FEBRUARY 11 — “Kuala Lumpur right now is the best city in the world,” said a close friend of mine last week. Of course I initially scoffed.
I mean the Hokkien mee is decent (though it’s a weird colour) but KL the best anything of anything?
But, well, I’ve spent the last few weeks working in KL and you know my friend isn’t exactly wrong. As a proud Singaporean that’s not an easy admission, it’s hard to explain and it comes with a whole heap of qualifiers.
What I mean is that cities have phases. Shanghai in the 20s, or the booming Bruce-Lee Hong Kong of the 70 and 80s, 50s Dolce Vita Rome or of course Paris at the turn of 19th century.
These were particular moments where the cities in question shone with particular brightness.
And at this moment in time circa 2018, KL — that messy, grimy muddy river town — is going through a phase of real brightness. To understand this you have to first put aside the perpetual problem of politics.
This done, you will see one of the most vibrant food scenes on earth. Every combination of Chinese, Malay and Indian and things you didn’t think could be combined.
On top of this, Western, Korean and Japanese chains and food trends spill out of the innumerable malls as a crop of high-end ingredient and quality focused dining venues take root in the upmarket corners of Bangsar, TTDI and Hartamas.
More than just the dining options, it’s what or who you see and hear in the various stalls and dining halls. Again a head-spinning mix of Malay, Chinese Tamil and English along with Arabic, Persian, Nepali, Bamar, Japanese and expat European languages.
Of course Singapore offers much of the same but frankly the integration is not comparable; take a walk around Sentral station, skirt the edge of the traditionally Indian Brickfields neighbourhood and you’ll see that racially-mixed groups are far more common here than in Singapore. The pot in KL at least has really started melting.
Adding to the languages, religions and food is the strengthening economy. After years of under performing, the Malaysian economy is on the up.
The ringgit is strengthening, new infrastructure is coming onstream with new metro lines making the city more coherent.
Giant buiildings like The Exchange 106 bring to mind the 90s and the rise of the twin towers.
But in fact we haven’t gone back to the 90s. Instead it is a more mellow and mature city that is developing now, one that has also provided extraordinary scope for creativity.
Again, just listen. From amazingly talented Tamil rappers like Rabbit Mac, to Mandarin and dialect stars like Namewee to the vocally gifted Zamaera.
And In the creative space too rather than segregation, you see integration. Tamil rappers collaborating with Malay and Chinese acts, Chinese dialect singers bouncing along to Malay beats. There are cross cultural collaborations in every direction.
It’s a real Babel in a uniquely KL way. The city is wealthy enough to fuel various subcultures, there are vast numbers of educated young people, enough infrastructure and connectivity while costs are sufficiently low to allow people to take up full-time creative careers and projects.
It’s KL’s basic disorganisation that allowed this to happen. Singapore’s efficient but relatively rigid system ensures a degree of homogeneity but KL’s mish mash of education systems, pathways and policies have allowed cultures, ideas, classes and ethnicities to collide in a way that is somewhat unthinkable across the Causeway.
For example: as Singapore has tightened up on immigration over the past few years, Malaysia’s laissez faire approach has seen whole new communities emerge.
Thousands of Arabs, Persians, Myanmars and Nepalis are now adding their voices to the city’s cacophony.
It is dizzying and fun but also fragile and that’s the key. KL is having a great moment but remember that it is just a moment.
In fact as elections approach, issues come closer to the surface, nearer to becoming real flash points. In a way that adds to KL’s special status.
Just like Shanghai in the 20s, part of the appeal is the fragility — everyone knows it’s a delicate balance. It would only take a few intolerant laws, a short economic slump or a violent incident to collapse the whole happy equilibrium.
No one knows what will happen next week or next month but for now KL is having a genuinely positive moment and as a Singaporean I’m happy to be nearby enough to enjoy it.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.