Public Space

Contesting Streetscapes in Malaysia

In September last year, the city of Kuantan, capital of Malaysia’s third largest state, Pahang, awoke to a seemingly inconsequential government decision to rename a series of roads in the city centre. The Kuantan City Hall issued a letter addressed to the public informing them that “Jalan Wong Ah Jang” 1 to 5, a street named after a local Chinese merchant, Wong Ah Jang (1874-1929), would be renamed as “Jalan Bunga Kemboja” 1 to 5.

Given that decisions to rename public roads in Malaysia have become almost a recurring trope of everyday news, what sets this decision apart? Purportedly made in 2021, the renaming of Jalan Wong Ah Jang cascaded into a public uproar among “netizens” online as well as the local community, calling attention to Malaysia’s streetscapes as a contested space in the shaping of collective memory. 

The Pahang state government’s reasons behind this change were ambiguous. Former Pahang Local Government and Housing Committee Chairman Datuk Abdul Rahim insisted that the change of road name was necessary to improve the social fabric of the surrounding area. However, it is unclear how replacing Wong Ah Jang, a prominent member of the Pahang community in early 20th century Malaya with the bunga kemboja – the frangipani flower, would achieve this.   

Viewed by many as a concerted attempt by the government to rewrite history by erasing its colonial past, this decision comes after a string of other successful attempts to transform urban spaces and streets in this way. In 2014, eight new road names were introduced in Kuala Lumpur to commemorate past and present “Yang di-Pertuan Agongs” (Kings) of Malaysia. At the same time, a number of streets named after colonial administrators (or their relatives) were decommissioned, including streets named after Lady Mountbatten (wife of British colonial administrator, Louis Mountbatten); George Wooley, the British Colonial administrator and Sir Ernest Woodford Birch, former Resident of Perak. Along this vein, Malaysia’s former Federal Territories Minister, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, openly expressed discontentment after a decision to rename “Jalan Raja Laut” (named after a major figure in Malay and KL history) to “Jalan Palestin”. Implied in his remark ‘Why not rename (roads with) English names such as Jalan Stonor, Jalan Conlay, Cochrane road and others?’, is the suggestion that all roads associated with Britain’s colonial legacy in Malaysia should be removed from public spaces altogether. 

An image of a large streetsign in Kuantan Malaysia showing 'Jalan Dato Wong Ah Jang', named after a local historic figure.
Image of streetsigns in Kuantan, December 2012, WikiCommons

The government’s decision to rename Jalan Wong Ah Jang has demonstrated the potency of streetscapes as sites of contestation, where competing notions of power, national identity and history are played out, with citizens demanding a “right” to shape public discourse. There was even an online petition initiated by ‘the residents of Kuantan’ to stop this change, garnering 2,327 supporters, which argued that ‘place names with historical significance should be preserved as a special feature and attraction to maintain the historical identity of our area with its own heritage and traditions’, and that “[Wong Ah Jang’s] contributions as a pioneer in the development of this area should not be disregarded.” 

Indeed, many argued that Malaysia’s national history cannot be separated from its colonial history, and any attempt at providing a more nuanced narrative of nation building necessitates a revisit of its colonial past. “By accident or design, the younger generation are now without any visual links to Malaysia’s colonial past, which played an important role in building the nation Malaysia is today”. Kin Keng Phua, one of the petitioners, further reflects that  “Renaming the road threatens to eliminate over seven decades of historical narrative connecting Kuantan’s early developmental phases to its contemporary status as a city.”

Given public interest in reviving a period of history marked by British colonialism, post-colonial Malaysia has its own dilemmas within the movement to decolonise history. The erasure of a towkay (the name given to a prominent member of the Chinese business community in 19th and early 20th century Malaya) during colonial Pahang from collective memory foregrounds the politically and socially divisive issue of the place of ethnic Chinese in public and historical narratives of nation building. In this context, Malaysia’s colonial past is invoked not to glorify or revive colonialism and the British colonial administration. Rather, many invoke this past in search of a more inclusive narrative of nation-building and national identity. Conversely, those seeking to obliterate Malaysia’s colonial history from the public spaces do so precisely because such a past has the potential to uncover alternate narratives of nation building.

In this sense, the Wong Ah Jang controversy is less about colonialism than it is about racial politics, exposing the undercurrent of racial tensions pervading a society fractured by racial politics. Racial divides between the three main ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians, are largely historical, carried out through various government policies during both colonial British Malaya and post-independence. These polarising measures have nevertheless carried through till the present day, where political elites are known to aggravate ethnic tensions, and discriminatory yet institutionalised practices against other ethnic minorities continue to persist.

Such divides are played out in forums in the context of the controversy surrounding Wong’s removal from the public sphere. Whilst some have described this change as “cultural and historical genocide” – of erasing the contribution of ethnic Chinese from public streetscapes, others point to the Malaysian Chinese Association’s vice-president, Lian Kerr Ti’s actions in criticising one of the Kuantan state councillors for not doing enough to prevent this decision, as currying favour with Chinese voters, given the ethnically Chinese demographic of the area where Jalan Wong Ah Jang is situated.

Particularly noteworthy is the mobilisation of the Chinese community in voicing their concern about this decision. The magnitude of negative responses to this decision – from grassroots community groups such as the Kuantan Hainanese Association to netizens online is significant where almost every Chinese language newspaper in Malaysia covered this issue, with the China Press extending itscoverageto include interviews with local residents about their thoughts regarding the name change.

A photographic portrait of Wong Ah Jang, a significant businessman and local leader in Kuantan in the early 20th century
Portrait of Wong Ah Jang

Among the Chinese community, Malaysia’s colonial history is paradoxically invoked to construct a more nuanced version of nation building. Indeed, Wong’s place in Malaysian history is intertwined with British colonial rule in Malaya and attempts to reinstate him within public narratives has the unintended and perhaps unfortunate effect of reifying colonial narratives. Although he did not have a formal role within the colonial administration, the breadth of his commercial activities and contributions to Pahang, including capitalising on the booming rubber industry during the early 20th century to become the first licensed rubber wholesaler in Kuantan, and initiating Kuantan’s first motorised public transport service at the opening of the Kuantan-Beserah Road in 1920, would have nevertheless brought him in contact with colonial authorities. After all, Pahang, as one of the federated Malay states, was under the direct rule of the British.

It is ironic that such contestations hinge on whether Wong, a first generation immigrant from Hainan, China who became the last Chinese Kapitan of Pahang, deserves to remain in the collective memories of his fellow Kuantanites. He is after all, most famous for being the patriot who named all his sons after towns in Pahang – Kuantan, Sungai Belat, Gambang, Lembing, Pekan, Lipis, Bentong, Jelai and Raub. Three of his four daughters are also named after geographical place names in this state – Pahang, Beserah and Pontian. An active member of the Chinese community in Pahang, he was responsible for building the Hainanese Club in Kuantan, and regularly contributed to fund raising efforts for flood relief and the activities of the anti-opium society in Kuantan. Whilst his contributions to Pahang led to his recognition by the British administration (being awarded a “Certificate of honour”) by King George V, his contributions were equally celebrated by the Sultan of Pahang in 1925, being awarded the title ‘Dato Setia Bakti” (Chief of High Honour).

This decision and the ensuing cascade of public opinion foreground the influence of public discourse and narratives on streetscapes. Yet it is not a phenomenon limited to Malaysia. There are striking parallels with the United Kingdom where decisions to remove certain historical figures with links to the slave trade from urban spaces are increasingly being shaped by public discourse. However, this foray into the politics of Malaysia’s streetscapes has demonstrated how attempts to construct a more inclusive narrative of nation building might also have the unintended consequence of “re-colonising” history by invoking a past that is entangled with British colonialism.

Ultimately, these examples point to the historical weight attached to particular streets. On one level, street names are “ostensibly visible, quintessentially mundane, and seemingly obvious”. Most people engage with street names, whether consciously or unconsciously. One brings them up in conversation, uses them as a meet up point, refers to them when giving directions. Individuals whose names are on the street signs thus inevitably become part of the public streetscape. Yet, as posited by Danielle Drozdzewski, streetscapes are signs that make up the visual identity of urban spaces that are part of a broader spatial politics of memory, harnessed to reaffirm political control. Of particular salience is the unassuming ability for streetscapes to imprint a version of history: constructed, experienced, perceived and ultimately inseparable from the realities of everyday living. Thus, every government decision to change a street name has the consequence of moulding and reshaping collective minds, of injecting particular historical realities upon its people. Such decisions, whilst seemingly part of the mechanics of quotidian, everyday life, invite us to question the dynamics at play – whether racial, social or cultural, in the construction or perpetuation of a public history whose narrative is shaped by those in power.

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