Friday, October 18

Institutions to park and develop


LAST weekend, I managed to visit Ampang Park, opened in 1973 and certified as the ‘First Shopping Centre in Malaysia’ by the Malaysia Book of Records, before it shut down for good to make way for a Mass Rapid Transit station: a defeat for those behind the ‘Save Ampang Park’ campaign. However, I join those who are still hopeful that the building won’t be entirely demolished. I’m all for the tasteful renewal and rejuvenation of our urban spaces but the obliteration of a place that housed so many memories for so many KLites seems a great shame.

It was there at Cozy Corner where I had my first Hainanese chicken chop and subsequently countless more, and sure enough, many others were there over the weekend to rekindle their childhood taste buds. Since then I have strived to become a chicken chop connoisseur (with Ah Meng’s in Kuala Pilah still the best, as recently elucidated by Waris in his song ‘This is Pilah’).

At one stage I was at the Singing Shop regularly for lessons: their breathing exercises still instinctively activate prior to any enforced karaoke session today.  I managed to peer through the glass to see the score for Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ still pasted on the walls. Like so many shops, they had already relocated to other premises.

Walking around the building’s perimeter, I can barely remember what the surroundings looked like. Certainly, the nearby Petronas Twin Towers would not yet have entered the imagination of the Prime Minister who took office just before I was born: the purpose of Jalan Ampang was to get from home to Ampang Park.

The facades of some of the computer shops barely seem to have changed from the days I was playing classic role-playing games such as ‘Space Quest’ or those set in the ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ realms such as ‘Curse of the Azure Bonds’ on a DOS computer. It was the market that Ampang Park and Sungei Wang Plaza (which opened in 1977) created that enabled such opportunities: and educational they were, being virtually transported to other worlds and learning that decisions can have long-term consequences.

It was also the natural venue for birthday parties and special meals, where friendships that remain until today were formed. Still, on social media this week, those who never met still reveal shared memories of Ampang Park: like those of different generations going to the same school, it truly was an institution for the emerging middle classes of the 70s and 80s.

The institutions of a country (including some of those very schools) can also see replacement, diminution or subversion away from their constitutional intentions: most dangerously when such change occurs incrementally and imperceptibly until it is too late to reverse. But unlike shopping malls, national institutions have less (or in many cases zero) competition and have obligatory (rather than voluntary) relationships with the citizens of the land. As such, the right to voice out opposition to such changes should be a cornerstone of our healthy democracy.  Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in entrenching this attitude in Malaysia, where even the veterans of our civil service, academic or even armed forces can be vilified for expressing their opinions – even if they are rooted in law and convention – instead of being engaged with reasoned discourse.

So I am glad that the responses to Ideas’ latest report on the role of government linked companies in the economy have been civilised, and we look forward to further engagement on this issue in 2018.

One of the observations made in that report was that the private sector is being crowded out as GLCs seem to grow inexorably into every area of the economy, with the ability to wield influence over policy and legislation unmatchable by the private sector, and where negative perceptions of patronage, appointments and contracts may arise (even if no wrongdoing has occurred). This is precisely why our first Prime Minister believed that government must not get involved in business.

Shopping malls may disappear for many good reasons, and the sentimentality of former customers doesn’t form the best economic counter-argument. But as Ampang Park makes way for development led by a wholly owned government company, it is hoped that the benefits to KL’s economy and new opportunities for private enterprise will make it worthwhile. And perhaps decades from now, another generation will be sentimental about the replacement of the Ampang Park MRT station with something else.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.