MALAYSIA has one of the fastest urbanisation rates in South-East Asia, and has become one of the most urbanised countries in the region. In 2020, 77.16% of the country’s population already lived in urban areas and cities, a rapid increase from a mere 34.2% in 1980.
To illustrate this rapid urbanisation, let’s look at other countries. For example, in Britain, it took 79 years to increase its urban population from 10% to 30% out of its total population. Elsewhere, in Japan it took 66 years, in the United States it took 36 years, while Australia took 26 years. However, in Malaysia, the same change only took 20 years to happen.
This figure is expected to grow as migration from rural to urban centres continues due to economic and employment opportunities available in cities, as well as the continued migration of people from other countries – people looking for better economic opportunities or running away from conflicts or persecutions.
In a report by the World Economic Forum on patterns of migration, Malaysia is in the top 25 destinations for international migration, and the country is also increasingly becoming a new centre of international migration growth. The continued crisis in neighbouring countries and regions, in Myanmar and Afghanistan for example, will contribute to this number.
Urban = Complex
Becoming more urbanised means that we are becoming a more complex society. Our identities and cultures, for example, have become more fluid and overlapping. Our identity cards state we are of one particular ethnicity, but we speak different languages, eat different kinds of food, consume art from different places, dress similarly to people from another continent and so forth.
Talking about national identity the same way we’ve been doing is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In fact, we have always been a rather cosmopolitan society, and it’s time we reconnect with that side of our tradition.
An urbanised and complex society also comes with complicated issues, such as inequality, which is more pronounced in urban areas. Dis-parity between the haves and the have-nots is more visible. We could see during this pandemic when PPRs (people’s housing projects) and workers’ dormitories under extended movement control orders were cordoned off and blocked with barbed wire while suburbs and landed properties under the same order were not.
Many people lost their jobs, have had to rely on food baskets and had to put up white flags in front of their homes asking for help while others could enjoy working from home with uninterrupted income, and use their savings to invest in property, gold, and bitcoin.
Communal conflicts also tend to happen in cities – May 13 riots as well as the Kampung Medan, Low Yat Plaza and Seafield Temple incidents all happened in our urban areas.
Not to mention the daily little conflicts that our immigrant and refugee communities have to deal with – abuse of power from authorities, casual xenophobia from citizens, and the daily struggles to make ends meet. In cities, we are constantly in each other’s faces. We need to learn to be like that without hurting each other.
A more urbanised, complex society needs a different way of governing. The top-down, heavily centralised and hierarchical structure that we have now, where the Federal government dictates what happens down at the local level, needs to be drastically changed. We need to strengthen the capacities of local actors, both state and non-state.
Our experience with Covid-19 has shown that local communities are the first responders, helping their community members with urgent needs. We need to empower local governments to be able to do more.
To be able to adjust and adapt according to our needs that will change from time to time, we need a governance system that is nimble, agile and flexible. We need to do away with rigid, tight-fit systems and approaches in our policies, planning and practices. We should instead push for an open system that does not inhibit, exclude and suppress people, that is inclusive and open to other possibilities and opportunities.
Our urbanised country is a place where people from different backgrounds congregate and take part in social, political and economic activities. Whenever the conditions are favourable, we can foster opportunities for people to improve their lives and livelihood, but if the opposite happens, the most disadvantaged are without many prospects, producing high inequality among us.
This not only leads to many people being excluded from the benefits of growth but it also disrupts the process of generating that growth, making the country less sustainable in the long run – economically, socially, and politically.
Our experience in the past year – with the pandemic and all the political shenanigans – showed that we cannot rely entirely on the authorities. Despite the political instability, with analysts saying that we have a weak government, our Federal government is and has always been very strong. Lockdown? Go Ahead. Emergency? Go ahead. No objections. The impact? Jobs lost, businesses shattered, personal relationships broken, depression, suicides...
However, we cannot continue to have concentrated power kept in the hands of the few. There is a clear disconnect between the top and the lived reality on the ground. We need to chip away concentrated power from the top and redistribute it, and enhance the ability of citizens to influence outcomes. This also means that citizens need to be more proactive in democracy. It is no longer enough for us to just go and vote once every five years. We need to be involved in the process every step of the way.
We need to be a “competent urbanite” – urban inhabitants who are capable of orienting ourselves in the ambiguous and complex urban environment. City dwellers who can adapt to changes and new challenges of life in the city.
These competent urbanites are not the kinds of inhabitants that rely on prescriptive ways of dealing with daily issues, relying on specific instructions or regulations, but are capable of making their own judgements when an issue arises.
To be a competent urbanite who is able to coexist with different others, one has to acquire a certain set of skills. These include the ability to cooperate and coordinate with others, being respectful and convivial, and being able to divert tension whenever a problem arises. A community consisting of competent urbanites would become resilient. But these skills do not come at birth. They need to be learned, nurtured and practiced.
The skills can be nurtured through a healthy public life. Through unmediated encounters with members of our own communities as well as strangers, we are forced to negotiate our own boundaries, to be more engaged with our activities and surroundings, to assert our own presence without overstepping others. This will produce competent urbanites with the set of skills and experience that will give them the confidence and capability to coexist with others, thus creating a resilient community, adaptable and able to face urban challenges.
These encounters, theoretically, can happen anywhere – streets, schools, markets, parks, and any other public space. But our cities are not built to facilitate these kinds of interactions. Our car-centric urban design takes pedestrians out of the streets, empties our parks and bus stops, and confines our people in their own private vehicles.
At the same time here in Malaysia, we don’t go to the same schools, live in the same neighbourhoods, pray at the same houses of worship, read the same papers and portals. And with Covid-19, we are driven more apart and isolated from one another.
However, the pandemic also gives us a rare opportunity to reset. We can reset how we run our schools, develop housing estates and townships, create our workspaces, build our markets and, ultimately, conduct our public lives. But we need to create a new public life that produces inhabitants that are competent to coexist among the diverse group of people that we have in this country. This requires every segment of our society to work together and think hard about what kind of society we want to build.
We need to imagine a different future for Malaysia, one that is not stuck in nostalgia of the questionable glorified past. We need to build a new Malaysia that is more open. Every single one of us is an asset – Chinese, Iban, Indian, Kadazan, Malay, Bangladeshi, Rohingya, Nepalese, Sulu, Somali, Nigerian, Serani and many others.
We are all “pendatang”. We “datang”, or come, to this world, and try to make the best of our time here.
The brilliant Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Malaysia has the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, it is created by everybody.
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.