There is something alluring and impressive about Kuala Lumpur. The city has modernised itself while retaining its colonial charm. For someone who also visited Jakarta and Singapore, it’s only natural to make comparisons between these three cities and their development throughout the last two centuries. Kuala Lumpur is somewhere between Jakarta and Singapore at the scale of development. The Malaysian capital has aspirations to become like Singapore and this is not an unrealistic goal. Kuala Lumpur is certainly better organised and more livable than Jakarta. Its urban transportation system in particular and infrastructure in general are certainly better than Jakarta’s and almost as good as Singapore’s.
The monorail system
Unlike Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur did not turn its back on its colonial past. Indonesians had to fight to gain independence from their Dutch colonial masters while Malaysians gained independence from the British through a negotiated settlement (Singapore was until 1965 a part of the Malaysian federation). In all these three cities, the Chinese play an important economic role which is in fact disproportionate to their numbers within the host societies. In Jakarta, they are a small minority (around six per cent). In Kuala Lumpur, they form a sizeable ethnic group (43 per cent) while in Singapore they are a majority, at 74 per cent (and that was the reason why Singapore was expelled from the federation). Historian Niall Ferguson argues that the British created the modern world and that their colonialism was more benevolent than colonialism of other European powers. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur seem to provide evidence supporting his argument. Stamford Raffles is celebrated as the founder of Singapore and his monument stands in the very centre of the city-state. Malaysians are also inclined to remember their colonial past in positive terms, opting to think about the British colonial administrators as guests rather than overseers. At Merdeka (Freedom) Square in Kuala Lumpur, an information board describes the colonial officers as expatriates which is an anachronism.
Monuments from the colonial past in front of the National Museum
The historic centre of Kuala Lumpur is located around the place where the town was founded at the confluence of two rivers. A mosque was later built at this place.
Old Market Square
Kuala Lumpur has two enclaves of high office towers, one around the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) and the other one around the KL Central. The area around the KLCC can serve as an illustration of the city’s complex ethnic and social fabric, with a Chinese school, a Muslim cemetery and the futuristic twin office towers sharing the same precinct.
Graves at a Muslim cemetary
Sky-scrapers around the KLCC
Kuala Lumpur is definitely not pedestrian-friendly. The city is not in the same category as Jakarta, where pavements are often non-existent and the edges of streets are used for commercial activities, but walking in Kuala Lumpur is not without a risk of breaking a leg or being run over by a driver who disregards the green light for pedestrians. Pavements are often uneven and, occasionally, one encounters holes large enough to swallow a pedestrian.
A hole in the pavement near the Bird Park
For a country with a GDP (PPP) comparable to that of Portugal or Hungary, not enough is being spent on housing in Malaysia. Poorer areas in Kuala Lumpur still look like being in the Third World. Certain blocks of apartments at Brickfields, near the KL Central, are of slum-like quality. Malaysia, like Singapore, is corporatist and authoritarian and this is reflected in urban space of its capital (nota bene, Putrajaya is the country’s administrative centre). Unlike in Singapore, the housing problem is still to be solved in Kuala Lumpur.
An apartment block in Brickfields
Apartment blocks in Bukit Bintang
A visit at the Police Museum may lead to an observation that the police force also plays a paramilitary role.
Foreign workers are employed to construct sky-scrapers and build roads. Malaysia is an attractive job market for Indonesians in particular. Migrants constitute 10 per cent of the country’s population. As their labour is underpaid, there is no incentive to spend on new machines which are often antiquated.
As Islam is Malaysia’s state religion, there are many mosques in Kuala Lumpur but also Chinese and Hindu temples. There are also several Christian churches, including the oldest one, the Cathedral of St Mary.