LONDON’S INFRASTRUCTURE: Old, but it's still a charmer
THE London Olympic Games starts today, after eight years of preparation. Days ago, the city already looked more besieged than it did for the Battle of Britain during World War 2.
The skies above the city have been taken over by the Royal Air Force, anti-aircraft missiles are installed on rooftops of unsuspecting property owners, the Royal Marines are putting up a daily show of their preparedness by patrolling on fast boats on the River Thames, and even United States Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are flown in to man the ports of entry.
This pre-opening bedlam seems quite out of place for a country that has staged so many overseas military expeditions in the last decades in far-flung Falklands, Afghanistan, Baghdad and Libya.
Aside from the brewing political fallout that is linked to the security fiasco of the Games and a gloomy national economy, London possesses a vibrancy that is quite intoxicating.
The summer streets are filled with shoppers and tourists. The square-mile at the heart of the city, which is the heart of the London financial district, historical landmarks and famous high-end shopping streets, remains the most sought-after address for international banks and corporations, as well as wealthy locals and foreigners to wine, dine and shop.
For Londoners and visitors, life goes on as normal, as people go about their daily chores. To a "besieged" city that has attracted millions of visitors as tourists, business persons and students, there is a normalcy and rhythm that give the city its charm and its inhabitants a sense of civic pride.
There are the familiar red double-decker buses that connect to the many Underground stations and train stations, the street corner red steel postboxes, the mix of English pubs, Chinese, Malay, Japanese and other international eateries.
London has one of the oldest integrated transport systems, having constructed the world's first underground railway network operated by electricity-driven trains in the late 19th century.
Bus shelters have a digital display alerting travellers to the arrival time of the next bus and the routes involved. Bus drivers are courteous, helpful and honest. There is no congestion of buses at bus stops.
The British government announced last week an investment of STG9 billion (RM44 billion ) to upgrade the railway system to a high-speed train system. It is already hailed as one of the largest infrastructure investments, comparable to our own estimated RM30 billion for our first MRT.
However, if we choose to ignore that our public transport system remains outmoded in terms of travelling culture -- such as queuing up and paying the correct fares, or the lack of professionalism of operators and drivers to provide commuters with quality service, and the need for a general consensus on the part of the regulators that operating rules and regulations must be enforced, then, in spite of billions of ringgit of capital investment planned, our public transport system will not be able to deliver to its fullest potential.
London is one of the oldest functioning metropolitan cities, not just from a historical perspective; it has been developed through new construction as well as careful conservation. It is unlike most modern Asian cities that seem to make it a point to obliterate delightful old city centres and put in place blocks of steel, concrete and glass towers, and rows of unidentifiable shops and houses. Most modern Asian cities resemble a medieval town with a citadel of skyscrapers in the centre and spreading out into suburbs comprising shopping malls, shops and houses.
London has some of the best kept public parks and commons that have been carefully restored and preserved over the centuries, even after the merciless blitz carried out by the Goering-led Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.
The city planners and elected councillors take great care and pride to rebuild as well as to conserve, so that the old charm of Victorian buildings blend in with the functionality of a modern city. Even during the heydays of post-war reconstruction, there was never any attempt to rebuild another administrative centre, then and since, to reflect the world-standing of Great Britain as a post-war power; nothing symbolises the subtlety of the British national character than the unassuming appearance of 10 Downing Street as the official residence for two centuries of prime ministers.
Even burial grounds are conserved to preserve history and nature. On a visit to Highgate Cemetery, which is also a nature reserve in the suburb, one can stroll through the well-kept grounds to visit some famous graves such as that of Karl Marx. It is a historical irony that the original founder of communism was buried in the heartland of capitalism and imperialism during the late 19th century, when Britain was indisputably the greatest power in the world. This is a great testimony of the tolerance of the city's inhabitants, and the British in general, for divergence of views, but also of their abhorrence for radicalism in practice, as they have consistently rejected fascists and communists in the polls.
Summer is also a time to attend graduation ceremonies in London for local and foreign students. Our beloved Malaysia House is a kampung away from home for generations of Malaysian students, not just for cheap accommodation but also for its home-cooked Malay food in the basement cafeteria.
As China has emerged as an economic power, the Chinese student population in the city and Britain has grown in the past decade, and that goes with the spending by their rich parents on paying full fees and purchasing choice real estate as accommodation and property investment.
This is another great success story of London that has transformed itself not just into a global financial centre, but also into a global education hub of excellence. A British university degree remains much sought after by children of the elite of China, Russia, Taiwan, Korea and other emerging nations.
Most graduates are flocking to the city to seek employment with the big banks and financial institution, thus providing an endless pool of the brightest and well-connected to work in the city.
There is little immigration hassle for bright graduates to seek employment passes once they are recruited. This liberal immigration policy of welcoming talents regardless of nationality is what makes the city's financial centre the new engine of growth for the nation.
On the long flight home from London, one cannot help but be awed by the city's history and heritage, as well as the undercurrent of economic, social and political "happenings".
Whether it is fashion, food, education, its century-old public transportation system, they are mostly low-key and a fine blend of the old and new in architecture.
The unpredictability of the British summer does not dampen the enthusiasm of visitors, simply because one is easily charmed by the quiet efficiency of how the city is run, politically and administratively, and the sense of security provided by the British bobby (policeman) tirelessly pacing the streets very much unarmed, rain or shine; or the occasional encounters with friendly locals and foreigners.
It is a great city physically, not so much for having just put up the tallest tower in Europe, but also its admired propensity to preserve the old, whether in its palace, castle, park, parliament building, and even graveyard.
Perhaps it is about creating a global city culture that can accommodate the divergence of views and thoughts, so that its great centres of learning such as the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) can remain at the forefront of learning, and their graduates are inevitably imbued with a refined culture of being free-thinking global citizens, ever ready to challenge the conventions and ever ready to serve humanity anywhere. That, in the nutshell, is the spiritual and cultural DNA that makes London a great city to live, work, study or visit.