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Plan for 100-story tower in Malaysia under siege

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Malaysian government faced mounting opposition Wednesday to a $1.6 billion, 100-story skyscraper plan, with critics slamming the project as an unnecessary extravagance at a time of belt-tightening and rising prices.

Prime Minister Najib Razak insists the privately financed building will boost business in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, but the plan could hamper his ruling coalition's efforts to regain support from many who believe that public funds are regularly abused to help the government's allies grow wealthy.

More than 46,000 people had joined a Facebook group opposing the initiative as of late Wednesday, only five days after Najib first mentioned it while announcing the government's latest budget.

It is widely perceived to be a government project using taxpayers' contributions, but Najib said the tower will be part of a 5 billion ringgit ($1.6 billion) urban development initiative spearheaded by Permodalan Nasional Berhad, a government-backed fund management firm.

"This project is not a waste" of funds, Najib told a news conference late Tuesday. "We want a building that will become a symbol of a modern, developed country."

Najib noted that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also faced resistance in the 1990s when he pushed for the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers, which were the world's tallest buildings for several years and are now a source of pride for many Malaysians.

Hamad Kama Piah Che Othman, chief executive of Permodalan Nasional, said Wednesday the company was well positioned to finance the construction from its own internally generated funds, the national news agency Bernama reported.

Opponents of the planned tower's construction — scheduled to start next year and be completed in 2015 — say there is already a glut of office space and that it would aggravate traffic jams.

Criticism has been particularly sharp amid other revelations about high government spending. Parliament was told this week that the cost of a new palace being constructed for Malaysia's king was rising to nearly 800 million ringgit ($250 million), while the official travel expenses of Najib and his deputy surged about 60 percent in the past year.

Opposition leaders say such an expenditure is reckless when the government is cutting back on gasoline and sugar price subsidies for the public to rein in its budget deficit.

Complaints about alleged government corruption and financial mismanagement caused many voters to turn against the National Front ruling coalition in 2008 elections.

Najib took office last year and pledged wide-ranging reforms to help the ruling coalition regain a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which it enjoyed for most of its 53 years of uninterrupted rule, in the next elections due in 2013.