Unlike elsewhere in the country, Kelantan’s legal system traditionally operated according to Islamic law – an important factor in the maintenance of national pride under Thai overlordship. This wholehearted embrace of Islam was encouraged by trading contacts with the Arab world, enabling a free flow of new ideas from as early as the 1600s. One of Kota Bharu’s most famous sons is To’ Kenali, a religious teacher who, after years of study in Cairo, returned at the start of the twentieth century to establish sekolah pondok – huts functioning as religious schools.
Kelantan retains its distinctive identity today, to the extent that it’s even difficult for anyone from outside the state to buy property here. It’s also the scene for an intense, ongoing political rivalry that has, for example, seen the national government blocking the state government’s attempts to introduce hudud (punishments including flogging, amputation, stoning and execution, meted out for specific types of crime).
This rivalry is producing dramatic changes in Kota Bharu. After years of stagnation under PAS and a refusal by UMNO to release funds from federal coffers, both parties have decided that development is the avenue to political glory. As a result, the city now boasts a major shopping mall and a sprinkling of fancy riverside apartments – all of which would have been unthinkable until relatively recently. While some foreign visitors find Kelantan’s conservatism apparent, especially if they’ve arrived from Thailand, by and large Kota Bharu comes across as a bustling, pragmatic sort of place.