Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Car Jamming

Last weekend afforded me the opportunity to undertake another of my Indonesian politician style comparative study tours. AirAsia once again supplied me with a great value flight and some simply appalling in-flight coffee, as I hopped over the briny to Kuala Lumpur in order to take in this year's Malaysian Grand Prix. My trip to last year’s Singapore Grand Prix gave me a chance to compare the island state's sweeping boulevards and cyber-conformist hygiene with Jakarta’s pungently aromatic demographic implosion, and I was hoping that KL would offer up some similarly enlightening contrasts.

KL has been described to me as being midway between Jakarta and Singapore, although the fact that both Malaysia and Singapore host Grands Prix, whilst Jakarta doesn't, perhaps tells you all that you need to know about the three cities' relative urban credentials. Indonesia's largest sporting event is the Commonwealth Masters Tennis tournament, which is held in Bali every year. This does indeed attract a few big names but it certainly isn't a big international event, although certain rogue tax officials have been so keen to attend in the past that they've been known to spring themselves from jail and don ludicrous Beatles wigs as a disguise.

In any case, down at the AirAsia terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, everything was a Formula 1 frenzy, presumably because AirAsia supremo and Malaysian mogul extraordinaire, Tony Fernandes, now owns his very own Formula 1 team (in fact, he's revived the iconic Lotus brand). An expensive hobby perhaps, but presumably Mr F. isn't short of a few ringgit.

Kuala Lumpur's airport is roughly twice as far from the centre of town as Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta is, however it lies a mere ten minute bus ride away from the Sepang Circuit. And so I soon found myself sitting on a lush, green hillside, necking Tiger beer and watching all of the Saturday qualifying action. Sepang is a great place in fact and affords spectators some simply superb views of all those high-speed dogfights.

After qualification was over, I had a stroll around the overpriced merchandise stalls (although there was a 50% discount on Michael Schumacher T-shirts -ha ha and furthermore, ha). I then headed into KL Central to hook up with a couple of my F1 loving chums who had also made the hop over from the Big Durian for the race, and we all headed out for a little Saturday night fever.

The centre of KL is perhaps closer in essence to Singapore than it is to Jakarta, and a few things stand out immediately to any visiting long-term Batavia warriors. Firstly, the traffic doesn't seem to be nearly as bad as the purgatorial gridlock that we all know and love. The lack of motorcycles in particular makes for a pleasant change. The second thing that struck me as we walked around KL is perhaps not entirely unrelated to the first. While Jakarta engages in endless debates about the city's actual and fantasized Gordian transportation knot of cars, busways, monorails, new flyovers and even bicycle lanes, the most fundamental mode of human transportation, namely Shanks's pony (or getting up of one's rear end and walking), has been sadly neglected.

"Normal" developed urban environments usually feature those amazing technological innovations known as pavements and, as a knock-on effect, there are bustling streets filled with shops and the like. Jakarta's fancy shops are all safely buried within the closeted, safe, technocratic womb of the shopping mall, whilst outside a post-apocalyptic urban assault course of crumbling concrete, 30-year-old buses, raw sewage and underclass serfs serves to deter any integrated urban renaissance (although a few brave venues have now opted to try a more alfresco approach to city life).

Coincidentally enough, I have just read that 500 trillion rupiah has been earmarked by the government for infrastructure development across the country. I reckon though that by the time a multitude of greedy politicos has dipped its avaricious mitts into the honeypot, there’ll be just about enough dough remaining for a couple of keep left signs.

Meanwhile, back in KL, Sunday came around and we all headed back to Sepang for a highly enjoyable race that actually featured a fair amount of overtaking. Wonders will never cease. The next day, it was time to the inevitable lemming like tourist traipse around Kuala Lumpur Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers. As iconic as the Twin Towers have now become, they are basically just two large slabs of steel and concrete. Whatever happened to architectural creativity in our modern world? The entire thrust of modern architectural hubris seems to be to raise your non-idea of a building 15 storeys higher than the neighbouring country's non-idea of a building.

Personally, I'd like to see Indonesia's putative and scandalously extravagant new parliamentary office building being constructed as a Gothic pastiche and filled with pointed arches and flying buttresses. Such a design would more fittingly reflect the mediaeval, Machiavellian mindset of those who will be ensconced inside it, enjoying a grease-down and a shiatsu whilst they scan the year's budget allocations to see what can be craftily diverted into their Citibank accounts. Gothic Jakarta, now that really would be infrastructure to be proud of.