KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ Cumulus clouds billow outside the window like silent chariots. A falcon perches at the pinnacle, the bird's talons skittering across polished steel.

Nearly three years after it was crowned the world's tallest skyscraper, the 1,480-foot Petronas Twin Towers officially opened today to coincide with Malaysia's Independence Day celebrations.

The builders say their 88-story skyscraper is more than just a record-breaking feat. It is a symbol of Malaysia's coming-of-age at the close of the millennium, a sky-high ego boost for the 42-year-old Third World nation.

``The Petronas Towers symbolize the new spirit of Malaysia,'' said Petronas chairman, Azizan Zainal Abidin. ``Building such a massive project has given us confidence. We can do what others thought we couldn't do.''

The Petronas Towers beats out Chicago's Sears Tower, which, at 1,450 feet, held the tallest-building title from 1973 until 1996. The title is also claimed by the CN Tower in Toronto: It stands at 1,815 feet, but that includes a tall antenna.

Tens of thousands thronged to the capital today, and every top Malaysian leader attended the celebrations. ``Today is a good day to be Malaysian,'' said shopkeeper Ismail Omar, 38, carrying his 2-year-old son, Abdul Rahman _ named after the Southeast Asian nation's first prime minister.

Petronas, the national oil and gas monopoly, started in a wooden shack amid rubber trees, then prospered in the '70s under the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action plan to advance Malays while promoting economic growth among all races.

Over the next two decades, Petronas boomed. Managed by a group of elite Malays groomed under the NEP, the company discovered gas fields in the South China Sea.

It grew to 100 subsidiaries in two dozen countries and crept into Fortune magazine's list of the world's 500 biggest companies. Its offices sprouted in Kuala Lumpur as Malay villagers thronged into the city for factory jobs.

In the early 1990s, as the economy boomed, the government charged Petronas with the task of building itself a massive headquarters in the heart of the city _ as a gift to Malaysians.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took a passionate interest in the $1 billion project, visiting the construction site every Sunday after the groundbreaking in August 1991.

The average Malaysian is barred from visiting the towers, which are occupied by Petronas subsidiaries and multinational companies.

But everything else in the Kuala Lumpur City Center, as the 100-acre development is called, is open to the public.

Malaysians are free to gawk at pricey Laura Ashley scarves and Salvatore Ferragamo shoes in the country's largest mall. Or they can visit the art gallery and Petrosains, an indoor science museum that simulates life on an oil rig.

On the weekends, thousands of families throng to the 50-acre park surrounded by jogging paths and lined with 2,000 trees. The call to prayers are broadcast from a gleaming marble mosque that holds 6,000 Muslims.

Meanwhile, well-heeled Malaysians watch international musicians perform in a Viennese-flavored symphony hall with a cantilevered roof and the largest pipe organ in Asia.

Modern-day oil barons dine at the Malaysian Petroleum Club, a black-tie affair serviced by private elevators that whiz to the 41st floor in 20 seconds flat. Tux-clad waiters serve ratatouille on German tableware.

Opposition leaders claim such extravagance makes a mockery of Malays.

``The pride of the Malay civilization comes through our culture, education and morality,'' said Syed Husin Ali, president of the People's Party of Malaysia. ``It's immoral to use Petronas money _ which is the people's money _ to build ostentatious monuments to please some individuals and to bail out companies.''

During the Asian economic crisis, Petronas spent $220 million to buy 11 tankers from a company controlled by Mahathir's son, Mirzan. It is also finalizing its purchase of Proton, Malaysia's ailing national car company.

But as Malaysia celebrates 42 years of independence from British rule, the government's top thinkers are jubilant.

``Our society was always a primary candidate for the dustbin of history,'' said Noordin Sopiee, the chairman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies. ``As a people _ despite our stupidity, despite our idiocies and despite our grave inadequacies _ we have been able to do the impossible.''