Kampung Baru: Past, Present, Future

23 March 2017

The seemingly stuck-in-time villages of Kampung Baru nestled among the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur have long been viewed as a symbol of Malay culture’s presence in the city. But as time catches up, what form will progress and development take?

The only home Hajah Sutiah Haji Ahmad knows is the house she was born and raised in, a house dating back over a hundred years in a village called Kampung Paya – one of the seven villages that make up Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur.

To this day, traditional kampung houses like hers make up much of the area despite being in the city centre. Scattered around, the abundance of warungs and restaurants show visitors why the neighbourhood is known as a food haven.

At 88 years old, Hajah Sutiah has experienced first hand much of Kampung Baru’s changes. Most of all, she misses the gotong-royong spirit of simpler times. But changes are expected to take place more rapidly now in her later years. Facing her traditional stilted wooden home (rumah panggung) just across the street is the construction of a high-rise condominium.

Hajah Sutiah lives with her son, 66-year-old retiree Haji Abdul Rahman Hussain, who is the fifth, and expects to be the last, generation to live in their home.

“It would be sad to lose the kampung culture,” she says. “Eventually we’re going to give up the house. If everything else around here is developed, there’s no point being the last old house here among skyscrapers,” she adds with a sigh.

However, she and her son insist that they are not resistant to progress, as Kampung Baru has had to adapt to changes many times since its inception. They only question what form that progress will take on now.

Kampung Baru has played many roles since its founding in 1900, but the current redevelopment plans will see it completely disassembled as a village in the city and reconstructed as a business district.

Kampung Baru is presently on the verge of major redevelopment of the entire settlement to be dubbed the Kampong Bharu City Centre (KBCC). Plans currently include the building of a mall, office towers and the KBCC Central Park that will link directly to KLCC Park. While the settlement has evolved in many ways since it was established in 1900, this development would be its biggest change to date: almost everything will be torn down for a new township plan that focuses on making it a business district.

The seven villages will no longer exist, with residential areas in the new development rearranged to take up less space.

RM43 billion is reportedly allocated for the redevelopment project, estimated to be worth an estimated RM61 billion in gross development value, and expected to create over 46,000 job opportunities. In the current plans, redevelopment will take place in phases with the central plot of Kampung Masjid to be the pilot parcel to kick things off. This is the plot where the KBCC Central Park will be, as well as see the development of a KBCC Mall

A taste of what's to come, UDA Legasi Sdn Bhd is among the first to bring in its towering development to the village.

Although works haven’t officially begun yet, Kampong Bharu Development Corporation has pointed out that some development has started, including the Menara Legasi and Uda Residen high-rises that are taking place in front of Hajah Sutiah’s home. Meanwhile, development of the much talked about M101 Entity Sdn Bhd project comprising two 70-storey towers with a ferris wheel at the top has also begun, but it’s considered to be on the fringe of Kampung Baru and not on the actual settlement.

There’s no denying that KBCC is a lucrative venture, but that hasn’t convinced everyone.

Presently, approximately 5,300 people own the 1,355 lots of Kampung Baru. Due to its location in the city centre, the village has been battling various forms of development for decades. Kampung Baru’s identity is split between being prime real estate in a metropolis and being the city’s last link to a slower paced, more traditional way of life.

Kampung Baru remains an odd sight as one of the last residential areas still adopting the kampung lifestyle while being towered over by skyscrapers.

But defining Kampung Baru’s identity itself is complicated. The village’s evolution since its inception has seen it play many roles. Its location was initially allocated and gazetted as the Malay Agricultural Settlement by the British, the then colonial administrators of the Federated Malay States. A management board was put in place to organise the village as a hub for Malays, with agriculture next to the Klang river to be the economic driver of the community. However, agricultural activities abruptly ended just two years later as the land proved to be too difficult to cultivate due to floods and the unsuitable equipment received from Britain at the time.

The village was rejuvenated again years later with the introduction of the Saturday Fair, which then changed again to become today’s Kampung Baru Sunday market. This saw economic activity in the village pivoting to food, which continues to thrive today, and the villages stayed largely undisturbed for decades as the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur began to rise around it.

The Administration Board of Malay Agricultural Settlement of Kampung Baru remains to this day, carrying out its duties in a role similar to that of a local council. The present honorary secretary to the board is former Kampung Hujung Pasir village head Shamsuri Suradi, who acts as the administrative chief to the seven village heads. He is determined to identify a solution to Kampung Baru’s crossroads.

Having been the honorary secretary for ten years now, Shamsuri says his role in these discussions for redevelopment is to represent the interests of the Kampung Baru people, liaising with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and the Kampong Bharu Development Corporation (PKB), established in 2012.

“If you want to develop Kampung Baru, the first thing to know is the history before you can think about what is going to be next,” he says. “If you are talking about wanting to preserve Malay culture, what is the Malay culture you are talking about?”

Shamsuri argues that even the term “Malay” during the establishing of Kampung Baru was far reaching to include all natives of the Malay Archipelago, and that even until the 1940s and 1950s, there were ethnic tensions between those of Minangkabau, Mandailing and Javanese descent to name a few.  

According to Shamsuri, compromises are definitely going to be made, but he is confident that a way forward needs to be rooted in the area’s authentic history, and not identities placed on it by external forces.

The Administration Board’s honorary secretary, Shamsuri Suradi questions what identity does the redevelopment try to portray of Kampung Baru, and if it will be rooted in its history.

“As we develop it, we must also identify our demographic. Being in the city, are they looking to target the elite? Are they aiming to make it accessible to kampung folk? There needs to be a model for integrating communities in this development,” he says.

Shamsuri points out that the people of the village still need to be able to make a living. It’s a sentiment shared by his fellow Kampung Hujung Pasir native, Roshidah Ahmad, 52, who along with her husband Abdul Halim Jamaludin, 53, run the famous Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa stall. Their business was started by Roshidah’s mother and they continue to operate it in front of the house they inherited from her.

Since the 1980s, Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa has arguably been one of the area’s major draws, and a catalyst for Kampung Baru’s development into a modern food destination.

The residents of the seven villages of Kampung Baru will have to rethink their community structure when the surrounding metropolis absorbs their township as a commercial district.

The couple argues that all that would be lost if major development were to take place.

“Progress should be facilitated here, not forced,” says Abdul Halim. “When sidewalks were laid here, that was progress and development that helped the people. But it’s not the same if you change the entire environment of Kampung Baru.”

Back in Kampung Paya, Hajah Sutiah and her son agree, adding that if they were given property in the new developments, they would just live somewhere else and rent it out.

“What opportunities would there be for us anyway in that environment?” her son asks.

By Aizyl Azlee
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi

This article is related to CULTURE KAMPUNG BARU KUALA LUMPUR


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