The up­mar­ket ‘ghetto’

As lux­ury con­dos move into an area, the poor get pushed out to the pe­riph­ery of the city. Is this ‘progress’?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - Sharyn Shu­fiyan

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 star2@thes­

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