On 31 August, Malaysia will celebrate Independence Day. In the 48 years since the young nation gained its freedom from British rule, it has seen tremendous changes, and on the eve of the country’s greatest national celebrations, there is no better way of understanding the recent history of the nation than to walk around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city and visit three places: Masjid Jamek, the Merdeka Square, and the Petronas Twin Towers.
The Beginning of a City
To start from the beginning, there is no better place to go in Kuala Lumpur than Masjid Jamek, the city’s oldest mosque, built in 1909 on a little jut of land where the rivers Gombak and Kelang meet. On Fridays, when the call to prayer sounds out, the mosque becomes packed with worshippers, who often overflow into the street and to the buildings nearly. A short walk around to the back of the mosque however, and a visitor will find a grassy field running beside the river, overlooked by towering skyscrapers and startling quiet after the roars of the street. Though it seems wildly improbable, it was here on the banks of the river that the story of Kuala Lumpur, and the Malaysian nation, began.
If visitors has seen the site barely a century and a half ago, they would have seen a hugely different scene. The site on which the Masjid Jamek now sits was once was the heart of a shantytown, muddy, sprawling and haphazard. The town had been founded by a group 87 Chinese prospectors. It was that first group who first built a collection of huts on the site, and who named the area Kuala Lumpur, or muddy estuary in Malay. Unfortunately, all but 17 of the prospectors died of malaria before a month was out, but other men soon arrived, all of them Chinese peasants, who had risked the journey from China hoping to make their fortunes in the newly opened tin mines. The miners kept the name bequeathed by those first explorers and added to that first collection of huts, building it first into a village, then a shantytown.
It might never have been anything more it the British had not decided to chose Kuala Lumpur as the site for their new administrative capital. In so doing, they began a long period of colonial rule, which would alter the face of the country. Long after the British had left, the consequences of their rule are still felt today. Though most Malaysians are now two generations away from having known personally what British rule was like, memories of that time are still strong, and there is no more concrete reminder of that time than can be found in the area now known as Merdeka Square.
The Heart of Colonial Rule
The most famous building in Merdeka Square is the graceful Moorish-style structure now known as the Sultan Abdul Samad building. At the time of its founding, it was known as the Colonial Secretariat, and was home to the governing body which oversaw the administration of the British colony. The building’s most famous feature is the clock tower in the middle, the designer’s tribute to London’s Big Ben.
Until the construction of the Petronas Twin Towers, the Colonial Secretariat (which was renamed after Independence) was the most famous landmark of Malaysia. Despite the building’s prominence and strategic importance however, in most people’s minds today there is no greater symbol of the British colonial period than the Royal Selangor Club directly across the road.
If the Sultan Abdul Samad building represented the British administration, then the Royal Selangor Club stood for imperialism itself, for colonial society and its stratification of peoples into white and coloured, ruler and ruled. The Club is a white-and-black Tudor style hall, and looks authentic almost enough to make you say, ‘What ho, straight out of merry old England, old chap!’. This was a whites-only club where, less than fifty years ago, gentlemen whiled away the long afternoons playing cricket on the lawn, and ladies sat on the veranda complaining about the heat, while local boys in tattered shorts looked on from beyond the boundaries. Little wonder then that when the increasing calls for independence were finally answered, it was on the lawn of the Selangor Club that the populace gathered.
On 31 August 1957, as the clock tower in the Sultan Abdul Samad building struck 12:01 am, the Union Jack was lowered and a new flag was hoisted to take its place, to mark the birth of the new Malaysian nation. The ceremony underscored the most peaceful transition of power ever to take place in the British realm and today, the tallest flagpole in the world commemorates the very spot where that first national flag was raised. The area surrounding the Sultan Abdul Samad building and the Royal Selangor Club was given the name Dataran Merdeka, which means Independence Square, and since that time has been the site of the annual National Day celebrations.
The Modern Nation
Of course, since then Malaysia has moved on tremendously. In less than 40 years, the nation has made a breathtaking transformation from a sleepy colonial backwater into one of the most modern, forward-looking nations in the region. Today, a visitor wanting to explore the modern face of the country need only go to the Golden Triangle Area, K.L.’s leading business and commerce district. There, surrounded by all the frenzied hustle and bustle of a city on the go, a visitor can find the modern symbol of Malaysia, the Petronas Twin Towers.
Rising like sentinels above the surrounding buildings, the steel-and-glass Twin Towers stand a colossal 451.9 metres high and is. With its striking eight-pointed star floor plan, futuristic looks and prominent place in the city skyline, the Towers are now the most famous landmark in the country, and serve not only as the headquarters for one of the biggest companies in Malaysia, the petroleum giant Petronas, but also as a statement of Malaysia’s sky high ambitions for the coming years.
Today, the Twin Towers mark the unofficial heart of the city, where its residents gather for any major event. The biggest event of all is the annual Merdeka Day and New Year’s Eve fireworks, when huge crowds converge on the park adjacent to the Towers and wait for the spectacle to begin. The Tower itself also plays a part in the celebrations: one year, paragliders jumped off the towers as part of the show; another year, parachutists.
The gleaming Twin Towers, with its modern steel and glass design, couldn’t be more different from the studied classical grace of Merdeka Square. For all their differences however, they are both significant for being essentially snapshots of the country, each separated by the span of 48 years and marking the dramatic changes that have taken over the country in the intervening years. Malaysia past and Malaysia present; who knows what Malaysia future will look like?