Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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The legislative and commercial capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is the country’s largest city. Situated centrally in Peninsular Malaysia, the city’s growth during the second half of the twentieth century was remarkable, doubling in size within a generation. Ethnic Chinese form a large part of the city’s population and dominate commerce. Ethnic Malays control the administration. In 2000 Putrajaya was named joint capital, although Kuala Lumpur is still the centre of administration as only the prime minister’s office and two ministries have moved to the new capital.


The site of Kuala Lumpur was uninhabited until the 1850s, when the interior of the Malay state of Selangor was opened up by tin miners. In 1857 a group of Chinese miners navigated the Klang River to its shallow confluence with the Gombak River where they established a collection point for the tin found in major deposits to the east. The settlement was on the site of the present-day Kuala Lumpur suburb of Ampang. As local mining interests grew, so did a shanty town to serve the mines.

When a dispute over the succession to the throne of Selangor erupted into civil war, Britain stepped in to protect the Malay sultans, who were to be advised by a British resident. The first holder of this office in Selangor, Sir Frank Swettenham, arrived in Kuala Lumpur in 1882 which by then had replaced Klang as Selangor’s capital.

Under Swettenham’s guidance, the town, which had been largely destroyed by fire in 1880, was rebuilt in brick. When, in 1896, the Federation of Malay States was formed, Kuala Lumpur was named capital. Kuala Lumpur grew into a British colonial capital city.

During the first decades of the twentieth century the city’s Chinese and Indian populations mushroomed. In 1941 the city was overrun by Japanese forces during their lightning invasion of the Malay Peninsula. After World War II (1939–45), the guerrilla movement against British rule, launched by the (ethnic Chinese) Malay Communist Party, had a dramatic effect upon the fortunes of the city. A series of strongly defended villages and other settlements was established around the edge of Kuala Lumpur to house people displaced by guerrilla activity elsewhere in Malaya. These settlements became, in time, suburbs of a rapidly expanding city.

When the Malay States gained independence in 1957 as the Federation of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur was named capital. In 1963, when Malaysia was formed from Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and, briefly, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur became capital of the federation. Kuala Lumpur ceased to be part of Selangor state in 1974, when it was designated a federal territory. The 1980s and 1990s saw the transformation of the Malaysian capital into a modern city, symbolized by the Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest office buildings at the time of opening in 1998, which dominate the city skyline. By the close of the twentieth century, the city’s pollution, traffic problems and continuing urban sprawl gave rise to plans for a new capital Putrajaya on Kuala Lumpur’s southern fringe.

Modern City

Kuala Lumpur is the principal cultural and political centre of Malaysia, despite the loss of some administrative functions to Putrajaya. It is the hub of Peninsular Malaysia’s road and rail routes. Kuala Lumpur International Airport handles most of Malaysia’s international flights, except some regional flights to other Asian states. The city has a rapid light transport rail system. As well as being an important banking and commercial centre, Kuala Lumpur is the most important industrial base in Malaysia. Sungai Besi is the principal industrial suburb and the Klang Valley downstream is the heart of Malaysia’s modern high-tech industries. The Kuala Lumpur conurbation extends some miles down this valley to include Putrajaya. Major industries include food processing, engineering, tin smelting, rubber processing and, in the Klang Valley, textiles and electrical and electronic engineering.

Places of Interest

The 452-m (1,483-ft) Petronas Towers, designed by Argentine-born U.S. architect Cesar Pelli, is one of the principal tourist attractions. Visitors are admitted to the sky-bridge that links the two towers on the 42nd floor. The Towers are in the modern office district known as the Golden Triangle. Nearby, the 421-m (1,381-ft) Menara Kuala Lumpur, or KL Tower, is another landmark. The viewing deck and revolving restaurant on this telecommunications tower are popular.

More traditional attractions include the huge Central Market and the colourful Chinatown with its temples and painted shop-houses. Two impressive Islamic structures lie south of the inner city: the Pusat Islam Malaysia (the Malaysian Islamic Centre) and the Masjid Negara, one of the largest mosques in South-East Asia. The Masjid Negara, which is set in gardens, has one large and 48 smaller domes and a minaret that rises from a pool. It is open to non-Muslims outside prayer times.

Merdeka Square is the centre of colonial Kuala Lumpur. Once a cricket ground, it is the square in which independence was proclaimed and is still the venue of parades and other ceremonies. Beside the square is the exclusive late Victorian Royal Selangor Club and the half-Moorish, half-Victorian domed Sultan Samad Building, which now houses the Supreme Court. At the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers is the Masjid Jamek (Friday Mosque), a pink and cream-coloured building set among palm trees.

The Lake Gardens, west of the city centre, contain a deer park, orchid garden, butterfly farm, hibiscus garden and the National Monument. Other attractions include the National Museum, Parliament House, and the Islamic Arts Museum.

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