When tin miners settled on the Klang River in the 1850s, they dubbed their shantytown “Kuala Lumpur,” meaning “muddy river mouth.” Just 150 years later the name, now synonymous with Southeast Asia’s future, conjures images of the rocket-shaped Petronas Twin Towers, symbols of Kuala Lumpur’s rapid ascent from river encampment to global city.
Not far from where Chinese traders, Indian immigrants and Malays from nearby villages first landed at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, the city’s Golden Triangle area houses the regional offices of many multinational companies and is a world center for finance, accounting and information technology.
Malaysia’s capital — known as KL to locals — weathered the economic crisis better than many of the world’s cities, with an average annual growth rate of 7 percent. As part of the Malaysian government’s larger goal to achieve a top 20 economic growth rate by 2020, it hopes to establish Kuala Lumpur as one of the world’s top 20 most livable cities.
The strategy, called the Greater Kuala Lumpur Plan, involves an expected investment of $65 billion and focuses on strengthening financial services, attracting foreign capital and creating new services and institutions for international investors and skilled professionals. By 2020, the plan aims to provide “the highest-quality living, working, and business environment, benchmarked against the best in the world.”
In achieving this goal, Kuala Lumpur plans to take advantage of its increasing role as an Islamic finance center. Different from secular banking in that transactions must comply with shariah, the Islamic legal code that comes from the Koran, Islamic banking does not allow usury and speculation. Instead, transactions are based on principles of risk and profit sharing. Worldwide, the Islamic banking system is booming, growing at a rate of 14 percent per year with estimated assets of more than a trillion dollars.
Already a world center for the production and trade of halal goods — foods and products that comply with Islamic law and customs — Malaysia is poised to become the global Islamic finance hub. Currently about a quarter of financial activity in the country is permissible under shariah law, with a growing number of Malaysian institutions providing Islamic financing, and a strong presence by Arabian Gulf financial institutions, including the world’s largest Islamic bank, Al Rajhi Bank.
To house the increasing financial activity, Kuala Lumpur is building an $8 billion financial district in the heart of the city that it hopes will rival those in Hong Kong and Singapore. Called the Tun Razak Exchange (named after a former Malaysian prime minister and also known as TRX), the 70-acre development will form the new apex of the Golden Triangle, anchored by Kuala Lumpur City Centre to the north and KL Sentral to the west.
The first phase of construction has begun on the cluster of high-end office, residential and retail mall space, scheduled to be completed in 2020. A range of tax breaks, rental allowances and other incentives offered to potential investors attracts them to the development, which is expected to host more than 250 companies and create 500,000 new jobs — many of them in the financial services.
Another anticipated 2020 development: a 205-mile, high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The $12 billion project, expected to be finalized in 2014, would shorten travel time between the cities to just 90 minutes and connect two of Asia’s most important financial hubs. The railway is also expected to be a boon for tourism, which already benefits from a number of major international sporting events and trade conventions taking place here throughout the year.
Having hosted the 1998 Commonwealth Games, the city boasts several world-class sports facilities. Among the sporting events held annually are the Formula 1 World Championship auto races, the A1 Grand Prix, the Motorcycle Grand Prix and the KL Grand Prix CSI 5* (a 5-star show jumping equestrian event).
Kuala Lumpur’s Convention Centre opened in 2007 and was the first convention center in Asia to be awarded Green Globe “benchmarked” status for its commitment to sustainable travel and tourism. To accommodate the city’s increasing popularity as a meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions destination, a million-square-foot trade center is being added to the existing convention center and is scheduled to open in late 2014. The 13-acre development will include a 100-story office tower — slated to become the tallest building in the country — proving to visitors that, in this one-time mining town, the sky’s the limit.
CHECKING IN WITH DANIEL WELK
General Manager, Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel
WHAT ARE KUALA LUMPUR’S STRENGTHS AS A BUSINESS TRAVEL DESTINATION?
As one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities in Asia, Kuala Lumpur has much to offer, be it in tourism or as a business travel destination. The city has emerged as one of the global hot spots for economic growth. Kuala Lumpur generally benefits from being at a strategic geographical location in Southeast Asia and is seen as an emerging economy, attracting local and foreign investors. Infrastructure is well-developed, and with our growing skilled workforce, Kuala Lumpur is an obvious option for most of the multinational companies looking to operate in the region.
WHAT SIGHTS OR ACTIVITIES SHOULD BUSINESS TRAVELERS MAKE TIME FOR IN KUALA LUMPUR?
The international business traveler should make some time to soak in the modern and vibrant city but also experience its rich culture and history, from its world-renowned Twin Towers to Chinatown. One must not forget Petaling Street for an arts and culture fix. Most importantly, experience the gastronomic journey known as the melting pot of Asia. Eating is a way of life here in Malaysia, and it is truly a unique food paradise.
HOW DO YOU EXPECT THE CITY’S BUSINESS LANDSCAPE TO CHANGE IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?
Kuala Lumpur is the second-most competitive city in Southeast Asia, and it is known for regional and global connectivity, for being a center of economic growth and for its high-quality yet affordable cost of living. I believe the business climate will continue to grow and prosper in the coming years. It will be exciting to see new developments coming up, especially in the KL Sentral business district in Hilton Kuala Lumpur’s backyard.
Things to Do in Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur’s sprawling size and tropical heat make parts of the city challenging to explore by foot, but peripatetic pursuits can still be had in the Chinatown neighborhood. Day and night, pedestrian-friendly Petaling Street buzzes with vendors hawking knock-off designer handbags, flowers, roasted chicken and T-shirts. Testaments to the city’s ethnic and religious variety, diverse religious sites — including Taoist temples and Hindu shrines — sandwich between the neighborhood’s stalls.
At the edge of Chinatown, the air-conditioned Central Market, once the city’s largest wet market, now purveys Malaysian handicrafts and proves an excellent stop for the famous Malay iced coffee, served thick with sweetened condensed milk. Afterward, step out the back door and follow the Klang River north to Jamek Mosque, perched on a peninsula where the first settlers landed in Kuala Lumpur. Built in 1909 by an Englishman (A.B. Hubbock, who designed several of the neighborhood’s prominent buildings), it’s one of the city’s oldest examples of Moorish architecture.
Across the river, another Hubbock creation, the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, sports a mixture of Indian Muslim and Gothic elements. The colonial landmark overlooks Merdeka Square, the former cricket green where Malaysia declared its independence from Britain in 1957 and the site of a grand National Day parade every August.
Hop in a cab to make your way west to the Lake Gardens, a 227-acre park where KLites have been escaping the hustle and bustle since the 1880s. Now named Perdana Botanical Garden, among the attractions are the Bird Park, featuring 200 species of colorful birds within landscaped gardens, and the Butterfly Park, where more than 7,000 winged creatures flutter in a rainforest environment. In the cool mornings and evenings, old-timers practice tai chi around manmade Lake Perdana, while weekends are popular with paddle-boating and picnicking families.
Also in the Lake Gardens vicinity is the blue-and-white-domed Islamic Arts Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Islamic decorative arts in the world. The center features everything from textiles and carpets to weaponry, plus an excellent Middle Eastern restaurant and a gift shop selling Islamic crafts and jewelry. While in the area, stop at the National Museum, another of the city’s best, for an overview of Malaysia’s history within a palatial setting.
No trip to Kuala Lumpur would be complete without a photo op at the Petronas Twin Towers, the Islamic-inspired, 88-story structures that were formerly the tallest buildings in the world. A limited number of visitors is allowed on the 86th-floor observation deck each day, so arrive early (around 8:30 a.m.) if you want tickets. A myriad of shopping and dining options are available in the base of the towers, or head to the nearby Pavilion KL for the city’s greatest concentration of fashion and luxury goods boutiques.
Kuala Lumpur: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT + 8
Phone Code: Country code: 60 City code: 3
Currency: Malaysian ringgit
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens must have a valid passport. Visitors staying more than 90 days must have a visa before entering.
Official Language: Bahasa Malaysia
Key Industries: Finance, rubber processing and manufacturing, petroleum and natural gas, pharmaceuticals, medical technology, electronics, timber processing, tourism
Kuala Lumpur Info to Go
Malaysia’s main international gateway, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, is located 37 miles south of the city center in Sepang. The airport’s KLIA Ekspres train provides nonstop service to Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station in downtown Kuala Lumpur (28 minutes, $11) between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. Fixed-price taxis ($21) and buses ($3) also connect the airport to Kuala Lumpur and take 40–60 minutes, depending on traffic. Buy a voucher at one of the taxi counters outside baggage claim.
Where to Stay in Kuala Lumpur
Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel Sleek, contemporary décor and a convenient location next to Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station make the Hilton a favorite among business travelers. 3 Jalan Stesen Sentral $$$
Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur This city center hotel boasts floor-to-ceiling views of the Petronas Towers and an infinity pool overlooking the skyline. Kuala Lumpur City Centre, Jalan Pinang $$$
The Westin Kuala Lumpur Just steps from the shops of Bintang Walk, this modern hotel features a top-notch fitness center and a supervised kids’ club. 199 Jalan Bukit Bintang $$$
Restaurants in Kuala Lumpur
Bijan Bar & Restaurant Meaning “sesame” in Malay, Bijan puts an innovative twist on authentic local favorites like caramelized beef curry and durian ice cream. 3 Jalan Ceylon $$
Chynna The city’s most delectable dim sum, prepared in an open kitchen, is served in a dining room dripping with old Shanghai grandeur. Hilton Kuala Lumpur Hotel, 3 Jalan Stesen Sentral $$
Palate Palette Expats and artists are drawn to this brightly colored space known for its inventive appetizers and encyclopedic cocktail list. 21 Jalan Mesui $
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