Re-examining development of cities

It was said that “the 19th century was a century of empires; the 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” Economic growth is increasingly driven less by capital and more by the density and availability of talents. Cities that possess the right physical, cultural, economic and social conditions would become a magnet for talent.

Are our cities ready for such eminence? Probably not. There is a need to re-examine our ideas about central-local relations and the urban-rural divide to work out a new set of priorities for the future of our cities.  

Before independence, due to the decentralised nature of the governing structure involving the supposedly independent Malay states, Malaya was effectively a multi-city model in which Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh and Johor Bharu were of relatively equal strengths. Indeed, Kota Bharu, with its 50,000 inhabitants in 1900, was just marginally smaller than Kuala Lumpur in terms of population size.  

Merdeka brought forth a powerful central government with deep pockets. Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, went on a building spree to define the nation in Kuala Lumpur. Icons and monuments built during this period include Merdeka Stadium, National Stadium, Subang Airport, National Mosque, National Monument, Parliament House, National Museum and the University of Malaya.

The government’s revenue increased further in the 1970s and 1980s with the expansion of the oil and gas sector and a more diversified economy. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, went on not only to vastly improve the country’s infrastructure but also replace Tunku’s monuments in Kuala Lumpur by building a new capital in Putrajaya in the 1990s. Today, the federal government pays Putrajaya Holdings RM1 billion annually as rental for the offices in Putrajaya.  RM1 billion is 0.5% of the nearly RM200 billion-federal budget, not to mention other municipal and maintenance costs. Grass-cutting alone costs the country RM18 million a year.  

Other cities lost their lustre as state and local governments have little resources at their disposal as Malaysia continues to centralise. The combined state budgets were around 25% of the federal budget in 1990 but it dropped to merely 9% in 2009.  Transportation — public transport, ports, airports and highways — arguably the most important enabler of any city, is very much a federal matter. Essential services like sewerage, public cleansing and solid waste, as well as water, are being centralised one way or the other in recent years.  

Further, outside Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, the ethos is to devote resources to develop the rural sector. The New Economic Model (NEM), prepared by the National Economic Advisory Council, proposes to replace the current approach of “dispersing economic activities across states to spread the benefits of development” to one that builds clusters and corridors to create “concentration of economic activities for economies of scale and better provision of supporting services.”

However, many are still of the view that Malaysia is a rural nation, or at least most Malays are living in the kampung. Utusan Malaysia on Aug 30 carried an article by a Zainal Kling reiterating that cities are mostly inhabited by the Chinese and called on the government to help the Malays and bumiputera whom he considered are still rural and agricultural based.  

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin recently announced that the government will introduce a Kampong New Economic Model, which I suspect in some ways will champion measures that contradict NEM’s key idea of urban agglomeration and density.

In the 2010 budget, RM4.6 billion is allocated for the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry while RM7.2 billion is for the Rural and Regional Development Ministry. Despite identifying “urban well-being” as a new concern for the government that is added to the portfolio of Federal Territories Ministry, the amount allocated is meagre, not even 0.5% of the combined sum to the two rural ministries.

Today, the fact is that Malaysia is a highly urbanised nation. Sixty-five percent of the population lives in urban areas. For the peninsula, the figure is higher at 70%. The overall figure was just 35% in 1980. The draft Second National Physical Plan anticipates that the national urbanisation rate will reach 75% in 2020. Malay urban population is estimated at slightly less than 60%. The ethnic Malay population exceeded that of ethnic Chinese in Kuala Lumpur in 2000, a good 10 years ago.  

In fact, urban Malays, whose existence has yet to register on the minds of many Malay leaders and whose livelihoods and welfare are still not well taken care of, is the most potent political force in the future political contestation.  

Why are such social realities eluding our government leaders? It is possible that the governing mode in this country means that doing more of the same is the safest option for politicians and bureaucrats. But it is worth mentioning that while 65% of the population lives in urban areas; 65% of parliamentary seats are rural. It is also interesting to note that contracts for road construction and other rural infrastructure is the key source of political largesse even in the US.   

Great liveable and sustainable cities hold the key for Malaysia to leapfrog into the next phase in the rapidly changing world economies. But the various conditions of our cities such as transport connectivity, public safety, housing affordability, water quality and flood mitigation, are not at their best and need much improvement.  

To move forward, we must first address the two glaring dichotomies, namely central-local relations and the urban-rural divide, that have held our cities back thus far.

Liew Chin Tong is the member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera. This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, September 3 2010.

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