This Country Is Building the World’s Second-Tallest Skyscraper. But Citizens Aren’t Thrilled.

Malaysia's soon-to-be-finished Merdeka 118 mega skyscraper proves that height isn't everything.
Kuala Lumpur skyline
Merdeka 118 under construction in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Davie Gan / Getty

Malaysian politicians love skyscrapers. This is a fact.

But despite hapless pleas from citizens over the years to stop building skyscrapers and instead focus efforts to improve public infrastructure, bring down exorbitant property prices and preserve old buildings and heritage sites, the Malaysian government announced in 2010 yet another multi-billion dollar skyscraper project dubbed the “Merdeka 118.” 

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Officials confirmed on Wednesday that the building had topped out with the construction of its spire, and was on track to become the tallest building in Southeast Asia and the second tallest skyscraper in the world, only after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, by next year. 

Located in the capital Kuala Lumpur, Merdeka 118 will stand at 678.9 metres when it’s finished in 2022. It will house offices, shops, a mosque, a panoramic observation deck, a hotel and even a glass-domed mall. 

“This is not only a great achievement in the field of engineering but also further strengthens Malaysia's position as a modern and developed country,” said Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in a speech.

His excitement was palpable as he added that he “couldn’t wait” to see the positive effects the new skyscraper would have on Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian capital, by the way, already houses over 1,900 high-rise buildings, including the Petronas Twin Towers—the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. 

But the prime minister’s flex was lost on many of his countrymen, who questioned the need for yet another expensive skyscraper in the country.

“Second tallest building in the world… In a poor country,” wrote one Malaysian on Twitter this week. Others pointed out that there was “no point” in building a mega skyscraper when there was glaring poverty and the economy was hurting so badly. 

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Merdeka118: Height isn't everything. Photo: Shaiful Zamri / Getty

Merdeka118: Height isn't everything. Photo: Shaiful Zamri / Getty

The project was also met with criticism when it was first announced over a decade ago, prompting then-prime minister Najib Razak to defend it by saying that it “wasn’t a waste.”

Today, with the project coming in at around $1.5 billion, the cost of the tower seems especially stark at a time when Malaysia’s battered economy is recovering from a recession brought about by the pandemic, creating income and employment difficulties for millions. 

One Twitter user summed up the public sentiment well: skyscraper fatigue. “We have enough of skyscrapers wanting to be 'icons' We want better city infrastructures, less congestion.” 

Rights lawyer Lim Wei Jiet, also a member of the Malaysian youth-led political party MUDA, offered his comments and weighed in, raising more pressing issues like a higher minimum wage in the country. 

“In KL, a mere proposal for a RM1,200 minimum wage for pupils is met with vitriolic strong pushbacks. But sure, at least we have the 2nd highest tower in the world,” he said. “Msia – form over substance, always.” 

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