KUALA LUMPUR, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As the day’s tropical heat abates, Anif Safrizal fires up the grill at his satay stand. He sizzles chicken skewers, then slathers them with peanut sauce for customers who sit on plastic chairs or whizz their meals away on motorcycles.
Dozens of street stalls and restaurants selling specialities like lamb biryani, fried plantains and fresh fruit juice have made this stretch of Kampong Bharu, the last remaining traditional Malay village in central Kuala Lumpur, a foodie destination.
But if officials get their way, this collection of modest one- and two-storey houses will look more like the satay stand’s new neighbour: Legasi, a 43-storey glass-and-steel structure that is under construction.
City leaders across southeast Asia are looking to redevelop low-rise areas in the hearts of their increasingly high-rise cities, sparking debate about what might be lost in the process.
Safrizal fears his open-air cart will have no future if this kampong - from the Malay word for “village” - becomes high-rise.
“The standard for kampong is like a village - not too high,” the 28-year-old vendor said. “I’m worried, because this is my hometown. I’m a village boy, not a town boy.”
Kampong Bharu, which means “new village”, was first established by the British colonial authorities in 1900 as an agricultural enclave for ethnic Malays.
Today it provides a rare respite in the busy Malaysian capital. Pedestrians and bicycles are more common than cars in its narrow avenues, which are shaded by banana trees.
Over a century, the capital has grown up around it. The iconic Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest twin towers, anchor Kuala Lumpur city centre, a glittering complex of offices, hotels and shopping malls a kilometre (0.6 mile) away.
Separated by a river and a highway from the big-city feel in the towers’ shadow, many residents cherish Kampong Bharu’s easygoing pace, traditional culture and access to jobs in the financial district just one train stop from here.
The government has a different vision.
“If you want to live right smack in the city centre ... then you have to go up,” said Affendi Zahari, who heads the Kampong Bharu Development Corporation.
“That’s the only way living in cities right now - it has to go high-rise.”
Malaysia’s government set up the corporation in 2012 with a mandate to encourage real estate development on this land: the 220 acres still zoned as a ‘Malay agricultural settlement’, where land can be owned only by ethnic Malays, and another 80 surrounding acres that have looser development rules.
There is three times as much developable land here as in the city centre, said Zahari, who estimated the development value of Kampong Bharu at 60 billion ringgit ($15.5 billion).
Back in 2010, this neighbourhood was home to more than 18,000 people, the Kampong Bharu masterplan says. It envisions that number rising nearly fivefold to 77,000 by 2035, and shows how that will happen: with 50-storey high-rises.
“As much as we will preserve what is culturally sensitive for posterity, we also want to see that people live in a more modern setting,” Zahari said.
The masterplan will see 11 houses preserved for their heritage value.
In a two-storey office with a backdrop of skyscrapers, community leader Shamsuri Suradi showed the Thomson Reuters Foundation a dusty collection of handwritten records.
The documents inside these frayed bindings detail more than a century of births, deaths and land transactions. They might be the best bulwark against the high-rises threatening to swallow Kampong Bharu.
“The bloody British taught us very well,” said Shamsuri, the secretary of the Malay Agricultural Settlement Board of Management, a legal body that governs internal affairs in Kampong Bharu.
In Malaysia, Muslims divide their estate proportionally among heirs according to a Koranic prescription known as Faraid. After several generations a single house can end up with dozens of owners.
The system creates complicated land title documents, which require the agreement of all siblings and cousins before a sale can be completed.
Kampong Bharu’s residents are these days the third or fourth generation of the original settlers, many of whom were brought here to grow rice along the Klang River. That complicates matters.
“It is damn difficult (to develop),” said Zahari. “Nothing can get done with the land unless every beneficiary is found.”
That predicament does not trouble Mohammmed Akhirrudin, a 35-year-old street-food vendor who lives with his wife and daughter in the wood-and-concrete house where he was born.
He is the youngest of 14 siblings who collectively own the house they inherited from their grandfather.
“Take all the money in the world and give it to me - it’s not enough,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as a neighbour in a sarong swept the terrace.
“This is my country, this is my heritage, this is my hometown.”
Zahari, however, believes many owners who have moved out of the neighbourhood do want to sell, and need help cleaning up their property titles. The job would also require combining lots to make parcels large enough to attract real estate developers.
To that end, the development corporation has held regular clinics where property owners can resolve land title issues, with 17 cases dealt with so far, a spokeswoman said.
“(The parcels) are too small for them to make any meaningful development,” Zahari said. “We want to help Kampong Bharu, and some of these people want to unlock their assets.”
Some do, Shamsuri agreed: he reckoned 85 owners of Kampong Bharu’s 280 lots no longer live here and might want to sell.
“Their property is here but their future is elsewhere.”
And, the community leader said, he was not opposed to denser development; he simply wants to strike a middle ground: “High-rise but not 50-storey.”
The risk of skyscrapers, he said, was that they would dilute the sense of community.
“We have a spirit of togetherness, a bond,” he said. “Living in an apartment - ‘bye bye’, that’s all.”
Many of Kampong Bharu’s residents are pessimistic. Several small-business owners told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were resigned to redevelopment plans they feared would displace their shops and restaurants.
Bruno Dercon is a southeast Asia specialist with UN-Habitat, the United Nation’s agency for human settlement.
He said kampong development projects in the region have taken many flavours: from evictions in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta to revitalisation in Surabaya, another Indonesian city.
Preservation would be Kampong Bharu’s best course, he said.
“Do you propose to demolish all the medieval houses in the centres of European cities?” he asked. “If you have one left in a city it’s an absolute no-brainer - just like you preserve the central mosque and the botanical garden.”
"The area is so precious as heritage," he said. "It should stay as it is." (Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit thisisplace.org and news.trust.org)