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views from above and below: the petronas twin towers and/in

Jan 16, 2017




  • Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 20(1), 1999, 1-23 Copyright 1999 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, and Blackwell Publishers Ltd


    In 1996, the Petronas Twin Towers was toppedout becoming, for a time, the tallest buildingin the world. The building consists of twoidentical towers 452m in height and joined by askybridge at the 41st and 42nd stories (Figure 1).Named after the state oil company whose newheadquarters occupy one half of the building,the Petronas Towers forms part of a largerdevelopment project the so-called KualaLumpur City Centre (KLCC) which, at itsunveiling in 1992, was described as beingamong the largest real estate developmentsin the world (Mahathir, 1992:np). In additionto the Petronas Towers, phase 1 of KLCCincluded a Concert Hall for the newly-createdMalaysian Philharmonic Orchestra; a luxuryhotel, the Mandarin Oriental; two further office


    Tim BunnellDepartment of Geography, National University of Singapore,



    Large-scale urban transformation in Malaysia is the most visible sign of the rapid developmentwhich has accompanied the premiership of the current Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Thenational capital, Kuala Lumpur, has seen the development of a new city centre (Kuala Lumpur CityCentre, KLCC) which includes the worlds tallest building, the Petronas Twin Towers. Usingtechniques from cultural geography, this paper provides a reading of the building. The paperfirst considers the symbolic role of the Petronas Towers in realising a state vision of nationaldevelopment, the so-called Vision 2020. The building is seen to both image Malaysia as a worldclass national player (and Kuala Lumpur as a world city) as well as to promote new ways ofseeing among national citizens. However, the paper also considers ways in which intendedsymbolic meanings are contested and the would-be hegemonic state vision reworked from belowthrough everyday experiences of life in the city and the nation.

    blocks, Ampang Tower and Esso Tower; and a50-acre public park. KLCC is being built onthe site of the former colonial racecourse offJalan Ampang and marks a north-eastwardexpansion of Kuala Lumpurs main commercialdistrict, the so-called Golden Triangle Area(GTA) from Jalan Raja Chulan and Jalan SultanIsmail (Figure 2).

    At one level, this new city within a city(KLCC Holdings Sdn. Bhd., circa. 1996a:7), andthe Petronas Towers in particular, may beunderstood in terms of regional economicchange. In the mid-1990s, KLCC was oneamong myriad Urban Megaprojects (Olds,1995) in what was commonly considered to bean economically miraculous Asia Pacific (see,

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    Source: KLCC Holdings Sdn. Bhd. (circa. 1996b) Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Marketing, brochure, np.

    Figure 1. The Petronas Twin Towers.

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  • for example, World Bank, 1993). Malaysia wascartographically, discursively and economicallyvery much part of this new Asia (Noordin,1996). Economic recession in the mid-1980s inMalaysia had been followed by a period ofunprecedented growth. The Sixth MalaysiaPlan period (1991-95) was described as amomentus period of rapid progress with anaverage increase of 8.7 per cent (Malaysia,1996:3-5). It was, of course, no coincidencethat this period also bore witness to a dramatic

    transformation of urban fabric in the nationalcapital, Kuala Lumpur, and around the GTA inparticular. The tall building remains the mostprofitable use of valuable city centre land.

    The aim of this paper, however, is not toexplain the general phenomenon of urbantransformation or the rise of spectacularspace (King, 1996:97) in Asia-Pacific cities.The paper focuses, rather, on a specificmegaproject site, KLCC, and a particular

    Source: KLCC Holdings Sdn. Bhd. (circa. 1996b) Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Marketing brochure, np.

    Figure 2. KLCC and the Golden Triangle Area (GTA).

    The Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia 3

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  • building within this, the Petronas Towers.While a capitalist reordering of space andsociety in Asian cities is undoubtedly animportant explanatory context for urban(re)development, the Petronas Towers cannotbe understood merely as a function of landvalues. For one, given the extra costs anddiminishing returns from building very tall, itmight be suggested that the construction ofskyscrapers in general is actuallyuneconomic (cf. Huxtable, 1984). The 88-storey Petronas Towers has no lettable spaceabove the 84th floor and is topped byfunctionless spires which enabled the buildingto eclipse the previous worlds tallest recordheld by Chicagos Sears Tower. Like many otherskyscrapers, the Petronas Towers was built forsymbolic as well as functional reasons. In orderto interrogate this symbolism and to answerthe question of why the Petronas Towers?,it is necessary to consider the ideas andintentions of the proponents of the buildingas much as any macro-level economic forces.

    One of the key proponents of the PetronasTwin Towers is the Malaysian Prime Minister,Mahathir Mohamad (Milne & Mauzy, 1999).Mahathir had acquired a reputation forambitious, highly visible nationalindustrialisation projects long before theunveiling of KLCC (Bowie, 1991:131). In 1988,for example, work began on the 869 km North-South Highway which now spans the entirewest coast of Peninsula Malaysia from the Thaiborder in the north to Johor Baru in the south(Naidu, 1995). However, there were morehistorically specific political and economicfoundations for KLCC. Economic recoveryfrom 1988 appeared to vindicate Mahathirsprivatising policy prescriptions. He, like thecountry as a whole, appeared finally to haveemerged from a period of political insecurityand uncertainty. A series of monumentalpublic works were founded on this new stablepersonal and national ground (Harper, 1996).Unveiled by Mahathir himself in September1992, the KLCC set a trend for high-profileinfrastructure projects with megacharacteristics (Cartier, 1998:157). Such was

    the scale and importance of real estate andconstruction that Malaysia came to bedescribed as an infrastructure-driveneconomy (Lopez, 1998).

    Large-scale infrastructure projects weregeared towards and symbolic of a new nationaldevelopment strategy associated with thePrime Minister. Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020),promoted and popularised following a speechby Mahathir in 1991, has the purported aim ofturning Malaysia into a fully developedcountry by that year (Mahathir, 1993:403).The Prime Minister has since been describedas the architect of developed Malaysia(Asian Editor, 1997:29), the master plannerwho is rebuilding Malaysia his own way(Time, 1996:front cover). Such descriptions maybe said to be both symptomatic of andcontributing towards popular understandingsof contemporary development in terms of anomnipotent leader transcending history,geography and politics, unrestrained in hisattempts to fashion Malaysia in his own image.Yet, as Khoo Boo Tiek in his intellectualbiography of the Malaysian Prime Ministerreminds us, Mahathir remains influenced by,as well as an influence upon, events; like anyother leader, he is both representative andperemptory (Khoo, 1995:xxi). Vision 2020demands contextualisation in historical debateson post-colonial Malaysian development andnational identity.

    While recent work has problematised theterm post-colonial for its assumption that acertain weight and significance be attached tocolonialism (Watson, 1996:302), the colonialperiod is a useful starting point forcontemporary debates on multiculturalism,development and national identity in Malaysia.Apart from the long-established role of thecolonial economy in the construction of pluralsocieties in Southeast Asia (Furnivall, 1939),the three generalised communities of post-colonial Malaysia Malays, Chinese andIndians were consolidated through colonialbureaucratic practices such as census-taking(Milner, 1994). More significantly, perhaps, the

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  • British administration considered the Malaysas the rightful inhabitants of Malaya and thespecial position of the Malay rulers and theirMalay subjects was adverted to time and again(Comber, 1983:11). By the time of independencein 1957, therefore, the special position of theMalays under the leadership of the UnitedMalays National Organisation (UMNO) wasestablished as the ground rule of the nationalpolitical system (Ong, 1990).

    Failure to translate the privileging of Malayidentity into an improvement of the economiclot of Malays, however, led to a resurgence ofMalay nationalism and contributed to ethnicriots in May 1969 (Said, 1996). The followingyear, the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP)introduced state interventionist positivediscrimination (or affirmative action) onbehalf of bumiputera, the constitutional termgiven to Malays and other indigenousgroups, particularly in East Malaysia. ANational Cultural Policy extendedbumiputeraism (Brown, 1994) to the culturalrealm by promoting indigenous, and especiallyMuslim Malay culture, as the core of nationalidentity (Kahn & Loh, 1992). It is in thishistorical context that Vision 2020, with itsprimary aim of establishing a united Malaysiannation with a sense of common and shareddestiny a nation at peace with itself,territorially and ethnically integrated, living inharmony and full and fair partnership(Mahathir, 1993:404) would appear to suggesta departure from preceding nationaldevelopment priorities. T

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