SCALING DOWN

From the Taj Mahal to the Great Wall, the Asian landscape is littered with monuments to imperial ambition and engineering. In recent decades cities from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei have competed to build the world's tallest building. But just when it seemed that Asia's "edifice complex" was reaching near-pathological proportions, it peaked. In the past year new leaders have been pulling their nations out of the race to build the tallest, biggest, longest and most expensive of everything.

A new sense of moderation is ending the era of ego-driven megaprojects. When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office a year ago, he postponed a $3.8 billion railway-building plan that was going to be one of Asia's biggest infrastructure projects. In India, newly elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently called for a rethink of a vast river-linking scheme promoted by his predecessor. And Beijing last month announced the cancellation of five out of 10 major new venues for the 2008 Summer Olympics, including facilities for tennis, baseball and badminton. Officials have quietly dropped a slogan predicting "the best Games ever" in favor of the "frugal Olympics."

What's happening? A more modest approach is one way to differentiate new governments from previous regimes, of course. But that's not all. The downsizing represents growing concerns about environmental protection, engineering safety and, above all, fiscal prudence. In China, where the regime is jittery about an overheating economy, one foreign architect involved in a current megaproject has seen a palpable "shift in strategy" away from "extreme designs" that were often publicity-grabbing stunts. Now, officialdom is " worrying that they're going to seem silly and squandrous," the architect said.

Early signs of the trend date to 2000, when Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election after five decades of Kuomintang Party rule. To press home his party's green credentials, DPP winner Chen Shuibian fulfilled a campaign promise to halt a controversial Kao-hsiung county dam project and the island's fourth nuclear power plant. Since then, work on the nuclear power plant has resumed. But Chen's populist politics helped him win a second term.

In Southeast Asia, megaprojects are often linked with a lack of transparency, cronyism, corruption and waste. Dialing back the most notorious ones can be good politics for a neophyte leader. In October 2003--just days before the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retired--the contract for Malaysia's rail project was granted without competitive bidding to well-connected local tycoon Syed Mokhtar. The electrified double-track rail line was to cross the Malaysian peninsula as part of a planned 5,600-kilometer trans-Asia link. But Abdullah quickly postponed the scheme after taking office, saying that "socioeconomic projects to ensure the well-being of the people" had to take priority.

Since then, Abdullah's administration shelved an aluminum smelter that was to be powered by the huge Bakun Dam. Bakun itself has been downsized. Just last month Kuala Lumpur scrapped a planned second bridge linking the high-tech island of Penang to the mainland. A nine-kilometer monorail for Mahathir's new $5.3 billion capital of Putrajaya, with its manmade lakes and grand mosque, has reportedly been canceled. In Abdullah's maiden budget for 2005, delivered last month, he slashed public-sector spending for development projects by 9 percent.

India's new prime minister is also repeating the mantra of modesty. The administration of Manmohan Singh has placed on hold a scheme to link 16 Himalayan rivers, including the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra, that could have cost up to $150 billion. Environmentalists had warned that the scheme would disrupt natural watersheds not only in India but in Bangladesh and Nepal as well. Critics also insist the project touted as a "garland of hope" is actually a "garland of hype" shrouded in opacity. "None of the feasibility and impact studies on this gigantic project have been put in the public domain," says Prof. Jayanto Bandyopadhyay of the Indian Institute of Management at Kolkata (Calcutta).

And what about China's "frugal" Olympics? This May, Chinese officials were alarmed by the collapse of a terminal roof at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Its architect, Paul Andreu, also designed some of China's most glitzy new projects, including the National Theater, now nearly complete. Soon after the collapse, 10 prominent Chinese scholars and architects sent a petition to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, asking him to reconsider Olympic projects dedicated to "size, novelty and foreign prestige." They got their wish. Beijing officials not only canceled five facilities, they also scaled down the centerpiece of the entire Olympic building effort--scrapping plans for a retractable roof on the new 100,000-seat Olympic stadium. The savings: about 10,000 tons of steel and $36 million off the total cost of more than $400 million.

China's parsimonious turn is bound to have a wide ripple effect, since it is now the benchmark against which all Asia competes. Beijing's new frugality is not limited to the Games venues: thousands of lesser construction projects across the country have been axed or trimmed, including roads and factories in 5,000 "economic-development zones." One reason is that in an increasingly competitive global economy, even Chinese leaders can't afford ego projects. Another is internal politics: President Hu Jintao is seeking to distinguish himself from former strongman Jiang Zemin, shifting spending away from grandiose urban construction to rural development and poverty alleviation. Chinese intellectuals now talk of improving Beijing's social "software" not just its hardware--and of achieving a "Green Olympics" and even a "People's Olympics."

Still, old ambitions don't just disappear. One of the projects with which Jiang was most closely identified is also one of the grandest: Andreu's National Theater, a futuristic titanium-skinned ovoid. While it's undergone renewed scrutiny since the Paris airport collapse, the structure is nearly complete and will stand as a lasting monument to the Jiang era. If Beijing's new less-is-more philosophy sticks, however, it will also be the last such monument China builds for some time.

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