Kuala Lumpur's Renaissance
Published: May 2009
By Simon Elegant
Beneath Kuala Lumpur's <em>Blade Runner</em> surface, a multicultural population is coming to terms with new wealth, religious diversity, and the aftermath of colonialism. Revisit a city whose warp-speed progress is inextricably linked to the past.
Though it's well into the morning hours on Kuala Lumpur's trendy Beach Club strip, the nightclub Ibiza is just starting to heat up. Hip-hop (right now, it's "In Da Club" by 50 Cent) is blasting out of giant speakers onstage, the music so loud that the glasses on the tables are vibrating. The entire dimly lit basement room is heaving with moving bodies. Every so often someone swings up onto the stage to join the two dozen dancers gyrating there, mostly young girls in tight jeans and bare-midriff tops, their swaying and shaking only intermittently visible through the strobe flashes and dense clouds of cigarette smoke. I lean over toward my tablemate, a genial twentysomething in a backward baseball cap. He says his name is Saleh. "Aren't you worried about being raided?" I yell in the Malay I've picked up during my seven years as a journalist here.
The police have been known to descend on the clubs that have cropped up in Malaysia's capital in recent years, mostly searching for ecstasy and amphetamines. But I'm referring to the religious police, another issue altogether. As Saleh and pretty much everyone else in the club are Muslims, just being there could get them hauled up in front of the Islamic law courts by officers of Kuala Lumpur's Religious Department. (These sharia courts deal with all noncriminal matters for Muslims.) The charge for clubbing would likely be "indecent behavior," a catchall favorite of the department. Never mind the bottles of Jack Daniels that stand on almost every table in the place, or the clothes the girls are wearing, which might make even Shakira blush. Either of those could theoretically draw a penalty of fines or jail time if the judge happened to be in a bad mood. But Saleh's response is nonchalant. "Ever since that raid at Zouk, those guys have been lying low," he says, referring to an incident last year, at another velvet-rope club just around the corner, that still lingers in the popular consciousness. The Religious Department officers rounded up some 100 young Muslims and detained them overnight; many of those nabbed, it turned out, were children of Kuala Lumpur's most influential political families, and the controversy that ensued eventually reached the ears of the most senior lawmakers. The raid received considerable unfriendly coverage in the media, and charges against the clubbers were quietly dropped. "And anyway," he continues, "some friends of mine were told that this place definitely won't get busted tonight." He grins and rubs his fingers and thumb together in the universal gesture for money.
The young crowd's flaunting of rules they consider irrelevant typifies the electrified atmosphere that rapid change has sparked in this city. Combine multiple races and religions anywhere and you have a volatile mix; stir in one of the fastest economic growth rates in history for the past 30 years, and you get Kuala Lumpur, a city still a little dazed by its arrival at the crossroads where development, multiculturalism, and Islam collide. The tension is understandable: barely a generation ago, Malaysia was a rural backwater still largely dependent on natural resources (it was the world's largest producer of tin) and agriculture (ditto for rubber and palm oil). Then, in 1981, a zealous medical doctor named Mahathir Mohamad took over as prime minister and began an ambitious program of export-led industrialization. By the turn of the last century, Malaysia's economy was powered by the manufacturing of everything from semiconductors and hard drives to air conditioners (of which it is one of the world's biggest producers). As the capital city, Kuala Lumpur welcomed the rural laborers who poured in from the countryside eager to work in the factories that had sprung up in the suburbs.
Most of these newcomers were descendants of the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, a long finger of once densely forested land hanging off Thailand like an exclamation mark, pointed by the island of Singapore. Just over half of the population of the country today are Malays, and thus also Muslims, their ancestors having been converted by Arab traders several centuries ago. The arrival of so many Malays in what had been, until the mid-eighties, a largely Chinese city was a tectonic break with the country's colonial past. In the early 20th century, the entire peninsula was controlled by Britain, whose officers found, to their irritation, that the Malays had no interest (understandably) in working the colonial rubber plantations and tin mines, preferring instead to tend their own rice fields. So the British simply imported laborers from China and India who were willing to do the backbreaking, often life-threatening (malaria was rife and untreatable) work. The descendants of those immigrants form nearly half of Malaysia's current population, which stands at about 25 percent Chinese, 7 percent Indian, and the rest people of indigenous or mixed heritage.
For a while after independence in 1957, it looked as though the system established under British rule to hold together the new nation's diverse races—with the Chinese dominating the economy and the Malays, still largely rural, in control of politics and enforcing sharia among Muslims—would function. But in 1969, disparities in wealth and the Malays' insecurity about their grip on power exploded into race riots that lasted for three days in Kuala Lumpur, leaving hundreds dead. Shocked politicians began a huge affirmative action program designed to shift ownership of the country's wealth to its Malay majority and, at the same time, create a middle class of Malay doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Its success is probably as much attributable to simple economics as to government policies: Malaysia is a land still rich in natural resources and has largely been spared the natural disasters that plague its neighbors. It also has a relatively small population (around 25 million) and a gross domestic product that keeps expanding at an enviable 5 to 6 percent a year. With the affirmative action program steadily increasing the Malay share of the country's wealth, and an economy strong enough to withstand events like the 1998 economic meltdown that pummeled most other countries in the region, Malaysians have achieved an enviable standard of living. Simply put, people with houses and cars and jobs are unlikely to start race riots.
When I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1998, the city's current incarnation as a thriving global metropolis seemed a very remote possibility. The Asian financial crisis was at its height, and Malaysia's currency had dropped to half its previous value against the dollar in a matter of months. The country's economy was faltering, a problem made worse by a bitter fight between Mahathir and his sometime protégé, the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Within days of my arrival, I was running through the streets with thousands of protesters, our eyes watering from the mist of tear gas that hung over the capital's main boulevards. Now those days of rage and fear are distant memories. The economy's natural strengths quickly reasserted themselves and the protests simply ran out of steam. Today, in fact, you're more in danger of being trampled by hordes of eager shoppers than by demonstrators. You might find your eyes watering, but only from a midnight supper of chakueitiao—flat rice noodles fried with garlic, egg, shrimp, chives, and plenty of chiles—served at an outdoor food stall on Ceylon Hill. The worst fight you'd encounter might be over a table at Third Floor in the JW Marriott Hotel, where the foie gras with a caramelized-pear-and-burgundy reduction rivals any such dish in New York.
Stroll down the city's main shopping drag, Bukit Bintang (Star Hill), and you'll witness the dizzying change overtaking Malaysia's capital city. All of the planet's best-known hotel chains—Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton—are here, complete with glittering, marble-encrusted lobbies and world-class spas. And they've been joined by their luxury-goods equivalents: Donna Karan, Bulgari, Tiffany, Hanae Mori. The spending power brought by years of stratospheric economic growth (not to mention the abolition of tariffs on almost all consumer goods, making this one of Asia's retail magnets) is visible in the packed shopping centers, where silk-gowned Chinese matrons, turbaned Sikhs, and burka-draped Muslim women elbow one another for Prada and Gucci. Continue on down to Kuala Lumpur City Centre and 21st-century excess again hits you in the face, in the form of the Petronas Twin Towers, a pair of skyscrapers created by Cesar Pelli and erected in 1998. Two Arabesque octagons, each sharp edge alternating with a semicircle, the towers gradually taper to slim points. The buildings are linked at their midpoint by a bridge that, from a distance, makes them look like a pair of rockets on a launch pad joined by a gantry. At night, the towers are often wreathed in tendrils of mist, with hundreds of spotlights and the light streaming from office windows increasing the otherworldly effect; they really look as if they're leaving for Mars. For a few years, these were the tallest buildings in the world; in 2004, they lost the title by a score of meters to a new building in Taipei, but they remain the most visible symbol of Kuala Lumpur's new forward-looking persona.
As you stare through the ceiling-high windows at the view from the 27th floor of the self-consciously hip Hilton Hotel (where every room comes with a 42-inch plasma-screen TV, and if you need company, room service will bring a goldfish in a bowl), the raging development that has characterized this swelling urban center comes into focus. Every building visible seems to have sprung up in the past 20 years—or is currently being erected. It's a vista of cranes, half-completed condominiums, and office towers with choked highways snaking among them, all of it reaching out for 20 or 30 miles to the suburbs that now ring the city like a vast sea of concrete poured onto the sites of rubber and oil-palm plantations to house the newly wealthy middle classes in semidetached comfort. The downtown skyline is the usual blockish manifestation of corporate hubris and lack of urban planning.
Hidden amid this forest of nondescript buildings indistinguishable from their counterparts in cities throughout Asia, there are a few reminders of the colonial past. To the east is the former residence of the British governor of the Federated Malay States, a rambling two-story mansion with wide verandas and fluted columns set among the last remnants of the jungle that once covered the whole peninsula. In 1989 it became the all-suite Carcosa Seri Negara hotel, and its bar serves those trying to recapture the era of Somerset Maugham. Maugham's stories—written mostly in the 1920's and 30's—are redolent of a long-dead age when colonial officers dressed for dinner in their remote jungle outposts and rubber planters quietly drank themselves to death while their wives conducted torrid affairs with neighbors. They are also true to life, literally: he lifted most of his material from the pages of the Straits Times—the planters' daily—in some cases barely bothering to change the protagonists' real names.
Another favorite source of material was gossip Maugham overheard at the Long Bar of the Selangor Club, a Kuala Lumpur institution now 122 years old, on the edge of the cricket green (always the centerpiece of British-administered towns). The cricket grounds have been cut back to a smallish patch now named Independence Square, but the clubhouse is still there, a faux-Tudor building abutting the truncated field. Today, the Long Bar is known mainly for its cold beer, fading photographs of bygone rugby teams, and an antiquated rule excluding women. Some tourists come to catch a whiff of the clubhouse's history or perhaps a glimpse of the Moorish high-court buildings across the road. But most don't stay long, preferring to flock back to the shops, clubs, and restaurants downtown at Bukit Bintang or on the nearby Beach Club strip where Ibiza is located.
That's too bad, really, because in some small part of the city's consciousness lingers the memory of an older, smaller Kuala Lumpur, barely more than a colonial town, where the Chinese ran the shops while the Malays tended to their rice in the kampangs (villages) and the Indians worked the rubber and oil-palm plantations they were born and raised—and would die—on. Those times are long gone, of course, but a similar reality still thrives in the city's ordinary, outlying neighborhoods, where Malaysians of all races mingle in an unlikely tableau of shared prosperity and peaceful coexistence. The K.L. suburb of Puchong is one of my favorite places to see that in action.
Twenty years ago, Puchong was a one-street village of a few hundred people, mostly Chinese petty traders and shopkeepers. Now it's a thriving township of 560,000 residents of all races, and claims a Carrefour and a Tesco. In a pasar malam, the congenial evening market where everything from pots of homemade chile sauce to automobiles is sold, I watch a typical scene unfold: Skinny Tamil waiters rush to and fro in one restaurant, heaping huge mounds of steaming rice onto banana leaves, then dishing out an endless selection of curries and sauces. Elsewhere the hiss of a gas-burner flame complements the clang of steel spatula against iron wok as Cantonese men prepare stir-fried dishes. Malay families wander among the food stalls; in some groups, even the six-year-old girls are clad in head scarves, while others wear jeans and T-shirts, chatting and laughing as they chew on a grilled piece of squid or corn on the cob. A small crowd clusters around a tent where car salesmen are busy touting the virtues of the locally manufactured Kancil (a 600 cc subcompact with a vague resemblance to the iconic Mini) that sells for about $6,000—60 percent of the country's average annual per capita income. Chinese, Malay, and Indian children squeal, shove each other happily, and scramble through the open doors of the cars as their grave-faced fathers kick tires and talk knowledgeably about horsepower and torque. "When it comes to buying a car," salesman Mohamad Nazri says with a laugh, "there is no difference between the races. Under the skin we all want the same things—a house, a car, a good life for our families."
And yet, the affirmative action and global trade that brought Malays into the middle class now threatens to keep K.L. in a sort of stasis. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister and the most outspoken critic of Mahathir's administration, is concerned that the system has created a generation of overdependent, underqualified Malays. "The program can no longer work in an increasingly globalized world," Ibrahim says over a cup of coffee at his house. "Graduate unemployment is huge. And these issues can explode"—as they did in 1969—"if they are taken up by demagogues." Speaking about the impact of the affirmative action policies that discriminate against Chinese Malaysians, Azmi Sharom, a law professor and sometime social activist, tells me, "You can't expect to exclude thirty percent of the population from the best universities and jobs and not face the fact they are going to take their talents elsewhere." Estimates vary, but there's little dispute that in the recent past Malaysia has suffered a serious brain drain, specifically among middle-class Malaysian Chinese. Unable to secure places at local universities, many go abroad to study and never come back.
But as Sharom also points out, Kuala Lumpur has an ace up its sleeve: its immigrants. While America is embroiled in a border debate, Malaysia welcomes workers from all over the map. The city has always relied on newcomers—laborers from China's southern coast, Malay farmers from the rice fields of Kedah 300 miles north of the city, and, these days, computer programmers from New Brunswick working in K.L.'s own miniSilicon Valley (the much-touted Multimedia Supercorridor). As long as they continue to be embraced by this patchwork society, there will always be an influx of new citizens, Sharom argues.
And there's another type of immigrant attracted by Kuala Lumpur's increasingly cosmopolitan edge: the returnee. Cheong Lieuw was born and bred in K.L., then spent nearly three decades achieving fame in Australia as the chef who, in the 1970's, more or less invented Asian fusion at his Adelaide restaurant, the Grange. Now Lieuw has come back to open a new restaurant, Senses. But he would have returned anyway, he says. "I do nothing but eat while I am here," the rumpled, slightly roly-poly 55-year-old says a little ruefully as he watches a waiter at Senses serve me a bouillabaisse inspired by a local coconut-based curry called laksa. "All Asians are food-obsessed, but K.L. is really special," Lieuw says. "Right now, for me, Kuala Lumpur is one of the most interesting places in the world because it just has so much variety." So long as that variety continues to lure boundary-breaking residents like Lieuw, it will remain one of the world's most dynamic urban centers—a heartening prospect for a city facing an uncertain future.
WHEN TO GO
The city is reliably hot and wet—with temperatures staying between 80 and 90 degrees—nearly all year. March through October tends to be somewhat drier, though no less warm.
WHERE TO STAY
Carcosa Seri Negara
At the former residence of the colonial governor of the Malay States, each of the 13 suites, set within mature tropical gardens, comes with butler service—and there's a great English afternoon tea. Taman Tasik Perdana; 60-3/2295-0888; www.carcosa.com.my; suites from $300.
Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur
You can't beat the location of this property: it's adjacent to the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers and overlooks 50 acres of greenery. Kuala Lumpur City Centre; 60-3/2179-8818; www.mandarinoriental.com/kualalumpur; doubles from $200.
Renaissance Kuala Lumpur Hotel
This 921-room monolith has an Olympic-size swimming pool and a lobby sparkling with black marble and crystal chandeliers. Jalan Ampang at Jalan Sultan Ismail; 60-3/2162-2233; www.renaissance-kul.com; doubles from $65.
Hilton Kuala Lumpur
The Hilton is one of two hotel towers within walking distance of Stesen Sentral, or Central Station (which is just 28 minutes on the express train from Kuala Lumpur International Airport). The 35-story hotel has seven stylish restaurants, including Senses, and two bars. 3 Jalan Stesen Sentral; 800/445-8667 or 60-3/2264-2264; www.hilton.com; doubles from $150.
WHERE TO EAT
Astonishing creations from the originator of Asian-fusion cuisine, Malaysian-born chef Cheong Lieuw. Studio at Hilton Kuala Lumpur; 3 Jalan Stesen Sentral; 60-3/2264-2264; dinner for two $100.
Third Floor Restaurant
Modern haute cuisine with a stunning degustation menu. JW Marriott Hotel Kuala Lumpur; 183 Jalan Bukit Bintang; 60-3/2141-3363; dinner for two $120.
Alexis Bistro & Wine Bar
Located near major embassies, Alexis has a clientele that ranges from diplomats to local hipsters. The wine list is extensive; the menu features Italian and Asian dishes. Every Friday and Saturday night, live performers bring on the jazz and Latin rhythms. Great Eastern Mall; 303 Jalan Ampang; 60-3/4260-2288; dinner for two $50.
A gem in the old part of Kuala Lumpur. Dine on rich traditional Malay cuisine, alfresco on a lush tropical patio or in a private dining room. 3 Jalan Ceylon; 60-3/2031-3575; dinner for two $30.
Old China Café
Set in a turn-of-the-last-century Chinese guildhall and furnished in period style, this café-restaurant serves tamarind- based dishes favored by the Straits Chinese. 11 Jalan Balai Polis; 60-3/2072-5915; dinner for two $20.
WHAT TO SEE
Petronas Twin Towers
One of the biggest malls in Southeast Asia. Enough said. Kuala Lumpur City Centre; www.petronastwintowers.com.
Menara Kuala Lumpur
A huge tower built on a hill that hovers over the city, offering the best views. Bukit Nanas; open daily, 9 a.m10 p.m. Jalan Punchak at Jalan P. Ramlee; 60-3/2020-5444; www.menarakl.com.my.
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
A wonderful display of Islamic culture and art. Don't miss the excellent Middle Eastern restaurant. Open TuesdaySunday, 10 a.m.6 p.m. Jalan Lembah Perdana; 60-3/2274-2020; www.iamm.org.my.
Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens
Lush tropical landscaping dotted with lakes. Check out the nearby Orchid Farm for myriad varieties of the flower, and the covered bird and butterfly sanctuaries just around the corner. Jalan Perdana; 60-3/2273-5423.
All-day markets with vendors selling everything from DVD's to handbags. Jalan Petaling, Chowkit area.
Thean Hou Temple (Buddhist)
65 Pesiaran Ludah.
National Mosque (Masjid Negara)
50480 Jalan Perdana.