Paper Sky Magazine: Miranda Lichtenstein, “An Empty City of the Future: Cyberjaya, Malaysia”

A version of this article appeared in Paper Sky Magazine:

Haunted houses and construction sites. Children visit with faithful adherence to an unknown past, and unknown future.

Malaysia, with an archeological record reaching back 40,000 years, and a history rife with racial conflict, is a quintessential haunted house. With a population approximately 60% Malay, 25% Chinese, and 10% Indian or Pakistani, the struggle of religion against religion is threefold: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. It is a land of ancestors, and offended Gods. 

From the American consciousness, take by way of example the 80s horror film “Poltergeist,” about a sacrilegious housing complex hastily constructed on ancient Native American burial grounds. The underlying pathos of the horror flick violence is that the strip mall homogeneity of the modern world will level differing traditions and obliterate the history of the land.

The city of Cyberjaya, being constructed in west Malaysia, asserts the new century’s suburban solution with manic enthusiasm. Pamphlets articulate an eerie government blueprint:

"A city where man, nature and technology live together in harmony. That is the premise which Cyberjaya is built on – a city featuring a unique blend of lush tropical eco-friendly environment with the latest technology in IT infrastructure and facilities. Cyberjaya will set the standard for modern-day living within a stress free environment."

And why shouldn’t Malaysia deliver?  They are the proud owners of the world’s tallest building, and a new airport with its own simulated rain forest. They possess the seemingly boundless ambition and energy that is part and parcel to a burgeoning post-colonial Asian economy. Upwardly mobile Malaysians who have benefited the most from the country’s rapid development of trade and industry are eager to move into private housing complexes where they can forget about the legions of poor who have largely been left behind. The residents of Cyberjaya will enjoy amenities such as kayaking, fishing and rollerblading, in addition to the manifold technological conveniences of a new digital age. And yet, the deep-pocketed Westerners the government hoped to attract don’t seem to be coming, and the building progress is excruciatingly slow. Cyberjaya is beginning to look like a future city for a future that isn’t quite gonna happen. It is not only that its technological infrastructure may be outdated well before the planned 2011 opening date, but that new earthly realities may turn out to be unforgiving of Malaysia’s cyber-utopianism.

There is an enormous appeal to the modernist nirvana of Cyberjaya’s bungalows and swimming pools, but it is not borne of the project’s ultimate completion. It is, in fact, the specter of its failure – a world that won’t be. In some alternate universe, perhaps, Cyberjaya will thrive as anticipated: a stream of 170,000 people flowing effortlessly from leisure to profit. But the vision, to any but Malaysian Prime Ministers and farmers who have gone in only a few years from palm-oil harvesters to cyber-city builders, looks a lot like an impractical attempt to build the Asian El Dorado.   

Photographer Miranda Lichtenstein visited Cyberjaya in August of 2001, and returned two years later to find that little had changed. The “Multi Media Super Corridor,” she discovered, had remained stubbornly vague – bridges incomplete, apartment complexes well lit but uninhabited.

In a series of photographs first exhibited in 2002 at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery, Lichtenstein provides an eerie travel log of the Cyberjaya journey. The half-dug cliff, the road to nowhere, the elaborate garden without garden-goers, her work manifests the striking frivolities and strange accomplishments of a technology driven culture.   

Lichtenstein’s photographs capture an instant of the Malaysian experience, but also of a global one. In a very short period of time, we have gone from agrarian to industrial hi-tech. One day, we are eking out a livelihood from palm tree jungles, the next we are building massive economies based on the fantastical possibilities of new communications technology. The end result, in Malaysia at least, is a city without people, a bus station without buses, a train stop where no train ever stops.

We are children again, faced with the prospect of an adulthood beyond our comprehension. Cyberjaya: it is the science fiction film of our lives. We’ve passed the opening credits. And there’s the Voice Over (from official promotional material):

"Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s premier intelligent garden city, is designed to provide the physical and virtual space needed for its residents to work, stay and play in a relaxed atmosphere. It is also set to become a Global IT city fulfilling the vision of providng residents a top quality urban environment. Backed by leading-edge infrastructure and a world-class IT network, Cyberjaya is a name to watch in the next millennium."