I step into the epicenter of Malaysia’s new city movement.
CYBERJAYA, Malaysia- Nobody seems to be able to tell me where the center of Cyberjaya, “the Silicon Valley of the east,” is located.
“It’s very spread out” or “It’s all offices” is all I can really get.
My question is as much of a reaction as an inquiry, as I’m driven in what seems to be circles around wide, somewhat empty streets which snake between giant white cubes with names like IBM, Dell, and DHL emblazoned upon them. Neither myself nor the Uber driver can find anywhere that is a giveaway as being a city center, or even a place where people go for anything other than work.
I tried again. “Would you say that this is the center of Cyberjaya?”
My Uber driver still seemed a little unsure of how to respond. “I think there,” he eventually says. “Here … maybe here.”
He had no idea, but seemed to feel that he could get off the hook by pointing to the Starbucks that I hired him to take me to.
It was a trick from my China ghost city research travel days. Of all the big international chains, Starbucks is the most prone to opening shop in the world’s new outposts of progress. If I want to find the fledgling, half-beating heart of a new city, I looked for the Starbucks.
Or, more pragmatically, I had to put something in the blank of the Uber app, and Starbucks seemed preferable to “Anywhere, Cyberjaya.”
The thing about Asia’s new cities is that they are often huge. By huge, I mean the size of — or even bigger than — many of the big, established cities of the West. Another thing about them is that they are often developed in starts and stops — kind of like how an inch-worm moves ahead in increments — rather than along a nice and smooth, even trajectory. So during the initial development stages, you often get these places that have a pocket of development here, a pocket of development there, which are very easy to visit without getting a proper view of.
China’s ghost city phenomenon was started and proliferated by Western journalists who didn’t care to try to understand what they were looking at.
And I myself, I have to admit, have visited what I thought was the core of new city developments only to realize on subsequent visits that I had initially missed the mark — which led me to wonder what degree of erroneous reporting I would have done if I didn’t go back and discover my folly.
Cyberjaya is a massive, holistically-planned, purpose-built city for high-tech research and development that Malaysia began building in 1997. It was built in tandem with Putrajaya, the nation’s new capital, which it is right across an expressway from. I believe it was the McKinsey Institute that told them this would be a good idea. That said, both new cities are located around a half hour south of the urban core of Kuala Lumpur, strategically located right between the international airport and the metropolis.
But Cyberjaya is not meant to be a mere tech park, it is meant to be an entire tech city, where new technologies can be created and tested, covering an expanse of 30 or so square kilometers.
I had previously interviewed one of the tech city’s main representatives while shooting a documentary in Songdo, South Korea a few months ago, so I knew a little of what I was working with when I began walking through the streets of Cyberjaya.
I have a certain strategy that I follow when reporting on places. My first visit or two I go on my own, without alerting the authorities or the people I wish to eventually meet with and interview. I walk the streets as a traveler first, just talking to people, making friends, and trying to lay down a basic impression of the place. Then later on I return for an official visit. When compiling my story I combine what I learn from both types of information acquisition and produce what I intent to be a multifaceted, balanced, and accurate view of where a place stands at a certain time … and where it is heading.
Any journalist knows that people generally only show you what they want you to see (which is fine and normal) but you also can’t really tell anything about a new city just by looking at it — there are usually complex stories unfolding behind the skeletal facades of new high-rise towers. To really come away with a good impression of these colossal places, you need make friends high and low.
The first person I met in Cyberjaya was Bernard. He is the owner of a burger stall called Jude’s Goumet Burgers, which is located in a hawker center nearby the new McDonald’s and a Starbucks. He was bald, stout, and had a big, friendly smile. He told me the name of his restaurant derived from Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
Bernard arrived in Cyberjaya 16 years ago from Singapore, at a time when there really wasn’t anything here at all. He ended up here because of his wife, who brought him back with her to her home country. But he didn’t really seem to think too much of the transition from vibrant, ultra-kinetic city-state to this new outpost of technological progress. When I asked him about it he just kind of shrugged, as if to say all places are the same.
Bernard told me that he used to run a garage and was a race car driver, but felt that he had gotten a little too old for that kind of work.
He told me the story of how he once won a contract with a racing team by bringing along a random white guy to his presentation — probably a traveling hippy or expatriated drunk.
“I cleaned him up, dressed him appropriately, and told him that all he needed to do was say something about boost.”
Apparently, it worked.
“Nobody is going to listen to a Chinese guy. They will listen to a Malay guy, but even better than a Malay guy is a white guy.”
Looking for another profession in Cyberjaya, Bernard opened a food stall in his sister in law’s hawker center. He figured he would try his hand at selling the types of food that he likes to cook for himself.
It seems to have worked.
He suggested that I try his lamb burger, and it was probably the best lamb burger that I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.
“Everything you see here, I made myself. All of the ingredients I made myself, except the bread.”
“How is Cyberjaya different now than when you first arrived?” I asked him.
“It used to be a lot more green,” he replied. “When I first arrived I would look out from my house at a hill that was all green. Now I look out and that same hill is as bald as my head.”
He then hinted that the bald hill was the result of some new developments that didn’t quite work out as planned.
“Everywhere has difficulties doing big projects like this well,” I commented.
While I’ve seen plenty of new cities successfully develop, I’ve yet to see one that did so without massive challenges, busted up backroom deals, road blocks, and arrays of White Elephants. This is not a planned part of the development process, of course, but is more or less normal and does not, in and of itself, hint at the failure of the city as a whole.
Cyberjaya is a collection of sprawling tech parks, and tech parks are kind of like industrial zones, only whiter. They are set up, first, as places for people to work in. It is only later on in the process that they become places to live.
It was clear that I had visited Cyberjaya at an interesting time. It had been under development for 20 years, and had already ridden out one boom/bust cycle and was on the way up of the next. It was only a few years ago that a substantial amount of housing was opened, and only recently had people really began moving in.
I looked around the hawker center where Bernard’s stall was located. The place was full of people who worked in the IT/other tech/and call center trades. Life here seemed to revolve around professions. A group of DHL workers sat at a table next to a group of workers from Dell. Everybody was decked out in white button up shirts or professional blouses. The place rang out with the sounds of shop talk.
It was the sound of a place that is only now starting to come alive.
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