History of Kuala Lumpur

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Sultan Abdul Samad Building; one of the oldest landmarks of the city

Kuala Lumpur is the largest city in Malaysia; it is also the nation's capital. The history of Kuala Lumpur began in the middle of the 19th century with the rise of the tin extraction industry.

Pre-independence era (1857-1957)[edit]

The junction of the Gombak and Klang rivers, from which Kuala Lumpur takes its name

Kuala Lumpur was founded ca. 1857 at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers. In English, the name Kuala Lumpur literally means "muddy confluence". The venture into the muddy confluence started when a member of the Selangor royal family hired tin prospectors to open tin mines in the Klang Valley. 87 Chinese prospectors went up the river Klang and began prospecting in the Ampang area, which was then jungle. Despite 69 of them dying due to the pestilential conditions, a thriving tin mine was established. This naturally attracted merchants who traded basic provisions to the miners in return for some of the tin.

Yap Ah Loy[edit]

The leaders of the Chinese community, who administer the Chinese settlement and ensure law and order, were conferred the title of Kapitan Cina (Chinese headman) by the Malay chief. Hiu Siew, the owner of a mine in Lukut, was chosen as the first Kapitan of Kuala Lumpur.[1] It was however the third Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy, who had the most impact on Kuala Lumpur in its early years. He set up Kuala Lumpur's first school and a shelter for the homeless. Kapitan Yap licensed brothels, casinos and drinking saloons. Yap gave Kuala Lumpur a system of frontier justice which effectively maintained law and order, and ensured that Kuala Lumpur became the centre of commerce in Selangor. Yap's Kuala Lumpur was very much a rough frontier town as Yap himself was a member of the Hai San triad and gang warfare was common.

Kuala Lumpur became embroiled in the Selangor Civil War, which was a fight between Selangor princes over the revenue of tin mines. There was a vendetta between Kapitan Yap and Chong Chong, who wanted the Kapitanship. Kapitan Yap aligned himself with Tengku Kudin, but they were initially defeated and driven from Kuala Lumpur. They later regained Kuala Lumpur with the help of Pahang Malays.[2] The town was devastated by the Civil War, but Yap rebuilt Kuala Lumpur and repopulated it with Chinese miners from elsewhere in Selangor. He also encouraged Malay farmers to settle near Kuala Lumpur to have a steady and accessible source of food.

British administration[edit]

Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in central Kuala Lumpur, where the independence of Malaya was declared in 1957

In 1874, Sultan Adbul Samad of Selangor accepted a British Resident in a system allowed the British to rule while the Sultan remained the head. In 1880, Kuala Lumpur was made capital of Selangor and the British colonial administration moved from Klang to Kuala Lumpur. In the early years, Kuala Lumpur suffered from a number of fires as the houses were made of wood and attap. In 4 January 1881 the entire town was burnt down, and although Yap rebuilt the town, the danger of fire remained. In 1882, Frank Swettenham was appointed the British Resident, and he ordered that Kuala Lumpur be rebuilt with wider streets, and the houses to be replaced with buildings in brick and tile street by street. The rebuilding program lasted about five years.[3] Swettenham also initiated the construction of a railway line between Klang and Kuala Lumpur, opened in 1886, which increased accessibility to Kuala Lumpur and spurred the rapid growth of the town. The population grew from 4,500 in 1884 to 20,000 in 1890.[4] It was under Swettenham's rule that after Kapitan Yap's death in 1885 the city continued to prosper. When the Federated Malay States were incorporated with Swettenham as the Resident-General in 1896, Kuala Lumpur was made the capital.

In the early year, most of central KL has grown without any central planning whatsoever, so the streets in the older parts of town are narrow, winding and congested. The architecture in this section is a unique colonial type, a hybrid of European and Chinese forms. A Sanitary Board was created on 14 May 1890 which was responsible for sanitation, upkeep of roads, lighting of street, planning and other functions. This would eventually became the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council.[5]

Kuala Lumpur grew from a small settlement to became Selangor's biggest city. Kuala Lumpur was only 0.65 km2 in 1895, but it expanded to 20 km2 in 1903, and by the time it became a municipality in 1948 it had expanded to 93 km2, and then after independence to 243 km2 in 1974 as a Federal Territory.[6]

Japanese occupation[edit]

Kuala Lumpur was occupied by Japanese from 11 January 1942 to 15 August 1945. The period, called "3 years and 8 months", almost halted the economy of Kuala Lumpur.

During the Japanese Occupation, the military launched numerous policies such as the selective policy where the ethnic Chinese were treated badly because they supported the Chinese Government during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. On the other hand, the ethnic Malays and Indians were treated fairly well so that they would co-operate in order for the Japanese to continue administering Kuala Lumpur. On the other hand, the Japanese Social Policy was also used by the Japanese Military Administratives. In the policy, all English and Chinese schools were ordered to close down and every morning in schools, Kimigayo (the Japanese National Anthem) had to be sung to show loyalty to the Japanese Emperor.

While the Japanese Military occupies Kuala Lumpur, the Japanese Military Yen or commonly known as Banana notes were introduced.Due to currency without reserves issued by the Japanese Imperial Army administration and over printing of Japanese Military Yen,hyper-inflation occurred and food rationing became the norm of daily lives.

In 8 and 9 August 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on the two Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima causing General Seishirō Itagaki (General of Japanese Military Administratives) to surrender to the British in Kuala Lumpur.

Malayan Union[edit]

After the fall of Japanese, the British Military Administration returned to Kuala Lumpur.

On 1 April 1946, the British officially declared the Malayan Union in King's House (now known as Carcosa Seri Negara).

Pre-independence elections[edit]

Kuala Lumpur was one of the first city to hold an election. The first election was held on February 1952, resulting in the United Malays National OrganisationMalaysian Chinese Association joint party winning 9 seats out of 12 seats.

Independence day[edit]

Kuala Lumpur gained historical significance again in 1957 when the first Malayan flag was raised on the grounds of the cricket field, Merdeka Square, to mark the country's independence from British rule. Kuala Lumpur came of age in 1974, when it was formally detached from its mother state of Selangor and made into a unit of its own called the Federal Territory.

Post-independence era (1957-1990)[edit]

The National Monument (Tugu Negara) commemorates those who died in Malaysia's struggle for freedom (principally against the Japanese occupation and during the Malayan Emergency).

After independence in 1957, Kuala Lumpur became the capital of the Federation of Malaya and continued to be the capital of the greater Federation of Malaysia in 1963. For the occasion of independence, a large stadium, Stadium Merdeka (Independence Stadium), was built, where Malaysia's first prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, declared Malaya's independence in front of a massive crowd. The Union Jack was lowered from the flagpole at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) and the Malayan flag was raised. The site symbolised British sovereignty as it was a cricket ground for the colonial administrators and fronted the Royal Selangor Club, Malaya's most exclusive whites-only club.

In 1969, parts of the city were damaged in one of the worst racial riots in Malaysian history, known as the May 13 incident. The Malaysian parliament was suspended for two years until 1971.

On 1 February 1972, Kuala Lumpur was given city status.

On 1 February 1974 Kuala Lumpur seceded from Selangor and the city became a Federal Territory (Wilayah Persekutuan).

Contemporary era (1990-present)[edit]

Masjid Negara (National Mosque), one of the largest mosques in East Asia

Kuala Lumpur advanced by leaps and bounds ever since the Asian Economic Boom of the early 1990s (when economic growth was averaging at 10%). Skyscrapers have shot up and Kuala Lumpur, formerly a languid colonial outpost, has become one of the most lively, advanced and vibrant cities in South East Asia. Traffic jams are a scourge commuters endure daily, despite the numerous 6-lane highways constructed all over the city (including two elevated highways). Bus services are notoriously irregular and inadequate.

The stretch of road facing Dataran Merdeka is perhaps the most famous road in Kuala Lumpur. The Sultan Abdul Samad building with its signature copper domes and Moorish architecture stands here, as does one of the tallest flagpoles in the world, which stands in the Dataran Merdeka itself. Up until 2004, the superior courts of the federation (the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court) were housed in the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, since then the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court have moved to the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya. The Dayabumi building is visible, being down the road. This area used to be the focal point of Malaysia's Independence Day parade, which was televised all over Malaysia. In 2003 however, the parade was moved to the boulevard in Putrajaya, keeping with Putrajaya's status as the new administrative capital of Malaysia. Interestingly, the white Police Headquarters located atop Bukit Aman (literally "Peace Hill") also faces the Dataran.

The rest of the city has mostly developed in the standard way, similar with other capital cities in other countries. Aware of this, architects have been urged to incorporate traditional design elements into their work. Notable examples of this fusion are the Dayabumi building, Kuala Lumpur's first skyscraper, the Tabung Haji Building and Menara Telekom, both designed by local architect Hijjas Kasturi, and the Petronas Twin Towers.

The accelerated development of the city has seen older structures demolished or altered to make way for shopping centres, offices and residential developments. Efforts to conserve heritage buildings in the city exist but are limited. While preservation of landmarks such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, Carcosa Seri Negara and Central Market, as well as a handful of shophouses and homes, are active, a fraction of pre-independence buildings in the area have been poorly maintained, misused, neglected, razed in fires or demolished through the 1990s and 2000s (decade). Recent controversy has been raised with a (presently dropped) government proposal in mid-2006 to acquire the operational Coliseum Theatre and convert it into a cultural heritage center, as well as the government's inaction toward the demolition of the Bok House in late-2006.

In November 2007, two of the largest political rallies since 1998 took place in the city—the Bersih rally on 10 November, and the HINDRAF rally on 25 November. The Bersih rally was organised by a number of non-governmental organisations and opposition political parties to demand electoral reform in the country, whereby about 50,000 people took to the streets.[7] The HINDRAF rally was organised by HINDRAF (Hindu Rights Action Front) and was attended by at least 10,000 mainly ethnic Indian protesters demanding equal social and economic rights from the Bumiputras.[8]

Kuala Lumpur was voted as one of top ten cities in Asia by a leading Asia magazine Asiaweek.[9]


  1. ^ Ziauddin Sardar (August 1, 2000). The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur. Reaktion Books. p. 49. ISBN 978-1861890573. 
  2. ^ J.M. Gullick (1983). The Story of Kuala Lumpur, 1857-1939. Eastern Universities Press (M). pp. 21–23. ISBN 978-9679080285. 
  3. ^ J.M. Gullick (1983). The Story of Kuala Lumpur, 1857-1939. Eastern Universities Press (M). pp. 42–43. ISBN 978-9679080285. 
  4. ^ Keat Gin Ooi, ed. (2004). Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1576077702. 
  5. ^ Chiang Siew Lee (13 May 1990). "Kuala Lumpur: From a Sanitary Board to City Hall". New Straits Times. 
  6. ^ Reassessment of Urban Planning and Development Regulations in Asian Cities. UN-HABITAT. 1999. p. 35. ISBN 92-1-131419-4. 
  7. ^ "Teargas used on rare Malaysia demo". CNN. 10 November 2007. Retrieved 8 December 2007. 
  8. ^ Zappei, Julia (26 December 2007). "Ethnic Indian protesters clash with Malaysian police". London: The Independent. Retrieved 8 December 2007. 
  9. ^ Asiaweek. The Top Ten. Retrieved 23 February 2007.