building a 100-storey tower and some of the tallest buildings in the world are in China.Why can't we have another one? Why can't PNB? If Public Bank wants to build a hundred-storey building, do we stop Public Bank from doing so?"
My new acquaintance looked rather worried by this time, probably saw I was getting worked up. It had been stressful the last couple of weeks, especially with the police report lodged against my blog by the Information, Communications and Culture Minister.
(And talking about the ministry, its unprecedented netbook scheme may be classified as a mega project, too: its infra structure costs RM1 billion and its usefulness is being seriously questioned. So far, over 100,000 netbooks worth RM1,000 each has been distributed in rural areas as part of the ministry's plan to reduce the Digital Divide. Phase Two, which will involve 500,000 units of these netbook computers, will commence soon).
My lunch guest slipped another question: Isn't the protest against the PNB tower not against the tower itself but due to the fact that taxpayers' money is involved?
"Everything involves public fund, so I don't buy that argument. Haven't you read Syed Akbar Ali's blog? The government does not own any money. This is Rule No 1. There is no such thing as government's own money. All government money is taxpayer's funds. Even for countries which do no have income taxes, it is still public funds. The people's money.
"To me, the objection is purely political. North-South Highway back then, Warisan Merdeka now. The difference is, we didn't have blogs, we had no access to Facebook, we did not even have computers in our homes back then. And talk about the Internet, what about the government/TM's massive RM10-over billion broadband project? We are all enjoying the infra, and we are certainly benefiting from Dr Mahathir's promise for openness and non-intervention policy.
"And we should view the protests positively, too. I mean, the government should. What does this group of people want to see? Many said we need more hospitals and doctors, schools and teachers. Look into those. At least the people are talking and giving feedback.
"Remember when the government decided not to build the "crooked bridge" that would have replaced the archaic Causeway? The PM then said the reason for not building it was because the people of Johor did not want it. Hogwash! The people said nothing.
"Now the people are telling you something. Be thankful.
"But there's the silent majority, too. There's always the silent majority. These people also put you there to govern as best as you can. If the government installs all the necessary elements of good governance and is transparent, the people would feel re-assured. Show us how the 100-storey, Matrade, Sg Besi, the KL Financial District, Iskandar, the Greater KL, the rail transit project are going to improve the people's quality of life."
So you think the government should go ahead with the 100-storey project?
"They should continue developing this country. And the people should continue to protest and let the government hear them. But at the end of the day, we have to decide what we want to be. If Dr Mahathir had given in to his political opponents, Lim Guan Eng would be traveling from Penang island to the mainland on the ferry and the rest of us would still have Third World facilities, bro. And the Third World mentality, too."
And then the headache came. My new acquaintance ordered warm water with lemon. My trusted Minyak Cap Kapak, the same ointment my grandma used in the days before there was even proper roads between towns, was missing. I wanted to tell my acquaintance about some people's attempt to equate the Warisan Merdeka to the Tower of Babel, how some of us are still stuck in the Dark Ages, but I was feeling to dizzy.
Wonder if that's the feeling if you look down from the 100th floor ...
AHIRUDIN ATTAN is group editorial adviser for The Malay Mail, Bernama TV and The Malaysian Reserve. Heblogs at rockybru.com.my.