Parit is a small town of roughly 2,000 people in the state of Perak, deep in the rural heartland of Malaysia, with no distinguishing feature other than its attractive location on the banks of a muddy river, which served as the backdrop to a few scenes in the 1999 movie “Anna and the King.” Once a convenient and bustling stopping-off point on the winding road from Ipoh, the state capital, to Taiping in the north, Parit suffered from the construction of the North-South Expressway in the 1990s, which diverted passing trade away from the town.
Today the shops that line its two main streets are either closed for good or open only erratically, the paint on their stuccoed facades faded and patchy with moss — a poignant reminder of the decline of rural life in Malaysia over the past three decades. Parit is among the hundreds of country towns and villages that have suffered from the relentless urbanization that has accompanied Malaysia’s remarkable economic success since the late 1980s.
I spent my school vacations there for a decade, starting in the late 1970s, staying with my grandparents who owned the general store. My uncle still runs it, though the shop is half-empty these days, the children’s toys that remain are covered in dust, and the cellophane wrapped up around the small pile of school uniforms is yellowing. Like most young people who grew up there, my cousins have all moved to cities to find work — to Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru or Singapore.
The speed with which Malaysia has transformed itself from a sleepy former British colony into what the World Bank calls an “upper middle income” country has been impressive: The country’s average growth rate of 6 percent over 25 years has made it the richest state (by G.D.P. per capita) in Southeast Asia after Singapore. Economic growth has been accompanied by a breathtaking rate of urbanization: In 1960, about two-thirds of the population lived in rural areas; today, 74 percent of Malaysians live in cities.
This growth poses a major organizational challenge for Malaysia’s large cities. On most days, rush-hour traffic in Kuala Lumpur brings the capital to a near-standstill. Even in the sprawling middle-class suburb of Petaling Jaya, cars inch along bumper-to-bumper between the school run and dinnertime, which is hardly surprising given that there are at least twice as many registered cars as people in the Federal Territory, the administrative area that includes Kuala Lumpur.
The crime rate has soared over the past decade. The continuing rise in real estate prices — 30 to 35 percent between 2011 and 2013 — is making homeownership increasingly difficult for even young professionals. Kuala Lumpur’s burgeoning middle class has plenty of reason to grumble.
But its problems pale in comparison with those faced by Kuala Lumpur’s underprivileged, a class that Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit calls the “urban vulnerable group”: people who possess only the most basic schooling and are either unemployed or earn less than $780 a month per household. Although slums have largely been eradicated from central Kuala Lumpur, dozens of townships formed of cramped public and flimsy zinc-roofed housing fill the outskirts of the city. In the fringes of Setapak that I passed through recently, small children play on dumpsites not far from shanties made of tin and salvaged wood planks. In the low-income suburbs of Sentul and Taman Medan, disaffected youths known as mat rempit indulge in illegal street racing on jazzed-up scooters.
The rapid expansion of Malaysia’s cities requires a radical rethink of the way Malaysians want to live. That in turn requires examining whether we are a country of sophisticated urbanites (think Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore) or a country of rural folk, only recently converted to the excitement of city life, but craving, nonetheless, more space, time and leisure. Kuala Lumpur might boast an array of Western-style entertainment options, but its residents’ preferred dining and shopping venues are the night markets and open-air mamak stalls that are the city’s link to life in the provinces. In every luxury mall, the busiest section by far is the food court, an air-conditioned imitation of the hawker centers whose roots lie in the countryside’s casual eating traditions.
This call for a reassessment isn’t about nostalgia, or a naïve rant against development, but an invitation to reconsider the potential role of the countryside in Malaysia’s progress. Improvements in infrastructure and telecommunications mean that small towns are now within easy reach: Parit is less than a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, thanks to the very highway that first ruined its fortunes. The provinces offer space, affordable housing and greater social integration.
Large provincial towns such as Ipoh, 30 miles from Parit, are beginning to experience revivals, the shops and restaurants in its previously run-down historic old town being rejuvenated thanks to real estate investment by Kuala Lumpur dwellers in search of a higher quality of life. But that regeneration has yet to trickle down to the smaller towns in more rural locations farther afield.
Greater investment in Internet and telephone connectivity in the provinces would mean that Parit and other similar towns could easily participate in Malaysia’s fast-growing online-based small-business sector and begin to contribute to, rather than be excluded from, the country’s economic growth. The Malaysian expression for the act of visiting relatives in the countryside is “Balik Kampung,” which translates literally as “Return to the Village.” This might be a good moment to do just that.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire.