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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Against a backdrop of growing concern about the environment, Asiaweek ranks the region's 40 most livable urban centers












Go to the ASIAWEEK Quality of Life Index for 40 cities

Go to a story about people-friendly cities

ABDUL SALAM HAS FOND memories of growing up in Jakarta in the 1970s. He and his friends would spend sun-filled afternoons on the Ciliwung river, diving, swimming and catching fish. The 33-year-old recalls a popular song of that time: "Fish and shrimp will come to my life." Not any more, they won't. "What comes up these days is garbage," says Salam, a waste-management official. The Ciliwung, like all Jakarta rivers, is thick with industrial and domestic waste.

And the air is often not a lot better. "Just walking to a neighboring building in the central business district, my lungs feel the pollution," says Taufiq Karta Hadimadja, a young executive in the Indonesian capital. In New Delhi, secretary Maria Crasto has a similar problem. She feels nauseous when she arrives home from work in the evening. The problem: choking fumes from thousands of idling vehicles trapped in the rush-hour gridlock.

From Kuala Lumpur to Kaohsiung, from Beijing to Bangkok, city dwellers are paying with their health for the region's swift economic growth. Over the past two decades, the standard of living of hundreds of millions of people has risen beyond measure. But for many of them the poor state of the environment has meant a sharp decline in the quality of life.

True, many other factors come into play when choosing where to live and raise a family. Feeling safe on the street is one. Good schools is another. And, of course, the chance of finding a decent job is always important. But, as the volumes of material gathered by Asiaweek correspondents for this special report make clear, Asians now place clean air and water among their prime considerations.

Kuala Lumpur resident Vivien Lee probably spoke for many across the region when she railed against a five-day suspension of the drinking water to her home: "I can live with losing a few ringgit on the stock market. I can even live with a 20% erosion in the value of our currency. But I cannot live without water for such a long period. We should not have to live like this."

The costs of neglect can no longer be ignored. The World Bank says in a recent report that the impact of environmental decay is reaching a point where it may limit growth. Unbridled pollution costs China $54 billion a year in early deaths, sickness and lost output. In Jakarta, the health costs of air pollution amounted to 12% of urban incomes in 1995. Unchecked, that figure is likely to rise to 23% by 2020. The comparative figures for Bangkok: 8% and 20%. The World Bank says that the economic cost of the smoke that spread across much of Southeast Asia from Indonesia's burning forest lands is likely to exceed 2% of GDP in the worst-affected areas.

And then there is the human toll. In India, more than 50,000 people in 36 cities died last year from the effects of breathing in air poisoned by soot, sulfur dioxide and other noxious gases. In China, dirty air caused the premature death of 218,000 people in 1995. Tens of millions of others in Asia suffer chronic respiratory ailments.

The question is: Are Asia's governments prepared to take the tough political decisions that will be necessary if the quality of life around the region is not to deteriorate further? Thinking Green doesn't come naturally at the best of times. Now, with many Asian economies slowing, the prospect may be even more unpalatable -- particularly as care of the environment often comes with a short-term price tag. But many specialists argue that the economic downturn should be seen as a blessing. It offers the opportunity to abandon old ways. Says Akhtar Badshah, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Sustainable Cities Forum: "In boom times, people spent money helter-skelter. Maybe because of the slump, they will be forced to think more carefully about how resources are used."

Richard Ackerman, World Bank acting environmental manager for East Asia and the Pacific, suggests that attention to the environment makes even more sense at a time of economic turmoil, when investors may be thinking of turning away from Asia. It is a view shared by Hong Kong's business community. It has been quietly pressing the government to address pollution problems -- particularly the poor quality of the air -- if it wants the city to remain a base for international corporations. Says Peter Hill, professor of urban planning at Hong Kong University: "Why pay First World prices, and in some cases more than that, if you are going to get Third World conditions?"

Shanghai understands that. In order to continue attracting the capital and personnel it desires, says vice-mayor Xia Keqiang, the city has to offer a quality lifestyle. That's why Xia plans to spend $963 million (about 3% of Shanghai's GDP) on environmental protection. Some 850 polluting factories have been relocated, the Suzhou River is being cleaned up and a 7,240-hectare greenbelt is to be established around the city by 2010.

And there is heartening news from Bangkok. Sometimes described as the ultimate urban nightmare, the Thai capital is in the midst of a clean-up. Credit for that goes to Governor Pichet Rattakul, who has understood that little can be achieved if you do not bring the people along with you. While punishing major polluters with mighty swipes, he has tirelessly explained his policies. Among them: cleaning out the klongs and providing the people living alongside them with garbage-disposal facilities. The result: gardens are sprouting along some of the riverside walkways.

Bangkok the urban Utopia? Hardly. But it provides a lesson for some of the dirtier cities in the region. It is that no government can guarantee a clean environment simply by passing legislation. But if the authorities are prepared to lead, residents are likely to respond. Who knows, maybe Abdul Salam's great-grandchildren will one day take a swim in the Ciliwung.

In the pages that follow, Asians talk mostly with pride about their cities. But many share a growing concern that more must be done to protect the environment. That, above all else, will be the great challenge of the next century. Herewith snap shots of the Top Ten in 1997:


Young at Heart

IT HAS MOUNTAINS on one side, a calm bay on the other, and tree-lined rivers running through town. It has big department stores and streets full of small shops. It has a baseball team, a soccer team and an annual sumo tournament. It has a Blue Note jazz club, a Broadway-style theater -- and a well-patronized red-light district. It has an international airport and a bullet-train terminus. Best of all it doesn't have 20 million people living on top of each other. To its residents, Fukuoka is not too big, not too small, but juuust right. "You can bicycle from one end to another -- not a big city, but one with everything you want," says native Ezaki Hiroko.

Fukuoka sits on northern Kyushu, Japan's westernmost major island. The city of 1.3 million people may not have the business and cultural weight of Tokyo and Osaka, nor the history or scenery of nearby Nagasaki and Kagoshima. But what it has is a modest charm, and a willingness to try new things. Maybe because Fukuoka was for millennia a port of entry for Korean and Chinese culture. Maybe because its population is the second youngest in Japan. "Companies like to test market products here, because if it sells in Fukuoka it will sell in the rest of Japan," says Hiroshi Seto of the local Chamber of Commerce.

One new development is Canal City -- a futuristic mall with explosive fountains, trendy shops and a 13-screen movie complex -- that opened last year. The cinemas are a case in point. No Japanese company wanted to open such a large operation, so the developers turned to a U.S. outfit that had been trying to break into the tradition-bound market for years. The gamble paid off all around. Cinema attendance is up 50% citywide, the mall sparked a retail boom in traditional shopping districts, and officials and businesses from all around Japan are trooping to Fukuoka to see how the city did it.

Like most Japanese cities, Fukuoka is meticulously clean for an urban area. It is also blessed by its history as a commercial center -- there is no legacy of smokestack industries to clean up. The major problems are ever-increasing traffic, water pollution and garbage. To cope, the city is building a fourth incinerator. It is talking with neighboring districts to reduce waste water flowing into Hakata Bay, and improving its highway network. Resource conservation is a priority. Those local incinerators generate their own electricity and sell surplus to the city grid. Many retailers are joining a campaign to reduce the amount of packaging. Canal City's fountains use rainwater and waste water treated within the complex.

There is a blight on the horizon, though. An enormous artificial island is being built in the bay to house port facilities and new homes. Initial plans to start reclamation from the shoreline were revised after it was shown to threaten wetlands essential to migrating birds. Sounds "green," except the island has changed the water currents in the bay and is killing the marine habitat. "City officials won't even discuss our ideas to improve their plan to reduce the island's impact," says Ito Yoshino of the Hakata Bay Citizens Alliance. "Japan still operates for the benefit of bureaucrats and businessmen."

Still, that's changing. For the first time, the environment was made a pillar of Fukuoka's master plan, its seventh, when it was announced recently. Citizens can do their part. Neighborhood opposition to building on a wood called "The Forest of Owls" led the city to buy the plot instead. Ezaki helps run a group called Clean Fukuoka which organizes an annual spruce-up along the shores of Hakata Bay -- an exercise that enjoys strong government and corporate support. She acknowledges garbage-picking is a tame sort of activism, but points out that the campaign was little noticed by officials and businessmen when it started eight years ago. "It's only a first step," Ezaki says, "but it's a step we can build on."

-- By Jonathan Sprague


Bringing Back Blue Skies

IF THERE IS SUCH A THING as ordered chaos, then Tokyo has it. Japan's capital is a heaving metropolis contained by strict attention to regulation and custom. Its 11.6 million residents are famous for adhering to pedestrian signals at intersections, its trains are always on time, and even bikers whizzing around in the middle of the night stop and wait for lights to change. And it is vast: after a two-hour train ride, commuters will find themselves still within the city limits. Protecting the environment has long been low on the priority list, though, well behind growth and prosperity. This is changing, but there is a long way to go.

In the 1960s, deterioration was already visible. Smog covered parts of the city, fish disappeared from the rivers and were replaced by foul-smelling sludge, and vehicle and factory emissions choked children and asthmatics and drove healthy people indoors. Alarmed, Tokyo residents elected Minobe Ryokichi as the mayor in 1967. An environmentalist, Minobe imposed stringent restrictions on manufacturers and other pollution sources. His slogan: Let Us Bring Back Blue Skies to Tokyo.

The current mayor Aoshima Yukio claims an environmental agenda. A former TV personality, he coined the phrase "ecoship" and vowed to make Tokyo more green, but there is little evidence of action. Concerned citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Fujita Toshio is the leader of the Tokyo Liaison League for Air Pollution Monitoring. Under his organization, volunteers regularly stream into the streets to measure air quality. The government does this, too, but at only 81 spots. The League measures levels at 15,000 sites, and takes samples at heavy traffic areas, "not from 70 meters away, like Tokyo officials," says Fujita.

"The air in Tokyo is getting worse year by year," he says. Others agree. "Kids used to get better as they grew up, but in recent years many don't," says one school nurse. The primary pollutant: nitrogen dioxide from car emissions. Families who have lost relatives to asthma are suing all the major Japanese car makers and the government for failing to protect them from the deadly effects of exhaust fumes. It may be up to a decade before a verdict is reached. Meanwhile, Fujita says, people should help lobby for the introduction of ecologically friendly vehicles and controls on the flow of cars into the city.

Activists' efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Tokyo government. To set an example, civil servants leave their cars at home and take public transit every Wednesday during winter. Their offices use recycled paper for documents and business cards and suppliers are asked to pool their deliveries so that fewer cars are on the road at one time.

Architects are busy trying to incorporate more green space into the urban sprawl. Called the "Green Doubling Plan", officials are trying to create twice the verdant space by the year 2000. Efforts are definitely underway. In time, Tokyo will either bring order to the environmental chaos or be undone by it.

-- By Murakami Mutsuko


Distant Greens

WITH ITS LANDSCAPED GROUNDS and profusion of greenery, Singapore well deserves the "Garden City" title. Residents appreciate it. But increasingly, it seems, they prefer to enjoy nature at a distance. "We are so urbanized and our children are spending so much time in air-conditioning, they think it's not natural to be in the heat and to perspire," says Evelyn Eng-Lim, the education chairperson of the Singapore Nature Society.

Even shopping malls and airport pre-departure lounges are favored over parks. For retired policeman Mohammed Ali and his wife, a weekend outing with the grandchildren often means going to the city's lauded Changi Airport. It's a pretty drive there, and they have plenty of restaurants to choose from. The airport is popular with students too. During examination season, there is even a cram hall set aside for them. Besides, "it's open 24 hours and is air-conditioned," explains one 17-year-old.

Officer worker Lena Tan, 30, and her young family have never frolicked in the island's 1,040 hectares of parks and open spaces. And they have no plans to do so. On weekends she and her husband prefer taking their two children to malls such as Sun Tec City. "I don't like to take them outside," says Tan, "because of the heat and the mosquitoes." Instead the kids run about in one of the supervised indoor play areas like Quest Zone at Sun Tec.

Nature lovers like Eng-Lim blame Singapore's building boom for the public's lack of interest in the great outdoors. "The government plants trees at great expense, but developers come along and cut them down for convenience. No wonder young people are confused. They're getting a mixed message," she says. "Priority is given to making money above all other things."

Eng-Lim and the 2,000-strong Nature Society are fighting for change. The group managed to halt the construction of a golf course planned for a 100-hectare parcel of land at Pierce Reservoir, but weren't so successful saving the habitat of a flock of tree ducks in the Marina South district. "Golfers complained about mosquitoes, so the government decided to fill in the ponds," she says. "We asked that they wait until the National Parks Board finished digging a pond at the Botanic Gardens, but they just went ahead."

Still, the Singapore government has much to be proud of. A well-planned infrastructure and strictly enforced regulations combine to create a city that works better than most. Controls on private vehicles in the central business district and an excellent mass transit system keep traffic moving and levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and suspended particles within reasonable limits. Air quality should improve further when leaded gas is fully phased out by July 1, 1998.

Government-built estates now house 2.7 million people or 86% of the population in affordable accommodation. Education and medical care is good, even by world standards. However, Singaporeans continue to gripe. "They [the government] are all such technocrats. They don't ever think about how we feel. All they want to do is make money," whines one taxi driver. Perhaps it time to pull over and smell the roses.

-- By Alexandra. A. Seno


A Fighting Spirit

WEDGED BETWEEN QUAINT KYOTO and hip Kobe, the bustling port of Osaka is known for its good food -- hence, the title of "kitchen of Japan" -- and its straight-talking, no-nonsense people. Osaka really prospered as a commercial center only after the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power in the 16th century and set up his base in Osaka Castle. The city's cluster of low buildings and narrow alleyways, peppered with hundreds of shrines, are a marked contrast to the skyscraper jungle of Tokyo. But having always played second fiddle to the capital, Osaka is now bidding to host the summer Olympics in 2008. And the prospect of athletes and spectators converging from all over the world has renewed its resolve to make the city a healthy place.

But Osakans have had to learn the hard way. In 1978, residents of the Nishi Yodogawa section found themselves suffering serious respiratory ailments. The district encompassed a congested intersection, and was also downwind from a power plant, a steel plant and other factories that belched exhaust into the air. Altogether, 519 residents filed suits against nine companies and the municipal government for failing to protect their health. Nearly two decades later, the corporations agreed to pay some $41 million in compensation to the victims and their families.

The Nishi Yodogawa incident brought environmental issues to the foreground, but the Osaka community made sure they remained there. In 1992, the city government set up the Environmental Study Room, a special library where residents can access written materials and speak to environmental consultants for free. And the Yodogawa victims have used some of their compensation money to share their experiences with people from other polluted Asian cities. The city government spends less than 1% of its yearly budget on environmental programs -- but that's better than Tokyo's 0.46% .

"The air pollution situation in Osaka is about the same as Tokyo," says Hayashi Isao, secretary-general of the Association to Get Rid of Pollution from Osaka, an umbrella organization of over 100 green groups. One difference: about 40% of emissions in Osaka come from immovable polluters such as factories, compared to 30% for Tokyo. Osaka's Yamato River is one of the most polluted in Japan. But cleaning it up will require a coordinated effort with other urban authorities since much of the effluent comes from towns further upstream.

Last year, Osaka officials designed a new Basic Environment Plan to bring the government, businesses and the public together on environmental matters. "We are looking at these issues with a view to improving residents' lives, rather than simply preventing more pollution," says Miyamoto Toshiyuki, an official in the city's Environmental Planning Section. Though Osakans are willing to concede that certain hardships must be endured in exchange for the convenience a big city offers, they are not willing to compromise their health. And with their reputation for tenacity, they are not likely to quit until more is done.

-- By Murakami Mutsuko


Caring Community

A PENANG "BOY,"K. BALA, VISITING his hometown recently after 10 years abroad, comments: "The quality of life here is still quite good." And it is. The former colonial trading post, first built on spices, then tin and rubber, is now a hub for much of Malaysia's electronics industry. It is wired-up, prosperous and cosmopolitan. Yet the capital of Penang state retains a certain old-world charm.

Occupying the northeast corner of Penang island, the official name is Georgetown. Locals, though, generally refer to it as Penang. And they are enormously proud of its laid-back coziness. There is fishing along the Esplanade waterfront (the catch is nothing to shout about, but locals bearing tackle still line up daily to try their luck). There are refreshing walks in cool, green Penang Hill, though the resort is not quite as verdant as it used to be because of general hill-cutting. And, there is a tantalizing variety of cuisines, including the spicy nonya dishes of the Straits Chinese and the nasi kandar of the Indian Muslims -- a reflection of Penang's melting-pot culture.

In most minds, Georgetown's report card deserves more black ink than red. The air is clean -- something few Malaysians take for granted after having been so badly afflicted by the haze. The city also rates above 90% for social amenities such as education, potable water and waste collection. Recently, special efforts are being made to preserve the city's heritage buildings -- its arched, colonnaded shophouses, elegant pre-war mansions and ornate clan houses. Six areas have been designated special zones, where renovations of existing buildings or new construction are required to blend with the architectural milieu. That companies have also taken to restoring old bungalows for their corporate headquarters is another positive trend. Among the outstanding pieces of conservation: a mansion occupied by a late 19th-century Chinese official, Cheong Fatt Tze.

And the red marks? Environmentalist and researcher Dr. Leong Yueh Kwong gives low scores for such categories as rivers and coastal waters. At most beaches, including the tourist belt along Batu Ferringhi, the discharge of untreated waste water has made the sea just too dirty to swim in. At some points, E. coli levels are reported at 10 times permissible levels. Indiscriminate slope clearance has led to erosion and flash floods.

Traffic, too, is building up in the city of 400,000 people. Leong believes that congestion, already a problem, will worsen by the year 2000. The number of vehicles has been rising at more than 8% a year, but the roads have not been re-organized or expanded to cope with the volume. Leong's forecast: it will take motorists at least twice as long to get around town.

The city has instituted clean-ups, and a state conservation strategy is being drafted. But can Penang arrest its environmental decline? There should be many who care if the "Caring Society Complex" is any indication. The new building, part of a national drive for greater civic consciousness, will house some 70 non-governmental organizations. Besides, says state executive councillor Toh Kin Woon, "when Penangites link their quality of life with the island's environmental degradation, they will pressure their representatives." And if there is enough of a groundswell, he warns, "you ignore it at your political peril."

-- By Tan Pek Leng


Dollars and Sense

TWENTY YEARS AGO, environmental protection in Hong Kong meant donning safety gloves when handling dangerous chemicals. Now, it is an agenda item that administrators dare not overlook if they hope to do well in the popularity polls. Much of the credit goes to green organizations which have pushed environmental awareness in a city more concerned with the Hang Seng Index than the air pollution index.

"Hong Kong has a First World economy, but its environment remains Third World. The GDP is being presented as the only indicator of our well-being, but it fails to include non-monetary aspects of the society," says Mei Ng, director of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong.

Ng says the city's major environmental sins include dumping raw sewage into the South China Sea, the destruction of Victoria Harbor through over-reclamation and the massive production of carbon fumes -- Hong Kong yields six times the world's per capita average.

Vehicle emissions, diesel fumes in particular, remain a serious problem. A study by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology estimates air pollution causes hundreds of premature deaths in the SAR every year. What's more, asthma is claiming as many as 90 lives a year, a third of the casualties aged five to 34.

Hong Kong's new chief executive Tung Chee-hwa has promised change. In his maiden policy speech, Tung said: "Unless Hong Kong provides an environment that is good to live in, how are we going to attract or retain the talented and creative people that our businesses and economy need in order to grow?"

He promised action on water and air quality problems, and to reduce waste. He pledged legislation requiring environmental assessments on developments, to build a $2.6 billion sewage disposal system by 2000, to introduce a trial scheme for liquefied petroleum gas powered vehicles and a new waste reduction scheme. "I trust that there will be public participation and political consensus in implementing these important programs," he said.

The chief executive hopes to outperform his predecessor Governor Chris Patten. In 1994, Patten unveiled an aggressive plan to reduce air pollution by 20% in two years and boldly promised to "end the damage done to our environment by past neglect and to prevent future abuse." Though $220 million was earmarked for his green policy, little was achieved.

"If the situation gets worse and if it is publicized around the world that Hong Kong is not a healthy place to live in, foreign investors will have second thoughts about coming here," says Peter Kirrage, chairman of the Private Sector Committee on the Environment. Maybe improving the air pollution index might just be the key to helping the sagging Hang Seng.

-- By Law Sui-lan


Coming of Age

SEOUL MAY LOOK YOUNG, but don't be fooled by appearances. The Korean capital has been kicking around for more than 500 years; its modern look can be traced to recent, often painful, events. Flattened during the three-year Korean War, Seoul found that reconstruction came slowly as the country pulled itself out of economic hard times. Even by the late 1970s the number of skyscrapers in Seoul could be counted on one hand. The entire Kangnam area -- now a bustling business, fashion and entertainment center with half-a-dozen deluxe hotels and scores of state-of-the-art office buildings -- is less than 20 years old. In the 1970s much of the Kangnam was paddy field.

Seoul is really the city in South Korea. About half of the country's 43 million people live and work within a 80-km radius of its downtown. Of those, about 11 million reside in metropolitan Seoul and the satellite towns of Pundang, Ilsan and Sanbon. "Running Seoul efficiently is more difficult than running the national government," says Cho Soon, the city's first elected mayor.

Like city dwellers world-wide, Seoul residents complain about the traffic and the trash. Nearly six million vehicles crowd the roads. Cho managed to cut congestion in the two tunnels that link the southern parts of Seoul to the central business district by slapping on a $2 toll. But discussions on levying a Singapore-style peak-hour surcharge never gained momentum. The city's long-awaited subway should reduce some traffic: when the 400-km system finally gets rolling in 1999 it will be capable of moving 12 million people a day.

Congestion is one side of the coin; air pollution is the other. To alleviate that, the city government raised taxes by 42% on diesel fuel, which is used by trucks and buses. But the ministry of the environment estimates that 40% of Korea's air pollution comes from cars and Seoul is home to 2.5 million of them.

No one knows just how many millions of tons of garbage are collected each morning. Or how much of it is leftover food (too many side dishes, say some). But, the ministry of health and social affairs says South Koreans throw away about $8.5 billion worth of food annually. Most of Seoul's garbage is dumped in a new landfill outside the city; the World Cup Stadium will rise on the old site. Government efforts to convince communities to build incinerators have been largely unsuccessful. Despite official claims otherwise, many fear that the release of dioxin and other toxic chemicals into the air could cause severe health problems.

Seoul is working hard to make the city livable. "It may be one of the most convenient cities in the world," says Byun Un Mi, a suburban housewife. Seoulites live in enormous apartment complexes, which can include everything from a hospital to a supermarket. The government plans to spend about $30 million to convert a former air strip on a small island in the Han River into a park. In the mid-1980s the city invested $700 million to clean up the river, which flows through Seoul. The per capita crime rate is one of the lowest in the world for a city its size. There are dozens of small theaters and museums, several theme parks and zoos, and a few months ago the Spice Girls performed in Seoul. That's a sure sign that Seoul has come of age.

-- By Laxmi Nakarmi


Greener Pastures

THE TABLOID PRESS LOVES TO CHRONICLE the incredible wealth of Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei Darussalam; he is often cited as the world's richest man with personal assets at close to $40 billion. There are tales of gold-domed mosques, lavish parties, stables of ponies and fleets of cars. What rarely makes the news is the Sultan's generosity to his subjects.

Take the kingdom's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. Evidence of the wealth from oil and natural gas revenues is seen on the wide and well-maintained roads, and on the many finely manicured public lawns. And no one suffers for want. Half the workforce is employed by the government and the average person in Bandar earns about $18,000 tax-free annually. Health care and education are provided by the kingdom.

But the wealth has had benefits beyond comfortably sustaining Bandar's 80,000 residents. The steady increase in the price of petroleum over the decades has allowed Brunei to avoid many of the harsher realities its poorer neighbors faced. There are no smoke-belching factories and much of the forests remain standing.

Funds are available for upkeep. The result is a remarkably clean environment where 80% of the country's 5,770 sq km remains covered in forest. It's a major reason Bandar Seri Begawan scored so well on this year's ranking and is one of the region's best places to live.

The most recent five-year government plan reveals things could get even better. About $134 million is slotted to improve drainage systems, and more than $42 million is budgeted for a wildlife inventory, a land-rehabilitation project, a landfill and a solid-waste disposal system.

"Bruneians take pride in their environment," says local businessman Michael Kong. His observation is sustained by the many letters to the editor in the Borneo Bulletin about conservation.

But the enthusiasm also has an economic edge. When the oil and gas money, which now contributes about half the national product, dries up, the government plans to turn to tourism as an alternative source of income. "An industry without a chimney," as one Bandar journalist calls it. Though Brunei has exploited its oil resources, it remains a place unravished.

-- By S.C.Chan


Boom to Bust

RESIDENTS WON'T RECOGNIZE Kuala Lumpur in the urban nightmare of "poverty, pollution, crime and ugliness" that Malaysian deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim described at a mayors' conference this year. Decent health care, affordable housing (the city has the lowest ratio of house price to income in our survey) keep KL in the top ranks of Asian cities. And despite years of go-go development, the capital hasn't lost its ability to unwind. Residents browsing at a neighborhood pasar malam (night market) or checking out the hottest restaurants attest to that (the latest fad -- cafes serving East-West fusion cuisine).

But many KL folks feel boom is turning to bust -- and they don't mean an economic slump. It is the quality of life, writes newspaper reader Vivien Lee, which "has plunged lower than the [stock exchange] index." What provoked that cry of frustration? Dry taps, often for days at a time. A diesel spill in a river, just upstream of a water treatment plant, forced one recent cut. But no accident accounts for the fact that 23 of the 27 water sources that supply part of KL's needs are contaminated by industrial and animal waste. "People still treat rivers as sewers," says Lee Lam Thye, who heads City Hall's Special Environment Committee. And they are paying the price.

The biggest gripes, though, are traffic congestion and bad air. The two are linked, of course. Lee concedes there is a serious air pollution problem. Motor vehicles are the biggest culprits, and no wonder. The city's number of registered vehicles has almost tripled from about 514,000 in 1990 to some 1.5 million last year -- that's more than one per person.

Result? Traffic jams that are catching up with the infamous gridlocks of Bangkok, says longtime resident and World Health Organization expert Ogawa Hisashi. A new $1.4 billion light rail transit system should take pressure off the roads. But will there be enough feeder buses to attract more users? Few will give up driving to work while public transport remains unreliable, argues environmentalist Gurmit Singh.

Though the haze has lifted, it has left some residents ready for action. Lawyer K. Sivarasa is one. He joined Kabar, a newly formed citizens' group fighting for a better environment. "The rights to clean air and water cannot be separated from civil rights," he says. Still, Kuala Lumpur's space and greenery give it an edge -- for now. A tree-planting scheme (100,000 each year) will add to the foliage. But unless KL solves such basic issues as foul air, green will only mean envy -- of healthier cities.

-- By Santha Oorjitham


An About-Face

Ask any Taipei resident about the quality of life right now and you are likely to get an earful. A series of high-profile crimes has raised serious doubts about the government's ability to maintain law and order. The most recent: a hostage crisis that ended a seven-month hunt for the killers of a television star's teenage daughter. It sent a shiver up many spines, but still hasn't stopped residents from shopping, eating or singing karaoke through the night.

With its reputation as a car-choked smog basin, Taipei seems like a surprising choice as one of Asia's 10 most livable cities. Not after this report. One reason is the city's number one gripe, traffic, has improved. Mayor Chen Shui-bian's 1994 election pledge to ease congestion is working.

Chen's main methods were to step up enforcement of traffic rules and to establish bus-only lanes along major roads. The latter infuriated drivers. But it raised bus passenger numbers by 4.5% over the past year, reversing a long-running drop of about 4% annually. In addition, two lines of a delayed mass rapid transit system are now operating, moving 110,000 commuters daily. Signs are that two more lines will open next year.

Residents' biggest environmental concern is air pollution. Here, too, the city can celebrate modest gains. The number of days with "unhealthy" pollution readings has dropped from more than 8% in 1993 to 3.5% last year -- a result environment officials attribute to tougher emission standards, increased inspections and efforts to phase out leaded fuel.

Unlike other Taiwan cities, Taipei is not plagued by overflowing landfills or a lack of incinerators. Two plants now burn off much of the 3,800 tons of trash it generates daily. A third will be completed in 1998. But enviromentalists warn that this could mean more pollution. The government is also trying to do away with the daily "trash mountains," that build up as residents toss out garbage for pick up. Instead, they now take trash out only when trucks arrive.

There is more green space too. In the past three years, the total park area has expanded from 893 hectares to 974 hectares. The latest boost: a 13-km park hugging the banks of the Keelung River, with bike trails. At this year's dragon boat races, competitors could actually see the results of the river cleanup. The water is still off limits to swimmers, but at least the oarsmen are not likely to get an infection if they are splashed. That's what happened last year.

-- By Laurie Underwood

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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