As recently as 20 years ago, Kuala Lumpur was a predominantly low-rise city, with hardly any buildings more than a few storeys high. Fast forward to today, and the situation could not be more different. KL is awash with shiny new high-rises, and on every street it seems that yet another temple to modernity is taking shape. KL gives a very good impression of being a city that is in love with the future, with little regard for preserving its past.
KLCC, with its iconic Twin Towers and massive air-con shopping centre, epitomises the new KL. Within only a few hundred metres of KLCC though, is Kampung Baru, a settlement that has so far resisted the march towards bland modernity. For anyone who wants to see a different, more traditional side to KL, then Kampung Baru is well worth a visit.
Established in 1900 as a township for Malays, it retains the feel of a conservative, rural settlement. Almost all the buildings are one or two storeys high, built at least partially out of wood. Quite apart from their aesthetic charm, the so-called kampung houses are a living link to a calmer, less commercial way of living.
Kampung Baru has no blockbuster sights as such, but is rather a place to wander round with no fixed plan. Although it feels a world away from modern KL, it is just one stop on the LRT from KLCC.
The central location has had developers salivating for years, but for the moment they are being kept at bay. One of the main reasons is Muslim inheritance laws, which have resulted in many houses being jointly owned by dozens of distant relatives. To buy any of these houses requires agreement by each and every owner, which is a challenge, to say the least. Some way round the inheritance laws would probably have been found by now though, were the community not so heavily opposed to development.
Another factor that protects Kampung Baru is its special place in the history of Malay nationalism, and the struggle for independence from British rule. It was here that crucial early meetings were held by what was to become Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Still today, Malay political marches often start out at Kampung Baru’s main mosque. It remains one of the only communities in Malaysia that the government cannot simply buy or bully into submission.
So for the moment, large-scale development has been kept at bay, and KL still has a place where cows graze, right at the heart of the city.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 27th February, 2015.