Residents of the last remaining urban village in central Kuala Lumpur are taking a stand against plans to raze their area to the ground.
Local people in the Kampong Bharu area of Kuala Lumpur have reacted with outrage and sadness to the launch of a new master plan for development of the area.
There is widespread opposition to the plan, under which Kampong Bharu would be razed to the ground to make way for about 8 million square metres of high-rise offices, shops, and condominiums.
Kampong Bharu is the last remaining low-rise urban village in the centre of the Malaysian capital and is a Malay enclave with a 115-year heritage and history.
There are those who think development will give the area a fresh economic boost, but others say this colossal development project will simply put money into the pockets of the government and the developers and destroy the remnants of a culture that is already disappearing fast.
The Kampong Bharu Development Corporation (KBDC) says 77,000 people will be brought into an area that currently houses about 18,000.
The intention is make maximum use of an area that measures 301.38 acres. The developers would do this by employing a very high 1:10 plot ratio, which can bring bigger returns than the usual 1:6 ratio as higher buildings can be contructed.
The Malaysian capital is already dominated by high-rise buildings, but, for more than twenty years, the government has been trying to turn Kampong Bharu into yet another concrete jungle.
They have been blocked by local opposition and unsettled land disputes. Under the Islamic inheritance system, dozens and sometimes hundreds of people can be joint owners of one piece of land, but the land title may still be in the name of one person who died long ago.
Kampong Bharu, which translates as the New Village, was set up as a Malay enclave in 1899, when the Malay states were under British rule. It is just across the tracks from KL’s Golden Triangle, where the Petronas twin towers dominate the skyline, and is a massive attraction for developers.
In Kampong Bharu, the houses are mostly one or two storey, there are children playing outside, cats laze around on the pavements or prowl around on the look-out for food, and chickens peck around with no-one to bother them. There is traffic, of course, but most locals travel around by motorbike, motor scooter, or bicycle. There are still lots of small traders and the area is known as “food heaven” because of its many eateries.
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Kampong Bharu may be in need of serious renovation, but it is a refreshing contrast to the rest of KL; an urban oasis in a city well known for its traffic jams, noise, and smog.
At the launch of the new master plan at KL’s Renaissance Hotel, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, said that Kampung Baru would become a “Malay cultural centre” and Kuala Lumpur’s “new economic enclave”.
However, one local businessman, who prefers not to be named, says the proposed development would turn Kampong Bharu into a soulless golden triangle. “And the government and the development corporation still shamelessly claim that they are helping the Malays,” he said.
“The capitalism that drives such developments kills small and medium businesses. Eventually, everyone who owned a small business in Kampong Bharu will work for a multinational company.
“The character and uniqueness of the Malay culture will slowly disappear.”
Muhyiddin at the launch of the master plan. Looking on are KBDC chairman Astaman Abdul Aziz (left) and federal territories minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor. Photo by Azlina Abdullan/ The Star.
A Malay Agricultural Settlement
When Kampong Bharu was established as the Malay Agricultural Settlement (M.A.S.) on January 12, 1900, the M.A.S. board of management was set up to administer it. There are now supposed to be three different agencies involved in deciding about the area’s future: the development corporation, city hall, and M.A.S., but M.A.S. is clearly being sidelined.
The secretary of the M.A.S. board of management, Shamsuri Suradi, says M.A.S. was not invited to the launch of the new master plan. He fears that there will even be attempts to revoke the status of M.A.S., a move that Shamsuri thinks would require the approval of the Sultan of Selangor, Sharafuddin Idris Shah.
The government and development corporation say they will uphold the rights of the owners of land and property in Kampong Bharu, but there are many who doubt this.
Asked if the government would intervene, Muhyiddin said they would look into some of provisions of the law, as well as acquiring the lands if necessary. “The project is 20 years’ long,” he said. “We have to kick start the project, but will look into the contexts of the lands involved in the development.”
This talk of land acquisition is of great concern to Shamsuri. Kampong Bharu landowners were previously being given options about the kind of changes they wanted, he says, but there had been a total U-turn and they were now being dictated to by the KBDC.
“Ninety percent of the landowners would agree to some kind of gradual redevelopment,” Shamsuri said, “but not the massive destruction that is being proposed right now.”
M.A.S. has not yet made an official statement about the new master plan, and is holding an emergency committee meeting tomorrow (Monday) at which it will draw up its formal response, but Shamsuri says he totally rejects it. He sees it as something that is being rushed through simply to meet assignment deadlines.
M.A.S. is not against development of Kampong Bharu, Shamsuri says, but it has to be done with the agreement of local people and in a way that benefits them. He says the current plan isn’t taking into consideration the true value of the area: its heritage and history.
“If, one day, I wanted to bring my grandson to the house where the first local Malay newspaper began, there will be nothing left there to show him.”
Shamsuri thinks that any commercial development of Kampong Bharu should take place on the northern and southwestern fringes of the settlement, with high-rises only near the main roads. The central areas, he says, should remain low-density and residential.
Local people are not happy with either the development method or the proposed design, Shamsuri says. It is, he says, the historic heart of Kampong Bharu, which covers five villages, that is earmarked for “total comprehensive development”.
The M.A.S. area comprises seven villages, covers 223 acres, and houses about 17,000 residents. There is a smaller area of Kampong Bharu (about 84 acres) that is non-M.A.S.
If its governing board agrees, M.A.S will now seek the views of about 700 local people and collect signatures for a petition to present to the prime minister and others.
It is the view of many Kampong Bharu locals that the area should be preserved as it is, with improvements to the infrastructure – the sewerage system, the roads and the pavements.
Kampong Bharu, one businessman explained, is the easiest place for foreign visitors to come and see Malay heritage, right in the city centre.
The master plan
The KBDC puts Kampong Bharu’s Gross Development Value (GDV)¹ at 61 billion ringgit (about 17 billion US$) and says 46,237 job opportunities will be created by 2035.
It says 30 percent of the land will be used for residential development, 60 percent for mixed development, and 10 percent for the development of “institutions and community facilities”.
Kampong Bharu (also spelled Kampung Baru or Kampong Baharu) is still designated as a residential area, but the government and developers want its status changed so they can construct commercial properties.
The master plan includes a provision for 17,500 units of residential housing, including 2,100 units of “mixed-income housing”.
Development would be carried out in several phases in three different zones: Zone A in the north of the area would be developed first, then the main central area (Zone B), and then Zone C on the western side.
Zone A is described as a “plot amalgamation” zone and covers 70.22 acres, Zone B is the “comprehensive development” zone and covers 795.45 acres, and Zone C is the “business improvement district”, covering 35.71 acres.
Phase 1 is scheduled to take two to six years, Phase 1a one to eight years, Phase 2 five to ten years, Phase 3 eight to 16 years, and Phase 4 15 to twenty years.
The total projected area to be covered by the development is 9 million square metres of Gross Floor Area, of which 8.3 million would be for commercial and residential properties.
The calculation is based on land area and the 1:10 plot and 1:8 ratio plot ratios the corporation has decided to employ.
About 2.7 million square metres of the developed area would be given over to office space and there are plans to create 1,780 more hotel rooms.
There has even been talk of a huge sports and recreational complex named after the Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyf being built as part of the redevelopment.
And there are plans for a man-made lake. Why, Shamsuri asks, does the development corporation want to create a lake in an area where one has never existed. “They surely can’t be serious when they say it will make Kampong Bharu cooler.”
The development corporation says the lake will have a flood mitigation function, serve “recreational and environmental needs”, and increase the property value for the Kampong Bharu development programme.
There are even discussions about bringing the new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) transport line into Kampong Bharu. As Shamsuri points out, the area is already very well served by the Light Rail Transit (LRT) underground system and the nearby monorail.
The KBDC says the development will take place over a period of 20 years, at an estimated cost of 43 billion ringgit (about 12 billion US$), 30 billion ringgit (8.4 billion US$) of which will be for construction.
Muhyiddin said the government was confident that the master plan would generate real estate potential, encourage economic development, and improve the residents’ well-being. “Physical planning includes the improvement of infrastructure, upgrading of roads and a transit bus lane,” he said.
The development corporation, set up in 2012, is supposed to be taking the views of local landowners into account, Shamsuri points out.
The KBDC says it has been talking to locals and will continue to engage with them. At the launch of the plan, Muhyiddin said a series of commitments had been fulfilled, including having discussions with the local landowners. “If we were to wait for everyone to agree, it will take time, so we hope to begin at least the first phase.”
KBDC chairman Astaman Abdul Aziz said there would be continued public engagement with local landowners about the master plan. He said the KBDC would work with the government to identify the landowners who had agreed with the plan to expedite the process.
The development corporation has created a “mobile team” to track down those who own land in Kampong Bharu, but may be elsewhere in Malaysia.
The Kampung Bharu landowners have been asked to engage in a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR).²
Under this system, they would transfer their land development rights to the development corporation and receive stakes in a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) set up by the corporation. “This system has never been used in Malaysia before,” Shamsuri said. “Why don’t they use a simpler method that is more proven and more applicable?
“And the development corporation should be acting as a facilitator, not a trustee.”
Locals are naturally very suspicious of a system that would essentially take their land out of their hands, oblige them to live somewhere else, and offer them a possible, undefined return some time in the future.
Preserving Malay culture
The KBDC insists that the master plan will preserve Malay culture and design. Shamsuri doesn’t believe this is possible. He says Kampong Bharu is not like the suburb of Putrajaya or the Iskandar development, where there was no history or heritage to be lost. “Kampong Bharu is totally different. It has a soul. I don’t want to see it turn into a new Dubai.”
Astaman Abdul Aziz said traditional Malay houses would be repaired and existing road names would be kept. The latter is something Shamsuri would like reassurance about.
The corporation has said it will conserve eleven houses “of significant heritage value” and either relocate them to one site or try and integrate them in another way. This, Shamsuri points out, is not the same as seeing those houses in their true context.
The KBDC also says community-based structures such as the Kampong Bharu mosque and the Sultan Suleiman building would be upgraded.
An eventful past
Kampong Bharu has a chequered history and has been the site of numerous political protests. There were anti-colonial protests there during the pro-independence movement after World War II and riots in May 1969 after the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party led a march through the area to celebrate its good showing in general elections.
The official government account is that the May 13 violence was caused by opposition parties, but it has been alleged that the unrest was orchestrated by elite elements within the ruling United Malays National Organisation to cement Malay control over the country.
Kampong Bharu was also the site of Reformasi demonstrations in October 1998, when the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, launched protests against then premier, Mahathir Mohamad, calling for reforms to government and the judiciary. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Kampong Bharu mosque.
The area was the site of an old stage and many old houses, and the weekend night market. The land was sold by Duwan Bandaraya (KL city hall) to the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the UDA is currently waiting for a development order from the city hall to start the building work.
Local residents were given as little as 150,000 ringgit (about 36,500 euro) to give up homes they had lived in since the 1960s. Having resided very close to the city centre (one LRT station from KLCC), many of them have now been displaced to high-rise housing in Bukit Jalil, a suburb about 20 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur, and they are now having to pay rent.
While the government-controlled mainstream media showers the new master plan with undiluted praise, Kampong Bharu locals are still digesting the details. One resident, Lilli Ismail, who has already witnessed the destruction of the kampong she lived in as a child in Penang, says she would feel as if her heart was being ripped out if she has to see the same thing happening again in the place where she now lives.
2) TDR is a real-estate transaction tool that makes it possible to buy and transfer the rights to develop from one piece of property to another. Ironically, it is usually used to protect natural or open spaces from development, or to save historic buildings.
This article was updated on 21/01/2015 to include development corporation clarification on some issues.
In an opinion poll in The Star Online, the majority of readers who expressed a view were against the master plan. As of January 18, 22 percent of those expressing a view said they were “happy” about the development plan, four percent were “inspired”, no-one was “amused”, 19 percent were “sad”, 48 percent were “angry”, and seven percent were “annoyed”.
Update: By January 19, the percentage of those expressing a view who said they were “angry” had risen to 59 percent, 19 percent said they were “sad”, and five percent said they were “annoyed”. This left only 15 percent “happy” and two percent “inspired”.
Update: By January 21, the percentage of those expressing a view who said they were “angry” had risen to 61 percent, 19 percent said they were “sad”, and four percent said they were “annoyed”. This left only 14 percent “happy” and two percent “inspired”.
9/2/2017: Yet more development plans for Kampong Bharu have been published since this article was written. Changing Times will bring you updates.
For more photos of Kampong Bharu go to Kampong Bharu photo gallery