The vast continent of Asia contains several of the world’s finest stadiums: in Japan, in South Korea and Hong Kong, as well as in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. But there is a new star rising in the east, and soon the whole world will know it. The Shah Alam Stadium, just outside the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, opened two years ago but will be on show to a much wider international audience for next June's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship. To those who rarely think of Malaysia in the context of international sport, the Shah Alam is the perfect riposte -a stunning example of contemporary stadium architecture, and acredit to the ambitious sports-orientated policies of the Malaysian authorities.

As in so many cities around the Pacific Rim, the skyline of Kuala Lumpur is undergoing a remarkable transformation. The city, whose name means "muddy estuary", was once best known for its Edwardian railway station, a hallmark of its British colonial past. But in recent years a concerted modernisation programme and a galloping economic growth rate of 8% per annum has changed this once modest garden city into a finely balanced mix of thrusting commerce and multi-ethnic tradition.

The commercial hub of KL, as it is best known, now boasts the world’s tallest building. All around the perimeter of the Malaysian capital, vast tracts of land are being bulldozed and redeveloped. But the eye of the traveller flying in over the western side of the metropolis is caught by a building even more striking than the others: the Shah Alam Stadium.

Inaugurated in July 1994 after some six years of planning and construction, the stadium is close to the airport and some 30kilometres from downtown KL. That actually puts its outside the city limits, in Selangor State, of which Shah Alam is the capital city. But the international visitor will always identify the stadium with the nation's capital - even if a large part of the US$. 240million building costs were funded by the far-sighted Selangor State administration.

Shah Alam is more than just a stadium. It is in fact the hub of a burgeoning National Sports Complex. Its owners and operators promote it as the largest and most dynamic sports and entertainment complex in South-East Asia. And they are right.

Gigantic arches
At the centre of the 79-hectare complex stands the stadium itself. Designed by the two German firms of Weidleplan and Consulting GmbH, and Schlaich, Bergermann and Partners (who worked together on redeveloping Stuttgart's Gottlieb Daimler Stadium in 1993),the stadium roof is formed by two massive but graceful arches, each measuring 284m. From base to base, this makes them the longest free-standing arches in the world, enclosing 70% of the interior like a protective clam shell. The form is similar to the famous Poljud Stadium in Split, Croatia, but the dimensions are much greater. For example, each arch rises 62m. above pitch level, and cantilevers 55m. From the rear, UV resistant translucent cladding forms the largest membrane construction yet built.

The base of the stadium is a bowl seating 69,678 spectators. This may seem excessive for a nation not (yet) known for its football prowess, but matches in the Malaysian professional league draw healthy crowds and the national team has never lacked support, as is reflected also by the 237-seat press box and specious TV camera platforms.

The stadium's walls soar up to six levels; five are for spectators and one for athlete areas, which include all the most modern dressing-rooms, warm-up areas, saunas, plunge-pools, massage rooms, a medical centre, meeting-rooms and rooms for prayer.

Spectator amenities are plentiful. There are 28 kiosks for food (serving spicy Malaysian satays as well as the inevitable western fast food), 60 ticket booths, 75 telephone kiosks, and over 700toilets. Ticketing is computerised and bar-coded for security, with access through 58 user-friendly turnstiles. These lead to facilities including three reception lounges, a royal suite, sponsor lounges and 37 air-conditioned corporate boxes, each of which features 16 seats, three TV sets and an international telephone.

State-of-the-art technology
A new electrified rail link brings the public to the stadium door, direct from KL. But even those who drive need not worry: the stadium boasts a valet parking service for the 6,000 parking spaces.

As one would expect in South-East Asia, the stadium brims with state-.of-the-art technology, most prominently in the form of two giant full-colour scoreboards and screens, with replay, fast-forward and slo-mo features, just like a standard video-recorder. The screens are complemented by a 40.000 watt sound system, useful for concerts (when the stadium capacity rises to over 80,000).For added security, there are 99 closed circuit television cameras at strategic points around the stadium.

For the pitch, Shah Alam's operators have chosen the Cell System, as also used during the 1990 Italian World Cup, in Japan and in Saudi Arabia. This self-contained and highly-regulated system is based upon a 40cm. bed of river sand (for easy drainage) and deep-rooted Manila grass. It is surrounded by an eight-lane Olympic standard synthetic running-track, of a type also used at the Los Angeles, Moscow and Seoul Games, designed to remain stable in extreme temperatures.

But aside from the facts and figures and technical specifications, perhaps most of all the Shah Alam typifies the inspirational and unifying effect that both public and private investment in sporting infrastructure can offer to emerging nations. In Selangor, no expense has been spared, and the dramatic result is a world-class venue of which Malaysia can be justifiably proud.

More than just a stadium
The Shah Alam Stadium gets its first real taste of international action next June and July when it plays host to the Final and other key games of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship, which will feature 24 teams for the first time in the competition's20-year history.

Then follow the Commonwealth Games in September 1998. In anticipation of these 14-sport festivals, the stadium already has a 26m. high flame tower, a symbol maybe even of Malaysia's ultimate Olympic ambitions.

Certainly the new complex could cope with the demands of such an event. The next phase of development is a 12,000-seat indoor arena, complete with air-conditioning. The 50 x 50m floor area will cater for a wide variety of sports, concerts and exhibitions, while the variable blocks of retractable seats at floor level, combined with demountable seats on the upper levels, promises to create an ultra-versatile event facility.

Still to come is a tennis centre, scheduled for 1997, with a 4,000-seatcentre court and 22 outlying courts, including four under cover. A swimming complex is also due for completion next year, with five international pools, an Olympic diving pool, and seats for7,000 spectators. The main stadium is also to be supplemented by two adjacent full-sized training fields, one of which will also feature an eight-lane running track.