Anyone wandering round Kuala Lumpur could be forgiven for thinking it’s one big construction site. Everywhere you look, a new shopping centre or high-rise building is taking shape. A good deal of this frenetic building activity is understandable, as KL’s growing population needs places to live, work and shop. Unfortunately, much of the city’s remaining heritage is being trashed in the name of progress.
Up until two decades ago, KL was a predominantly low-rise city, full of living reminders of the city’s (short) history. Now, virtually any building that could be termed old — in local terms anyway — is an endangered species. The lucky ones are turned into restaurants, guesthouses or entertainment venues. Many of the rest are so badly neglected, that eventually the only option is to tear them down.
Neither local or central government appears to value KL’s heritage. They are addicted to a vision of the city as a modern, shiny place. And they are also seemingly addicted to the kickbacks that accompany every construction project. It does not help, of course, that much of KL’s most attractive architecture dates from a time when Malaysia was a colony.
The government has spent the last few decades trying to rid the country of all memory of its colonial past, from road names to buildings. In its place has come some of the ugliest architecture imaginable; without exception, any building in KL with “national” in the title is an utter monstrosity.
Even if the authorities are not bothered by the rapid loss of KL’s built history, valuable work is being done by concerned individuals and organisations to save some of what is left. Badan Warisan is an admirable non-government organisation dedicated to the preservation of Malaysia’s heritage. While it can take heart from what is happening in Georgetown and Melaka, the wholesale destruction around its gorgeous headquarters (and Heritage Centre: Mon-Sat, 10:00-17:30, 10 ringgit donation) in KL must be truly depressing.
I accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that not everyone will be wowed by a traditional Malay kampung house, or an art deco Chinese shophouse, but the power of heritage to draw tourists cannot be denied.
A midway path must be possible between bulldozing all traces of the past, and the Singapore approach, of preserving to the point of sterility. Surely KL has enough room for both the old and the new?
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 25th February, 2015.