Putrajaya, a capital belonging to the people

Thanks;June HL Wong, The Star/ANN, Wed, January 15 2014, 6:11

I have a question: Why do some people seem to think Putrajaya only belongs to them?

Silly me couldn’t help wondering due to the recent fuss over the mere suggestion of opening a Hard Rock Café there. And here I was thinking this was the capital of a modern, moderate, multiracial country.

But the way the objections were made and with an NGO going as far as to assume Putrajaya was modelled after Medina and therefore should not be sullied by anything that was remotely unIslamic, it seemed as if this carefully planned metropolis had to be religiously barbwired for its protection.

Well, thank goodness, Dr Mahathir Mohamad set the record straight and said Putrajaya was modelled after gay Paree.

The former prime minister, who was the prime mover behind its creation, wrote in his blog that he took design cues from the French capital’s Avenue des Champs-Elysees.

One can accept and indeed support that there should be Islamic influences in the look and feel of Putrajaya. There is undoubtedly much beauty in these design elements. The use of the dome in the architecture of important buildings like the Prime Minister’s Office and the Istana Kehakiman (Palace of Justice aka courthouse) bear majestic testament to that.

They are so impressive that foreign visitors sing praises about the “neo-Islamic” architecture. But what about buildings that give some hint of the multicultural complexity of Malaysia?

Mahathir also made it clear he did not envisage Putrajaya to be just “an administrative capital filled only with government offices.”

But the trouble with planned cities is, according to The Economist, that they only work on paper. All over the world, despite careful, meticulous planning, such capital cities are often flawed. Brasilia forgot to plan for the poor; Washington D.C. was plonked into a muggy, humid location and so on.

To me, Putrajaya’s flaw is that the planners forgot to celebrate the nation’s amazing ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. And that is so sad because Putrajaya, which was built on public funds coming from all of us taxpayers, was surely meant to represent the whole nation.

Understandably since “artificial capitals” are seats of administration, almost all the residents are civil servants as The Economist observed.

It’s the same for Putrajaya. Unfortunately, its demographics are “very heavily skewed to one race” as noted by Datuk Azlan Abdul Karim, Putrajaya Holdings Sdn Bhd CEO.

But just because of that, it doesn’t mean it’s an enclave for that race.

After all, almost all towns were once largely populated by one race, which was deemed to be bad for nation building and national unity. So the New Economic Policy was introduced to restructure society, and state and parliamentary constituencies were re-delineated to break the stranglehold of that race over the urban centres in the country.

So it is really odd that we spent billions of public funds to build a new administrative capital that is now “heavily skewed to one race”.

There is no question that Putrajaya is gorgeous with lots of grand-looking ministries, agencies, palaces, official residences, bridges and parks. But I would argue that it would greatly benefit from a more multiracial makeup in terms of its residents and looks. It is, after all, a showpiece to the world and visiting dignitaries. Not to mention it’s a hot favourite for wedding photographers.

For example, why not have a Chinese pavilion or garden? Sydney has its Chinese Garden of Friendship and it is an immensely popular tourist spot and for weddings too.

Compared to other famous planned capitals like Canberra, Brasilia and Washington D.C., Putrajaya is very young at just under 20 years old. So if Putrajaya is not so happening and has practically no nightlife yet, it is understandable.

After all, as Prof Ricky Burdett, head of the Cities Program at the London School of Economics, is quoted by principalvoices.com as saying: “I think cities which are totally planned, particularly cities which are totally planned to have one function, like a centre of government, can often be boring.”

“Boring” is a problem that can be fixed. As Mahathir suggested to the authorities: “Open up more sundry shops and restaurants as well as some entertainment hubs in order to maintain a high density of people around the area at all times.”

What does bother me is how some people think Putrajaya should be kept sacrosanct and not be defiled by others, which brings me back to my first question.

To say no to a Hard Rock Café simply on the grounds that the capital’s citizens must be protected from the sinful influences of alcohol and rock music continues to reinforce the belief that Putrajaya is only meant for one community.

Ironically, the owners of the Hard Rock Café franchise in this country are very respected, high-standing personalities. The outlets in Kuala Lumpur and George Town are hugely popular with tourists and give these cities a bit of international flavour.

I often wonder if some people, including leaders and civil servants, have become so insular because of the unintended effect of being cocooned in their own mono-ethnic world that they sometimes forget this is a multi-racial country.

Can we gently remind them that our new capital was named after Tunku Abdul Rahman Al-Putra, our first prime minister who helped found a nation he believed had space for different communities to live, love, work, play and pray in peace and harmony?