Now or never: Kampung Baru

By Adi Nazrin bin Samsuri

There are countless historical marvels and heartwarming stories to be found beneath the surface of Kampung Baru – but rapid development may irreversibly alter a treasured cultural identity and extinguish generations of history.

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Recognised as one of the oldest villages in Malaysia, Kampung Baru is a compact area that is home to timeless Malay tradition and century-old houses. The pocket of land in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling city center has resisted development since the end of the 19th century, when the village was founded as a Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS) by the British colonial government in 1899.

Star filepic. Norhayati Ramli, the present owner of  the oldest house in Kampung Baru, inherited the house from her great grandfather – who was also Wong Loke Yew's former driver. She has lived here for the past 49 years and has no intention of moving to a condo.

Star filepic. Norhayati Ramli, the present owner of the oldest house in Kampung Baru, inherited the house from her great grandfather – who was also Wong Loke Yew’s former driver. She has lived here for the past 49 years and has no intention of moving to a condo.

Kampung Baru famously provides a rare glimpse into an authentic Malay lifestyle that has remained largely unchanged, due in part to the many generations of families who have lived here. The communities that call Kampung Baru home are formed around generations of the original landowners since the village’s founding over a century ago.

Star filepic. Kampung Baru Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS) management board Hon secretary Shamsuri Suradi holding up log books containing minutes of meeting from 100 years ago.

Star filepic. Kampung Baru Malay Agricultural Settlement (MAS) management board Hon secretary Shamsuri Suradi holding up log books containing minutes of meeting from 100 years ago.

The residents of Kampung Baru are still especially proud of having kept most of the original architecture intact, even against the rapid development taking place in the surrounding area. As a village-in-the-city, Kampung Baru offers a striking contrast between the urban and rural realms. The village’s formerly thatched roofs, replaced decades ago with corrugated zinc sheets, put traditional forms against the modernity of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline – making Kampung Baru a must-visit destination for backpackers.

Star filepic. Join the Jalan-Jalan at Kampung Baru guided tour to learn more about the Malay kampung.

Star filepic. Join the Jalan-Jalan at Kampung Baru guided tour to learn more about the Malay kampung.

The simplicity of kampung life can be experienced quite easily with a walk along the village’s narrow roads, normally frequented by local residents riding motorcycles or bicycles. Walking around Kampung Baru will enable one to experience the same serene environment and the charm of village life as though they were much further from the chaos of the city.

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Beneath the timeless beauty of Kampung Baru is the essence of this village’s struggle. The sentimental value of these traditional homes is often far too precious for residents to simply give up – consequently, residents face the difficult task of preserving their treasured cultural heritage while attempting to keep up with the pace of modernization.

Despite the proud defense of tradition, Kampung Baru residents do enjoy some spillover from the amenities and facilities around them. Accessibility into the area is eased with the Kampung Baru Light Rapid Transit (LRT) station and the Medan Tuanku monorail station being located within the immediate vicinity.

Star filepic. The Malay Agricultural Settlement management board honorary secretary, Shamsuri Suradi, has encouraged Kampung Baru residents to grasp the progressions that government has conveyed to the Malay enclave and to think like entrepreneurs.

Star filepic. The Malay Agricultural Settlement management board honorary secretary, Shamsuri Suradi, has encouraged Kampung Baru residents to grasp the progressions that government has conveyed to the Malay enclave and to think like entrepreneurs.

Although government initiatives to modernize the area have been welcomed by some residents, some of Kampung Baru’s other residents are relentless in resisting development in order to maintain their traditional lifestyles. The march of urban development continues and modern architecture is slowly creeping into the village.

With a projected development value that presently stands at around 61 billion ringgit, there is evidently something about Kampung Baru that is still attracting developers. High-rise apartments are starting to creep into the area as well. The Cendana Condominium is a glittering skyscraper that now occupies the former site of Kampung Cendana – a smaller village located in the same area as Kampung Baru. Perhaps in the near future, the Kampung Baru we know today would be changed just as dramatically.

Star filepic. Chairman of the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), Tun Daim Zainuddin stated he would attend and provide guidance to Kampung Baru residents if they were to organise a congress for the future of the village.

Star filepic. Chairman of the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), Tun Daim Zainuddin stated he would attend and provide guidance to Kampung Baru residents if they were to organise a congress for the future of the village.

Recent redevelopment plans for Kampung Baru have raised many questions from various quarters. Many heritage sites have already been demolished for the sake of development and modernization, leaving residents to fear that Kampung Baru may face the same fate as Kampung Cendana – or countless other century-old villages – to be carelessly erased from Malaysian history entirely.

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

The recent loss of Kampung Kerinchi and Abdullah Hukum to modernity, with the development of Bangsar South, will always remain a stark reminder for many who appreciate this country’s history and cannot help but feel connected with these ancient villages. There is a distinct emotional attachment to these village-in-the-cities, and their being reduced to mere dots on the LRT route map is beyond saddening – to the people who live in these villages, this obliteration of history in favour of development is infuriating.

It can be said that after some time, no one may remember Haji Abdullah Hukum, the founder of one of the earliest settlements in Kuala Lumpur around 200 years ago. The village that took its founder’s name opened its doors to a multiracial society – a sight that is paradoxically rarer today.

The fate of Kampung Baru is uncertain, and the current situation is more pressing than all the trials this village has faced in its storied past. The current development plans for Kampung Baru are already looking as though the village could easily suffer the same fate as Kampung Kerinchi and Abdullah Hukum.

Mr. Zainal, one of Kampung Baru’s lifelong residents, has expressed concerns about the village’s future. Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Mr. Zainal, one of Kampung Baru’s lifelong residents, has expressed concerns about the village’s future. Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

None of the residents have been forcibly relocated in the name of development, but many have given in to the offer of cash for land. The remaining residents of Kampung Baru have grown more cautious of accepting any development plans. Many feel betrayed by parties who apparently took advantage of the residents in order to develop the area by any means necessary – including allegedly paying less for what the land is actually worth.

Star filepic. Ibrahim showing his assessment notice and valuation notice he recently received proposing an 300 percent increase in the assessment fee, at his office in Kampung Bharu on Nov 15, 2015.

Star filepic. Ibrahim showing his assessment notice and valuation notice he recently received proposing an 300 percent increase in the assessment fee, at his office in Kampung Bharu on Nov 15, 2015.

The traditional culture of Malay ethnic society is preserved by residents in villages such as Kampung Baru. This is one of Malaysia’s proudest traditions – the importance of this cultural practice and the reality surrounding this issue simply can’t be ignored anymore.

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Image credit: Kamal Sellehuddin

Kampung Baru deserves more awareness and deeper appreciation for the locals who strive to preserve their cultural identity and the treasured plots of land that had been passed to them through multiple generations. Many of the village’s residents believe that preservation would be in the best interests of Kampung Baru – as one of the few remaining villages-in-the-city, the area is all the more precious as a cultural heritage site. Demolishing it would represent a loss of more than just some old buildings – this nation’s cultural identity is at stake.


Read about other similar oases of tradition, such as Kampung Baru Bekok and Kampung Cempaka.

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