I am almost certain that the elevator which delivers me from my thirtieth floor apartment back to the Earth’s surface would be one of the safest places to be in the event of global thermonuclear holocaust. The door’s spring open after a firm, yet warm British woman’s voice announces my ground-level arrival and one can almost see the sublimated haze that results from cracking open an airlock. A quick swallow pops my ears to the correct pressure calibration just as I am met by the aural bop playing in the elevator antechamber. The radio-over-the-announcement speaker in the space is a new adage. When the virus forced us into hermitage, our lockdown in Malaysia was announced as the Movement Control Order (or MCO, acronyms are a sort of hobby bordering on addiction here, so try to keep up). Perhaps the management felt benevolent in gracing us with this gift from above. Perhaps they thought this might distract us from their other numerous ineptitudes as a high-rise management company, little did they know the greater ineptitudes of the globe outside the complex gates would numb us to such small offences. Perhaps it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but often times the speaker in that antechamber plays an all too familiar song that relates to some thought or thematic dressing the day desires to put to me. Of course, this is only about fifty percent of the time. The radio channel the speaker is set to, appears to float between fifteen second local news updates, Qur’anic verse interpretations set to a youthful, female voice with that most curious Malay-English accent, and super hits of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Such stark contradictions are par for the course in Malaysia generally, and here in Kuala Lumpur (KL for the initiated) especially. If I was so lucky, my evening descent from the high tower would begin with a snippet of what was once referred to as modern rock. Billy Joel, Queen, Madonna, Nirvana, and in this instance, Tina Turner’s 1984 hit ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’.
An apt question indeed.
Each morning in KL begins with the songs of the cranes. Not the organic ones, but those mechanistic beasts which perch upon the numerous towers which make up the city’s skyline that has the sort of elegance and style of Boris Johnson’s hair. The twisting of cogs and popping up of modernity’s ‘development’ might show the history of this dear town. A crescent of mountains in the Northeast gives the appearance of a chalice of mud dropped to the ground, two major cracks in the discarded cup are the two mighty rivers that slop the mud back and forth as the contents, whether they were once grand or banal, spill forth into the Straits of Malacca in the Southwest. The mightiness of the two rivers, the Klang and Gombak, are only revealed during intense rainy periods where they have been a historical menace for flooding. In their present latent state, glorified streams of the most unattractive hue would be a more fitting moniker. The colonial harvesting of Malaysia was not kind to the water quality and its postcolonial industrialism did rivers all across the country no better. Centuries of waste dump, industrial, human and otherwise; it is rather remarkable that even the slightest shade of blue can be found in these murky shallows. We are on the better end of a fifteen-year, billion dollar a year project to clean them up, but with the clock ticking towards the 2025 deadline, much is left to be desired. But fear not, you need not look at this environmental failure if you do not wish to, the Ampang-Kuala Lumpur Elevated Highway, the E12, hides it from the sky’s view and a branch of the Klang Valley Integrated Transit System rides along the two rivers, post confluence so that passengers may look out either side of the speeding train, without having to look at the ecological disaster directly below it. It is a shame too, the rivers of Kuala Lumpur have been well set in concrete to the point where there is a rich potential for a very lovely river walk. Signs tell me that developments are underway, but we live in a time where contracts are only as stable as the government and well, the current ‘government’ if you shall call it that, leaves novel notions of confidence, integrity, and democracy somewhat lacking. The virus didn’t help matters. Focus on upkeep and development in KL has the attention span of an ordinary house cat, and someone has seen fit to distract it with lasers on the wall, looking to only the new and fanciest of high-rise apartments while the past is left to its own devices and decay.