Under Pakatan, urban planners hope for ‘less’ political interference

MIP president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar said for too long, development policies have been left in the hands of consultants and politicians who often make decisions on what wins the most votes. — Picture by FIrdaus Latif
MIP president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar said for too long, development policies have been left in the hands of consultants and politicians who often make decisions on what wins the most votes. — Picture by FIrdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 — A public library versus a mall.

No doubt, the former has proven benefits for communities. But what if they needed jobs instead? Some studies say malls produce spillover effects that help spur growth for nearby residents.

Both ideas may initially have people in mind. But politics is what usually decides which of the two gets built.

Such is the nature of urban planning today, according to Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar, president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP), a group representing private consultants but work closely with the federal and state governments.

Political ideology has been the overriding factor that shape the country’s cities and towns up until today, and while it may not be necessarily bad, it has forced some undesired consequences at the expense of the public, he said.

“Political interference occurs in day to day decisions,” Ihsan told Malay Mail in an interview last Tuesday, when the 2019’s edition of the World Urban Forum took place.

“They represent interest groups or self-interest... and most of the time they get in the way of a good plan and the people feel it,” he added.

Planning affects nearly every aspect of everyday life. It’s not an exaggeration to say planning can be a matter of life and death.

A bad plan, for example, could perpetuate poverty by making it harder for poor households to access public transport, making transit to jobs harder or too costly. This “spatial mismatch” between homes and jobs is a problem for many cities worldwide.

Conflict of interest

Over here, a large number of lower-income Malaysians spend a huge percentage of their income to get to work by either driving or riding motorbikes. Despite billions poured into public transit, most still think it’s unreliable.

A 2017 study on how household spending by Khazanah Research Institute showed those earning less than RM2,000 monthly fork out 90 per cent of their wages on basic needs, transport among them.

It’s a quandary that best illustrates politics’ problematic effects on urban development, Ihsan said.

“The goal of (urban planning) has always been to encourage public transport use, but highways and private cars are an economic need that discourages public transport,” the MIP president said.

Public transport advocates believe the country could have had a better transit system if not for the Mahathir administration’s preoccupation with Proton, a national car project in the 80s.

They said the policy, although meant to be the catalyst to industrialisation, encouraged car dependency among Malaysians, a mentality that hasn’t changed since then.

As the roads became more clogged with cars, it forces policymakers to divert more resources on new highways and tolled expressways to ease traffic congestion.

Democratic planning

For too long, Ihsan said development policies have been left in the hands of consultants and politicians who often make decisions on what wins the most votes.

That must change. Because urban planning has direct impact on people’s lives, members of the public have the right to participate in the decision-making process, the MIP chief said.

He urged the Pakatan Harapan (PH) to hold local council elections again, saying it was the best way to “clean up” local governments, hold officials accountable and stave off politics’ influence.

“We need the whole structure to change,” Ihsan said.

And PH could build on the success of the Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020, which he said factored public input into the process, although he also admitted it was still much to be desired for.

As the new government prepares for the new plan, the KLCP 2040, it has the opportunity to make it the planning process more democratic. Ihsan said the Kuala Lumpur City Hall, the authority

“It can truly be the most democratic paper for urban planning. Give public access and let them participate... the most important stakeholder is the people,” he said.

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