Creolized Utopias: Squatter Colonies and the Post-Colonial City in Malaysia

Article excerpt

"Shanty towns", "spontaneous dwellings", and "squatter colonies" are established topics in the literature on "Third World" cities and urbanization. Until recently, these discussions were customarily framed within two contending theoretical schools. Proponents of the "modernization" thesis view the emergence of "modern" cities as an improvement over "ancient" indigenous cities. Thus, the dramatic demographic growth and urban problems characteristic of many "Third World" cities are evaluated as a kind of "pseudo-urbanization" arising from an imperfect replication of the tertiarization of the industrial "First World". In contrast, adherents of the "dependency" school depict "Third World" urbanization as integrally linked to the transnational expansion and logic of modern capitalism. The ills of urban poverty and the lack of decent, affordable public housing are thus manifestations of the uneven and inequitable distribution of resources and surplus accumulation; a phenomena, moreover, not just confined to the "Third World" but also endemic in the most affluent of "First World" cities (Armstrong and McGee 1985; Gilbert and Gugler 1992).

Amongst others, Henri Lefebvre's complex and monumental work, The Production of Space (1991) is centrally pertinent to the purposes of this paper. In brief, Lefebvre contends that the "city", as both a built environment and lived space, cannot be conceived merely as a neutral and empty container of social, economic, and political activities. Instead, the "city" should be viewed as the domain where episodes of the hegemonic expansion and capitalist drama are being played out (see also Harvey 1989; Jacobs 1996; King 1990). More specifically, he argues that capitalism has survived largely because it is the spatialization of modernity and the strategic planning of everyday life that has allowed its essential relations of production to be reproduced. In the organization of the built environment then, space is commodified. In other words, space becomes a social and political product.(1)

In this paper, I follow in part the trajectory of this thesis in the ethnographic context of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. In juxtaposing current energetic efforts at erasing "squatter colonies" with an equally energetic push to construct a recognizable post-colonial city on the global landscape, I suggest that both occupy historically contingent positions, and that they aptly index the nature of changes that are engendered in the wake of globalized capitalism. To further appreciate the significance of the interplay between local and supralocal cultural processes, I also draw from Ulf Hannerz's formulation of "creolization" which, in essence, theoretically takes a position in between the two contending poles introduced at the beginning of this paper. Whilst contemporary asymmetrical capital and cultural flows between the metropolitan "centre" and the "periphery" index the historical legacy of an extractive colonialism and cultural imperialism, they are also not monolithic nor one-sided. Thus, the contemporary concerns of city management in Kuala Lumpur bear the marks of a hybridized cultural exchange. They depict a variation of what Richard O'Connor has argued elsewhere as the distinguishing trope of indigenous urbanism where emerging nation-states succumb to urban interests by remaining heavily mortgaged to urban forms (O'Connor 1995, p. 39). Or, to put it another way, in the current milieu "squatter colonies" are rendered as "heterotopias of deviation" -- sites where behaviour and meaning are deemed deviant in relation to a mean or norm (Foucault 1986).

Redefining Land and Landscapes

The contemporary dominant notion of land as a commodity that can be owned, transferred, mortgaged, and sold is essentially a colonialist construct. In British Malaya, as elsewhere in other European colonies, the cultural category of property was constituted by a combination of intertwining practices. …