Yizhen Fung explores another perspective on the anti-Tower protest.
5 Billion Ringgit, 100 Floors, and 195,436 Angry Voices
I wish to begin this article by making a statement that will make everyone hate me: As of now, I do not oppose the recently announced plan to build a 100-storey “Mega Tower”. In fact, my stance on this is currently neutral.
Also, the purpose of this article is not to chronicle a list of reasons on why I think the Tower might be a bad idea or a waste of public funds. In fact, I am still undecided on the merits [or the lack thereof] of the proposal, the reason for which I will later explain.
Having thrown that out in the open, I anticipate a mad flurry of clicks on the “Back” button of Internet browsers. There may even be a Facebook group created to rally “1 Million Malaysians who Oppose this Article”.
Sarcasm and unfunny jokes aside, the real purpose of this article is to attempt to explain the real reason why the announcement of the plan has sparked a public outrage of such a grand scale. I am going to argue that there were three mistakes which were made, which in turn led to things going horribly pear-shaped and most importantly, how we have managed to stir the condemnation of almost 200,000 angry voices today.
When I started writing this article, there were, as may have been reflected by the title I have chosen for this article, 195,436 “likes” on the Facebook group aptly named “1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower”. As of now, there are 195,511 “likes” and a new message is posted on the group almost every few minutes.
A cursory glance at the most recent messages in the group highlights a gripe that appears to be shared by the vast majority of the group. There is clear dissatisfaction, but such sentiments are underlined by the common idea that “the money could have been better spent on other things”. There is a long and varied list of suggested ideas on how 5 billion ringgit could be put to good use – pothole-free roads, electricity and water supply for areas still lacking such amenities, better healthcare, more petrol subsidies, or even more overseas scholarships for our fresh, doe-eyed post-SPM students.
These people genuinely think that the Tower is a complete waste of public funds but if you look closely at their objections, you will notice that even though there is a heavy emphasis on ranting about the other things that the money could be spent on, there is virtually no form of assessment whatsoever on why having the Tower is undesirable. All criticisms ran by the common format of “X is a stupid idea because we can spend the money on Y instead”, but nobody has specifically tried to explain why “X” does not deserve any allocation of spending at all.
This leads on to precisely the one of the points I am trying to make in this article. There is almost no point of argument addressed to criticizing the substantive purpose of having a 100-storey Tower simply because nobody knows what the purpose of having a 100-storey Tower is. And why does nobody know about the purpose? Because the government has kept mum about it since Day One.
This is a classic case of bad PR.
Let us try to go back in time for a moment. It is National Budget Day – tensions and excitement are abound. Which direction is the country set to head in for the next year? Which areas will the government prioritize and which areas will receive budget cuts? The reporters are buzzing with questions and cameras are flashing.
And then an announcement is made. A 100-storey tower to be named Warisan Merdeka will be built in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, with an allocation of 5 billion ringgit.
What can we make of this? The public is essentially left with two meager pieces of information – that this building is going to be 100-storeys high, and that it will cost 5 billion ringgit to build. The rest of the blanks are left to public imagination to fill. There is simply too little official information provided to the public; everyone is kept in the dark, so they begin making their own assumptions on the use of the Tower. This is Bad Mistake #1.
To make matters worse, just hours after the initial announcement of the Tower plans, government ministers who were questioned about the Mega Tower project gave highly unhelpful replies which were essentially along the lines of “Oh, the other countries have very tall towers, why shouldn’t we have them too?” This may be a valid indication of why the government wants to build this Tower, but it does not tell us exactly what the Tower is going to be used for. What can we infer from this? The ministers, who are symbolically meant to be the face of the government, are either as clueless as we are about the purpose of the Tower, or they have not been authorized to divulge the information.
Even if the only other piece of official information that they had was the “we plan to outdo other countries in terms of tall buildings” reason, it is argued that they could have exercised a greater degree of care in their choice of words, and much further damage could have been prevented had they just remained silent. A direct consequence from this is that this only serves to fuel the negative impressions running on public imagination at the moment. The public now not only sees the Tower as being 100-storeys high, and that it will cost 5 billion ringgit to build, but also perceives the government as having not thought this idea through in terms of function and is only concerned with building a physically taller Tower. This is Bad Mistake #2.
Bad Mistake #2 directly leads on to Bad Mistake #3. Even if we seek to set a world record for having one of the tallest towers in the world, using that as a main, if not sole, justification for having the Tower is a bad idea. The harsh truth is that it is no longer politically fashionable to ride on the “Malaysia is breaking world records and achieving great things – Malaysia Boleh!” wave. Setting and breaking world records are no longer hip and trendy among the Malaysian public. Back when the Petronas Twin Towers project was first proposed, there was probably a lot less opposition on the basis of “wasting public funds” simply because the “Malaysia Boleh!” trend was at the peak of its glory.
The winds of popularity have changed, and the public is now very conscious of the fact that our economy is not in the best of health, and that concrete measures to remedy the situation need to be implemented urgently. The “in” thing now is to ride on the “let’s fix our ailing economy” wave. The numerous messages in the Facebook group demanding for the money to be spent on other things serve as testimony to that claim. In this regard, the government has hit the right buttons by making the focus of the current National Budget on creating a “high-income economy”, which is spot-on with what the public is interested in. However, it is just a pity that due care had not been taken to relate the Tower with the “economy” objective. This is Bad Mistake #3.
What can we conclude from this discussion? If the people were truly angry about the Tower because they felt that the costs involved would not justify the benefits and functions of the Tower, there would have been more criticism focusing on the merits [or the lack thereof] of the actual Tower. Instead, it is very likely that such fury is due to an unfortunate combination of bad PR and the fact that the purpose of the Tower was made to look to be riding on a wave that is largely perceived to be irrelevant today.
The people are not angry because the Tower is a bad idea; the people are angry because they were led to believe that the Tower is a bad idea.
If the government had packaged the Tower proposal in a different way, perhaps as a proposal to use the Tower as a centralized financial hub of Malaysia, or even perhaps as a small part of a large framework of plans to attract more foreign investment, public reaction might have been drastically different today. I am not saying that having a 100-storey Tower will, on its own, attract more foreign investments, but the key here was to relate the Tower plans to the bigger economic picture so it would not be perceived merely as a white dust-gathering elephant that is meant to be a “heritage” – a dangerous term which bears great cultural and historical significance, but connotes a relatively tiny degree of economic utility otherwise.
I personally think the Tower may well be a great idea, if its development is meant for economy-bolstering purposes. But before I can make such a conclusion, I need more information. And before I receive such information, I will withhold my judgment.
There were 195,436 angry voices united in the Facebook group when I first started writing this article. There are now 195,596 angry voices. It is still not too late for the government to do some damage control, but time is ticking, and it is ticking fast.
Yizhen Fung is a final-year student doing the world’s most difficult law degree course. When not pre-occupied with assignments and revision for her finals, she can be found writing up a storm, working on her culinary skills while attempting not to blow up the kitchen, or shopping for her next pair of killer heels. She also indulges herself in the art of imagination on a daily basis and believes that one is never too old to chase a squirrel.