Urban development in Malaysia the case for a more by gzn12524

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									 Urban Development In Malaysia: The Case
    For A More Holistic And Strategic
        Approach To Urbanisation


                              Prof. Dr. LEE Boon-Thong
                              Department of Geography
                                University of Malaya,
                                    Kuala Lumpur,

                 Email: leebt@um.edu.my; boonthong.lee@gmail.com

Paper presented at the Southeast Asian-German Summer School on Urban and Peri-
Urban Developments: Structures, Processes and Solutions, University of Cologne, Koln,
Germany, 16th October – 29th October 2005.

  Urban development in Malaysia: the case for a more holistic
           and strategic approach to urbanisation.


                                   LEE Boon-Thong
                                Department of Geography
                                 University of Malaya,
                                    Kuala Lumpur,


       There are two tempos of urbanisation in Malaysia: the pre-1970 and the post-1970
levels of urbanisation changes. In 1911, the proportion of urban population to the total
population was merely 10.7 per cent and this increased to 26.6 per cent in 1970, making
Malaysia still very much an agricultural country. However, from the 1970s onwards, the
rate of urbanisation has been rapidly increasing. In 1980, the proportion was 34.2 per cent
involving about 4.75 million people and by 1990, the proportion was 40.7 per cent or 7.3
million people – a rate that was much faster than the growth in rural population. Over the
last 15 years or so, the level of urban population growth has soared for the country as a
whole. In 1995, for instance, the level of urbanisation was 55.1 per cent and this had
increased to 61.8 per cent in 2000 and 66.9 per cent in 2005. Thus, it is obvious that the
post-1970 era was one of rapid urban population growth. This paper concerns itself with
this second phase of urban population growth and attempts to address some of the factors
of this growth and the responses of the authorities to this phenomenon.


       It is not just the increasing number of people living in cities that is of major
concern but more so it is the fact that since the 1970s, most of the population accretion
has been occurring at the major urban centres of the Kuala Lumpur-Klang Valley
conurbation, George Town, and Johor Bahru. In Selangor, for instance, which is the State

where the capital city of Kuala Lumpur is located, the proportion of the population who
were urban residents had increased from 55.3 per cent in 1990 to 92.7 per cent in 2005.
This means that the big cities are growing bigger at a much faster rate. Several factors
explained this phenomenon of mega city developments in Malaysia. The year 1970 marks
an important policy watershed with the government actively encouraging the movement
of bumiputras (“sons of the soils”) towards the urban centres to be absorbed into urban-
based employment in order to eliminate the economic differentiation between the Malays
and the non-Malays. Consequently, out of the total Malay population in the Kuala
Lumpur core area, 57 per cent were migrants from the rural areas. In addition to this New
Economic Policy, the 1970s represent the onset of greater globalisation in the country.
Up to the late 1960s, import-substitution industrialisation was the basis for the
development of the manufacturing sector with links to the outside world largely
determined by virtue of its colonial status. Although import-substitution efforts resulted
in much of the industrial growth during this period especially between 1963 and 1968,
industrial growth between 1968 and 1971, however, was due more to domestic demand
expansion (Salih 1988). By then, substitution also appeared to have been exhausted. It
was only logical as such that the industrial development strategy be realigned towards
export orientation. This had two substantial effects. First, the country saw the influx of
foreign investment projects from more than 45 countries increased ten-fold between 1981
and 1990. Secondly, the export-oriented industrialisation was accompanied by the
development of Free Trade Zones and other incentives that consciously or unconsciously
favoured the major urban nodes. Consequently, about two-thirds of all approved foreign
investment projects were located in the three major urban nodes of Kuala Lumpur, Johor
Bahru and Penang. Thus, an inevitable directional bias in the migration stream towards
the major urban nodes marked the rapid industrialisation in the country.

IN THE 1980s

       The magnitude of this directional bias of the population towards the major cities
has serious implications. Researchers have documented this trend fairly well (Lee 1985,
1989). Briefly, it ushers in the era of a marked inability of the recipient cities to cope with

increasing traffic congestion, housing shortages, proliferation of squatters and adverse
environmental issues. The lack of precise urban development policies to contain
population movements compounded this situation in the 1980s until the National
Urbanisation Policy (NUP) of 1985. Even then, this NUP was somewhat vague and
sometimes contradictory because its premises were based primarily on firstly, the
urgency to even out the rural urban disparity, secondly, making urban functions more
accessible to the rural populace, and thirdly, to stimulate growth in lagged regions. In
fact, the prime thrust was to develop the six regional growth centres of Kuala Lumpur,
George Town, Johor Bahru, Kuantan, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu so that these growth
centres would act as catalysts for the diffusion process of growth to the secondary urban
centres. In this respect, it was somewhat successful because the late 1980s saw
tremendous growth in the secondary cities such as Kulim, Alor Star, Sungai Petani, Shah
Alam, Port Dickson, Batu Pahat, Kluang and Segamat, which acted as counter pulls to the
main migration streams. Nevertheless, the stream of flow to the major cities continued
unabated simply because the ironic attention to the major growth centres meant that these
centres continue to attract migrants. Another feature of the NUP was the insistence of
structure plans to ensure the orderly development of urban centres. This was merely a
form of physical planning procedures that only affected the structure of the cities but has
little relevance to the process of migration. In addition, there was also the attempt to build
frontier new towns in the hinterlands as reflected in such towns as Bandar Jengka, Bandar
Muadzam Shah, Bandar Tenggara, Bandar Penawar, etc. These new towns, meant to
absorb potential rural urban migrants, could be traced back to the 1970s when regional
development schemes were aggressively implemented. However, most of these frontier
new towns were dismay failures because they failed to attract industries and hence could
not generate employment opportunities (Lee 1987, 1989). Even the business and
commercial ventures in the frontier new towns were stymied as these new towns were
often in the spheres of influence of other existing rural towns. Consequently, the new
townships achieved only 30 per cent of its target by 1985. Rural urbanisation
programmes, which quintessentially refer to the provision of urban functions in selected
agglomerated rural villages was a related strategy in the NUP. This, too, did not achieve
much desired effects because the implementers lacked understanding of settlement

linkages and market forces. Further, the type and quality of urban services, if and when
provided were basic and not sustainable (Lee 1983). Thus, when viewed as a whole, the
urban policies of the 1980s were cleverly conceived with a “top-down” approach (growth
centres and structure plans) as well as a “bottoms-up” approach (frontier new towns and
rural urbanisation). Despite that, the policies were diminutive or ineffective as
contingencies for containing the vast ocean of rural exodus to the major urban nodes and
especially to the Klang valley. Thus by the end of the 1980s, the quality of life in the
major urban centres had deteriorated.


       The nature of urban growth and developments in the late 1980s and the 1990s
were even more frenetic and chaotic given the failure of the earlier polices to curtail
rural-urban migration. Globalisation intensified and the GDP grew at a whopping 8 to 10
per cent per annum (until the financial crises of 1997). The impact of globalisation is seen
by the fact that by 1990 there had been a structural shift in the employment patterns of
the country. In 1970, 53.1 per cent of the population were found in the agriculture,
forestry and fishing sector but by the early 1990s, this proportion had declined to less
than 35 per cent. In the meantime, employment in the construction and manufacturing
industries had doubled within a space of 20 years. This is because the national economy
had begun to realign itself with international activities such as the transnational flows of
goods, services, capital, labour and technology. These globalised activities expanded
rapidly because the outward-looking industrialisation strategy encouraged the
development of export-platform industries. In fact, the manufacturing sector was the
largest generator of employment opportunities in the urban sector. In 1990, this sector
accounted for one-third of the total new jobs that were created in the country (Malaysia
1991). This greater global integration, which extended into the 1990s, meant that the
major urban centres of Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Johor Bahru became the
magnets for in-migration as they featured prominently in the locational predilection of
globalised activities. Furthermore, under the western corridor concept in Peninsular
Malaysia, industries were encouraged to locate on the western half of the peninsula to

follow existing highways, rails and port facilities in order to minimise infrastructural
expenses (Salih 1989, Malaysia 1985). Subsequently, these three places attracted some 60
per cent of the industries into the region in 1990 alone. By far, the most important
recipient area was the 20-km Klang Valley corridor and its adjoining peripheral areas
(Lee 1995). In fact, throughout the 1990s, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur attracted the
biggest proportion of all the approved manufacturing projects in the countries (Lee 2000).
       The impact of these globalised activities in the 1990s was the further enlargement
of the major city regions and a spatial reconfiguration of the urban space. In retrospect,
the physical developments in Kuala Lumpur over the last 15 years has been so rapid that
it is tantamount to building a new city over the existing one – a situation which has been
referred to as a superinduced development (Lee 1995, Lee & Bahrin 1997). This is a
condition where the physical and functional changes in the city are superimposed upon an
existing traditional city structure, which have been passed down from the colonial times.
Indelibly, contemporary global functions demand the partial physical rebuilding of
existing cities in order to be in consonance with global needs. The consequence is that
new materials and energy (in the form of building constructions, industrial production,
traffic generation, tourism activities, transnational labour and capital) are injected into the
unregulated traditional urban structures, which comprises the narrow grid pattern streets,
an enlarged informal sector, pockets of squatter settlements and traditional kampongs,
and a large stock of old homes dating back to the pre-Second World War era. Modern
global functions and usages are inconsistent with such urban antecedents resulting in the
gentrification of the urban centre with many of the traditional structures being replaced
by modern high-rise intelligent offices, condominiums and apartments. For example, the
well-known 452 metres-high 88 storey Petronas Twin Towers (which is still the world‟s
tallest twin towers) are part of a massive 100-acre urban renewal project that partially
occupies a former racecourse. Between 1989 and 1990 alone, almost 32,000 units of
apartments and condominiums were approved for construction in Kuala Lumpur. The
overall effect is to create stresses on the traditional social and ecological structures of the
city giving rise to grid-locked traffic conditions, severe environmental conditions (air,
noise and river pollution), unstable squatter tenements sandwiched between prime
commercial complexes and high class condominiums, loss of heritage edifices and

Photo 1 (left): The dualistic nature of a superinduced city is seen in the proliferation of squatters (5.7 per
cent per annum) next to a modern hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Photo 2 (right): Traffic congestion (500 new
vehicles are registered every day in Kuala Lumpur) is a daily issue despite new urban expressways.

Photo 3 (left): The centre of Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s compared to the 1990s in Photo 4 (right) where
substantial rebuilding and gentrification has taken place.

Photo 5 (top left) shows 3 generations of building stocks in Kuala Lumpur (pre-war, 1980s and 1990s). Photo 6 (top
right) shows pre-war houses that are likely to be replaced by modern offices (Note the smallest house in between).
Photo 7 (bottom left): Is facadism the way to retain the character of cities? Photo 8 (bottom right): Condominiums built
into hill slopes pose severe environmental concerns.

neglect of human development (Lee 2002a, 2002b). What is distressing is that these
urban developments are largely the results of ad hoc rather than planned spatial
       When land within the inner city area becomes too expensive and in short supply,
the globalised functions leapfrog into the urban periphery, enveloping former agricultural
lands. This has led to the development of the Extended Metropolitan Region (EMR), a
concept that has been well covered in much literature (McGee & Robinson 1995, Lee
1995, 2001).


       It is apparent that globalisation induces a self-perpetuating momentum in the
urban spatial configuration and reconfiguration. As global activities increase, more
financial allocation has to be pumped into improving the infrastructure in order to make
the city more supportive and to maintain its competitiveness. This, in turn, attracts more
investors and a vicious cycle develops. What began as a need for the urban centres to
integrate their activities into the evolving global economy has now developed to an
urgent struggle to respond quickly and correctly against an imminent dysfunctionality of
the urban area arising from the superinduced environment. How does the urban authority
respond to this tsunami of urban growth?
       The reactions to mega cities may be summarised as twofold. Firstly, city
authorities rush to correct the environmental neglect of the 1970s and the 1980s and
“sustainable urban development” became the fashionable semantics of the day. To make
the city more liveable, for example, flyovers, intra-urban expressways, road widening and
upgrading, ring roads, monorails and light rail transits are put in place. Secondly, to
relieve the pressure that has been built up in the inner city area, there is a massive move
to the urban fringes through the decentralisation of housing projects, government offices
and industrial activities. It is estimated that in Kula Lumpur, at least half-a-million
housing stock is required to provide adequate shelter for the burgeoning population and
these are sprouting up in the so-called extended metropolitan regions. Is this sprawl
strategic or strangling?

The “umbral” versus the “penumbral” strategy of urban development

        To answer that question, a terminology from the field of physics is borrowed to
describe the strategies of development that have been adopted so far. When there is an
eclipse of the moon, the shadow of the moon is cast upon the earth, giving rise to a very
dark spot called the umbra and a lighter area called the penumbra. In like fashion, the
shadow of a round object comprises the darkest part called the umbra (Latin for
“shadow”) and the outer part called the penumbra where the light source is only partially
blocked and there is only a partial shadow. Both strategies outlined above to sort out the
urban problems address the issues and problems at the umbral region, that is, at the level
of the city or mega urban region. In other words, flyovers, urban expressways, the
monorail, the light rail transit (LRT) system, and the commuter train to the outlying
towns built to address the traffic gridlock in Kuala Lumpur are actually nodal centric.
That means they initially increase central city accessibility, mobility and attractivity but
eventually give rise to more traffic congestion. More important, expansion into the
fringes and the development of mega urban regions ties the peripheries to the central city
and exacerbates the superinduced conditions in the city cores because its basic nature is
still nodal centric. In other words, such urban development policies are umbra-based,
looking at solutions from a narrow citywide or at most an extended mega urban
perspective. Why are policies confined to the mega urban or city region ineffective to
solve existing problems? This is because urban growth attributed to globalised activities
is quite beyond the control of the local authorities as the forces of growth are externally
induced. To relieve the pressure of the city by encouraging development in the urban
fringes is insufficient because urban fringe development does not break the dependency
of the fringe with the core area. Not only that, access to cheap land within the extended
mega urban region is rapidly exhausted. In addition, the negative externalities develop far
too fast for the host authority to react bringing about a dysfunctionality that will weigh it
against cities in other countries.
        It is suggested that the solution to the urban problems lies beyond the umbral
region, that is, it is necessary to look into the “penumbral” region. To overcome the
problem, it is necessary to perceive the agglomerative processes in the major cities as
new energy inputs into the urban system. It is, thus, necessary and possible to redirect

these energies elsewhere outside the umbra area otherwise policies are merely
symptomatic, that is, treating the symptoms and not the root cause of the disease. The
investment energies from global activities are channelled away from the core cities to the
vast expanse of “land between the cities” that has until then been less vibrant or even
neglected because of the urban-bias policies. Opportunities for investments are created
through newly created “regionopolises” and “cyber cities” (Lee and Bahrin 1997, Lee
2000). In other words, investments flows would no longer be determined by what cities
or mega urban regions can offer (but now cannot offer because of the impending
dysfunctionality) but rather the attractions and opportunities of a much broader region
which are accessed via excellent highways. This is the penumbral urban space. This sort
of regionalisation is made possible because excellent accessibility has made possible long
distance leapfrogging away from the mega urban region. Further, the technological
revolution has also facilitated the separation of administrative and production operations.
There are two possibilities here: firstly, regionopolises in the traditional hinterland and
secondly, the building of new cyber cities (Figure 1).
       Regionopolises are regions possessing special status as sites suitable for the
flexible adjustment of operations of the multinational companies. To reiterate they are not
part of the nodal centric extended metropolitan regions or urban corridors extending out
from the major cities (such as Klang Valley, Penang-Sungai Petani, Johor Bahru-Kulai).
They are further apart and may include pockets of secondary urban centres of different
size ranges in the hinterland such as Chinese New Villages (Xin Cun), traditional Malay
villages, frontier new towns and settlements in regional development land schemes (e.g.
Bandar Tenggara in Johor Tenggara, Bandar Jengka in Jengka Triangle), industrial parks
(government or private-initiated), and specialised industrial estates. Three features are
prominently associated with regionopolises. Accessibility (roads and high-speed
expressways like the North-South Highway and linkages to ports) and good
infrastructural facilities (housing, water, electricity and IT communications) will be the
first essential feature. The quality and quantity of such services need to be of a sufficient
level to be attractive. This is achieved through increased competition, privatisation and
involvement of users in project design (Ingram and Kessides 1994). Secondly, such
regionopolises will be exposed to a more efficient labour market being in proximity to

Chinese New Villages, traditional Malay kampongs, and Felda schemes (where the
second generation of the Felda settlers are readily available for employment), hence
solving labour requirements (Lee and Bahrin 2006). This propinquity to the labour
sources also means that it is easier to recruit other forms of subsidiary labour needs such
as homemakers and older folk. Thirdly, land will be available at a lower cost. In many
instances, private industrial estates augment government efforts to provide suitable land
for industries. The lower land rentals will indelibly make these areas more affordable to
the small and medium sized firms providing the support services needed by the larger

 The                                                                   Cyber city
 mega urban


                             Super highway connections

                              Fast rail connections

     Figure 1: Conceptualising the regionopolises and cyber cities.

       Cyber cities are purposefully built cities to take advantage of the „siliconised”
nature of globalisation. In many parts of the world, cities are responding positively and
constructively to the new “tele-revolution” through the creation of “technopoles”
designed to house science parks, corporate R & D centres, “digiports”, university
businesses, smart schools and tele-ports. This is made possible because globalised
activities are merging into the vast realm of computer networks from the 1990s. Graham
(1997) has argued that the increasing momentum of telerevolution can actually allow for
the dispersal of activities from the central areas. Therefore, the question is how the
authorities can take advantage of this possibility. Again, just like the regionopolises of
the hinterlands, excellent highways to the EMRs would link these cyber cities. Since
these are planned new cities, the facilities and amenities are expected to be par excellence
to justify being “logged on” to the global digital arena.
       Whether they are regionopolises or cyber cities, functionally, there is now a clear
division of labour geographically between the EMR and the newly created urban spaces.
The major cities and EMRs will continue to interface with the global economy but will
concentrate on and remain the core and vanguard for the capital-intensive phases of
production. They will also provide the quaternary functions in the financial business,
research, marketing and service-oriented industries because these are the sectors that
require skilled labour and excellent infrastructures. The cities will continue to attract
investments but its sustainability will no longer be dependent upon itself. Rather, it will
depend upon the city‟s ability to develop competitive strength through resource
complementarity in the regionopolises and cyber cities. In other words, the success of the
strategy will depend on the symbiotic relationship between the EMR and the
regionopolises. No regionopolis could probably survive without the mother city.
       The notion of the role of the regional hinterlands, or what this paper has called the
penumbral strategy, is not new. Clark (1993), for instance, has argued for the need to
understand the role of sub-national regions in the spatial restructuring of firms. Lim
(1993) has similarly noted that Pusan, Korea had to adapt to the change in the labour
market, as labour (and land) gets more intense in the inner cities. Cities will become
unattractive unless an escape valve is provided in the hinterland. The pertinent question
that needs to be asked is whether the urban conditions that are being created in these new

areas fit into the strategic requirements of the foreign investors. Are urban policies
conducive to ensure a continuous flow of FDIs and technology to these hinterlands? Such
policies must include pioneer status, investment tax allowance, reinvestment allowance,
infrastructure allowance and other attractive industrial policies in order to be able to pull
resources away from the umbral regions (Prud‟homme 1993, Aziz Ali 1994). In short,
this paper argues that the blueprint to sort out the urban problems is to direct attention to
the holistic planning of cities within a much broader hinterland, that is, the penumbral

Malaysia’s attempts at penumbral strategies

          Unwittingly, Malaysia‟s urbanisation and industrialisation policies of the past
three decades had laid the foundations for regionopolis formation through its frontier new
town developments, rural (or diffuse) urbanisation strategy, and specialised industrial
estates (e.g. Kampong Sempadan Furniture Village in Temerloh, Ceramic Industrial Park
in Chemor, Kulim Hi-Tech Industrial Park, PROLINK 2020 in southern Johor). Since the
early 1990s, Malaysia has embarked on a bold strategy of trans-national highways. For
example, the North-South Highway traverses from Bukit Kayu Hitam on the Thai border
to the tip of Johor with Singapore. Other highways include the Butterworth-Kulim
Expressway, the East West Highway from Grik in northern Perak to Kelantan, the Karak
Highway and the East Coast Expressway, which connect Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan (and
eventually to the north east in Kelantan). The immediate effect of these highways was to
effectively link the major cities with the hinterland. The Butterworth-Kulim Expressway
that was opened in 1996, for instance, led to the immense growth of the Kulim Industrial
Park. Frontier new towns that were planned in the 1970s and the 1980s, which were in
the doldrums, were suddenly given a new lease of life as new accessibility brought in
investors to the hinterland. Bandar Tenggara, for example, which in the early days seems
remote and isolated, had all its industrial lots snapped up following the new accessibility.
Policies were also instituted to encourage such dispersals. A 5-year pioneer status is
given to companies whereby they only have to pay tax on 30 per cent of their statutory
incomes. For companies contemplating Sabah, Sarawak and the eastern corridor of

Peninsular Malaysia, the amount of tax payable is only 15 per cent of their statutory
incomes (Malaysia 1994). However, such dispersals of industrial activities are incidental
to the opening of new highways and should not be construed as overt policies to solve the
urban dilemma in the major urban nodes. As counter-magnets for rural-urban migration,
they may not be very effective simply because they were not planned holistically.
        A more celebrated move is the creation of the new administrative capital,
Putrajaya, and the adjoining Cyberjaya township. While manufacturing will continue to
be the mainstay of Malaysia‟s economy, it is imperative to realise that as labour becomes
scarce and operational costs increased, Malaysia would have to find new niches in the
service sector. A logical extension of this strategy is charted via “cyber urbanisation”
which involves the completely new dynamics of creating new towns or more
appropriately digital cities. Malaysia has approached this in a colossal manner through
the creation of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). This IT-based mega project
illustrates an attempt to respond to the demands of globalisation by creating a new
paradigm of cities that is actively tied to the constellation of world cities to ensure
competitiveness and survival. The MSC, perhaps the world‟s largest IT -based urban
corridor, has two distinct virtual cities – Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Cyberjaya is the first
MSC designated intelligent city built for MSC companies and their knowledge workers
with distinctive zoning for commercial, residential, R & D functions, and a substantial
green area. Putrajaya (named in honour of Malaysia‟s first Prime Minister) is the new
Administrative Capital of the Federal Government. Putrajaya is built to house the entire
Federal Government Complex to be based on an electronic government and equipped
with the necessary requisites for propelling a more efficient and effective government
machinery. In a sense, Putrajaya is not a new Federal Capital but rather a relocation of the
Federal Government machinery from Kuala Lumpur with the objective to ease the traffic
congestion, and of course, to centralise the Federal Government which were formerly
scattered all over the city.
        Thus, cybercities represent a new opportunity for cities to re-plan within the
context of the globalised digital constellation. The effect on Kuala Lumpur by the
relocation of government offices in Putrajaya is yet to be fully realised. Certainly, the
traffic situation of Kuala Lumpur would have been much worse off if not for the fact that

Putrajaya had taken away some 25 per cent of the traffic generation from the core urban


        It is clear that it is insufficient to think city, megacity or even an extended mega
urban region in order to overcome the tenacity of superinduced repercussions once it
develops. The so-called penumbra challenge advocated here shifts the emphasis from
“city or mega urban catalyst” to a “regionopolis catalyst”. Over the last three to four
decades, Malaysian cities have been configured and will continue to be configured by the
forces of globalisation. It is inevitable that superinduced repercussions will prevail given
the lack of a clear-cut urbanisation policy to handle the fast-track development of cities.
It is now necessary to look beyond the extended mega urban region, to the vast
penumbral hinterlands and to tie up these new opportunities with the major cities. The
indication is that until a pressure valve is provided for the forces of globalisation to be
diverted to the penumbral regions, the older building stocks, which epitomise the
character, heritage and traditions of the Malaysian cities, will be restructured and
replaced by modern edifices to suit the needs of the globalised activities. With planning
at a more spatially holistic approach, the pressure is taken off and the older cities and
their traditional ambience and characteristics are sustained.


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