Penang Institute Insights: How liveable are Malaysian cities and towns?

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A SMALL buzz was created at the end of last year when Kuala Lumpur was named as one of the New7Wonders Cities together with luminaries such as Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), Havana (Cuba), La Paz (Bolivia) and Vigan (Philippines).

KLites frustrated with poor public transport, massive rush hour jams and the lack of public spaces may not feel particularly excited about the level of wonder their city exudes.

Regardless of our thoughts on how deserving’KL is of this nomination, we cannot deny the reality that our cities must now compete in the increasing number of rankings and indices  that calculate “liveability” using various measures.

The New7Wonders Foundation is responsible for the New7Wonders Cities nominations and also the New7Wonders of the World, and it certainly trumps competing indices and rankings in the publicity stakes. The ceremony to announce the New7Wonders of the World, for example, was hosted by Oscar winners Hilary Swank and Ben Kingsley, with performances by Jennifer Lopez and José Carreras, among others.

For the most part, the more established indices that measure the liveability of global cities rely on the mundane — such as information, facts and survey data. Unlike the New7Wonders Cities nominations, these liveability rankings are actually used by multinational companies and governments to assign hardship allowances and relocation packages, and to make investment decisions.

Some of the better-known and widely used indices include Monocle magazine’s “The Most Liveable Cities Index”, which measures the quality of life in global cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Ranking, the Quality of Living Survey compiled by human resource consulting firm Mercer, and the Organsation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index.

While each index has its strengths and weaknesses in relation to the particular metrics and methodology they use, they feature the usual suspects in their lists of best global cities. Many Nordic cities, such as Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm, are ranked highly. So are Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Vancouver is a mainstay representing North America. In Asia, Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto often appear.

What these cities share in common would be obvious to any casual visitor. They feel pleasant and safe to be in; getting around them is convenient, whether on public transport or on foot. They are well-planned and well-organised, and have many exciting and interesting activities for locals and tourists to participate in.

 Apart from Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Baru are the only other cities in Malaysia that can genuinely compete to be counted among the ranks of global cities. But to feature on these global rankings, they first have to improve on the various criteria being measured in these various indices. One-off nominations such as the one awarded by the New7Wonders Foundation are more shiny than substantive.

More importantly, in the domestic context, it is time Malaysia had its own index of liveability that scores and ranks the quality of life in its cities and districts. Malaysians could use such an index to make decisions about where to look for jobs, locate their businesses and to live. Such an index could even spur competition among the local authorities to raise their scores and rankings.

It could even raise the profile of cities that may not be very well known outside Malaysia. For example, Kuching may not be an international city but its combination of smooth traffic, low crime rate, delicious and affordable food, decent amenities, an efficient local government, easy access to state parks and good schools may be enticing enough for multinational companies, businessmen and potential employees to set up shop there.

Not many outside Malaysia, or even outside Perak, might know that Kampar is a growing and vibrant college town, and one of the few places in the state that is attracting more young people to live in it, to replace those who have left and are leaving.

In researching this article, we were surprised to find that the data to evaluate the liveability of cities and towns in Malaysia already exists. In a project entitled the “Malaysia Urban-Rural National Indicators Network for Sustainable Development”, or MURNINets, which is under the purview of the Town and Country Planning Department, indicators measuring five dimensions — competitive economy, sustainable environment, sustainable community, optimum use of land and natural resources, efficient infrastructure and transportation, and effective governance — were calculated and compiled.

MURNINets also conducted a nationwide survey of 71 out of the 151 local authorities to create a National Happiness Index which measures how satisfied residents are with their local authorities.

But despite the massive effort put in by the Town and Country Planning Department, no reports or rankings were published by MURNINets on the liveability measures or the happiness index. In fact, it seems that the data compiled is only accessible to the local authorities rather than the general public. This, of course, defeats the purpose of such measures in the first place — how useful can a National Happiness Index be if the public has no access to it?

If the Town and Country Planning Department will not release this information, then it is perhaps necessary for a non-governmental organisation or a team of academics to come up with their own measures to rank the liveability of Malaysian cities in a transparent and accurate manner, with data and methodology that are open to public scrutiny.

It is not only Malaysian cities with global ambitions that should compete in the international liveability rankings. Our smaller cities and towns should join in the fun as well.

Dr Ong Kian Ming is general manager, and Kenneth Wong senior research analyst, at the Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 19 - 25, 2015.