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Published: January 6th 2015
For six years, the world's tallest structure
Third world status is slippery to define. There's probably an official line of thinking centred around GDP, literacy rates and costs of living v average incomes. But as a layperson I run off a few more overt though less tangible stats.
My last visit to Kuala Lumpur was way back in 1994. In that era I had Malaysia firmly planted in the third World. Yet simultaneously it boasted enough green shoots to suggest life was on the up and up.
Fast forward to today and I'm fuddled as to where I might pigeon hole contemporary Malaysia. There is plenty to suggest it has morphed beyond 3rd world but is still hungover with sufficient earthy telltales to remind us 1st world brotherhood remains at arm's length. Let's take a peek at some of my sketchy criteria:
RATS: the ubiquitous fauna brazenly traipsing the confines of any developing nation. There's nowhere near the numbers roaming the streets of KL these days but those that still linger display an ambivalence to human proximity to suggest they co-exist with a degree of familiarity.
TRAFFIC: sure it's thick but that's the same beast as any modern city. What has evaporated is the
background soundtrack of honking horns and the chaos level has been ratcheted down a notch or two. In fully-fledged 3rd world countries, red lights are either totally ignored or at best moonlight as a suggestion. In KL the fundamental principle of RED/STOP is at least generally adhered to. There's still the option of RED/GO but the humble pedestrian has morphed from the bottom of the food chain.
BEGGARS: there's a few but seemingly no more than in the centre of Sydney circa 2015. One thing the KL beggar has over our version is they are mobile. "Beggars a la Oz" just sit behind a cardboard sign and wait for the coins to fall in. My default option with beggars, by the way, is to not give (absolutely never to children) but rather donate to a social charity. Having said that, it's easy to fall off the wagon with the old and/or ailing with no means of earning an income or social services safety net.
THE ICE CREAM SANDWICH: the culinary invention taking KL into the next century. Bread rolls and ice cream together at last. UURRGGHH!
SMELLS: the gamey odours of raw sewerage still waft out at
Handy if it rains
regular intervals. A zephyr of eau-de-drainage can quickly dissolve the fantasy of your prawn laksa at that back street al fresco eating establishment.
TAP WATER: safe to drink, even if I didn't. Way too chlorinated.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Asian efficiency was something of an oxymoron here a generation back. Not so today. The LRT metro, bus system, monorail and airports are unanimously clean, comfy, cheap and efficient. Take note my home state.
STREET VENDORS: you won't spot them at upscale restaurants but they still lurk, spruiking to tourists among the tables at roadside stalls. What hasn't altered is the overall kitsch of the articles they attempt to offload. This year's big ticket item is the selfie pole.
For the complete juxtaposition of social standards in KL, first take a wok on the wild side at any one of the crusty street side tables in Jalan Alor. Polish off your finger lickin good mee curry in the gritty surrounds then don the walking shoes. A click over the hill and KL's postcard pin-up boy rears into view.
Petronas Towers and the surrounding high-end apartment blocks are a much sought after postcode in this city. To be really
just because someone has a long neck doesn't make them a goose
convinced this is an enclave where a different sun shines, mosey on into the mall below the towers. Welcome to a sterile mercantile realm where capitalism is king. Every mega name brand sprouts an outlet in an air conditioned environment where you could eat off the floor. This is the 1st world and then some, where tourists and well-to-do locals swarm to offload dollars big time.
The blueprint of the Petronas visionaries, I imagine, proscribed to the ethos; "If you build it they will come". They were right.
Down the road a pair of hours by bus and fully justifying a couple of your travel itinerary days, is a town devoted to a philosophy of an alternate tangent; "If you spruce it up they will come". With an influx of World Heritage funding, Melacca's Chinatown has been gifted a nip and tuck, where the traditional shines through a new lick of paint. Embed a hit of chic, the type that causes real estate prices to surge, and the result is a winner. There is still a heavy dusting of 3rd world "charm" (watch your step with the open drains) but Melacca is a modern day tourism honey pot.
Jalan Alor stall.
I'm sorry, I was hoping you had some large prawns
So weighing up all my shallow evidence, where is KL/Melacca (and while I'm using a broad brush, all of Malaysia) sitting in respect with 1st world/3rd world status? Well I've invented a new pigeon hole: Malaysia - King of the Second World and Cusping on First and a Half.
more images at www.colvinyeates.zenfolio.com
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