FEBRUARY 8 — For residents of public housing, the new year started with a positive note by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, Nga Kor Ming, when he announced the ministry’s plans to launch an architectural design competition for all new Projek Perumahan Rakyat or PPR. As he says: “We want all future PPRs to be built with beautiful designs, are environment-friendly, liveable and with more humanity values. We want the PPRs to have their own architectural identity.”

At Think City we welcome this news as it signals the government’s commitment towards addressing the long-festering problem of decline in living standards of our public housing communities. Through Program Kita-untuk-Kita or K2K, we have been working closely with communities in the PPR to build their capacity for collective action to better manage the daily challenges of urban communal living. K2K is a public investment in social development, launched by our Prime Minister in April 2023, to improve the livability of marginalised communities in our public housing projects. These communities, as we know, have been leading very stressful lives as a result of their cramped living spaces and the breakdown of services and infrastructure in their housing complex. These constraints in turn create knock-on effects in public health and promote negative social behaviour — all of which result in a decline in development outcomes. Collectively we have been working to reverse this decline as failure to do so will risk turning our PPRs into poverty traps and our public housing projects into vertical slums.

Against this background the ministry’s design competition is highly innovative as it seeks to break away from older methods and crowdsource new ideas to help shape the next generation of PPRs. Such a competition, however, should not be narrowly conceived as an architectural design issue. Rather it should adopt a broader approach to effectively capture the lived experience and social dynamics of PPR living. As its name suggests, public housing is about people, and people should be at the center of the initiative. Therefore, and fundamentally, it should address the multidimensionality of poverty and the precarious existence of our PPR communities. To achieve this, it needs to consider issues such as the social anthropology of urban living, the mechanisms for conflict management, the exclusion of social spaces, the meaningful participation of communities in PPR management and the sustainable financing of the PPR building life-cycle.

It is important to remember that PPR communities are not homogenous but heterogenous — reflecting not just ethnic differences but more significantly the complex division of labour of Malaysia’s highly urbanising population. Coming from the B40 economic category, societal pressures impact differently upon residents of different age groups, cultural values, health status and economic vulnerability. How do we design public housing that can meet the needs of these different groups? How do we shape social spaces that are accessible to all members of society? For example, in many PPRs we find access severely constrained for persons with disability and the elderly who find their passage-way blocked by motorcycles and other obstructions. Similarly, public spaces such as the community hall, playground and parks have been perceived to be unsafe spaces by girls, resulting in their exclusion from certain forms of social interaction. In many PPRs it is not uncommon to see structures with well-intentioned design being underutilised and neglected due to a failure to address the underlying social dynamic of that community. As Hatta Middy, writer and a PPR resident once said to me:

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Ruang dan tempat tak sama. Akitek fikir pasal ruang, tapi penghuni yang mencorakkan tempat.”

What this means is that the next generation of PPRs need to be shaped by a deeper understanding of space, and how spatial relationships can positively impact on the lives and livelihoods of their intended communities. At the heart of the matter is the need for public housing to nurture a strong sense of common identity, interdependency and ownership amongst the residents. This will require not only progressive architectural forms, but design that support mechanisms for shaping social behaviour and institutional frameworks for the governance of the housing complex.

As we attempt to reimagine the future of public housing in Malaysia, we should call upon the six elements of Madani as our core guiding principles. With compassion we can rebuild social cohesion in the community. With respect and trust our communities can organise themselves to effect collective action. Innovativeness is how they navigate the complex challenges of communal urban living, while sustainability becomes the overriding principle in making PPR management decisions. And finally prosperity is the outcome enjoyed by the communities when they embrace the elements described above. As a model of Perumahan Madani the next generation PPR will become important places for the generation of happy families and healthy communities in our cities.

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About Think City

Think City is an impact organisation established in 2009 to create more sustainable and equitable places for the benefit of all. Our knowledge, skills and strategies focus on urban solutions, the environment, social communities, and the cultural economy. Think City is a wholly owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Berhad (the sovereign wealth fund of the Government of Malaysia). For more information, log on to www.thinkcity.com.my.

*Shahridan Faiez is director of Program Kita-untuk-Kita (K2K), a social development initiative implemented by Think City and funded by the Ministry of Finance.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.