Democratic design wanted for post-colonial Malaysia

Malaysia has not been a colony since 1957, but this is not reflected in public space. Just like the British time, urban planning is all about controlling the masses, says PhD candidate Nurul Azlan. It’s time for urban designers to become independent, too.

When Malaysian lawyers organised a major protest demonstration in 2007, their march took place in the government city of Putrajaya. There is a metro to this brand-new government seat south of the capital Kuala Lumpur, but from the metro station it is a 40-minute walk to the Palace of Justice. Busses carrying the lawyers were stopped by the police more than a kilometre away from the Putrajaya Boulevard. They had to resume the journey on foot, a mean feat in the burning sun of the tropics since most of them were wearing suits. The unusual spatial lay-out made the protest for judicial reform much less effective than it could have been. "Putrajaya's urban design is an expression of power," says Azlan. "It's the job of planners to make it more democratic."
Even Kuala Lumpur, which has been shaped by 446 years of British rule, nowadays has a more accessible structure than 'civil servant city' Putrajaya, she observes in her research. This is why protests tend to take place more in Kuala Lumpur than in Putrajaya. A break between colonial times and the present seems to be lacking. How is that possible in a young and free country? Perhaps because of the non-violent character of the decolonisation process, Azlan suspects: "If a country becomes independent through negotiations, the upper class from colonial times will stay in place. They will copy the former rulers. "

Post-colonial memory loss

In her PhD thesis 'Seditious spaces: Protest in post-colonial Malaysia', Azlan analyses the urban design and architecture of her country. Her research shows that ‘colonial architecture’ did not disappear after the departure of the colonisers. In fact, the same building style was continued. In addition, she notes that ‘post-colonial amnesia’ provides selective choices in the design of public space. For example, it focuses on the formation of the Islamic identity of the new state - while the Malaysian population does not just consist of Muslims. Furthermore, there is ‘postcolonial mimicry’: the postcolonial society uses building styles of the former coloniser to organise the public space and to radiate modernity.

The title of her thesis - 'Seditious Spaces' - refers to the Sedition Act of 1948. This law, which gave the British a tool to prevent incitement, still seems to be the guideline for government policy, Azlan notes - also in spatial policy. Architects and urban planners have a responsibility to break with this, she says. Without a public space that offers opportunity for meetings, a well-functioning democracy is impossible. A compact, easily accessible city with a large and diverse population enables the masses to make themselves heard when they disagree with decision making. Of course, a democratic system has more to offer than space for demonstrations. "But the requirements for the ability to demonstrate are the same requirements as those for a daily life."

For her dissertation, Azlan also mapped out the digital space on the basis of Twitter behaviour at the Bersih 4 demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. Although websites are easy to block, it appears that communication in post-colonial Malaysia is easier in digital space than in Putrajaya's urban space. Azlan: "Of course communication in the physical space has more impact. It’s time to design it in a better way. "