Rangoon and Kuala Lumpur urban histories

Below is some work-in-progress on a comparative urban history piece on Kuala Lumpur and Yangon. It is the final section of a term paper that I wrote for my Southeast Asia class. I have never visited Kuala Lumpur, but found reading about it fascinating. Upon talking to my professor, though, I realize that much work remains to be done if I were to take this any further. Here’s me hoping to pick this up once my academic timetable clears up a little bit towards the end of the summer! In the meanwhile, let me know what you think!


Yangon — Accountant General’s Office (c) Manuel Oka

From: Negotiating the City, Building the Nation: Yangon and Kuala Lumpur


3. Points of comparison between Yangon and Kuala Lumpur

It is possible to extract several similarities and differences between Yangon’s and Kuala Lumpur’s historical experiences. Both cities were not centres of power before the onset of British colonial rule, although Yangon had served an important religious role thanks to the presence of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Immigration of Indians and Chinese respectively accelerated with colonial rule and created cities with a distinctly different ethnic composition vis-à-vis the future national polities they would represent upon independence. Both Yangon and Kuala Lumpur challenge the conventional vision of the “postcolonial” city as an essentially dual structure with a “European” town and a “native” settlement (A.D. King 2009: 1). Instead, the two cities were the urban manifestation par excellence of Furnivall’s “plural society”. The colonial administrations in both cities played their part in making these differences even more pronounced spatially. In Rangoon, they forcibly relocated Burmese from the downtown area to the northern suburbs, leaving Indian dockworkers in their crowded barracks near the riverside. The 1930 riots were therefore as much a result of these housing problems than those of the labour market (Osada 2016: 14). In Kuala Lumpur, New Villages and Reservations created fixed boundaries and contributed to an increasing ghettoization post-independence. It does not take much to suggest that this ethnic segregation contributed to a more racialized debate on nationalism in both cities and therefore both countries: In Burma, the Thakin movement of young Burmese intellectuals emerged in the early 1930s as a direct response to the riots (Zaw Soe Min 2009). In Malaysia, likewise, it were Kuala Lumpur’s race riots of 1969 that led to the racial discrimination in the NEP and its five-year plans.

And yet, both cities also reveal that ethnic or racial divides were often not more than a convenient horizontal marker of distinction between what can also be identified as vertical, class-based divisions. In Rangoon, it was not the landed Indian elite that stood against the Burmese strike breakers (who chiefly comprised underemployed slum dwellers) but the lumpenproletariat of the Indian dockworkers. Not unlike elsewhere in the world, the Great Depression of 1929 exacerbated distributional conflicts between these groups, as the economic slump also hit the Burmese economy following the booming 1920s. In Kuala Lumpur, racial differences provided the pretext for ethnic Malays to protest the undelivered promise of post-independence material affluence in a capitalist society. Therefore, “hostility towards Chinese ‘domination’ reflects the social disruption caused by the expansion of capitalism” (Bardsley 2003). In the eyes of Wheelwright, early independence-era Malaysia had a “class structure that has crystallised along ethnic lines” (1965: 110, as quoted in Khoo Boo Teik and Vedi R. Hadiz 2010: 6). Income inequalities manifested themselves alongside ethnic lines primarily because of the structure of the economy (Ikemoto 1985: 360).

While census numbers can be misleading due to the fluid character of ethnic categories, they may at least help in understanding some of the underlying dynamics, another important comparator between the two cities. In Rangoon, the Indian influx happened extremely rapidly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The reversal of this demographic situation occurred equally fast from the 1930s onwards. In the space of several decades, several hundred thousand Indians arrived and fled the city (and country, via Rangoon’s port). Kuala Lumpur was founded as a predominantly Chinese city, and the challenge to this reality arose relatively slowly after independence. Only today does the Malay population form a majority of the urban population, driven by both more natural population growth and less Malay net migration rather than sudden shifts as with Rangoon’s traumatic wartime exodus, expropriations and forced evictions. Apart from these dynamics, it also mattered greatly that the Chinese constituted not only the majority of Kuala Lumpur’s population, but also of Peninsular Malaya. Only with the Malaysia Act of 1963 as well as the secession of Singapore did the Malay become the majority of their titular nation. While they constituted the majority in Rangoon and some other conurbations in Burma, in their numbers Indians never reached these proportions and remained a minority on the “national” Burmese scale. Taken together, this made the Indian population a more ephemeral feature of Rangoon. This leads one crucial difference in the urban histories of Rangoon and Kuala Lumpur. The former became increasingly ethnically homogenous, while the latter’s ethnic diversity actually increased with the relative decline of the Chinese majority.

Both cities played a decisive role in nation and state building. For one, this played out via the construction of symbolic buildings in the early post-independence period and beyond. Civil war in Burma and chronically challenging economic conditions made this more difficult in Rangoon. Among the few construction projects, the Kaba Aye complex built on the occasion of the Sixth Buddhist Synod between 1954-56 stands out. Other projects of symbolic value were universities and technical schools, financed either by the US or the Soviet Union. Although Rangoon saw very little of the physical transformation other cities in the region would undergo with economic growth, the military rulers put their stamp on the city via “meritorious” construction projects of pagodas (e.g. Ne Win’s Maha Wizaya Pagoda) as well as later celebrations of “Myanmar” culture and purported inter-ethnic diversity and harmony (e.g. with the National Races Village as well as the National Museum). The availability of resources and peace allowed for a more active reimagination of the Malaysian nation within the urban space of Kuala Lumpur post-independence. With a variety of important buildings, such as the parliament, a national museum and sport stadia, “a national community was (…) actively imagined” (Lai Chee Kien 2007: 11). At the same time, the importance of the National Mosque also physically expressed the claim of the ethnic Malay on the cityscape of the nation’s capital.

Finally, the two projects of moving the capital share important parallels. They add a distinctly Southeast Asian variant to the the discourse on postcolonial capital relocations, perhaps best summarised by Schatz (2003). In 2005, Naypyidaw became the administrative seat for a military junta that felt increasingly threatened in the face of popular dissent in its traditional locus of power, Yangon. The move to Putrajaya, while the brainchild of Malaysia’s most transformative post-independence prime minister Mahathir, took place in a context of much more public accountability. And yet, both new capital cities share an ambitious symbolism, testament to their role in late post-colonial nation building. Naypyidaw exhibits none of the (former) cosmopolitanism of Yangon while prominently featuring Buddhist architecture, most notably an almost identical copy of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Putrajaya conveys an international, yet Islamic formal language not only in the city’s major mosque, but also in several of the new government buildings. Both new capitals reflect the ruling elites’ growing exasperation with certain qualities of their former capitals. In Yangon’s case, the protests of 1988 and the subsequent failure to reclaim the city alienated the junta. In Kuala Lumpur, ethnic Chinese continued to dominate the urban economy despite economic growth and positive discrimination favouring ethnic Malay. The limits of authority in shaping and controlling urban spaces become evident in both cities. Equally important, their urban histories and urban forms also help explain the varied outcomes of Myanmar and Malaysian nation building.


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