Of disasters and urban management

Management crisis: Hulu Langat was struck by floods after two days of heavy rain in December 2021, causing thousands of residents to be evacuated and many roads cut off. – AP

MOST of us would agree that the recent flood disaster in the country was not an act of God. The rain probably was, depending on one’s belief, but the flood, in both urban and rural areas, was something that we could have avoided if we managed our crisis well.

In fact, we could have avoided it if our cities were planned, managed and developed more inclusively. But unfortunately, our first responders to crises – local governments, community members – are the ones that are most ill-equipped to deal with them. They do not have the resources, skills and to a certain extent the decision-making power to take immediate actions either to prevent or manage the crises from escalating. And that is just one of the problems in our urban management system.

One key element of our urban development, under the National Urbanisation Policy (NUP), is the adoption of a hierarchical system that makes a distinction between national, regional, sub-regional, state and district growth centers. The country’s urban development is then subjected to follow this hierarchy system of the NUP, and all service planning and delivery would also follow this top-down pattern. This inverted, upside-down pattern places priority on national level agencies, providing them with more resources and power, leaving local governments with less resources to manage their area, including the resources to deal with disasters.

At the same time, at the top level, the absence of coordination as well as overlapping jurisdictions among the various agencies create fragmentation and way too much confusion that any decisions would take too long to be implemented on the ground. And as we all have witnessed in December, by the time the Federal government stepped in, it was already a little too late.

The combination of unbalanced development between large conurbations and other smaller urban centers, and isolated planning and management of cities, has resulted in a fragmented urban environment. This has promoted a development approach whereby urban centers, townships and rural areas are planned and managed on an individual basis, separated from other areas.

Forest clearing in Pahang, for example, does not take into consideration how it may affect Hulu Langat, Selangor. Not only is there fragmented physical development, but the benefits of growth – economically and socially – are also unequally distributed thus producing inequality, which in turn affects growth itself.

Fragmented cities do not only produce income inequality, but also produce suboptimal provision of public services for the disadvantaged segments of the populace, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This would then disable them from participating in the political and economic process and in the sharing of societal progress.

On top of that, authorities and government agencies in charge of managing our cities operate in a paternalistic environment. Rather than looking at the urban dwellers as equal stakeholders that they need to provide services to, they are seen only as welfare recipients. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers, and as long as this is the view of city managers, the situation will barely improve for the people.

The ugliest expression of this paternalistic and entitled relationship is when the people who were affected by the flood disaster were expected to be grateful to whatever “help” they were receiving, regardless of whether they were actually useful or not. Our politicians’ offspring are never short of this sense of hideous entitlement.

This also reflects the “service delivery” culture (borrowing the service economy jargon) among public officials in the country, whereby they have fashioned themselves into a simple binary relationship with the public – public officials deliver the services, while members of the public are expected to behave simply as clients.

This service delivery relationship focuses more on the supply side, where allocation of services and resources are decided at the top level, rather than looking at the demand side, which are the needs of the public.

At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, among all the different government agencies responsible for planning and development, in Federal, State and local levels, there is little integration. Each agency tends to work in silo, unaware of the works done by others. What’s worse is they can even be at odds with each other.

The embarrassing petty quarrel between (Tan Sri) Noh Omar and (Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri) Amirudin Shari on the flood management in Selangor is one example among many of how broken the working relationship among public officials are. And while those two gajah (elephants) fight, we the pelanduk (deers) in the middle get hurt.

In order to change this, it is important to fix this structure to give more power to residents to determine their livelihoods, as well as holding the rest accountable.

In the context of crisis management such as the flood crisis, for example, local residents should have the power to decide and determine when the relief efforts will arrive, who should help them, what type of help they need, and how the efforts are being coordinated.

Even prior to that, in anticipating the crisis, residents should have insights and be involved in the mitigation plans, be part of the crisis management committee and so forth. Residents should even have the power to halt, change or improve any development projects if they would affect their living environment and surroundings.

Most importantly, there is a need to improve people-officials relationships and establish a mechanism that will ensure good service delivery from the officials to the people residing in our cities.

Before any “smart city” champions begin flaunting tech-based solutions to the crisis, we need to remember that solving poor urban planning requires policy-based solutions.

Policy development requires elected officials debating in parliament and state assembly, consultation with the public and stakeholders, engagement with local communities, consensus building, and most importantly, a mechanism where decision-making processes are truly inclusive.

Maybe that long-gone tradition of electing our local councilors is worth reviving after all, as a start.

Badrul Hisham Ismail is the Director of Programs at Iman Research. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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