The upmarket ‘ghetto’
As luxury condos move into an area, the poor get pushed out to the periphery of the city. Is this ‘progress’?
My earliest ventures into the Segambut Dalam neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur were just after high school some years back. The area reminded me of Kampung Baru, a stretch of quaint rural houses smack in the middle of a bustling city, surrounded by high-rise buildings.
Driving through Segambut Dalam, you are instantly transported back to Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s – kampung houses, makeshift cafes, “kapcai” motorbikes, road-side markets.
In less than 10 years, the area has undergone significant change at a speed that has awed me. Awe, but with a slight tinge of apprehension. It reminded me too much of impermanence, how things don’t last.
I suppose there is an end date to everything, and Segambut Dalam’s own end is looming.
Before, luxury condominiums were limited to nearby Mont Kiara. Today, these condominiums have crept into Segambut Dalam itself, pushing the might of wealth further into the enclave.
Kampung houses are being demolished to make way for more condominiums. The construction that’s taking place also seems to be bringing foreign workers into the neighbourhood. I always see them walking back as I drive past them, safety helmets still in hand. They seem to have settled well; walking to the neighbourhood mosque along with the locals.
you can hardly ignore class structure when you’re in this area. The boundary is so thin, it’s hardly there anymore. No longer are squatters just a hidden part of the city; its right outside your window, or in this case, guardhouse.
A family member who had moved into the area a couple of years ago wrote in the housewarming invite: “If Garden International School is on your left, drive straight ahead past all the condos ... Don’t be scared, it’s quite safe even though it looks so ghetto!”
I found this statement quite odd, as if they are somewhat embarrassed and apologetic about their choice of residential area.
That’s where the dichotomy of Segambut Dalam lies. As more luxury condos are built within this “ghetto”, the old and new residents find themselves at odds. Socially, Segambut Dalam is going through an overhaul.
Expats and upper class Malaysians find themselves living amidst kampung folk and immigrants.
They live comfortably within the walls of their condos, but as they drive past the guardhouse and into the potholed street, away from the security of guards who probably just live down the road, they enter a different world: unsafe, unsanitised, unworthy.
The sociologist yeoh Seng Guan quoted Henri Lefebvre in Creolized Utopias: Squatter Colonies And The Post-Colonial City In Malaysia, that the “city” should be viewed as the domain where episodes of the capitalist drama of hegemonic expansion are being played out.
Modern, luxury condominiums are replacing kampung houses. Expats and wealthy locals living in high rises look down – literally – on families who have barely enough to survive in the city. Big cars drive past kapcais. The outsiders, like the colonisers of Malaya’s past, are moving in, settling in, pushing out. Slowly, but surely, the whole stretch of Segambut Dalam will be consumed.
I’m not sure how these corporations are able to develop so quickly and so profusely but perhaps developers leveraged on the fact that Segambut Dalam lies adjacent to the property hotspot of Mont Kiara.
As a business magazine article goes: “Astute developers have already discovered that an effective strategy for success in the Segambut area is to rename their developments and distance themselves from the Segambut name.
This has been done with relative success for upmarket developments such as Dutamas and Bukit Prima Pelangi.”
Since the process is gradual, it’s such a peculiar sight – perhaps because I pass by every day to get to work and back, as a constant outsider, observing the changes of this particular community. It’s as if you’re driving through history, witnessing the demise of a civilisation to make way for a new one.
Perhaps, that is just the nature of space. It changes, merges, stretches and shrinks over time. Segambut Dalam, already boxed in, will continue to shrink further into oblivion.
But what about the original community, the people who made Segambut Dalam their home? As more land is used for upmarket development, where will they go? Will they get pushed further away from the city, further away from their rice bowls? Will they be placed in low cost units, in cramped spaces? Or will they then create new shanty towns and thus continue the cycle?
yeoh further wrote, “The most controversial amendment (to the Land Acquisition Act in 1991) provided powers to the state, allowing private property to be compulsorily acquired for any use that is deemed to be economically beneficial to the country’s development.”
The formula for Kuala Lumpur today seems to be – clean up the city, attract foreign investors, house wealthy people, hide the problems in the periphery of the city and move the poor into pigeonholes dubbed “affordable housing”.
Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like tapestry. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at email@example.com