Letter from Kuala Lumpur

Off-ramps, highways, and overpasses. Swaying palm trees, skyscrapers, and the noise of accelerating engines. Add a low-poly effect to the view, and it becomes a Ridge Racer scenario—the original arcade version from 1993. The only thing missing here is the brunette in a one-piece swimsuit with a deep V-neck waving the start flag. That would not go down well here in Kuala Lumpur, though.

The look of KLCC takes me back to my childhood. It makes me think of the slick cityscapes and skyscrapers I was drawn to as a boy, the ones I saw in movies, video games, CD covers, and as large as life on my family trips to Florida. I didn’t expect KL to feel like downtown Miami in the 1990s. I didn’t think it would look like the cover art of a Japanese City Pop album.

It makes sense for the city to reflect the heydays of American-style capitalism in Asia. Malaysia’s economic boom began in the ’80s, and by the end of the following decade, the country had one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Malaysians in the ’90s were like the South Koreans in the ’80s and the Japanese in the ’60s and ’70s: intoxicated by their unprecedented affluence.

Shopping malls took center stage in life. KLites flocked to their cooled interiors to escape the oppressive heat and humidity and consume myriads of shiny new goods. Enter Wisma Cosway today, and you’ll get a feel of the zeitgeist. This 26-story concrete office building has an enclosed mall in its base, still with the original brown tile flooring and mirrored escalators typical of the 80s.

Most stores are empty, but an old-school Kodak Express sells point-and-shoot disposable cameras and ostensibly promotes a super-fast 30-minute digital print service. Besides stationery items, an office supply store on the second floor sells mouse pads, desk calculators, CD-ROMs, and, wait for it, palm-top PCs. Next to it, the banner on the window of a closed travel agency promotes a tour package for the millennium celebrations at Hong Kong Disneyland with all the fun that went with it.

Like the mall, the office building above it is empty and aging. It’s one of the brutalist eyesores that share the KL skyline with neo-Mughal domes and minarets, monorail lines, a glossy TV tower, and the glitzy glass buildings that continue to multiply. A personal favorite of the brutalist bunch is Wisma Equity, an eleven-story concrete behemoth in an inverted pyramidal shape, now abandoned. Right across the street from it are the Petronas Twin Towers. My head spins as I look up at their steel and glass facade and see the rolls of floors becoming a hypnotic blend of structure and sky.

The towers—the tallest buildings in the world for six years—were supposed to put Malaysia on the map, announcing to the world the country was open for business. Their inauguration in 1999 was an extravaganza of light shows and fireworks. A giant projection screen under the walking bridge showed images of other mega-projects like stadiums, bridges, and offshore oil rigs to the mesmerized crowd on the ground. Too bad it all happened after the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, crashing the stock market, plummeting the Malaysian ringgit, and putting a stop to the country’s prosperity.

With their symmetrical design based on the Islamic star, the Twin Towers also symbolize Malaysia as an Islamic nation. Most Malaysians and their top leaders are Malay Muslims. Still, other sizable groups immigrated to the country during colonial times, namely the Chinese and Indian Malaysians. There are also other smaller indigenous minorities whose stories are rarely told.

Nowhere is the cultural melting pot more evident than in the mamak stalls. These semi-open roadside eateries are everywhere in KL, selling a wonderful mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian food—all halal. They’re often open twenty-four-seven and popular with office workers, families, and partygoers. Everyone gathers near food counters in nondescript stainless steel tables and chairs, under hanging fans and televisions.

Despite appearances, however, it’s racial politics since day one. After the British left in 1957, the new, independent government declared the motto: “Malaysia for the Malays.” Malays gained constitutional privileges through affirmative action programs that aimed to revert the economic imbalance between them and the ethnically Chinese, who controlled most of the economy. As a result, other ethnicities felt—and still feel—downgraded to second-class citizens.

On the surface, day-to-day relations remain friendly. Still, patterns of racism and discrimination affect everyone, and Malaysians live in their own separate ethnic bubbles. Segregation is conspicuous, and it begins early. Often when I pass by the entrance of Aquaria KLCC, a state-of-the-art aquarium in the heart of the city, I catch a glimpse of what they call the Malaysian vernacular education system, a system based on language. Groups of primary schoolchildren line up for their guided tours. Some are composed only of ethnically Chinese children; others are mostly Indian or Malay. I also see groups of only Malay girls, all wearing their tudungs.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in a tropical version of a Gulf city. The humidity turned up to 80%. It happens especially when the muezzins’ call to prayer echoes through the high-rises, something I always find fascinating. Since the ’80s, Malaysian authorities have intensified the role of Islamic bureaucracy in the country, affecting personal freedoms and deepening the ethnic divide. There’s even a moral police, JAWI, which has a history of abusing power and blurring the lines between secular and sharia-based laws. Earlier this year, a comedian was arrested, accused of insulting Islam during her stand-up performance.

More tellingly, something terrible happened a few days after I arrived. JAWI officers raided a Halloween party at REXKL, a trendy creative hub and community-safe space housed in an old historical cinema. They came before the clock struck midnight, arresting several drag queens, transgenders, and anyone else in costumes who appeared to be cross-dressing. People were thrown in the back of cop trucks and driven away in the dead of night. Many were also divided into groups of Muslims and non-Muslims and forced to take drug tests, peeing in cups in crowded bathrooms while the officials stood behind them like vultures.

As I type this, Malaysia prepares to vote in its 15th general election. It’s the most disputed in its history, or so I read. As I make my way home after a midnight feast at a nearby mamak, the streets are atypically chaotic. It’s the night before the vote, and the sound of accelerating engines is louder than ever. Thousands of young men race their motorbikes through the roads of KLCC, yelling and waving political flags—blue or red—as more people on the sidewalks cheer. The political parties themselves pay the motorbikers, I learn, to stir the crowds and keep everyone awake.

There’s division, that’s for sure, and a latent sense that fundamental issues such as freedom and equality are at stake. But on the surface the atmosphere tonight feels more like a wild celebration than a dispute, all happening at the foot of the Twin Towers once more. Maybe there’s hope. Unsure of what it all means, I go through streets, feeling the warm night breeze on my face and looking at the skyline. The city twinkles under the night sky, as always, with so much hidden in plain sight.

Tomás Pinheiro