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The roads we take

(© Michal Zacharzewski /

WILLIAM Shakespeare once wrote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If only this were true of roads as well.

Two weeks ago there was a reference in this column to Jalan Esfahan in Kuala Lumpur. This road was originally Jalan Selat. But in 1998, it was changed to Jalan Esfahan when Kuala Lumpur was twinned with the city of Esfahan in Iran.

If one were to visit Jalan Esfahan today, however, it is a road that leads nowhere. Construction blocks access through it. So much for friendship with an Iranian city.

Road name changes in Kuala Lumpur happen for various reasons. Twinning cities are but one.

Some of us will remember Birch Road, which runs from what used to be known as Edinburgh Circus (no, no Scottish animals here) or Bulatan Edinburgh in front of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka building. As an aside, Bulatan Edinburgh is now called Persimpangan Edinburgh because we are Malaysians and do not run around in circles; we merely cut right across it.

Birch Road joins another road to become Jalan Kinabalu in front of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. But Birch Road is no longer Birch Road. It was changed to Jalan Maharajalela. Whether this was intended as a “here’s one in your eye” to our former colonial rulers is unclear. We all know from history that Datuk Maharaja Lela was convicted and hanged by the British for the murder of the British Resident of Perak, JWW Birch, in 1875.


But if Birch was the British Resident of Perak, why was a road in then Selangor named after him? Or could it be that this road was named after EW Birch (no relation, I am given to understand), a later British Resident of Selangor, and someone who had no dealing whatsoever with Datuk Maharaja Lela?

In the 1970s, Kuala Lumpur went through a series of road name changes in the spirit of Malaysian nationalism. Kenny Hills became Bukit Tunku, Guillemard Hill off Jalan Duta became Bukit Ledang, and so on and so forth. Interestingly enough, some English-named roads did not change, for example Peel Road in Cheras or Maxwell Road near Putra World Trade Centre.

The roads around what is now KLCC did not change either, but could this be because of snobbish reasons? How better to sell property to foreigners than to still have English road names? So we still have Persiaran Stonor and Jalan Eaton, which incidentally is where the family of our late Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak continues to reside.

And now that we have reached the stars with our very own Angkasawan, we had the recent attempt to change the names of roads in Bukit Bintang to raise them to astronomical heights. But this endeavour and the situation with our own Angkasawan appear to have been brought down to earth by some more terrestrial controversy. Thankfully, Jalan Alor will continue to provide out-of-this-world experiences, whether culinary or otherwise.

Political paths

But physical roads aren’t the only things that undergo cosmetic changes. So, too political paths, at least in Malaysia.

For example, the New Economic Policy (1970-1990), the National Development Policy (1990-2000) and the National Vision Policy (2000-2020) have all had more or less the same effect. These policies have entrenched the economic prosperity of a politically well-connected elite minority at the rakyat’s expense. How else can one explain why, over the last 20 years, the Gini coefficient of intra-racial income has actually increased?

But no matter how discredited these policies, we stubbornly keep on the same road. And under the new prospective prime minister, it is likely we will continue to do so.

(© Zsuzsanna Kilián /

Ethnic-based politics will continue to dominate the political agenda. Political domination by one group over all others and the concept of might is right will remain. Religion, one in particular, will continue to be a political football. Crony capitalism will continue, just with different cronies, as will money politics, and draconian laws that are used to stifle legitimate opposition and dissent. Respect and loyalty will continue to be the operative buzzwords whether to government or the ruling coalition; no matter if it’s at the expense of King and country, rule of law and participative democracy.

Why should all these continue? Perhaps because it is the easier option, the one that doesn’t upset the apple cart.

What this country needs is visionary leadership. Naturally, one is inspired by the victory of Barack Obama in the recently-completed US presidential elections. Sorry, it is very hard not to bring him into this.

Could the same happen here? Despite the Prime Minister’s assurance, the real answer is no. At least not yet, despite some cheeky statements that Malaysia had a minority race leader 27 years ago. Not unless we are prepared to question, nay challenge, the way things are done in this country. Not unless we are prepared to instigate and litigate and mitigate in the name of transformation. For if we don’t, the answer will continue to be “no, not yet”. And it will remain that way for so long as we keep to this stale, old road that leads to the political cul-de-sac we find ourselves in.

As Albert Einstein once said: “It is a sign of madness to continue to do the same thing and expect a different result”.

Andrew Khoo is an advocate and solicitor in private practice, and an aspiring columnist and commentator.

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