Mamak Stalls vs Hipster Cafes: Understanding Gentrification in Malaysia

Like most of my peers in the Klang Valley (& surrounding areas), I have very much welcomed the influx of ‘high-end’, aesthetic-looking cafes popping out all around the neighbourhood. They make for really great Instagram photos and fun outings with family or friends, going from one cafe to another to sample over-priced coffee and quirky, fusion food.

Up until this point, I mostly saw this as a benefit – frankly, because I am economically more privileged and never thought to think otherwise – without realising the tradeoff we were making for these hipster cafes, housing developments and new shopping malls that seem to be taking over cities like wildfire.

The first thing to understand here is gentrification as a means of urban development. Gentrification is a process where people of a higher socioeconomic status move into or invest in an area/neighbourhood that previously wasn’t doing well in order to urbanise it. This includes things like rebuilding houses, selling property/land to investors, opening up malls, cafes, groceries stores: anything that caters to the consumption needs of the middle class.

Governments and other authorities often cite that this is a positive way to develop cities, to become more of a competing force in the market, limit crime rates and revitalised the city. The way this is done is to maximise economic activity. However, this means that people from lower socioeconomic households get locked out of these areas.

A clear example of this would be the recent news of the closure of two very popular food courts: Asia Cafe in SS15 and Ming Tien in Taman Megah.  According to reports, both those areas will undergo redevelopment, most likely to become office sites (or something similar) that cater to the corporate world and middle class consumer needs.

Hawker stalls in open food courts are an iconic Malaysian landmark – you get people from all walks of life sitting on round tables and plastic chairs ready to consume some of the best damn food you can find. It’s where you go if you want a good refreshing RM2.50, teh o ais limau, instead of spending RM12 on Ice Lemon Tea that comes with a thin lemon slice floating on top. It’s where you go after a long day of everything and all you want is a plate of good, cheap food.

These new developments get rid of hawker stalls (& their owners), get rid of the cheap food and most importantly get rid of any patrons who can’t afford to spend RM12 on Ice Lemon Tea. This is a similar theme with gentrification. It redevelops or revitalises areas, but that comes with an increase in prices of property, of services, of goods – pushing away people who can’t access these things due to their socioeconomic status.

On a larger scale, gentrification often displaces people out of their homes and force those that can’t afford to cope with rising property prices to the fringes of cities. In this article, the authors look at estates in Johor where local residents were forced to move out due to land developments. However, after completion most local residents couldn’t enjoy the benefits of said development due to unaffordable housing prices.

The conclusion here is that with the way gentrification is being implemented, it really is a system that disadvantages those that are already quite vulnerable. It creates a system and a narrative that if you are not rich enough you have no place in a redeveloped, ‘civilised’ city. Gentrification is tied to the capitalist system, so it often does a massive disservice to those of lower socioeconomic status.

Malaysia is still a developing nation, so while I understand the need to take steps to be more developed, there is an opportunity to go about it in a more just way. For one I had no idea there were even plans for the redevelopment of those food courts until it was finalised. Apparently there were some residents protesting it’s development (for around 2+ years), but didn’t get enough signatures to actually stop it.

I’m only just starting to understand gentrification and all it’s nuances, so I can’t say I know of any solutions or steps forward. Most of the literature I’ve read are also more western centric. I think it is important to recognise what’s happening when it comes to the development of our country and the impacts it has on citizens.

I also understand I’m equally as complicit in allowing gentrification to flourish.

However, I’d rather not stand by and watch economy rice stores, road side nasi lemak & cendol stalls and 24 hour mamak stalls change into something they’re not. They not only provide reasonably priced food, but they are also viable income sources for members of our community that might not be hired to work in cafes. It is important to allow for development that includes benefits for all sectors of society, especially when we’ve seen a reverse of this in other gentrified parts of the world.

I’m not saying we should stop going to hipster cafes and the like: but Malaysia has pretty strong ties to our heritage and means of living, even a CEO of a company wouldn’t say no to mamak mi goreng (or at least I’m pretty sure they won’t because how could you resist) so maybe there’s way for development that allows both those things to exist. To allow working class citizens to still be part of urbanised/civilised/revitalised parts of the city.

P.S. Gentrification is quite a complex issue and I’ve only just scratched the surface with this; if anyone knows of sources/people I could turn to so I can properly understand it’s implications in Malaysia/SEA let me know 🙂


Malaysia & its treatment towards refugees

There are around 150 662 refugees that have registered with UNHCR Malaysia at the end of April 2017; there are over thousands more still waiting to be processed.

However, Malaysia has still not enacted any concrete policy to help manage the situation. This video gives a summary of the current context in Malaysia and the policies it uses to deal with refugees in the country.

In the past, Malaysia has had very ad hoc policies pertaining to refugees. Often as an act of political solidarity with certain minorities being persecuted. However, without a change in laws in the country, refugees will continue to live in fear of being detained and will have no way of legally earning a living.

A few weeks ago, I got to know a community member in Wollongong who had lived as a refugee in Malaysia. She got to Malaysia after fleeing from Myanmar and was there for three and a half years before being resettled to Australia by the UNHCR. Here is a glimpse of her life while she was in Malaysia.

Right now, the people refugees can turn to are NGO’s and other private bodies working to help them. The Malaysian government has recently agreed to investigate the numerous deaths in immigration detention centres over the past two years. For more information on how to help you check out Tenaganita, UNHCR Malaysia or find the closest refugee community near your area.


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