David Whitley finds the showy buildings and monuments of Putrajaya oddly fascinating, but can’t find anyone who wants to go inside them.
As acts of grandiose willy-waving go, the creation of Putrajaya has to be near the top of the all-time list. Looking down on the city from the conference centre – which looks like the sort of launch hub that will open up and spew a spaceship out at any minute – it is a breathtaking scene of posturing.
There’s nothing subtle about it – the buildings rise high, and the monuments around the lake are clearly designed to impress.
Each bridge is showy in a different way – one with a decentred support ‘sail’ holding the rest up is particularly snazzy – while the Putra Mosque is a ballsy, grandstanding pink affair. It can accommodate up to 15,000 worshippers at any one time, but it seems as though the powers-that-be think that’s not enough. So they’ve built another huge mosque – this one much more metallic and futuristic-looking – further along the lake shore.
Putrajaya was custom-built, starting in the mid-1990s, as’s administrative hub. The capital, around 25km to the north, is still Kuala Lumpur. But the plan was to move all the government pen-pushers out to a specially created planned city, alleviating the crowding in KL. The offices of the Prime Minister alone are staggering. They’d count as a national palace anywhere else, but Putrajaya isn’t exactly short on palaces – the Sultan of Selangor and the Malaysian King (oddly, the kingship is passed around nine sultans on a five year term rotational basis) get one each.
But those palaces tell the story that the glossy coat tries to hide. They may belong to the Sultan of Selangor and the King, but the Sultan of Selangor and the King can rarely be found inside them. They’ll come if they have to for a ceremonial occasion, but they’d prefer to live elsewhere. This isn’t an uncommon stance. Most Malaysians seem to talk about Putrajaya with a dripping contempt – billions and billions of dollars have been spent on what is seen as a massive vanity project. It is what Australians think about Canberra multiplied by a factor of thousands.
The aim is to create a city of around 300,000 people. The infrastructure is all there, but the life isn’t. Generous estimates have the population at a sixth of the target, and the shiny apartment buildings ringing Putrajaya don’t have nearly as many inhabitants as the authorities would like to pretend. This is despite rents being so cheap they may as well be giving the apartments away.
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The unfortunate truth is that no-one really wants to live here. Some government employees might bite the bullet, citing reasons like “it’s a good place to bring up the children”, but most people would rather commute from KL. It’s all about life – and Putrajaya may as well be a morgue after dark.
And thus there’s something transfixing about standing there, staring at all the grand buildings that no-one wants to fill. It is a quite magnificent shell.
Disclosure:visited Putrajaya as a guest of Tourism Malaysia.
All content copyright David Whitley.