When residents of Kampung Sungai Baru in Kuala Lumpur were served with eviction notices during the strict COVID-19 lockdown, it triggered a huge social media uproar attacking the move, its timing, and the low compensation value offered. However, while most expressed sympathy towards the residents, some focused on the compensation value and mocked the residents for rejecting a higher offer by the previous ruling government in 2019. The higher offer, however, relates to the Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS) land in Kampung Baru – land that can only be bought and sold by ethnic Malays. Kampung Sungai Baru does not fall into this category. This common mistake illustrates the confusion surrounding Kampung Baru, a place entangled with jurisdictional overlaps, fragmented ownership, and contested claims on its developmental path.
Kampung Baru is arguably one of the most studied sites in Kuala Lumpur owing to its prominence as a Malay kampung, a stone’s throw away from Petronas Twin Tower (KLCC). It was established in 1897, formally gazetted in 1900 as a Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS), and administered by the MAS Board. This land arrangement aims to ensure the ethnic Malays retain land holding in the urban areas amidst the in-migration of Chinese and Indian labour during British occupancy to support tin mining and plantation industries. Consistent with the British’s economic segregation policy, the Malays were given land in Kampung Baru to cultivate paddy. Over time, this land was converted into residential land made up of more than 800 plots. When the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur) was carved out from Selangor, Kampung Baru expanded slightly to include non-MAS areas (including Kampung Sungai Baru earlier) to form Kampung Baru as we know it today.
To the locals, Kampung Baru is popular for local food eateries and a laid-back kampung atmosphere. It is iconic for the juxtaposition of traditional Malay houses, towering KLCC and other high-rises in the background. Being a predominantly residential zone, it is not strictly a tourist site. However, local groups and activists do offer tours of the kampung as tourism products and to raise awareness about its history.
While it began as a planned neighbourhood with paved streets and linear plots, over time, individual plot development created a myriad of structures. Visitors can see traditional wooden houses next door to modern multistorey homes or houses turned into small shops and eateries. Additionally, its infrastructure is not upgraded. With the lack of funding from the MAS Board, some parts prone to flooding remained poorly maintained (Omar & Yusof, 2002). Following this, prominent leaders have expressed their contempt towards its kampung image. Ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad controversially referred to it as a ‘scab’ in the rapidly modernising Kuala Lumpur, as it gives the Malays a negative image despite their economic success on par with the other ethnicities. The neighbouring KLCC is, after all, his pet project.
Since the first proposal to upgrade the image of Kampung Baru in 1975, seven subsequent proposals were made, each a refinement of its predecessor (Alhabshi, 2010; Rosilawati et al., 2017). The mode of redevelopment also evolved from individual plot development to land amalgamation to pursue ‘new build’ redevelopment. The highly fragmented land ownership, however, makes land acquisition difficult, hampering these plans. Moreover, the longer the delay, the ownerships get more fragmented due to inheritance law. Reaching a consensus is, therefore, an uphill battle. While the various independent surveys confirm authorities’ claim that the majority of landowners support redevelopment in principle, there are still some owners who are sceptical regardless of the price offered (Alhabshi, 2010; Omar & Yusof, 2002). For these residents, their main concern is the inability to participate in Kampung Baru’s future despite the compensation. The expected ‘gradual disappearance of Malay identity’ from a property-led development drew scepticism (Alhabshi, 2010).
And yet, does ‘staying still’ means they can chart their own future in Kampung Baru? Some argue that the redevelopment of Kampung Baru is inevitable. However, five decades since the plans were first mooted, Kampung Baru residents can proudly say that they have resisted forced acquisition and displacement, unlike their peers in Kampung Sungai Baru, Kampung Kerinchi, and Kampung Railway, to name a few – none of which enjoy a MAS status.
On the one hand, the MAS status allows residents to voice their say in Kampung Baru’s development path. Their general opinions emphasise a need to preserve its tangible and intangible heritage in future developments. The unique Malay architecture, food, and cultural activities in Kampung Baru can be developed into tourism products. Others insist that any development will need to maintain affordable housing, as it currently offers. Contrast these with the authorities’ grand plan in KBDC’s 2014 Concept Redevelopment Plan – a modern neighbourhood with dense residential high-rise and an iconic tower as the landmark. Located at the centre is an ‘oasis of culture’ dotted with greeneries and traditional wooden houses. To prepare for this, its plot ratio has been increased from 1:6 to 1:10 to match neighbouring KLCC, while land use under the plan will change from agricultural and residential land into business and commerce (Rosilawati et al., 2017: 69). This seems to indicate a convergence to the rest of Kuala Lumpur; not exactly what the residents have in mind.
Despite these anxieties around state-led redevelopment, a common thread from the many recorded interviews with residents is a persistent caveat they are ‘not against development’. In the case of Kampung Sungai Baru, their activist group’s online banner states ‘yes to development, no to rogue developer (‘pemaju cap ayam’)’. For Kampung Baru residents, development is welcomed, but it must be done in a way that does not marginalise the Malays from the urban centre. As one argues: “I’m not against it (redevelopment), please don’t say I’m against it. But if the Chinese have Chinatown, the Indians Little India, where is the Malay in our [urban] centre?”
What, then, is so sacred about ‘development’ that it is almost taboo to speak against it? Is it a fear of being called ‘backward’?
This tendency may stem from residents’ acknowledgement of the negative impact of prolonged limbo. As argued by Ujang & Abdul Aziz (2016), Kampung Baru has become a site of uncertainty. In Malay, ‘development’ can be translated as ‘pembangunan’ and ‘kemajuan’. The roots of these words, ‘bangun’ (‘rise to one’s feet’) and ‘maju’ (‘progress’), imply a movement forward from this uncertain present. It may also arise from an attempt to escape the persistent stigma around kampung-living and kampung attitude (Bunnell, 2002).
Despite staying still, Kampung Baru residents face encroaching development from all sides. From 1960 to the present day, Kuala Lumpur underwent property-based development at a heady speed. During this period, while Kampung Baru managed to retain its authenticity, it felt pressure. There are prices to pay to stay in such a central area: traffic increase within a residential area that poses a danger to children; declining walkability with highways built on two sides; and a general ‘loss of place’ from changes in neighbouring areas. Families soon move out, and young workers attracted to its centrality and affordable rent start to move in. Those who remain recall fondly the communal merriment of Kampung Baru during the festivities, but it is all in the past.
Additionally, the laissez-faire planning administration by the MAS board gave owners a free hand in developing their plots. Already, we can observe gradual changes in Kampung Baru undertaken by individual plot owners. The prided traditional wooden houses are often costly to maintain. As a result, they are either renovated to include modern structures or demolished for a new unit. As Kampung Baru is a typical choice for young workers seeking affordable housing in central Kuala Lumpur, some landowners who move out build multistorey buildings designed primarily for rentals. Trying to maximise their plot, some owners build rather haphazardly to the margins, leaving little space for walkways and drainage.
Here lies the irony: while some residents are adamant that redevelopment must retain its heritage values, Kampung Baru is slowly losing its heritage assets when development decision stays in the hand of individual owners who either do not share the sentiment or simply does not have the financial capacity to maintain original structures. The battle for heritage requires concerted effort and capital.
It is difficult to separate urban renewals that involve demolitions from the prospect of displacement. In the ideal case that these residents were able to stay and own a property in the new development, the neighbourhood would be unrecognisable. The streets will not be the familiar route, nor the neighbours the familiar faces.
What, then, does one do when one knows that displacement is inevitable? As Celestina (2016) asks, ‘When does the ‘clock’ of displacement start?’ For some, they move out and seek a more certain future. For others, staying put is a daily rebellion against the teeth of development. Either way, displacement pressure means that their ‘relationship between place and self can become radically altered’ (Davidson, 2018: 254; also see Marcuse, 1985).
Alhabshi, S. M. (2010). Surviving Urban Renewal Program: Case Study of a Traditional Urban Village in Kuala Lumpur. Political Managements and Policies in Malaysia: Seminar on National Resilience.
Bunnell, T. (2002). Kampung Rules: Landscape and the Contested Government of Urban(e) Malayness. Urban Studies 39(9), 1685–1701.
Celestina, M. (2016). “Displacement” before Displacement: Time, Place and the Case of Rural Urabá. In Journal of Latin American Studies 48(2), 367–390.
Davidson, M. (2018). New-build gentrification. In L. Lees with Martin Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of Gentrification Studies. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Marcuse, P. (1985). Gentrification, Abandonment, and Displacement: Connections, Causes, and Policy Responses in New York City. Journal of Urban and Contemporary Law (Vol. 28, 195-240.
Omar, I., & Yusof, A. M. (2002). Indigenous land rights and dynamics of the land market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Habitat International 26(4), 507-521.
Rosilawati, Z., Sarayed-din, L. F., & Faizah, A. (2017). Exploring Informality In A Global South City: Issues Of Power And Urban Development In Kuala Lumpur. Journal of Design and Built Environment 17(1), 63–73.
Ujang, N., & Abdul Aziz, F. (2016). The Malay Enclave of Kampong Bharu as a Living Tradition: A place of uncertainty. Environment-Behaviour Proceedings Journal 1(2), 197-202.
About the author
Alia Salleh recently completed her MSc in Urbanisation and Development at the LSE. Now a researcher based in Kuala Lumpur, she hopes to continue to explore the issues surrounding urban redevelopment and housing policy in the city.