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Bukit Labu

Narratives of Progress in an Urbanizing and Ageing Neighborhood

Emerging Issues

Seremban, the capital of Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia is an up-and-coming residential hub for young Malaysians working in the metropolitan capital of Kuala Lumpur. Seremban itself is not new; it was known as Sungai Ujong, part of the kingdom of Melaka up until the 16th century. It was later expanded by the British for its mining and commercial potentials in the 1870s and its name changed to Seremban. Due to its connectivity via the North-South Expressway (also known as KL-Seremban highway) to major urban or tourist centres including Kuala Lumpur (1 hour drive), Putrajaya (40 minutes’ drive), Melaka town (2.5 hours’ drive) and Johor Bharu (4 hours’ drive) Seremban is quickly being embraced as part of the Greater Kuala Lumpur urban sprawl. Trendy housing areas or townships, such as Seremban 2, Ainsdale and Bandar Sri Sendayan have mushroomed adjacent to older neighborhoods, and gentrified ‘hangout’ spots emerged among rows of colonial shophouses. Despite its location and attraction as a residential choice for working, young adults, Seremban is not a popular tourist destination as it does not have the same magnetism as that of major tourist centric states such as Melaka or Penang. It is common that the North-South Expressway along the Seremban stretch, which accounts for three exits, suffer massive congestion during the weekends and worse during holidays, as many residents commute from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban regularly, some even daily. All these circumstances are factors to the city’s imbalanced development.

One issue which can baffle visitors is how locals define the perimeter of Seremban. With new townships such as Ainsdale and Seremban 2 built so closely to the old town, it appears that Seremban is simultaneously being expanded and overwhelmed by developments. There are also many old areas that are part of Seremban, but not located within the folds of the old town areas, such as Rasah, Paroi and Bagan Lalang. Bukit Labu is a small housing area designated as part of the ‘city center’ or old town territory. Nestled in the middle of this neighborhood is an old convent school, St Paul Primary School which was built by British missionaries in 1899. As the name suggests, ‘bukit’ which translates into ‘hill’, the area can best be described as a convergent of houses, shophouses and the school on a small hill. Today, the neighborhood is populated by young families, but also a high number of elderly couples and individuals. Despite being on a hill in the middle of a state capital, Bukit Labu has experienced unstable internet connection, causing problems for school children around the area who rely on the internet for online learning. This particular problem has been complained and ignored by the municipality and providers due to the relatively small size of the neighborhood’s residents. This setback is of interest to the researchers as it allows an exploration to the relationship between technology, urbanization, and the rising importance of connectivity, especially during the pandemic when schools are closed, and children learn exclusively online. The researchers would like to investigate how different layers of vulnerabilities are experienced in a neighborhood like Bukit Labu which has become part of the challenges to online learning during the pandemic, and how these challenges have evolved due to the change in demographics.

Neighborhood-community-city-state relationships

Bukit Labu is an example of an often-overlooked neighborhood in Malaysian government’s reports on online learning among school children during the pandemic. The Ministry of Communications and Media has reported that Seremban stands as one of the best-connected cities with over 92% connectivity in 2017. Yet, the experiences in Bukit Labu dispels this generalization. Areas of considerable affluence, development and aging demographics, Bukit Labu is not a typical neighborhood which can be classified as significant in the government’s agenda to improve connectivity for online learning. Furthermore, while many areas in Seremban are “new”, with young families and inevitably, school-going children, Bukit Labu has an almost balanced population in terms of age group. It is also a small neighborhood, with a total of less than one thousand families. Therefore, it does not represent an area of urgent and explicit need for improved connectivity in order to cater online learning. This places Bukit Labu as a contrast to the narrative of progress and urbanization which benefits Seremban.

Relevance to SEANNET Collective

This study looks at the challenges of technology in a small, demographically and infra structurally aged neighborhood which has been accentuated during the pandemic. One key issue that is highlighted in this study is the use of internet and online learning. How are families with school children coping, and how have the dynamism between teachers and students changed in this period of Corona shock? Also, what educational values are in transition during this digitised phase How are teachers adjusting? With the St Paul elementary school being part of the neighborhood, it is interesting to analyze how residents respond to accelerated use of technology for learning, and how the different intersections of gender, generations, class and income distribution could have on the data. This issue is intertwined with another SEANNET theme— autonomy. Bukit Labu is directly administered by the municipal council of Seremban since residents moved in during the 1970s. Connectivity and schooling falls under the prerogative of the council. Residents have made requests to telco companies for the past 20 years to upgrade internet and telephone connection but to no avail; the geographical and demographics features of the neighborhood deem it to be insignificant to such developments, even as the pressing need for fast connectivity is especially important today. Yet, as online learning begins nationwide, connectivity becomes a pressing issue. This affects not only schoolchildren, but also other residents who have to work from home due to the control movement order during the pandemic from 2020. And so a point of interrogation of this research group is to understand the mechanisms of autonomy and the varied ways the community has to support themselves when institutions have failed to recognise their needs.

Research Focus and Proposed Methodology
  • What are the demographic changes in Bukit Labu over the past fifty years?
  • What is the relationship of the demographic age group with municipal and government initiatives to improve connectivity in the Bukit Labu?
  • What are the challenges faced by children living in Bukit Labu on online learning and how does that compare to surrounding neighborhoods in Seremban?
  • What can these discoveries tell us of the loopholes and limitations of the narrative of progress and urbanization in important state cities such as Seremban?
  • What are the variables which may deter proper installation of internet connectivity in Bukit Labu?

A neighborhood such as Bukit Labu has its own standing history, and also runs parallel to the history of Seremban. The first phase of the research is to uncover the historical nuances of the area, to trace patterns of settlement and migration, and how this relates to the number of school going children in the area. As the neighborhood “ages” this pattern has dramatically changed as well. The researchers will look at the history of the area and of Seremban from census data and government reports.

The second phase of research will be interviews with a sample of the population, consisting of young families with school going children and the elderly. Among the concerns that will be highlighted in the interview are issues of connectivity, online learning and how the community engaged with teachers and the school in accommodating online learning.