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Return of the Megaprojects

A Heritage Denied:
Decades of official discrimination have turned Malaysia's ethnic Indians into a disgruntled underclass

Not much happens in bukit enes, a shady village of 70 families in the northwestern Malaysian state of Kedah. The men fish, tend coconut trees, do odd jobs. Their wives raise the kids, of which there are many, sometimes 12 or 13 in a family. But this lifestyle is about to change. In June, local newspapers reported that the Kedah state government in partnership with a Qatar-based company, Major Entrepreneurs, had plans to build a theme park and golf course for tourists, complete with a cable car. A week later, surveyors were tramping through Bukit Enes. The locals expect to lose their land. "It'll make a few people rich," says Ghazali Haji Abdullah, a village elder, "and drive the other people mad."

Malaysia is back in building mode. The government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once had a lengthy list of construction projects, including a plan for the world's longest building in Kuala Lumpur—to complement the Petronas Towers, which are the tallest. Then the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit, evidently curing Mahathir of his edifice complex.

But quietly, the "megaprojects" have crept back onto the drawing board. One of the largest and most controversial is a multi-billion dollar dam to be built in Bakun, on the island of Borneo, designed to produce electric power that would be transmitted to peninsular Malaysia via an undersea cable. Environmentalists opposed the project, and it seemed all but dead in 1997. In fact, work began on a scaled-down version last November. The undersea cable has been scrapped, and Malaysia says it will try to sell the electricity to Indonesia and Brunei, though both countries have plenty of energy. Construction on another dam in Selangor state, which will cost $500 million, began early this year. Newspapers reported last month that Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin believes buoyant economic growth is "conducive" to multi-billion ringgit projects. Not everyone is cheered. "I don't think we've learned anything from the crisis," says Azmi Abdul Hamid, who runs a foundation for the advancement of rural communities in Kedah.

The farmers and fishermen of Bukit Enes wonder where it will all lead. Another project proposed for Kedah is the creation, at a cost of nearly $8 billion, of nine artificial islands off the western coastline. They will be home to an international airport, an oil refinery, an industrial zone and a tourist resort. In Bukit Enes, the villagers say they will protest the plan for the theme park and golf course. When they rallied against a similar proposal in 1994, they got it killed. Ishak Bakar, a 55-year-old laborer, says he's not against development but doesn't see how the proposal will benefit his family. "I'll have to move my house," he says. "And I don't play golf."

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