Once We Were There

Standing in the Eyes of the World 


Kuala Lumpur. KL. Kala Lumpa or Kala Lampur to the white man, the Mat Sallehs. City of sinners and sex. Sodom and Gomorrah. It was 1998, and the city was the ‘party central’ of Asia. Of the world. Drugs had opened up the minds of this one-time placid society and bayed in a new revolution, in a time when people hungered for freedom from authoritarian politicians, from the police, from their mindless jobs, from themselves. 

Ecstasy had hit the town, in a way that could only be described as monumental. There were feng tau clubs in Bukit Bintang, Cheras, and Jinjang that catered to the Chinese riffraff, the ah bengs and ah lians who felt ill at ease in the posh, uppity bars like Museum and the Backroom Club. 

There were clubs for Indian gangsters in Sentul and Selayang; there were dodgy dangdut clubs on Jalan Ipoh and Brickfields, where the girls would dance with you, get high with you, and then go down on you; there were underground clubs that opened up after the other ones closed, then stayed open till people had come down from their highs. 

Dealers were raking it in. MDMA was on everyone’s lips and tongues. There was pussy and dick everywhere. Pink. Brown. Yellow. Black. 

Everybody was high. 

DJs flew in from all over the world to play to hundreds – no, thousands of people who swallowed pink, blue, white pills. Everybody wanted E. Nobody drank alcohol, water was the salve for the days and nights on sweaty dance floors. 

Ecstasy was prayer. Ecstasy was the new god. 

The great Asian financial crisis was crawling out. Billions were lost, millions gained. The ringgit had been pegged at RM 3.80 against the US dollar. It saved us. Our ASEAN neighbours didn’t fare so well. 

The Petronas Twin Towers were finally complete. The towering phallic monstrosities had transformed the city. And there were stories that bled upon storeys for fodder. It was the topic of conversation at every dinner table, every mamak stall, every kopitiam between Bangsar and Cheras, how ugly it looked. How sterile, how un-KL, how Western. 


     Aiyoh, so sci-fi. 

     Like Gotham City. 

     So ugly lah. 

     Celaka betul. 

     Celaka. Cursed. 


Cursed to never be built. 

Before the Towers, the site was the Turf Club. Built by the British because they knew the land was unsafe for any structure taller than a coconut tree. 

Underneath the turf was a network of limestone caves. To build the world’s tallest twin structures above hollow caves was an act of folly, of utter stupidity. 

It was a disaster in the making. Mahathir’s ‘twin pricks’, that’s what they were. A sign that Malaysia had come into its own. That ‘we’ had arrived. That our quest to have the world’s tallest flagpole, its longest beef murtabak, and the biggest mall in Asia had succeeded – and that Malaysians had something, finally, something, to be proud of. 

These towers, designed by a New Yorker of Argentinean descent and built by rival Japanese and Korean engineering companies who had to pump millions upon millions of tonnes of concrete into miles of limestone caves, had validated our feeling that Malaysia had arrived. Never mind that it was built by thousands of Bangladeshi and Indonesian workers slaving away on meagre wages, some of whom had been crushed to death in hushed-up accidents. That they’d died senselessly like frogs, mati-katak, for another notch in our country’s race to become a First-World nation by looking like a First-World nation. 

The towers loomed over KL, a new symbol for the city, like the Sears Tower, like the Empire State Building. We had come to be defined by two eighty-eight-storey shards of concrete, aluminium, glass, and steel. Two towering octagons inspired by sacred Islamic geometry. From distant suburbs to the Golden Triangle, the Twin Towers rose above everything else, flanked by the KL Tower, now dwarfed and comical with its pink shaft. This was engineering at its best, this was the strongest steel in the world, capable of withstanding tremors, because its steel beams could bend under pressure. 

It was haunted, like every other building in KL. Yet the ghosts of the fallen would never be venerated here. Instead, people would flock to Gucci, Bally, Prada, British India, Chanel, Dior and Aseana to proselytise the gods of haute couture. 

The newly built Bukit Jalil Sports Complex was sprawled out and ready for the Commonwealth Games. Malaysians were gearing up for the world stage, our time had come to show the world that we were capable, that Malaysia Boleh! Yes, we can! That we had arrived. 

In September, everything changed. On 2 September, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked by Mahathir Mohamad, the dictatorial, authoritarian prime minister who had ruled for seventeen years. 

On 11 September, the Commonwealth Games opened with no-expense spared fireworks, pomp, and circumstance. Ella, the pint-sized Malaysian songstress, performed the theme song of the games, ‘Standing in the Eyes of the World’, with smouldering black eyeliner and poor diction. 

I hope you enjois! – to screaming multitudes. 

On 20 September, Anwar Ibrahim was arrested. 

On 29 September, he appeared in court with a black eye. 

Malaysia, the beloved country of my birth, would never be the same again. 


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