Calling skyscraper plan redundant, experts say what makes Kampung Baru unique is its people, culture

An aerial view of Kampung Baru, which sits right next to some of Kuala Lumpur's skyscrapers. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
An aerial view of Kampung Baru, which sits right next to some of Kuala Lumpur's skyscrapers. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 29 — During the holy month of Ramadan, hundreds join a queue that slowly inches into Kampung Baru Jamek Mosque’s southern gate every day.

Having fasted for much of the day, Malay-Muslims from all over the city flock here to collect a packet of bubur lambok, a tasty porridge born in the basement of the century-old mosque and given out for free.

This tradition, practiced for decades, has become the subject of countless travel and lifestyle articles the world over.

While handing out food during Ramadan is common elsewhere, the bubur lambok is an “experience” unique only to the Kampung Baru Jamek Mosque.

But as the federal government pushes for new development in Kampung Baru, urbanists, historians and planners worry that much of the cultural loci that gives this Malay kampung its identity will be lost, even if a few concur that infrastructure repairs are much needed.

“I think they (the government) think if you don’t develop Kampung Baru now, the opportunity will be lost,” said Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar, president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners.

“I think from a socio-economic point of view, the idea behind the plan may be to make the Malay community there on par with the rest of the population. But the question perhaps is: Is this (modern development) the best we can do?”

Bucolic scenes like this one are still commonplace in Kampung Baru. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Bucolic scenes like this one are still commonplace in Kampung Baru. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

The first draft of the Detailed Master Plan of Kampong Bharu 2020 prepared by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall indicated mixed development of mostly strata residential and commercial units, which will encircle a large “Green Area” park that measures a few kilometres long, almost similar to New York City’s Central Park.

To preserve the village’s cultural heritage, the blueprint proposes that several traditionally built Malay wooden homes be preserved and placed in a “Malay Heritage Village.”

There will also be a cultural hall meant to showcase traditional Malay art performances.

Most of these structures will strongly feature “Malay elements” in their design. For example, there is a plan to build a 93-storey tower called the Menara Mercu Tanda or Signature Tower that will feature traditional Malay clothing design motifs like the samping and tengkolok.

Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad said all this is meant to preserve Kampung Baru’s “Malay identity”, in line with the government’s intention of keeping the proposed development wholly Malay-owned.

But while structures can be symbolic of a culture, they become meaningless in the absence of the loci they seek to represent.

Nik Amirul Faiz Nik Md Yusof, an architect involved in several community-based projects including Ruang by Think City, said there are strong concerns about the Kampung Baru development plan’s seeming emphasis on Western-style development and its potential effect on local culture.

Children playing outside their house in Kampung Baru with the iconic Twin Towers looming behind them. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Children playing outside their house in Kampung Baru with the iconic Twin Towers looming behind them. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

“It can attempt to present it by way of form representation but without clear verbal explanation, no one can tell,” he said in an email interview with Malay Mail.

“Culture is intangible in nature. They’re best represented by the original genius loci of a place, which requires a long time to develop. Such a waste if it is lost within a split second if not addressed carefully.”

(Genius loci refers to the unique atmosphere of a location.)

The government has revealed little about the signature tower so far. Apart from the design, it is unclear if the building will be for residences or offices.

Khalid had said that these buildings are meant to draw investors similar to the ongoing Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) project, but it is unclear if this meant opening sales or rent to foreign or non-Malay investors.

The FT minister had said that Kampung Baru’s development will prioritise Malay ownership.

On social media, the public has been critical of the proposal. Many feel building an office tower will be redundant amid a glut in office space within the capital city, prompting suspicion that it was meant to enrich politically-linked developers.

To convince residents to sell their land, public officials often point to the kampung’s somewhat shabby image, awkwardly placed amid a bustling and rapidly developing modern city. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
To convince residents to sell their land, public officials often point to the kampung’s somewhat shabby image, awkwardly placed amid a bustling and rapidly developing modern city. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Valuation and Property Services Department (JPPH) found the average rate of unoccupied office space in the region stood at 23.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2019, compared with 22.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2018.

Kuala Lumpur and Selangor were the highest in terms of unoccupied space at 19.27 million sq ft and 11.19 million sq ft respectively.

Planners and architects understand the motivation behind the proposed tower as one aimed at projecting Malay economic success. Yet, they feel that this should not be done at the expense of Kampung Baru’s rich identity and culture.

“Symbolism in architecture is strongly needed to make an iconic building successful,” Nik Amirul said.

“But in the current trend of every project that competes to be iconic, it is not necessary. I would say it’s irresponsible even... if we look at heritage sites in Europe, they manage to be iconic without shouting about it in a tower built form.

“Cities like Istanbul, for example. The history and identity is an icon by itself.”

In the past, pro-conservation planners, architects, landscape designers -- amid debates about the government’s plan for Kampung Baru -- have proposed a smaller-scale development, which they said would be more suited to the kampung.

For example in 2017, a team comprising international academics and planners suggested micro-infrastructure works that focus more on repairs to existing structures, roads, and amenities so as to retain Kampung Baru’s Malay cultural core.

Ihsan supports the idea. Planning wise, he said such an enterprise would be far cheaper and less damaging to the socio-cultural fabric of present-day Kampung Baru. He believes this would also help boost tourism in the area.

“If you take away the night markets, eateries, the sight of children playing beside wooden kampung houses, the people lining up for the bubur lambok, will Kampung Baru be the same?” He asked.

“I don’t think so. I believe the place needs development no doubt but focus on fixing the broken homes, amenities. Make it more liveable.

“But preserving it as a kampung shouldn’t be equated to keeping it a shanty town.”

The proposed Kampung Baru development was first mooted in the 1980s under the first premiership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad; it was meant to elevate the economic status of its Malay residents.

To convince residents to sell their land, much of it owned by families for generations, public officials often point to the kampung’s somewhat shabby image, awkwardly placed amid a bustling and rapidly developing modern city.

At a townhall meeting held on September 21, Khalid said only by selling their land can residents and landowners “unlock your economic prowess.”

The government has offered to buy all plots of land at a uniform rate of RM850 per square foot. This, Khalid said, would make them instant millionaires given the average size for a plot is around 8,000 square feet.

Malay Mail’s own survey of Kampung Baru folks who participated in the townhall meeting seems to suggest they are amenable to the offer, but many also feel that the government’s offer is too low.

Land and property consultants said land where the KLCC Twin Towers sits on is worth at least RM3,000 psqf. Kampung Baru sits adjacent to the towers.

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