Designing Urban Observatory Governance and Data Analytics in Iskandar Malaysia

What is the project about?


In line with the 11th Malaysia Plan strategy to ensure geographical balance in regional growth to enhance inclusion for the bottom 40% (B40) income and other vulnerable groups, the Iskandar Malaysia Urban Observatory (IMUO) project is a 4-year collaboration between Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) in developing strategic and targeted outputs to support a larger, ongoing initiative to establish the IMUO at the subnational level.

This project contributes towards realising Iskandar Malaysia’s vision to become a sustainable, inclusive and smart regional corridor through evidence-based spatial planning and policy making. Guided by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework, the project focuses on the development of the IMUO business plan, the review of Iskandar Malaysia’s data landscape, the development of the IMUO data management policy and the building of co-ownership through a robust process of stakeholder consultation and dialogue.

The outputs from this project serve as building blocks to empower IRDA to better plan and implement subnational programmes that are more tailored to the needs of the B40 and vulnerable groups, with links to the SDGs, as well as guide IRDA in the operational establishment of the IMUO. 

What do we hope to accomplish?

With the introduction of Iskandar Malaysia as one of the regional corridors in Malaysia in 2006, Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) was established as a federal government statutory body under IRDA Act 2007 to undertake the primary roles of planning, facilitation and promotion for Iskandar Malaysia. In carrying out its planning function, IRDA needs to ensure consistency and integration between different levels of planning in the region. This involves not only the three levels of government but also the five local authority areas that may inevitably lead to cross-boundary issues and dynamics. Hence, IRDA developed the Comprehensive Development Plan 2006-2025 (CDP) in 2006 as a regional planning document that serves to guide and coordinate planning in Iskandar Malaysia.

Although planning cycles at the federal level are more fixed at a five-year period for medium-term plans, planning cycles at the subnational level i.e. state and local levels, are more varied due to provisions in the law that allow for frequent revisions to the plans to reflect changing local needs. In the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172) under section 16(1), it states that, “The local planning authority may at any time make proposals for the alteration, revocation, or replacement of a local plan”. In order to coordinate with subnational plans, the CDP is submitted to the State Planning Committee for approval. Once the CDP is approved, the State Planning Committee will give direction to the relevant local authorities to incorporate proposals of the CDP under the provision of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976. The different divisions of IRDA also sit in various coordination committees at federal, state and local levels to ensure alignment with the CDP. For example, IRDA is one of the agencies that provide inputs when the National Physical Plan 3 and the Johor Bahru Local District Plan were being reviewed.

Despite the above-mentioned coordination mechanisms, there are still considerable gaps in aligning the CDP with the other levels of planning, particularly subnational plans which are more fluid in terms of planning cycles and are more subject to changes. While the CDP exists as a tool to address some of these issues, it is essentially a business plan that functions as a guide, but the final authority lies with state and local governments as delineated in the Federal Constitution. IRDA has no power to enforce at the state and local government levels, made more complicated and time-consuming with multiple authorities regulating or approving projects in Iskandar Malaysia. There are also instances where important planning decisions e.g. changes to zoning practices and approval for land reclamation, are made without sufficient consultation with the respective technical committees or reference to the CDP. These planning challenges also have an impact on IRDA’s facilitation and promotion roles in terms of how it goes about resolving issues for its stakeholders and promoting Iskandar Malaysia as a destination of choice to live, work and play.     

While the challenges above highlight the realities and constitutionality of federalism, it also points to the core importance of having evidence-based proposals and data-supported policy and technical advice for IRDA to continue carrying out its planning, facilitation and promotion roles effectively at the various coordination and planning committees. In particular, it is recognised that IRDA’s role in social development is not well promoted and that it has limited resources to oversee the overall social development in Iskandar Malaysia due to insufficient data to monitor social indicators. As a planning authority at the regional level, IRDA plays the important role of bridging the gaps between federal, state and local plans amidst fluctuations in planning cycles and processes. Thus, the importance of having a robust, comprehensive and up-to-date data and knowledge management system at the regional level cannot be overemphasised.

The three case studies below provide a snapshot of the multi-jurisdictional challenges that IRDA needs to address in Iskandar Malaysia and how an up-to-date data and knowledge management system can support. From managing public assets such as rivers to enhancing society’s well-being, the case studies show that factors affecting these public goods are not confined to a single local authority. As rivers traverse through multiple local authorities and people move across administrative boundaries, an integrated approach backed by comprehensive data as well as cross-sectoral understanding of the issues proved to be crucial for IRDA to coordinate efforts in the region. Having data and knowledge system setup at the Iskandar Malaysia level not only helps to improve decision making and galvanise targeted actions or responses, but contributes to longer-term planning and setting up of appropriate systems and processes. However, there are still numerous technical and financial constraints on data at the regional level

Case 1 under Iskandar Malaysia: Uncontrolled discharge of pollutants into rivers and recurring flash floods have resulted in depopulation and property losses

Sungai Segget has a catchment area of 3.6 km2 and the main river length is approximately 3.6 km.  The river system flows through Kampung Wadi Hana, Kebun Teh and Taman Century areas and subsequently passes through Johor Bahru City Centre.  It discharges into the Straits of Johor, just 200 m west of the causeway and is controlled by tidal gates.  The whole catchment is located within the highly built-up area and the land use is fully urban.  To transform the lower catchment (Jalan Wong Ah Fook) area into the CBD of JB, there are two major challenges, which are flooding problems and poor water quality of Sg. Segget’s water features.

Case 2 Iskandar Malaysia Social Index (IMSI)

Social index is one of the components of a bigger Data Management agenda for Iskandar Malaysia under the Iskandar Malaysia Urban Observatory (IMUO). Iskandar Malaysia Social Index is a social index to gauge the effectiveness of facilities and services provided for the people in Iskandar Malaysia.  The reasons of having the Iskandar Malaysia Social Index are as follows: -

·       Recommendation from Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) review;

·       To measure the progress of Iskandar Malaysia;

·       Planning objective as it is vital for decision making, policy review and formulation and future planning;

·       Report Card / Pulse Checking of society perception towards Iskandar Malaysia and social impact towards them; and

·       Public Relations purposes.

Case 3 Sungai Skudai Rejuvenation


Sungai Skudai (Skudai River) is one of the major rivers located within the heart of Iskandar Malaysia. Measuring 47km in length, the river traverses through the boundaries of three local authorities from the furthest northern parts of Iskandar Malaysia into the Johor Straits at the south.

This river has been a source of income for the fishermen plying the river, a source of raw water for the water treatment plant supplying large parts of the Johor Bahru District and Singapore (until the expiry of one of the water agreements) and also an alternative mode of transportation (both historically and will possibly make a come-back).

Case for Action

Over the years, the river has been extensively polluted from the many developments along the tributaries such as illegal squatters, old housing estates and villages (which do not use or properly maintain their individual sewerage treatment tanks), newer and large developments on a large scale (sedimentation run-offs), proliferation of commercial activities supporting these residential needs such as food and beverage, car wash, auto-maintenance workshops and such.

As a result, the cumulative effect of all these factors resulted in a shallower, more polluted river that poses a threat to the quality of life and to the water supply for the growing needs of Iskandar Malaysia. A 2013 study highlighted a scenario where the water supply for IM will reach a critical stage by the year 2018. However, ever-changing weather patterns and possibly faster growth of the region may exacerbate this situation, hastening the worst-case scenario.

The shallowing effects of the river also created flash flood risks along segments of the river where choke-points may have formed undetected over time. Under the right circumstances these choke-points will suddenly overflow causing inconveniences at the least, damaging property and maybe even resulting in casualties at its worst.


A better framework for Sungai Skudai is being developed to provide a clear plan to attain a cleaner, livelier and more vibrant river.  The benefits are as follows:-

·       Focus on the zoning area to ensure more positive outcomes;

·       Offer opportunities for public-private partnerships; and

·       Enhance public participation.

The framework shall create a high level comprehensive conduit to integrate and harmonise with Sungai Skudai Blueprint by Department of Irrigation and Drainage Johor, and also utilised as the core for a phased and focused action planning for specific segments or quadrants of the river.

Who finances it?

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