Gentrification is the root cause

MARCH 27 — I am not a stylish person and my sensibility gets offended if I have to pay more than RM10 for a haircut. 

And so I typically go to an old barbershop within the Kampung Datuk Keramat wet market for a simple one for just six. 

It is a quaint little utilitarian establishment with no pictures decorating its empty walls, just paint peeling off. The owner makes no pretension that it is anything else but a barbershop unlike the fancy salons you would find in the sexier part of town. 

He was busy attending to another customer as I arrived. But as is true to most small businesses, his customers are mostly his friends. His friends are of certain age, possibly above 50 years old. 

On his ageing analogue radio, old Malay songs from the sixties I do not recognise would blare out and fill the space. 

The generation gap between them and me is impossible to miss. As a young man with shorts and a pair of shoes, I stood out in that environment.

They were in a conversation but he found time to acknowledge me. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said in Malay. So I sat quietly on a wooden bench, took my phone out from my pocket and began browsing the Internet as I waited for my turn.

They returned to their conversation, which was about a condominium project nearby. It was the Datum project, a local issue that was in the spotlight several weeks back. I have patronised his establishment before and from my previous eavesdropping, I remember he said he used to operate at the old flats that were demolished for the Datum condominium on Jalan Jelatek. 

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall — for close to two decades now — wants to relocate the ageing wet market to a new complex just down the road that they call the Keramat Mall, a building of confused architecture and utility.  

Local traders here have long complained the rent at the mall is too expensive, and it is located a story above ground to complicate matters. And so, they are in a permanent revolt against city hall and continue to operate at the wet market.

Whenever there is a fire at the market, conspiracy theories make the rounds and they almost always feature the authorities trying to force them out. The Federal Territories minister recently accused outsiders of meddling and inciting the local traders not to move. 

Kampung Datuk Keramat, together with the more famous Kampung Baru, falls under the Titiwangsa parliamentary seat in Kuala Lumpur. In 2008, for the first time ever, Umno lost the seat to PAS. 

The then representative, Dr Lo’ Lo’ lived here. She died of cancer 2011 and PAS struggled to fill her shoes, leaving Umno to win back the seat in the last general election. But it was a tough fight. 

The so-called mall which for the longest time was a white elephant, home to street cats and frequented by suspicious characters, was turned into a mini-Urban Transformation Centre with offices belonging to the immigration department, health department and the police just last year. The UTC as they call it. 

The prime minister’s face is splashed across the building façade, possibly implicitly telling the residents to be thankful. 

Or perhaps the reason for the re-investment is the Umno-led government is anxious about its future in Kuala Lumpur: out of 11 parliamentary seats, BN controls only two. On a notice board, I could read yellowing Utusan news clippings boldly claiming that the mall could transform Keramat. I wonder what it wrote about the mall back in early 2000s when it was recently completed.

The old, smelly, wet market first opened in the 1970s, and still stands in defiance of the federal government.

A stark contrast presents itself to anybody who stands in the middle of the small, packed parking lot that more often than not is the source of congestion in the neighbourhood. 

On a very bad day, the traffic could back up all the way to Jalan Ampang on one side and Setiawangsa on the other. A poorly dressed old man would park his deprecated motorcycle next to a shiny silver BMW car. 

Look around and you realise the market is a mish-mash of wooden and concrete structure with zinc tops. Look farther, a mid-range military apartment complex dominates the horizon that just 10 years ago was full of trees and abandoned buildings. 

To the right stands the more expensive condominiums along Jalan Jelatek. Behind, you may possibly spot Petronas Twin Towers along with other modern buildings from the Intermark to the imposing Hong Kong’s Bank of China-like building with its crisscrossing frames on Jalan Tun Razak. 

All of those surround the compact kampong with the wet market and a mosque nearby at the centre of the neighbourhood. Most of the houses here are standalone homes but there are several low-rise low-cost apartments nearby too. But farther away towards the limits of Keramat are big bungalows with their shiny cars.

The planned Datum condominium, that luxury condominium project, will add to that contrast. Politically, the condo will be just across the border in Selangor, but it is an integral part of Kampung Datuk Keramat nonetheless. 

It is one of those things where an invisible line on the ground means nothing. This is where city and Selangor state politics mix, a mix that goes back all the way before 1974 when Kuala Lumpur was carved out of the state.

Datum will not be the first condominium here. The first went up during the go-go years of the 1990s, robbing Datuk Keramat residents of an unobstructed view of Kuala Lumpur. 

The UEM-controlled Faber Group is building another on Jalan Gurney where prices range from about RM400,000 to more than RM3 million per unit. There is also the recently completed Suria Jelatek Residences at the Ampang end of Jalan Jelatek, besides the Datum project — the lowest sub-sale prices running at around RM600,000 for a shoebox —  but this seems to be going farther, but still a walkable distance, into the expat enclave that Jalan Ampang is. I have a suspicion that Jalan Jelatek is slowing turning into an annex of that enclave.

Kampung Datuk Keramat is not immune to the changes. Hang around at the Datuk Keramat and Damai light rail train stations and you will find American, European and Middle Eastern people among the riders departing from here. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the foreigners were mostly Indonesians who eventually, I think, were absorbed into the community. The new foreigners are much harder to absorb into the community, they are more transient and they do not mix with the locals. They do not go to Pasar Keramat.

The damaged hoarding of the Datum Jelatek Project is seen following a demonstration by a group of residents in Taman Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, January 25, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The damaged hoarding of the Datum Jelatek Project is seen following a demonstration by a group of residents in Taman Keramat, Kuala Lumpur, January 25, 2015. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Kampung Datuk Keramat is finally experiencing what Kampung Baru went through more drastically back in the 1990s when Kuala Lumpur first rushed to the sky with the Twin Towers as the crowning jewel just right at its doorsteps.

Not everybody is comfortable with the change because it can mean having to move out. The old barber was chased out of the ground floor shop lot within the old low-cost apartment where Datum will rise. He is now in Pasar Keramat but the federal government now wants to clear the market, and move everybody out to the old, new mall. 

The Faber condominium development forced earlier residents to move out although the developer is compensating them. Several shophouses were demolished to make way for the Keramat Mall long ago.

This is gentrification. Located so close to the city, the area attracts the well-to-do to the formerly unsexy location, and possibly pushing former residents out.

When they get kicked out, they become angry. Who would not, especially when you have been living here all your life? The fear of dislocation is especially acute: if you look at the voters’ age profile in 2013, 66 per cent of them were 40 or older. Sure, voter and population profiles do not coincide precisely but it is still indicative of this particular society at the ground level. This is an amazing figure especially since the median age for the whole country is about 26-27 years old. Titiwangsa, and specifically Kampung Datuk Keramat, is an old neighbourhood in a young country.

And so when the unruly protesters went nuts against the Datum project in late January, tearing the zinc wall marking the boundary of the empty construction site while throwing racist claims the development would turn Keramat into a “Chinese district,” I think they were judged too harshly, especially by outsiders who make no effort to learn the context on the ground. 

I do think they — the local protesters — were really protesting against the gentrification that Datuk Keramat and its surrounding is experiencing. They saw vast development going around their home and they are not directly benefiting from it. 

Right or wrong, they see themselves as the victims of gentrification. Racism is a secondary issue and perhaps, was put into the mix by outsiders who know only racial politics to win a brownie point. This is not to say okay to racism, but there is a need to separate the wheat from the chaff here.

I think gentrification is the cause and not so much race because when the developer of Datum came out to share that most of the interested buyers were Bumiputras, that fact did not relax the opposition to the development one bit.

They continue to oppose because it does not matter if the new buyers are Malays or Chinese, or foreigners altogether. The development pushed them out of their homes and their shops. It is they who suffer, not anybody else, regardless of race.

The only ones who were embarrassed by the revelation were Perkasa and Umno.

I am not against gentrification. I feel it is inevitable and it revitalizes the community in some ways. It signals rising affluence and it makes the gentrified neighbourhood cleaner and safer. And I personally am agnostic about the Datum development.

But the losers of gentrification must be compensated well. It cannot be that they are given some pitiful pocket money and be left to beg on the street and forced to move out elsewhere farther away from the city. That would create a sense of unfairness that could give rise to other problems in the future. The benefits have to be shared equitably with the residents.

To dismiss the opposition to the Datum project as being fuelled by racism and instigated by outsiders is to miss the whole point altogether.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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