PUTRAJAYA On a hillside overlooking the grandiose administrative capital that Malaysia has built at vast expense, vacant lots marked with the names of dozens of countries lie empty.

It's a diplomatic enclave without diplomats, embassies or limousines - and one of the most visible failures of Putrajaya, a multi-billion-dollar extravaganza of monumental avenues, lakes and dome-topped buildings.

Putrajaya was the brainchild of former premier Mahathir Mohamad who ordered construction to begin on the site of a palm oil plantation in 1996, despite the economic firestorm that swept the region the following year.

Mahathir, who turned Malaysia from a tropical backwater into one of Southeast Asia's biggest economies, was a fan of mega-projects including the Petronas Twin Towers, which was for a time the world's tallest building.

The massive scale, cost and ambition of Putrajaya sets it apart as perhaps his biggest achievement, but less than a decade after it was unveiled, the cracks are beginning to show and Mahathir has joined the ranks of detractors.

“At night it is deserted, because all there is government offices.

We want to see a living town,” he said earlier this year, accusing his successor Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of losing interest.

“When I see broken tiles and broken pavements, I feel saddened,” said Mahathir, who envisioned Putrajaya as a triumph of Islamic development, as well as relieving congestion in the overcrowded capital Kuala Lumpur.

“If leaders don't take an interest, neither will minor officials.”

Kuala Lumpur lies 25 kilometres north, and clogged highways and poor public transport links make Putrajaya an often unpopular destination for those compelled to visit for business or bureaucracy.

Most government ministries have relocated there, despites the grumbles of employees, but private business has been slow to follow despite government incentives and encouragement.

Mahathir said that not enough has been done to attract the private sector, or the foreign missions that were supposed to occupy the diplomatic enclave that has already been established with access roads, shops and landscaping.

Many countries have bought plots, but so far only the Iraqis have broken ground, and most diplomats have no intention of giving up their missions in central Kuala Lumpur, and their elegant colonial-era residences nearby.

While those in Kuala Lumpur may sneer, Putrajaya's 60,000 residents are generally full of praise for their purpose-built town, with its clean air, wide boulevards and lush parks.

Most are public servants who have been won over by subsidised housing, and facilities like shopping centres and cinemas that have gradually sprung up.

“Initially everyone complained but now they are more comfortable as there are no traffic jams, not like in Kuala Lumpur,” said education ministry employee Robiah Kamal, 33.

“The facilities are very good - schools, nurseries and clinics - and you don't have to rush for everything,” she told AFP at the gleaming Alamanda shopping complex where office workers converge at lunchtime.

Despite the pleasant surroundings and the topiary along the highways, critics of Putrajaya say it was a massive waste of money and that its architecture is grandiose and culturally inappropriate.

The overwhelmingly Islamic-style buildings are out of place in a country which is dominated by Muslim Malays, but also home to large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, says architectural academic Mohamad Tajuddin.

He criticises the magnificent lakeside mosque as being designed more for tourists than the faithful, and says the prime minister's office, a giant edifice topped with a green “onion dome,” is downright arrogant.

“Palatial is alright if you're a king who owns the country, but we are a democracy and we're supposed to be ruled by the people,” he said.

“If you want to go and see your leader, it should be easy to do so. If you want to pray, it should be easy to do so - instead of creating a fortress-like atmosphere.”

A spate of problems at the grand Putrajaya ministries last year, including collapsing ceilings and a burst water pipe that inundated the immigration department, raised more questions.

“I feel ashamed. These are new buildings and there are problems. There must be something wrong,” Abdullah said at the time.

Tajuddin argues Putrajaya should have been designed in sympathy with Malaysia's harsh sun and tropical storms, with shaded path and breezy verandas instead of baking hot avenues and expanses of paved plazas.

“If you're going to have a kingdom designed to show opulence, it's going to be maintenance-intensive. Things are going to get broken very fast.

Landscaping and flowers are all very expensive,” he said.

Samusudin Osman, president of the Putrajaya Corporation which runs the town, has heard all the complaints before and good-naturedly urges critics to be realistic.

“People have very high expectations of Putrajaya, they expect it to be world class,” he says.

He admits his own children aren't keen on the place and complain it's too quiet, “but for heaven's sake, this is an administrative centre, it has to have some air of formality.”

The total cost of building the capital - shared between the government and the developer - has never been released but at least 20 billion ringgit (5.9 billion dollars) has come from public coffers.

“There are much better things to do for the money,” said veteran opposition figure Lim Kit Siang who dismisses the project as a symptom of Mahathir-era “megalomania”.“My first impression of it was that it was a monstrosity and I don't think my views have greatly changed.” —AFP

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