Earlier this month, Planning Commissioner Anthony Perl is joining urban leaders from over 150 countries in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for World Urban Forum 9 (WUF9). The World Urban Forum is a non-legislative technical forum convened by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) held since 2002.
Here are some of Commissioners Perl’s impressions from a field trip to a nearby city in Malaysia:
The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre is a splendid facility with every modern technology, including excellent climate control. But these impressive features also insulate its users from the surrounding urban environment. And the surrounding neighbourhood of Bukit Bintang, where most WUF delegates were staying to maintain easy (e.g., pedestrian) access to the Convention Centre was itself comprised of recently built high-rise offices, hotel towers, luxury condos, and a huge shopping mall. The official antidote to spending all of one’s time within this bubble was the “Technical Visit” portion of the programme which got WUF9 delegates out into the field where they could experience Malaysia’s urban life more directly.
I took this opportunity to visit Melaka, a historic city located 150 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur. Melaka was shaped by its role as a major port in the spice trade, and had seen many foreigners pass through it over the past six centuries. First, the Chinese made regular visits to trade with the Malays. Next the Portuguese arrived and added Melaka to their string of Asian colonies, joining Goa and Macao as ports for moving high-value goods between the Orient and Europe. Then, the Dutch displaced the Portuguese, and later the British took over – with a relatively brief occupation by the Japanese during the Second World War. Perhaps these many interventions had inspired the city’s current motto which was prominently displayed on billboards around town that read “Don’t Mess With Melaka”. And yet, the city’s present and future remains deeply dependent on the transportation and trade developments that are already working to reshape Malaysia’s cities.
After a bus ride along the busy motorway that runs the length of peninsular Malaysia, we were briefed on Melaka’s tourism sector, which generates 90 percent of the local economic activity. Today, Melaka thrives on a steady stream of visitors from Singapore and China, with the city’s population doubling on weekends. As in Vancouver, the number of second homes (mainly high-rise condominiums) owned by foreigners has grown steadily in recent years. As our guide described it, Singaporeans arrive each weekend with an empty car and a pocket full cash and then return home with a full car and pockets emptied of cash. For example, food in Melaka costs about half of what it does in Singapore. But Singapore’s role as a major influence in Malaysia could well change in the not so distant future.
After lunch and an afternoon stroll around Melaka’s historic city centre, we were brought to the observation deck of a new hotel and apartment tower complex overlooking Melaka’s massive port construction. A Chinese consortium is investing over $13 billion to build deep-sea port infrastructure that could eventually rival Singapore as the gateway for Southeast Asia’s global trade. Once it is connected to China’s “One belt, one road” trade corridor, the new port of Melaka could reshape trade routes between Europe and Asia in ways that would leverage Malaysia’s strategic location at Singapore’s expense.
Melaka’s global engagement that began when Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s arrived in the early 15th century thus appears poised to begin another iteration of the cycle that has shaped this city for six centuries. Once again, China is leading the effort to connect Malay cities with the world. If the investment in Melaka’s new port proceeds as planned, then tourism will plan a relatively smaller role in the city’s economic future as historic trading patterns are reinvented for the 21st century. Malaysia’s urban form will likely evolve with the global reconfiguration of trade and transport being advanced by China, as exhibited by the current transformation of Melaka.
Had I stayed in the bubble of the WUF9 conference centre, one of the major forces behind Malaysia’s urban transformation would have escaped me. I returned to WUF9 with a better appreciation of how China’s influence on cities is being felt globally in ways that Vancouver’s urban planning will need to take account of.