On the ‘founder’ of Kuala Lumpur — Ranjit Singh Malhi

(MMO) – I refer to the recent write-up in a local English-language daily related to the founding of Kuala Lumpur. Allow me to enlighten readers about who exactly is the “founder” of Kuala Lumpur based upon authoritative sources.

The Mandailing nobleman, who according to Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, is the founder of Kuala Lumpur is Sutan Puasa, and not Sultan Puasa. Additionally, it has to be clarified that Sutan Puasa had no authority to sanction (i.e. provide official approval) the appointment of each Kapitan Cina although his support was sought and deemed important in the said appointment. The authority to officially appoint the Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur was vested either in the Malay district chief of Klang or the ruler of Selangor himself. According to J. M. Gullick, Hiu Siew obtained recognition as the first Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur from the Malay chief of Klang with the assistance of Sutan Puasa. In the case of Yap Ah Loy, he was officially installed as the third Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur by Raja Mahdi, the Malay district chief of Klang. Yap Ah Loy was given a seal of office and the Malay title, “Sri Indra Perkasa Wijaya Bakti”.

To determine the true founder of Kuala Lumpur, one first needs to define the term “founder”. If it refers to “originator”, “establisher” or as stated by Sharon A. Carstens as “the first important person on the scene”, the founder of Kuala Lumpur is arguably Hiu Siew. At the behest of Sutan Puasa, Hiu Siew and his business partner, Ah Sze left Lukut around 1859 and settled at a place near the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers (heart of Kuala Lumpur). They established a trading post comprising a few huts after clearing the jungle which as stated by S. M. Middlebrook became known as Kuala Lumpur. In a similar vein, Gullick states that this trading post marks “the origin of Kuala Lumpur itself”. According to Frank Swettenham, Kuala Lumpur in 1872 was a “purely Chinese village, consisting of two rows of adobe-built dwellings, thatched with palm leaves ….”

If the term “founder” refers to “builder”, “prime mover” or in the words of Carstens as “the person who expended the most effort in early years to build and develop the city”, the founder of Kuala Lumpur is undoubtedly Yap Ah Loy, the third Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur.  All historians worth their salt will admit that Yap Ah Loy was primarily responsible for transforming Kuala Lumpur from a mining village into a leading commercial and mining centre after it was largely destroyed during the Selangor Civil War (18671873). He played a major role in rebuilding Kuala Lumpur; virtually kept it free of crime; built cart-roads to the mines in the vicinity; and imported thousands of Chinese labourers to work in his mines and other enterprises. As aptly stated by Gullick, “Down to 1879, Yap Ah Loy was Mr. Kuala Lumpur.” He adds further that Yap Ah Loy raised Kuala Lumpur “from an obscure mining village to become the most important town in the Malay Peninsula.”

Sutan Puasa was neither an “originator” nor a “prime mover” in the origins and development of Kuala Lumpur. He lived near the mining settlement of Ampang whereas Kuala Lumpur grew from the original trading post established by Hiu Siew (the first Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur) and his business partner, Ah Szea fact clearly ascertained by both Middlebrook and Gullick. In terms of developing Kuala Lumpur, Sutan Puasa (a tin trader and merchant) pales in comparison with Yap Ah Loy who in the words of Gullick was a “leader in war, an administrator and a mining magnate”.

What irks me most is the current official, albeit erroneous and unsubstantiated, version of the founding of Kuala Lumpur as portrayed in Kuala Lumpur’s official tourism website: “KL was founded in 1857 by a member of the Selangor royal family, Raja Abdullah, who was the representative of the Yam Tuan who administered Klang. Together with Raja Jumaat of Lukut and 87 Chinese workers, he came to explore the district in search for tin ore. After travelling up the Klang River to reach its confluence with the Gombak River, they made their way through deep jungle and found tin near Ampang. That moment marked the beginning of KL’s development.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no historical evidence at all to prove that both of them indeed accompanied these Chinese tin miners to Ampang. According to Gullick, the Chinese tin miners were accompanied by a “Malay agent of the district chief of Klang”.

As Malaysians, we should be proud of our rich heritage and multi-cultural society. To my mind, distorting history is an intellectual crime. In this regard, we should all be committed to the writing of Malaysian history that is accurate, generally objective, and well-balanced that can contribute to the ultimate goal of creating a united and prosperous “Bangsa Malaysia”.  May the Great Architect of the Universe bless our beloved nation!