THIS has been a horrible year for Malaysia and the world.
Millions of lives were lost, as well as our freedom to move and means to survive.
Our relationship with each other has also suffered. We’ve become more suspicious of the “other”: people of different backgrounds, culture, looks, sound and creed. We blame them for the mess we are in, although they are suffering as much as we do.
On top of that, many of our politicians have failed us. They were more engrossed in saving themselves than protecting the ones in need. Our activists have also failed us; instead of pushing and fighting for the necessary actions and reforms, they were clueless, unable to mobilise and influence policymakers to do the right thing.
Of course, there were the exceptions: #kitajagakita, Ebit Liew, teachers working till late at night to make sure the students are getting their education, frontliners risking their lives to help patients, these are true blue Malaysian heroes. But as a whole, we have failed.
Crisis and opportunity
Centuries ago, the Black Death that killed millions of people had also resulted in dismantling the tyrannical feudal system in Europe. In 19th century London, a deadly cholera outbreak led to the innovation of a modern sewage system, and the second World War paved the way to numerous independence movements across the Third World, resulting in formations of new independent nations, including our own. But what about Covid-19? Has it revealed the faults in our current system and way of life? Yes. Has it led to any changes that we desperately need to make our lives better? Unfortunately no.
Earlier in the year when the pandemic hit us all, we began to see how we were doing wrong in the way we manage our cities. Our central business districts became obsolete as people started to work from their homes. Our mosques and houses of worship became dead space as people stopped congregating for religious rituals. Our event halls were deserted as social lives were put to a halt. Our huge hotels became vacant as no tourists entered the country.
Quickly, people began to point out that we need to do something. The way we were designing and building our cities were too rigid, and we need to be more flexible to adapt to the need at hand, and to be able to change and be resilient to face similar situations in the future. And some cities in the world rose to the challenge. In Seoul, for example, empty hotels and office buildings were being converted into affordable housing. In America, dying malls are being converted into housing units as well. In Paris, the call to create 15-minute cities accelerated, to create a more sustainable urban area and living environment.
In Malaysia, however, our cities have not changed at all. Developers are still building malls and office towers as if there will be businesses filling the vacancies in the near future. Suburban housing is still being built, as if it is still wise to live in the outskirts of the city in landed properties and commute to work everyday in personal cars on snake-like highways.
Meanwhile, rent and property prices have not gone down especially for the ones in need. We are still seeing small businesses closing down because they could no longer afford the rent.
We are still seeing big families crammed up in small public housing because there is not enough affordable housing around.
We are seeing an increase in homeless people, and we are being shown the miserable living conditions of our migrant workers. Of course, we knew all about it before.
Kuala Lumpur declaration and the right to the city
In 2018, as the host of the 9th World Urban Forum, Malaysia signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration as a show of commitment to the New Urban Agenda. The agenda serves as a guideline for sustainable urban development, while acknowledging the importance of democracy and human rights as a crucial element in the process. And a key component in this agenda lies in the concept of the “Right to the City”.
This right to the city, as expressed by its many proponents, is more than the individual’s rights to access basic resources that the city can provide. It is also the right to transform the city. It is not bound by individual rights, but shared collectively to impose positive transformation onto the city to make it work for all levels of the society.
Therefore, in the spirit of this right, and the commitment our cities have expressed to ensure that all is equal in the eyes of the city, we should transform our cities in this critical moment in our lives to make them work for us, as our place of shelter, work, learn, raise our families, and pursue a life with meaning and dignity.
Unfortunately, these declarations are mere optics, a stage for politicians to score political points. There is no real commitment to give this right to the people living in our cities, regardless of class, race and religion. There is no real commitment to transform our cities for the better.
And here we are now, at the end of this challenging year that has changed our lives forever, but our cities remain the same. We are still building them for the haves, and we forget about the have-nots.
Confined in my flat months ago, during the peak of the first wave of Covid-19, I was secretly hoping for new evenings to come out of this crisis. That collectively, we would realise our mistakes, and work together to mend them. That we will provide better housing for all, cleaner and safer neighbourhoods devoid of cars polluting the air, affordable work spaces and shop lots for small businesses to thrive, houses of worships that do more than holding mass rituals, and so forth.
As I’m staring at the same sunset, the homeless are still unprotected, businesses are closing down because they cannot afford rent, and families are still crammed up in small box-like houses because they have no other places to go.
Badrul Hisham Ismail is the Director of Programmes at IMAN Research. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.