Of course, there are still open areas that blend in and connect with their surroundings, like old shoplots, but for the most part our capital city has become an agglomeration of enclosed spaces, where to enter one needs to go through a security checkpoint, filtering who can enter and who cannot.
Covid-19 has undoubtedly made this more apparent. We now have to check into buildings with our MySejahtera app on the phone and take temperature readings wherever we enter. However, our obsession with erecting barriers where we live, work and socialise existed pre-Covid-19. This is even more so in our residential areas, where not only do we see new gated communities mushrooming, but even in old, open neighbourhoods, we put up security guard posts and boom poles, with “STOP” or “Visitors Please Register” signs.
Gated communities and guarded neighbourhoods are a sign of growing inequality within our cities. They reflect social exclusion of nonresidents, people of lower and working classes, and foreigners. It is no coincidence that these enclosed spaces are the dwellings of the middle- and upper-classes. They are a status symbol for the residents living within them, and the more affluent the area, the more elaborate the barriers, with high walls, CCTVs, wired fences and uniform-wearing private security guards.
Stuart Hodkinson, a scholar from Britain’s Leeds University, argues that urban enclosures such as these are an expression of neoliberalisation that privatises spaces, destroys their use values, and seeks to displace and exclude the urban poor from parts of the city. In our country, where there already exists fragmentation based on ethnicity as a legacy of colonialism that is continued by race-based politics, urban enclosures further divide our society based on class.
This is something that should not be taken lightly if we have any intention of creating a more cohesive society.
Our cities are not the only ones where these “little islands” have mushroomed. In fact, it is still a relatively recent phenomenon, accelerated by the privatisation of the housing market during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as the Prime Minister. Interestingly one can almost always trace back the ills currently plaguing our society to Dr Mahathir’s policies, but I shall not digress.
However, as recent as it is, we have unfortunately accelerated the development of these spaces, thanks to the relentless enthusiasm of property developers in promoting them, to the point where they have become a common sight and anyone looking for a place to live would want to live in a gated or guarded neighbourhood, and are willing to a pay premium price to do so.
One of the main reasons why regular middle-class Malaysians would want to live, if they aren’t already, in a gated community or guarded neighbourhoods is for safety and security reasons. But are our cities that unsafe? There are some differing views on this. The US Department of State, for example, believes that our cities are dangerous, while other indexes such as the Safe Cities Index or the Global Peace Index state otherwise.
A scholar from Universiti Malaya, PA Tedong, argues that when it comes to security in Malaysian urban neighbourhoods, fear far exceeds the risk. Our fear for our own safety has more to do with our fear of the “other”, of people who differ from us, especially immigrants. Other scholars have echoed the same sentiment, stating that Malaysians have yet to accept immigrants into our society, and we perceive them as presenting threats ranging from criminal activities to social problems. Ironically, in these gated communities and guarded neighbourhoods, to protect us from immigrants, we hire them as our security guards.
Perhaps the fear for our own safety is also a reflection of our trust in our security forces, especially the police. With reports on corruption, power abuses and misconduct emerging of late, it is only natural for us to take control of our own safety and not rely on the state to provide it. On the one hand, this shows our ability to organise among ourselves at the community level, which is a good thing indeed. But on the other hand, our security forces will not improve if we simply get other people to do their job. We should instead organise among ourselves to push for reforms and changes that can bring about a better and more effective police force. Then we will have security without having to erect barriers.
Gated communities and guarded neighbourhoods reek of privilege, and the damaging implications of the proliferation of such spaces in our cities are many. Our idea of keeping ourselves safe within the confines of the gates will in fact make the spaces outside the gates unsafe. The barricades and enclosures suck the life out of our streets and public spaces, bringing a slow death to our cities. And a dead city is indeed a dangerous one.
These little islands, disconnected from one another, also further divide our already fragmented society, landing another death blow on our cities. Instead of bridging different communities, we will further isolate and segregate ourselves, interacting only with the kind of people we know instead of learning to coexist with others that we don’t know. Instead of making the most of our diversity and differences to create a more inclusive, vibrant and dynamic urban life, we create more divisions, rotting our cities with inequality, fear and suspicion.
Badrul Hisham Ismail is the director of programmes at Iman Research, a regional think tank focusing on society, beliefs and perception. The writer’s opinions are entirely his own.