Anyone who has visited Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur would have felt the pulse of Malay heritage in all its resplendent splendour.
Here lies rich cultural treasure, snuggled in the heart of a thriving, modern but haphazardly cramped Kuala Lumpur.
Not only is Kampung Baru historically recognised as a ‘Malay heartland’, it is till today a site where locals and tourists can savour a cross-cultural experience.
Here you can sample the goodness of nasi lemak and many other Malay delicacies.
But more than the food, two glaring truths about Kampung Baru stand out:
First, it is the Malay goodwill that fills the many food stalls and flows onto the cramped, narrow roads fronting the only one and only laluan sehala (one-way street) that snakes through Kampung Baru.
It will be impossible not to notice how local Malays – many coming from as far away as Perlis in the north and Johor down south – work in these Malay stalls. Some of them could be Indonesians. But the operators are all Malays.
These Malay workers have proven Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Umno politicians wrong all the way. They are neither lazy nor unwilling to work for long hours in these places.
Visitors can encounter the polite Malay culture around them. The ever busy waiters, cleaners and cashiers at the cramped stalls seem to be ever so calm and entertaining toward every customer.
Even the predominantly Malay customers seem graceful and accommodating and have no reservations in striking up a conversation or acknowledging with polite nods and smiles the many visitors of other ethnic backgrounds there.
Even more amazing is that despite the bumper-to-bumper stream of vehicles meandering into the vicinity, you don’t hear any honking. Despite parking being a nightmare, selfish attempts to hog spaces are visibly absent. Instead, tolerance and patience fill the streets.
The other truth is that we have to haul up our politicians for their repeat failures to protect, cherish and nurture the uniqueness of Kampung Baru. For far too long, we have been sold the hollow mantra that development means having more high-rise buildings while destroying places that provide a potpourri of cultural exchanges for Malaysians.
One leader has kept repeating that Kampung Baru is “an eyesore” while his sycophants paint it as a shanty town with allegations that the Malays have sold out the place to Indonesian settlers.
These politicians – behind whom lurk greedy business people – refuse to accept one thing. Despite governments (especially Barisan Nasional, which has held power for decades) deliberately not doing their best to make Kampung Baru a greater experience in things Malaysian, the Malays here have struggled against the odds to keep the soul of ‘Malay-ness’ thriving.
Kampung Baru may not have decent streets – yes, they have ‘roads’ that are tarred for namesake – and enough parking space. But the stalls here continue to draw throngs of people day and night, seven days a week.
Brick-and-mortar structures have mushroomed all around Kampung Baru, wiping out the green lungs that the place once nestled in and which made it so breathtaking.
But the warmth and kindness of the restaurant operators and staff makes up for the cramped space in the shops as well as the claustrophobia on the streets.
No matter all the negativity that politicians have painted about Kampung Baru, here is a place in our country where the various ethnic groups can come and mingle with one another while enjoying the food and community spirit.
Those of us who lived and grew up in Kampung Baru and nearby Doraisamy Road and Campbell Road (now Dang Wangi) will recall the beauty of this settlement with its great river and a long wooden bridge, beneath which they could find sayur paku.
It is a pity that Umno politicians, who never lost a heart beat in seizing the opportunity to scream ‘ketuanan Melayu’, have failed to preserve this rich cultural enclave. Not only that, they have allowed it to suffer more with each passing decade of unbridled ‘development’, which has encroached closer from all sides.
What is being lost is the best of traditional Malay culture – the traits of goodwill, tolerance and a willingness to share their cultural experiences with others. Our politicians have robbed us of a unique treasure in the heart of a thriving capital, a place all Malaysians can meet and partake in all things Malay.
The congested streets, the insufficient parking lots, the lack of budget allocations to help the poorer long-term residents there – all this have not helped this once-pristine Malay dwelling.
Fortunately, the resolute will of the Malays here has so far kept Kampung Baru alive as a tiny enclave where local and visitors savour a unique Malaysian experience.
Perhaps the time is right for all Malaysians to help the Kampung Baru residents to reclaim their heritage.