Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kuala Lumpur

A few days ago, I joined the William and Mary Mason School of Business on their annual trek to SE Asia. I love the fact that when you are in elementary school and head out on a field trip you go jump in a school bus and drive 30 minutes to go see how maple syrup is made. When you are going for your MBA, you fly halfway around the world and go see how business is conducted among expats, local and government officials, and MNCs.

Two professors, 29 students, and one tag-along (me) headed out for Kuala Lumpur (KL) via overnight train, straight from Singapore. It was an interesting affair- one that I promise that I'll remember for years to come. Don and I were talking about it as we boarded the train and jumped into our sleeper cabins. These cabins were humid, hot, buzzy with mosquitoes, dimly lit and all fabric from the dingy chairs to nappy carpets looked like they hadn't been changed in 20 years. On the wall, a TV turned on but didn't show an image and when I checked why noticed the disconnected cables extending on to nowhere in particular. We talked at length about the students, and what they were expecting to see once they arrived in this far-flung city.
Overnight, the train rumbled through crossing

Along the way, we were treated to several funny signs so simple in nature and definitely unique for sure. Want to know how to use a toilet? Better instruct people in how not to stand on the seat:

(DINGDINGDINGDIngDingdingdingggggggg........) after crossing, stopped intermittently and finally arrived after 7 sleep deprived hours into KL. Immediately, we were re-introduced to the strict anti drug policy here, and reminded that even the Economist isn't immune to censorship:

Many things remain exactly as they were when I was last here in '99- only with more activity. For example, the Petronas Towers- until recently the tallest building in the world- glimmer in the evening with a highly reflective aluminum coating and command the KL skyline. These beautiful architectural marvels were completed in '98 along with other massive and gleaming new structures like their airport and tower came on-line. Still, the Asian meltdown at the time and political unrest that came with the unjustified sacking and kangaroo court for the then-Prime Minister caused buildings like the Petronas Towers to remain only about half full. When we were here, only about half of the building remained occupied and the streets were.. quiet. Even the Renaissance Hotel where our group stayed was a shell above the 7th floor in '99. You could take the elevator up to, say, floor 15, and the doors would open onto a concrete hallway with doorless rooms. From the outside, it looked complete. But once you looked it became evident that much was left to be done.

This time, our group struggled through stop and go traffic, checked into a bustling hotel and were given rooms on the 21st floor.

Still, every time I think of KL, the Petronas Towers come immediately to mind and they represent to me one of the most unique places I have visited, if not because for a major city, KL isn't on really anyone's beaten path. For the days I have been in KL, I routinely found myself using these towers as a land mark and marvel to enjoy.

Another example of Matahir Mohammed's push to bring his country to the main stream through monuments and structures came in the form of Malaysia's war memorial- dedicated to those Malaysian soldiers who had been lost in struggles past. While looking at this monument, I was immediately taken to how similar this looked to the Iwo Jima Memorial- the Marine Corps memorial in Washington DC. Then I started asking, and learned that Felix de Weldon created this statue also.. complete all the way down to the black marble base, gold lettering and rocky outcropping that the soldiers are perched on.

One thing to note about KL is that during the 90s- and as I learned continuing into today- is an undying desire to move into the main stream. Their tiny neighbor to the south (Singapore) actually used to be a part of Malaysia until 60 years ago. I don't know enough about the history of what happened there to talk intelligently about it, but it is interesting to see how these two societies have taken different paths over the years. Singapore remains one of the largest ports in the world and one of the few countries that exports more than it imports. It is an IT hub and continues to set the bar for modern style, culture, and thought leadership in a variety of areas.

KL has some of this, but have spent a great deal of time working to develop it's presence on the world stage. In many meetings that we sat through- specifically in a place called Cyberjaya (Malaysia's answer to the Singapore IT market), we had a presentation complete with come-do-business-in-Malaysia numbers that made absolutely no sense.

Cyberjaya, as it turns out, is situated immediately next to Putrajaya- a now officially designated Malaysian capital that was carved out of the Malaysian jungle specifically to act as the seat of Government. Like the United States and so many other countries of old, the plan for Malaysia is to develop these locales into established cities well known and recognizable world-wide. In my opinion, this will take quite some time.

One of the other return visit sites we all went to is called Batu Caves. 400 million year old limestone caves located roughly 15km north of KL, you have to climb 272 stairs (they are painted to let you know progress) to enter the caves. The Hindu faith believes that these caves are home to Lord Murgan- one of Shiva's sons . As with everything we have witnessed here, significant work has gone into developing the Batu Caves- from the entrance and stairs, up to the cave itself. Much more modern, clean, and welcoming. Hindu statues adorn all sides of the entrance and walk up, including this one:

Returning to KL, the Petronas Towers lit up the night sky for all to behold (and take a half million pictures of):

And then several of us hit Hard Rock Cafe where we were introduced to something called a "tower".. as it turns out, the Petronas Towers aren't the only towers in Malaysia:

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