OUR politicians and bureaucrats love turning towns into cities. The city
status, for some reasons best known to them, seems to evoke a sense of urban
sophistication and the perception that development has reached its pinnacle.
But beyond the elevation to bandaraya status and the prestigious
appointment of a Datuk Bandar who most likely would previously have been a
municipal council president, most of us have found that the authorities have not
been able to deliver even the most basic requirements for the city folks.
The newest city in the country, Petaling Jaya, is known as the Billboard City
while Georgetown, the country's oldest city (never mind the technical dispute
over its status), does not even have a decent transportation system.
Then, there is Johor Baru which is seen as a city trying hard to dispel the
image that it is unruly, dirty and has a bad crime rate.
Some of us may remember that a few years ago, Johor Baru promoted itself as
the Healthy City where religious and moral values were embedded in a healthy
environment free from violence.
The trouble with our politicians and bureaucrats is that they love these big
words and lofty ideals. Campaigns are launched and prizes are given for the
winning slogans which are often difficult to remember, much less practised. And
once the city is declared, there is always the standard pledge of wanting to
make the city world-class. These promises are often made with a straight face by
the Mentri Besar, Chief Minister and Datuk Bandar.
But seriously, all Malaysians expect from their city councils is a commitment to
deal with problems like flash floods, basic maintenance of public facilities,
and haphazard planning. In fact, we will be quite satisfied if they can collect
our rubbish efficiently.
Put simply, we all yearn for our cities to have a safe and healthy
environment with good infrastructure and facilities. That's basic.
But there are also legitimate reasons for Malaysians to demand more from City
Hall. As Malaysians become more affluent and travel the world (even if via the
excellent documentaries on satellite TV), they are bound to compare Malaysian
cities with the foreign ones. We expect our cities to have some of the qualities
we have seen in European and even Asian cities.
Our politicians talk endlessly about attaining developed status and give us
statistics to show that we have already reached a certain economic benchmark
even though the ordinary rakyat may think otherwise.
But surely, it cannot be that unreasonable for us to demand for higher
standards of public facilities such as pedestrian walks, efficient and clean
public transportation, parks, pleasant housing and culturally vibrant centres?
We see the Europeans and Americans enjoying concerts in the parks, and surely
we want the same. Being able to relax in the park is part of urban living
although in Kuala Lumpur, it has been cynically said that couples can get
arrested by nosy enforcement officers for holding hands.
Our politicians continue to tell us that we have done relatively well
economically and we have no reason to doubt that. We have returned the same
political party to power since independence. But in return, we expect to enjoy a
quality of life that is commensurate with our stature.
Malaysia turns 50 next year. Surely, we should go beyond dreaming of having
parks, museums, art centres and flea markets with great eateries? We have a rich
historical and cultural heritage, but can our cities stand out and reflect our
rich tapestry of life?
Our cities may be fairly well-run but let's not compare ourselves with
Karachi, Phnom Penh, Jakarta or Yangon. Let's set higher benchmarks for
Georgetown, for example, has been sadly neglected. The politicians can
continue to defend themselves and say how well they have run the city.
They can issue statements, cleverly backed with figures, to defend their hard
work but the perception and sentiments of the people cannot be ignored.
Georgetown's rich architectural heritage is in serious decline, especially in
the inner city, because of the lack of positive incentives and development
Kuala Lumpur, even with the best attention from the powers-that-be, suffers
flash floods each time there is a downpour. If we cannot even resolve this
perennial problem, why are we boasting about world-class facilities?
In fairness, KL has managed to solve much of its traffic jam. It has managed
to get rid of the ubiquitous mini-buses and there is at least a decent mass
rapid transport system in place via the Star and Putra LRT lines and the Rapid
Urban planner Dr Goh Ban Lee has proposed a standardised urban quality index
for Malaysia to provide a consistent time-series data to allow for better
formulation of strategies and policies.
Most of us have dreams of what a city should be like but the reality is that
most Malaysians regard local councils as lackadaisical, unimaginative and
It may not be a fair assessment of the local authorities but the mounting
complaints through the years have certainly contributed to that negative