[2771] Gentrification is the root cause

I am not a stylish person and my sensibility gets offended if I have to pay more than RM10 for a haircut. And so I typically go to an old barbershop within the Kampung Datuk Keramat wet market for a simple one for just six.

It is a quaint little utilitarian establishment with no pictures decorating its empty walls, just paint peeling off. The owner makes no pretension that it is anything else but a barbershop unlike the fancy salons you would find in the sexier part of town.

He was busy attending to another customer as I arrived. But as is true to most small businesses, his customers are mostly his friends.

His friends are of certain age, possibly above 50 years old. On his ageing analogue radio, old Malay songs from the sixties I do not recognize would blare out and fill the space. The generation gap between them and me is impossible to miss. As a young man with shorts and a pair of shoes, I stood out in that environment.

They were in a conversation but he found time to acknowledge me. ”I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said in Malay. So I sat quietly on a wooden bench, took my phone out from my pocket and began browsing the Internet as I waited for my turn.

They returned to their conversation, which was about a condominium project nearby. It was the Datum project, a local issue that was in the spotlight several weeks back. I have patronized his establishment before and from my previous eavesdropping, I remember he said he used to operate at the old flats that were demolished for the Datum condominium on Jalan Jelatek.

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall — for close to two decades now — wants to relocate the ageing wet market to a new complex just down the road that they call the Keramat Mall, a building of confused architecture and utility. Local traders here have long complained the rent at the mall is too expensive, and it is located a story above ground to complicate matters. And so, they are in a permanent revolt against city hall and continue to operate at the wet market. Whenever there is a fire at the market, conspiracy theories make the rounds and they almost always feature the authorities trying to force them out. The Federal Territories minister recently accused outsiders of meddling and inciting the local traders not to move.

Keramat, together with the more famous Kampung Baru, falls under the Titiwangsa parliamentary seat in Kuala Lumpur. In 2008, for the first time ever, Umno lost the seat to PAS. The then representative, Dr Lo’ Lo’ lived here. She died of cancer 2011 and PAS struggled to fill her shoes, leaving Umno to win back the seat in the last general election. But it was a tough fight.

The so-called mall which for the longest time was a white elephant, home to street cats and frequented by suspicious characters, was turned into a mini-Urban Transformation Center with offices belonging to the immigration department, health department and the police just last year. The UTC as they call it.

The prime minister’s face is splashed across the building facade, possibly implicitly telling the residents to be thankful. Or perhaps the reason for the re-investment is the Umno-led government is anxious about its future in Kuala Lumpur: out of 11 parliamentary seats, BN controls only two. On a notice board, I could read yellowing Utusan news clippings boldly claiming that the mall could transform Keramat. I wonder what it wrote about the mall back in early 2000s when it was recently completed.

The old, smelly, wet market first opened in the 1970s, and still stands in defiance of the federal government.

A stark contrast presents itself to anybody who stands in the middle of the small, packed parking lot that more often than not is the source of congestion in the neighborhood. On a very bad day, the traffic could back up all the way to Jalan Ampang on one side and Setiawangsa on the other. A poorly dressed old man would park his deprecated motorcycle next to a shiny silver BMW car.

Look around and you would realize the market is a mishmash of wooden and concrete structure with zinc tops. Farther, a mid-range military apartment complex dominates the horizon that just 10 years ago was full of trees and abandoned buildings. To the right stand the more expensive condominiums along Jalan Jelatek. Turn around and you may possibly spot Petronas Twin Towers along with other modern buildings from the Intermark to the imposing Hong Kong’s Bank of China-like building with its crisscrossing frames on Jalan Tun Razak.

All of those surround the compact kampong with the wet market and a mosque nearby at the center of the area. Most of the houses here are standalone homes but there are several low-rise low-cost apartments nearby too. But farther away towards the limits are big bungalows with their shiny cars.

The planned Datum condominium, that luxury condominium project, will add to that contrast. Politically, the condo will be just across the border in Selangor, but it is an integral part of Kampung Datuk Keramat nonetheless. It is one of those things where an invisible line on the ground means nothing. This is where city and Selangor state politics mix, a mix that goes back all the way before 1974 when Kuala Lumpur was carved out of the state.

Datum will not be the first condominium here. The first went up during the go-go years of the 1990s, robbing some of Keramat residents of an unobstructed view of Kuala Lumpur. The UEM-controlled Faber Group is building another on Jalan Gurney where prices range from about RM400,000 to more than RM3 million per unit. There is also the recently completed Suria Jelatek Residences at the Ampang end of Jalan Jelatek, besides the Datum project — the lowest sub-sale prices running at around RM600,000 for a shoebox —  but this seems to be going farther, but still a walkable distance, into the expat enclave that Jalan Ampang is. I have a suspicion that Jalan Jelatek is slowing turning into an annex of that enclave.

Kampung Datuk Keramat is not immune to the changes. Hang around at the Datuk Keramat and Damai light rail train stations and you will find American, European and Middle Eastern people among the riders departing from here.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the foreigners were mostly Indonesians who eventually, I think, were absorbed into the community. The new foreigners are much harder to absorb into the community, they are more transient and they do not mix with the locals. They do not go to Pasar Keramat.

Kampung Datuk Keramat is finally experiencing what Kampung Baru went through more drastically back in the 1990s when Kuala Lumpur first rushed to the sky with the Twin Towers as the crowning jewel just right at its doorsteps.

Not everybody is comfortable with the change because it can mean having to move out. The old barber was chased out of the ground floor shop lot within the old low-cost flat compound where Datum will rise. He is now in Pasar Keramat but the federal government wants to clear the market, and move everybody out to the old, new mall.

This is gentrification. Located so close to the city, Keramat attracts the new well-to-do to the formerly unsexy location, and possibly pushing former residents out.

When the residents get kicked out, they become angry. Who would not, especially when you have been living here all your life? The fear of dislocation is especially acute: if you look at the voters’ age profile in 2013, 66% of them were 40 or older. Sure, voter and population profiles do not coincide precisely but it is still indicative of this particular society at the ground level. This is an amazing figure especially since the median age for the whole country is about 26-27 years old. Titiwangsa, and specifically Keramat, is an old neighborhood in a young country.

And so when the unruly protesters went nuts against the Datum project in late January, tearing the zinc wall marking the boundary of the empty construction site while throwing racist claims the development would turn Keramat into a ”Chinese district,” I think they were judged too harshly, especially by outsiders who make no effort to learn the context on the ground.

I do think they — the local protesters — were really protesting against the gentrification of Keramat. They saw vast development going around their home and they are not directly benefiting from it. Right or wrong, they see themselves as the victims of gentrification. Racism is a secondary issue and perhaps, was put into the mix by outsiders who know only racial politics to win a brownie point. This is not to say okay to racism, but there is a need to separate the wheat from the chaff here.

I think gentrification is the cause and not so much race because when the developer of Datum came out to share that most of the interested buyers were Bumiputras, that fact did not relax the opposition to the development one bit. They continue to oppose because it does not matter if the new buyers are Malays or Chinese, or foreigners altogether. The development pushed them out of their homes and their shops. It is they who suffer, not anybody else, regardless of race.

The only ones who were embarrassed by the revelation were Perkasa and Umno.

I am not against gentrification. I feel it is inevitable and it revitalizes the community in some ways. It signals rising affluence and it makes the gentrified neighborhood cleaner and safer. And I personally am agnostic about the Datum development.

But the losers of gentrification must be compensated well. It cannot be that they are given some pitiful pocket money and be left to beg on the street and forced to move out elsewhere farther away from the city. That would create a sense of unfairness that could give rise to other problems in the future. The benefits have to be shared equitably with the residents.

To dismiss the opposition to the Datum project as being fueled by racism and instigated by outsiders is to miss the whole point altogether.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on March 27 2015.

Politics & government

[2680] Undemocratic Kuala Lumpur

Life in Kuala Lumpur in the past few weeks has been a constant reminder of our flawed democracy.

If you are in the city, look all around you. You will see banners and posters of political parties almost everywhere. Superficially, the colorful show of political flags is a sign of democracy. Now, look closer at those belonging to Barisan Nasional and especially those with Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin on it. Be mindful of their messages.

Those messages celebrate the achievements of Raja Nong Chik as a minister. It highlights what he has done over the past few years, with him heading the Ministry of Federal Territories. It appears like the all too admirable democratic judge-my-record, thank-me politics. He even thanked himself in many of his political banners and posters for stuff he did in the city.

Yet underneath this veneer is acid corroding the pillars of our democratic institution.

The campaign narrative told by BN to the voters in the city makes one think that Raja Nong Chik is the mayor of Kuala Lumpur. This is all the more so in Bangsar where he is contesting in the general election. If those messages are to be believed, it would appear that he was both the mayor of Kuala Lumpur and the Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai, the parliamentary seat which Bangsar is a part of.

If all those achievements highlighted for electioneering purposes are truly his, then he must have directed the very public resources belonging to the city to do what he did. He takes credit for things that are the normal function of City Hall, like the maintenance of drainage around the city, which is funded by taxpayers’ money.

There is a problem with this if one views it through a democratic lens.

The truth is that Raja Nong Chik is an unelected senator appointed as the minister for the Federal Territories. He is not the elected mayor of Kuala Lumpur and he is not the elected representative for Lembah Pantai.

The 2008 general election saw BN win only one out of 11 Parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur. While Parliamentary seats are an inadequate proxy to the will of the majority in the city, it is the best proxy we have got since there is no local election. Based on that proxy, the majority in the city conclusively rejected BN candidates and BN itself then in March 2008.

In spite of that, BN continued to control City Hall through the Ministry of Federal Territories as if they had the moral mandate to do so. With that, the party was the one that determined the development agenda of the city. Or perhaps, more importantly, BN controlled the spending priority of City Hall.

Add in the fact that the actual mayor of the city also is unelected, voters of Kuala Lumpur are quite simply unrepresented in the very authority that governs the affairs of their home. The elected representatives are dependent on the goodwill of City Hall and the ministry to execute the normal functions of an elected representative.

It is Putrajaya with its pretentious grandiose buildings that dictate the affairs of Kuala Lumpur. The city of millions is being governed from a desolate town erected in the middle of nowhere.

That is undemocratic. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the premise that BN’s campaign messages rest upon.

How long more will the Kuala Lumpur electorates continue to be politically unrepresented in the running of the city?

There is no reason for BN to change the status quo because it is the beneficiary of things as it is. If BN continues to be in the minority in the city, it is in their favor to keep the whole undemocratic structure intact. Even if BN somehow miraculously wins a majority of Kuala Lumpur Parliamentary seats and by proxy, the will of the voters of Kuala Lumpur, the moral authority BN might gain through this democratic process is only a redundant bonus.

That begs a question. If Raja Nong Chik and BN do not require a win to do what he did in the next Parliamentary term, why vote him in at all?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on April 24 2013.


[2624] The government dominates the skyline of Kuala Lumpur

Felda has a new building in downtown Kuala Lumpur. It is a pretty slick building. Whatever that says about the construction industry, I do not think it says anything too good enough private sector-led economy. Unscientific yes but the skyline of Kuala Lumpur says a lot about how supposedly private sector-led economy Malaysia is, given that Kuala Lumpur is the economic center of the country.

Take a look at the skyline of Kuala Lumpur from a far. Apart from Felda, there are PNB, Tabung Haji and the Petronas Twin Towers. From where I live, these four buildings dominate the skyline. And then you can have CIMB and Maybank too. How about Telekom Malaysia? KL Tower? These do not include non-business related buildings like City Hall, BNM and EPF (while non-business, the EPF does influence the Malaysian equity market in a big way). How about the most political of it all, the UMNO building?  Not government, but for better or for worse, UMNO has a hand in it.

Warisan Merdeka will take it place in some years to come, yet another building to dominate the skyline like how the Petronas Twin Towers do.

These buildings symbolize what the Malaysia economy really is: government-driven.

One might argue that there are many more private buildings that government and government-linked companies buildings around. True that but that does not mean the buildings of the latter do not dominate still.

The sense of a government-led economy would have been more profound if the federal government had not move to Putrajaya more than a decade ago. But that is all symbolism. It does not change the fact that the government has a considerable say in the economy. Too big a say.

Environment Personal

[2600] A lament of a tree lover

I do love trees. There is something comforting about trees, especially when I am surrounded by tall buildings most of the times. In the tropical Kuala Lumpur, it also has a cooling effect. That makes the city every bit more livable, never mind the aesthetic value it offers. Imagine large rain trees with the sound of leaves whistling as soft breeze blows through the landscape. Even imagining so is enough to make me smile a bit.

Great trees remind me of a time when I was relatively carefree, when I would lie down in the shade of a tree during summer, sleeping or reading a book or just eating lunch. The memories I associate with trees calm me down. A place without trees is a barren place and a depressing at that.

I can say that I have emotional connection with trees, especially with those within my familiar environs. And I had favorite trees in the past. These favorite trees of mine were where I would return almost daily when the weather permitted to do what a young me would do. I would lie down on the grass, by the trees and just stared at the clear blue skies. The mind would just be empty, uncluttered by equations, reports, personal issues, and only the heaven knows what else. I would be at peace with myself.

It hurts me whenever I see a tree cut down. Sure, there is deforestation everywhere, everyday but the feeling is accentuated when I see it. There is a feeling within me, almost irrational, that equates such cutting down to torture or killing of animals.

So, it pains me to see trees are being cut down to make way for the construction of the mass rapid transit in Kuala Lumpur. The first trees cleared to my knowledge were those on Federal Hill. I spotted it all the way up from the Parliament tower when I had a short stint there. It is the spot where the tunnel begins. Or will begin.

The latest patches of green succumbing to the monsters that would make up Devastator in the animated series Transformers (not the horrible Michael Bay’s version—he ruined Transformers) are in Damansara. The trees by the road leading to Bangsar from Jalan Semantan are now gone. The trees along the Sprint Highway will be gone soon too. Some have already been cut down.

I know, in terms of carbon accounting, the MRT will probably reduce net carbon emissions even as it cut down those trees (as well as trees for timber from elsewhere). That is good but it still pains me to see these trees being there no more. Between watching a pillar supporting the MRT rail line and a green, lush tree, I prefer the latter.

Also, the dust is nothing to look forward to.

Do not get me wrong. I do love to see a Kuala Lumpur with MRT. I do love intracity trains. Notwithstanding its financial merit and demerit, for better or for worse, a city with a great rail system is nice to live in. I for one do hate driving and the MRT will provide an alternative way for me to move around the city, if I stay in the city by the time the lines are operational. But that does not mean everything about the MRT is a-okay.

There are costs to it and the trees are one of the costs.


[2453] Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur II

Apart from the two buildings on the sides, I like the photo.

I wanted to crop the photo to get rid of the two buildings on the sides but I like the ratio and I want the base to be included. So…