The Role of Architects in Reimagining Urban Spaces and Shaping Malaysia’s Future

It is my great honour to address the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia Annual Dinner.

The last time I spoke at the PAM annual dinner was in 2019 when I was Deputy Defence Minister, which didn’t have much to do with the field of architecture. At least now my current portfolio, the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry, has a bit more to do with the architects, perhaps we can talk about the export of architecture services.

Many here would know that I am no stranger to the architecture community. More importantly, I understand the roles and importance of the architecture community to our society and nation.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Winston Churchill in his speech to the House of Lord on 28 October 1943, requesting that the House of Commons bombed out in May 1941 to be rebuilt exactly as before.

Architects shape buildings, and thereafter the buildings shape our collective national lives. Hence, speaking with the architects is so important. The ideas that circulate among the architectural community will eventually be represented in their buildings, and our lives, for generations to come.

I have just returned from an official visit to Brazil. While in Brasilia, the planned capital since 1960, I had the chance to visit their national monuments which were mostly designed by Oscar Niemeyer; and some beautiful gardens by Roberto Burle Marx who also designed our KLCC Park.

At the Itamaraty, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry building, the open verandah reminded me of the international style of our National Mosque while the concrete facade of the Presidential Residence resembles our Parliament House and Angkasapuri.

Lai Chee Kean[1] documented the construction of national monuments around Kuala Lumpur during the Merdeka period – the same period Brasilia was built from scratch – that evidently attempted to make a statement of breaking free from colonial influences.

Brasilia is a great experiment by Brazilian architects, although I am doubtful whether ambitious planned cities like Canberra (which I resided in for four years), Putrajaya and Brasilia would ever have the bustling of a city emerging from actual lives of ordinary people.

When I reflected upon the place of architects in our nationally relevant buildings, I am of the view that we as a nation, especially governments and government-linked corporations, should give Malaysian architects more prominence to make their presence visible.

I have been encouraging more architecture and design competitions to be held at all levels of government. PAM worked with MRT Corp for RTS, Penang Government for various buildings including the Chowrasta Market, and is working with Wong Shu Qi, MP for Kluang, for the rejuvenation of the local “pasar”. More government agencies, GLCs and various institutions should provide opportunities for Malaysian architects to test out their ideas.

MITI and Malaysia Investment Development Authority (MIDA) are promoting Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur and potentially Johor Bahru, as regional headquarters for multinational corporations. We hope when more multinationals set up regional headquarters here, there will be more interesting new buildings to be built, or old buildings to be repurposed.

I took note of the “Save our heritage building” campaign that is being promoted at the start of the dinner.

I am a keen supporter of the conservation of heritage buildings. But I noticed that very often heritage buildings in Malaysia are preserved as artifacts rather than living buildings. Many conserved buildings ended up as cafes, hotels, and specialised museums.

London alone has more than 100,000 heritage buildings that are given a contemporary usage as commercial or residential space, or both. And, many of London’s buildings are much older than Malaysia’s heritage buildings. The same goes to many European capitals, conserved buildings are living buildings, not artefacts.

The other problem in Kuala Lumpur and some other cities in the country is that the inner cities are hollowed out and therefore older buildings in inner cities are left abandoned, and even if restored, they are just treated as museums.

There needs to be a movement to bring people back into inner cities. I hope PAM can spearhead this movement, especially when PAM is hosting the Union of International Architects summit in Kuala Lumpur in November. The UIA event is akin to the Olympic of architecture.

To rejuvenate Malaysian inner cities, we must address the root causes of the ambivalent attitudes towards cities: 

First, Malaysian urban planners and leaders inherited the ambivalent attitude towards cities from the British planning tradition. The Garden City movement is critical of the terrible and exploitative conditions of urban centres in 19th century Britain. Therefore, there was an inherent urge to curb the growth of the cities and to move people to the suburbs or idealised rural communities.

For instance, even in the 1950s, Kuala Lumpur was thought to be too congested and thus Petaling Jaya was developed as a “satellite city”. If those planners knew how congested Kuala Lumpur is today, they would turn in their graves.

Second, Malaysia was essentially a rural society until half a century ago. In 1980, only 35 percent of Malaysians and 15 percent of Malays lived in urban centres. Today, nearly 80 percent of Malaysians and 75 percent of Malays live in urban areas. Malaysia is now truly an urban nation, but not all minds are urban yet, many decision makers may still not comprehend the new urban reality of our nation. 

Third, Malaysia has adopted an American lifestyle of sprawling suburbs, highways and heavy dependence on private passenger cars. “We became American before we got rich.” Over the last half a century, the Malaysian GLCs and property developers have profited hugely from turning plantation estates into housing estates. And, for the past 40 years, the Government was also actively involved in selling cars and building highways, yet not using much public funds to subsidise the provision of bus services.

It is time for us to bring Malaysians back into the inner cities.

The “American lifestyle” – the sprawling suburbs, the highways, and dependence on private cars – is not good for the climate and comes with a very high cost: heavy fiscal burden of subsidies.

While the inner city heritage buildings are dilapidated, many Malaysians spend hours commuting from suburbs to cities to work daily, and the young are not able to afford decent housing, whether to own or to rent.

We have yet to take into account the need to provide care for an aging population which will be a major concern in the coming years. Caring for the aged in disjointed towns and cities without adequate public transport connectivities could exaggerate physical isolation and make provision of care more difficult.

We, as a nation, should gather all resources to at least provide decent housing in inner cities for a younger set of population who are working in the cities. For example, instead of developing townships that sprawl into outskirts, PNB and its major arm SIME Darby should put in major effort to ensure the 15,000 workers who will work at Merdeka 118 can find accommodation within walking distance, especially for those who are earning less than RM5,000 a month.

I hope the architecture community led by PAM can take the opportunity of organising the Union of International Architects in November this year to reverse a 50-year sprawl and to bring about the fundamental shift in Malaysia’s urban planning.

My best wishes go to the new PAM Council under the leadership of Ar Adrianta Aziz, may you succeed in bringing transformative change to the nation’s cities and buildings.

This is my speech delivered at the Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia Annual Dinner 2024 on May 31, 2024.

[1] Lai Chee Kien (2007) Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture in Kuala Lumpur 1958-1966  

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