Kvelling and Kvetching in Kuala Lumpur

Trying to capture my visit to Kuala Lumpur, or “K.L.” as it’s commonly termed, is arduous at best. The capital and largest city in Malaysia, it’s teeming with a unique ethnic, religious and cultural mismash of residents, all of whom have contributed enormously to its internationally- acknowledged economic success. With over 7 million inhabitants, it’s seething with entrepreneurial fervor, coupled with a growing resentment by the Muslims and Malays (statistically, one in the same) for the huge Chinese and lesser but still vital Indian populations who have lived among them for centuries. As Islamic influence sweeps the country, the feeling of frustration and resentment by the Buddhist, Hindu and others has been profound. Laws have been put in place nationwide to provide resource and financial assistance for the Islamic, primarily Malay, population. With Chinese residents at 43% however, the feeling of inequality and resentment abound. Islamic men, for example, are allowed to marry four wives. The wives and children will all be provided for with government support, unlike the families of the Chinese, Indian and other citizens. The government has had significant and highly publicized charges of both fraud and corruption over the past several years and many Malaysians freely share their disdain for their leadership, particularly among the disenfranchised. One hopes that this slippery slope of state-supported religious fervor and subtle, but very real, efforts to rid the country of those Non-Malay/Non-Muslim citizens, will abate. The next five years will be crucial in cementing a lasting, inclusive plan for cultural and financial success in this vast and beautiful country.

The development of the city and the surrounding area has been extensive the last 20 years. Some would assert that the government has not done a good job of protecting the more historic architecture reflecting both the early Chinese and the British colonial periods. Taking aggressive measures to tear down buildings of beauty or historical significance, only to replace them with enormous, glitzy, albeit often impressive skyscrapers or shopping malls, is de rigueur for city planners.

For history buffs, here’s a sampling of some the older buildings, some protected, yet none guaranteed to be standing a year from now in the current climate of “out with the old….”:

Architecture buffs are most likely familiar with the spectacular Petronas Twin Towers, the largest twin towers in the world, which opened in 1996 as a business center and a state oil company-funded showcase for Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Read more about them here: Facts: Petronas Twin Towers. The other, older landmark is the Menara KL Tower, built in 1996 and the fourth tallest telecommunications and broadcasting tower in existence. It sits on an area known as Pineapple Hill which is reflected in the tower’s unique cylindrical design. Here’s a link to more info on what is commonly referred to as “KL Tower”: Facts KL Tower. Although the air was misty the day I visited, I think the impact of these two magnificent structure comes through loud and clear:

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Malaysia was, at one time, more of a pluralistic society that welcomed and acknowledged all nationalities and religions. As I mentioned earlier, however, there is group pushing for the adoption of Sharia Law as the national norm. Islam has officially been adopted as the state religion. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and other lesser-known sects currently co-exist safely and visibly around the city. Of course, the largely government-back Islamic Mosques are the most impressive. Here’s a selection of religious houses of worship I visited:

Putrajaya is a massive newer development outside the city designed to centralize the prime minister’s residence and office, as well as all the branches of government administrative, that had previously been scattered throughout the city. It’s an impressive show of wealth and self-esteem for the Malaysian government and continues to be developed for both corporate centers and high-end residential use. Here’s more info: Facts – Putrajaya.

Malaysia is considered a constitutional monarchy. Unlike European royalty, however, the King, also known as Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is designated every five years among the group known as Council of Rulers, composed of the Sultans of nine of the eleven Malay States. This rather unusual succession plan was agreed upon as part of the British exit in 1957 and has been in place ever since.

The current Istana Negara, or royal palace, was opened in 2011 to replace the older site, originally the private estate of a wealthy Chinese businessman. The older palace is now open to the public as a museum, while the new one, much larger and more Islamic in design, is only gleaned through large iron gates guarded by decoratively attired guards. Here’s a glimpse of both palaces:

I thought I’d end this post with a few shots that capture the feel and culture of this sprawling and, as yet, still highly multi-cultural city. I left Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia feeling a slight sense of sadness not knowing what ultimate direction government policies might lead. I want to believe that inclusive minds will prevail, but the current is strong among radical Islamists and native Malays to retreat back to more feudal time of religious doctrine as law. If this should happen, the colors of this magnificent country will change forever – and the influence and contributions of many may go the way of those neighborhoods and buildings, now so seemingly easily discarded, that give a city a sense of history and value.

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