A Tale of Think City

09 March 2017

Communities can contribute to the betterment of cities, or more specifically, to the betterment of Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur is a young city – or at least, in comparison to our neighbouring capitals of Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila – but our problems are age-old. How might we come together to build better cities, block by block; to connect creativity, culture and civil society together to build also capacity, character and quality of place?

Welcome to Think City.

Think City is a “community-focused” urban regeneration organisation; it “aims to create more liveable, resilient and people-centric cities”, and works closely with local governments and international agencies to encourage sustainable solutions for the generations of today and tomorrow. It was established in 2009 in George Town when Think City was tasked to put their city-making theories into practice. Its success in George Town – four years, a RM7 million injection into the local economy through the George Town Grants Programme, and 236 projects later – led to its sure expansion into three other cities in Malaysia: Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur, and in mid-last year, Johor Bahru.

Here, it’s important to introduce Think City’s boundary map of Kuala Lumpur: Think City’s work in the city is focused on downtown Kuala Lumpur “approximately a 1km radius from Masjid Jamek”, which Think City considers to be the capital’s historical starting point.

Through its Grants Programme, Think City gives out grants to “communities, private individuals or non-governmental organisations with ideas to contribute to the regeneration and revitalisation of an area,” says Jia-Ping Lee, the programme director of Think City Kuala Lumpur. The goal, of course, is to encourage sustainability in an environment that’s more liveable for all. Think City collaborates with local and international partners to promote best practices in its work, such as Badan Warisan Malaysia and Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL).

“A key criteria of selection for the grant is sustainability. For example, you can’t say ‘I’m holding one workshop’; we can’t fund one-off programmes, because those aren’t sustainable. With arts programmes, for instance, we don’t fund performances – but we do fund, let’s say, capacity-building workshops. We’ll want to see beyond just the one-offs, we’ll want to see how it grows into something more meaningful,” says Jia-Ping.

RUANG by Think City occupies the second floor of 2 Hang Kasturi.

Think City isn’t all about giving out grants, though. In collaboration with Rapid KL, Think City aims to rejuvenate public spaces through Arts On the Move, a programme that makes art accessible to the public. Art, such as dikir barat showcases and sape performances, is presented (for free, too) in a non-traditional, unexpected environment at the Masjid Jamek LRT Station to engage commuters and enrich lives. Meanwhile, RUANG by Think City occupies the second floor of a historic, heritage building – now known as 2 Hang Kasturi – in Medan Pasar. The centre for community-related activities, exhibitions and talks has hosted composting classes, photography exhibitions, and writing workshops for the young.

As it stands, the grants will no longer be given out after the grants programme sees out its third year in Kuala Lumpur; Think City is currently going into its third year in the capital since its conception in January 2015 – how will programmes and projects live on after without funding? 

“The grants will go into review, and then we’ll see what’s the best way forward depending on what the demand is, and the efficacy and quality of programmes and projects. That’s why we look at sustainability. Let’s say you’re the owner of a historic heritage building, and let’s say we grant you money to support a façade upgrade. What we hope to do, actually, is to inculcate pride in the building owner, and that should be incentive enough to get them to sustain it. They should be doing it on their own after that,” explains Jia-Ping.


RUANG by Think City is a centre for community-related activities, exhibitions and talks.

“We’re a small grant,” she adds, but through the power of small stimuluses, Think City brings about big changes for the better in the city. Eats, Shoots & Roots, for example, was one of the earliest recipients of the Think City grant. The social enterprise with a mission to grow communities through growing food set up Sayur in the City, a guide to eating and growing vegetables in downtown Kuala Lumpur – the core zone within which Think City works – in the search for food security and food sustainability. Think of it as a guide to getting your local greens in the city – it details restaurants in downtown Kuala Lumpur that serve vegetable dishes such as bayam goreng kelapa at Restoran Yusoof dan Zakhi, deep fried cauliflower masala at Anjappar Indian Chettinad, and pumpkin pau at Helen’s Chee Cheong Fun. The project, in partnership with Think City, has now grown into its next phase – to identify suitable and sustainable plots in restaurants, or even carparks and community areas, in the city to get gardens growing.

Eats, Shoots & Roots.

Beatrice Yong of Eats, Shoots & Roots says that perhaps the next phase will be to “feature the garden produce from the gardens we have built” in cooking workshops, for instance. “The intention is to build awareness amongst cooks and chefs about sustainable local produce, and through them and their delicious food, to inspire others to do the same.”

On the subject of mapping: LiteraCity, also a Think City-funded programme, is a literary and cultural mapping of Kuala Lumpur. LiteraCity is founded by Zikri Rahman of Buku Jalanan, a street library movement started in Shah Alam, along with alternative publishing press Moka Mocha Ink’s Nurul Aizam and Ridhwan Saidi, also an author and filmmaker. It documents Kuala Lumpur-related, literary-based texts, including books, short stories, and poems from the ’70s up until the present. Though the project concerns itself mainly with the mapping of literary texts that are predominantly about the city, LiteraCity also hosts exhibitions, literary tours, and workshops “as a way to engage with multiple sectors of the society,” says Zikri.


A Nyoba Kan performance at Masjid Jamek LRT station as part of Think City’s Arts On the Move programme.

Zikri further explains that through literary lenses, LiteraCity aims to analyse “the urban phenomenon of the city”. The trio has also discoursed with and interviewed several prime sources, most notably renowned Malaysian authors A. Samad Said, Chuah Guat Eng, and Muhammad Haji Salleh, to “look at the ideas of [urban] literature from multiple perspectives of its social, political and economics context” and “to celebrate multiple perspective of the texts in public spaces.”

“It is a continuous process of rediscovering and repositioning ourselves,” says Zikri. “It's a marathon towards establishing Kuala Lumpur as the city of literature.”

Kuala Lumpur is also a city of regeneration, of rehabilitation, of revival. Pit Stop Community Café on Jalan Tun H. S. Lee is a café-meets-soup kitchen that believes in a hand up, not a handout. The social enterprise, a Think City-funded programme, works towards solutions for homelessness, hunger, and urban poverty. From Wednesdays through Mondays at 5.30pm, Jocelyn Lee’s café serves between 200 to 260 people in the area; its service line, manned by volunteers of all ages, serves lamb porridge, stews, and sweet red bean soup, as well as bread, eggs, and potato fritters. The food is healthy, hot, and of quality – and there’s also a pay-as-you-like system, as the café’s crowd consists not just of the needy, but also the middle-class and CEO-types. The money goes towards covering operational costs and the costs of continuing to feed the homeless.

The café’s more than a pit stop, though; it’s also a coordinating hub for opportunities to empower the homeless economically, by facilitating job placements or programmes to reach out to them. For instance, Think City funds hospitality training classes for the homeless.  

Jia-Ping Lee, programme director of Think City Kuala Lumpur.

“Sometimes it’s not about giving money, sometimes it’s about saying, ‘Have you engaged with the city in this way, or on another platform, and here are some people you can talk to, and so just go on and explore’,” says Jia-Ping.

“We want to start a conversation about the Asian context. How do we marry the best of international practices in the context of Southeast Asia, and how do we then become a voice for Asian rejuvenation?” Jia-Ping continues: “There’s nothing as defeating as saying, ‘Oh, they do this in the west all the time’, because we’re not the west, we’re the east. We don’t behave like westerners – except for a minority of people who’ve lived abroad, and these tend to be the stronger voices because they have access, but they don’t represent the masses. What we want to say is the city is for everyone. The city is only as good as you are.”

By Ng Su Ann

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