Metal rat in an urban field: Confronting the ‘pembangunan’ hamster-wheel
By Benjamin Ong, Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia
The Chinese, or Lunar, New Year (CNY) is in full swing here in Malaysia and many parts of Southeast, and East, Asia. CNY, like many cultural celebrations, is a festive season marked by time spent in fellowship with family and friends and, of course, an abundance of food. The confluence of food and this year’s zodiac animal, the (Metal) Rat, brought to mind an article by Emma Marris in last April’s National Geographic, in which she asserts that “Rats are our shadow selves. We live on the surface of the city; they generally live below. We mostly work by day; they mostly work by night. But nearly everywhere that people live, rats live too.”
All over the world, nations wrestle with urbanization, accelerated post-World War II on population, economic and technological fronts. Southeast Asian cities, in particular, have grown exponentially over a much shorter timeframe than in the West, or Global North. Often, there appears to be an assumption that limitless growth is possible. I’ve seen it in the little things, for example, start-ups expressing their growth trajectories as J-curves instead of projecting towards equilibrium and stability. The reality is that all systems have carrying capacities, a point consistently emphasized in WWF’s flagship Living Planet Report. Exponential, limitless growth is impossible—unless you want to risk collapse.
The pembangunan problem
Here in Malaysia, I believe that unsustainable urbanization has a more fundamental origin, hidden in plain sight: in the Malay word for ‘development’ itself—pembangunan. Its root word is bangun, which means ‘to rise.’ Pembangunan, derived from bangun, means ‘to raise up.’ But bangunan, a noun form of bangun, means ‘building.’ Therefore, one may argue that it is possible to read pembangunan as ‘the raising up of buildings.’
This theory will probably never be proven, but it is consistent with the flavour of development, both urban and rural, observed in Malaysia over the last few decades. Development projects in this country always include a significant infrastructural element—buildings, roads, canals and the like. Don’t get me wrong: we need these to live and work in, to move around, and to spur the exchange of ideas, goods and services. But are we somewhat handicapped by our inability to perceive ‘development’ outside of the infrastructure frame?
Consider this image:
Typical emerging suburban land development in the Klang Valley metropolis. (Photo: Benjamin Ong/UNDP Malaysia)
What do you make of that green patch in the middle? If we conducted a visioning exercise on a randomly sampled audience, the overwhelming response would probably be that we should do something about it—turn it into a park, or build something useful on it. Something with direct and obvious human utility. In its present state it is what most Malaysians would call semak or belukar—essentially, ‘worthless scrub.’ But could there be undiscovered value in keeping our empty spaces—benefiting from green lung and water catchment functions, to name a few—instead of clearing and building over them?
There is precedent for this: the Orang Asal and Orang Asli (indigenous, or first, peoples) of Malaysia have lived in remarkable equilibrium with the land for centuries. They, and pre-industrial agrarian practice in general, recognized the importance of leaving pockets of fallow land, or letting the land rest from time to time. How would our cities look if they were designed, less to the specifications of industrial Europe, and more in the spirit of Malaysia’s culture and heritage?
The trouble is, “letting it be” runs counter to the dominant developmental narrative that drives us to do, to build, and to look productive. Consider, for instance, the iconography that has inundated, and now dominates, the visual discourse on cities:
Subtly, we allow ourselves to be told that the city is, at its heart, a conglomeration of buildings.
Getting off the hamster-wheel
(Photo: UNDP Malaysia)
Beyond the delectably amusing iconography, our CNY card got me thinking: the year of the metal rat exudes an industrial image—even more pervasive than plastics is the spectre of the metal, circuitry and physical infrastructure that supports our digital world in this age of IR4.0. On top of that, we are still on the building-centric pembangunan hamster-wheel. I am convinced that if we are to get anywhere meaningful, we must first get off the cycle we’ve been on for the last few decades.
But what happens when the rat jumps off the wheel? (Ooh, juicy existential question there!) What are the alternatives to big infrastructure? To begin with, here’s an image Nasha, our Environment Analyst (Climate Change & Energy), recently discovered in a Public Works Department resource slide deck:
Sustainable building principles practised in the traditional Malay village, or kampung. (Photo: Lee Jee Yuan, The Malay House: Rediscovering Malaysia’s Indigenous Shelter System, 1987)
This echoes the idea of nature-based solutions, one of the six Signature Solutions laid out in UNDP’s Strategic Plan 2018-2021. And yet, while these principles are embedded in our past, in our collective heritage, they are barely practised in the mainstream. The reality is that many developing countries, Malaysia included, desire to “look” like the so-called developed world. There is a very real fear of appearing backward in any way. (The bicycles that abound in Amsterdam and Kyoto carry a different class connotation from bikes in, say, India.) Furthermore, it can be challenging to pursue alternatives when cities and organizations are given financial resources and delivery targets to “do something” with the land they own. The temptation to lean on big infrastructure is strong indeed.
Writing for the Guardian, Amy Fleming makes the case for “dumb” cities in a time when smart cities are all the rage. Here in Malaysia, clear frameworks for exploring and testing alternatives to the pembangunan hamster-wheel are few and far between. Even the discourse on sustainable development is permeated with buildings: green buildings, low-carbon buildings, community-friendly buildings—but always still buildings!
In all of this, no organization is better positioned than ours to anchor the alternative message: when you’ve got the means to “develop” a space, to bring pembangunan to it, you do NOT have to think of buildings or roads first. Our opportunities, if not imperatives, are:
First, to dismantle the illusion that development should prioritize large, costly infrastructure projects. Development can be cheap, local, and small-scale; it must be appropriate to place, inclusive and equitable to communities therein. The superpowers of this world run after skyscrapers, but do we really need more phallic symbols of political virility?
Second, to boldly rediscover and reclaim ancient values for a more sustainable future. There are weak signals: a sense that people are becoming more and more apprehensive about “buildings as development,” and a growing interest in nature-based solutions, from the rediscovery of pre-plastic ways of life, to testing alternatives to the air-conditioner for ventilation.
During CNY, we wish each other prosperity for the year ahead. It is appropriate that we continue to champion the long view on prosperity: not how much we can take from the land today, but how much we will let it give us tomorrow. Not just how much we make now, but how much we are leaving for those who come after us.
Happy Chinese/Lunar New Year from all of us at the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia!