The Housing Question: Who Is My Neighbour?

Allowing diversity into our neighbourhoods is the only way to defeat extremism.

Vincent van Gogh's The Good Samaritan, After Delacroix.

Oddly enough, the fundamental issue with housing today can be summed up in what perhaps is the most famous sociological question in history: “Who is my neighbour?”

Those of you who are familiar with it will know that it is from the Bible, specifically from the story of the Good Samaritan.

The great thinker, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s alter ego, wrote, and I freely paraphrase:

Imagine a big modern city. In the centre of the city and its proximate periphery, land price inevitably increases substantially. All the old buildings, which are mostly homes, actually depress the value of the land instead of increasing it because while they belong to the land, they do not belong to the new circumstances of the city’s life. And I am not talking about your heritage antique toys; think more along the lines of the slums in KL – if you ascend the Petronas Twin Towers you will notice that part of the surrounding areas are still dotted with wooden houses. So what is it that happens to them?

“They are pulled down and in their stead shops, warehouses and public buildings are erected…” This last sentence is a direct citation from Engels, writing in 1872.

It is clear to us today that that dynamics have changed very little over the last 145 years.

The same story can be told of the suburbs:

If you have yet to notice, suburbs are meant to put people of a similar social and economic class together. Whether we admit it or not, we generally do not appreciate people who are substantially different from our social and economic class in our neighbourhood. The proliferation of gentrified neighbourhoods accentuates this even further; now not only the “undesirable” people are not allowed to stay in our neighbourhood, they are also not allowed to move into it.

Only three years ago I was dealing with a case where residents from an established housing estate were protesting against the plan to build low-cost flats in their neighbourhood. The Penang state government is of course still dealing with protests from locals who object to the construction of a migrant workers’ housing development in their neighbourhood.

In fact, similar patterns can be seen in our attitude towards town and country planning in general:

I remember someone – an academic, no less – who told me that we should limit traffic going onto the island. How? Well, increase the Penang Bridge toll and impose an entry fee into the city – like the ERP in Singapore.

As a member of parliament serving a constituency on the mainland and as someone who actually lives on the mainland, I was astonished to hear this, to say the least. Yes, traffic congestion diminishes our quality of life, but alienating half of Penang’s population is definitely not the solution.

In all these examples and scenarios; the fundamental issue revolves around the question: what or who we want and do not want in our backyards.

People's Court at Lebuh Cintra.

An Important Marker of Extremism

Think about it: how many of us zealously guard our neighbourhoods against undesirable people. We often see advertisements for tenants, but “only a certain race need apply”? This is obviously because we do not want people who don't look like us living next door to us.

Geographer David Harvey argued that such an attitude is caused by how we have come to view housing as an asset, not merely a shelter. We thus need to protect the value of our savings in a house, and hence that generates all sorts of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) politics.

Consequently, the simple “Who is my neighbour?” question has major implications in shaping politics as well as policies.

Where there is diversity, especially in a robust neighbourhood or a public arena, self-insulation is harder to achieve. It is harder to breed anti-social ideas within pluralistic neighbourhoods. We saw that in America during the Trump election: mixed neighbourhoods there were less likely to support extreme nationalism or communalism. In a truly diverse society, it is difficult to gang up to bully minorities.

The truth is we are seeing more segregation than ever even as we have more opportunity to socialise. Behavioural science scholar Cass Sunstein, who advised Barack Obama’s presidency, wrote how our homophilic tendency is becoming more prevalent and harder to manage in an internet-linked world. We get an echo chamber effect where we only hear views similar to ours, thus reinforcing these views even further, creating extreme beliefs – even if the views are erroneous.

Diversity is strength even if some of our political leaders want us to believe otherwise.

Promoting Diverse Neighbourhoods

This is why I fully support the vision of the Penang state government to put up 2,000 units of affordable housing right in the middle of George Town, in Jalan SP Chelliah. This is not new, even for Penang. After all, we were the first state to have a public-funded social housing scheme. This was in the 1960s, with the building by the George Town City Council of the People’s Court right smack in the heart of the city at Lebuh Cintra.

It is definitely a costly decision to build social housing on prime land in the middle of the city. But such a decision not only allows lower income groups to have greater access to the city and all its resources, it also creates diversity in the demography.

Which is why I am glad that the up-and-coming township of Bandar Cassia in Batu Kawan has a good mix of high-end lifestyle activity centres such as IKEA, premium outlets, a golf course, private schools as well as over 10,000 units of social housing.

In the past, social housing was built on cheap land at the far fringes of the city, creating both ghettoisation and gentrification: the poor and the rich each had their separate neighbourhoods. Ultimately everyone wanted to ensure that they had the “right” people as neighbours. The idea was to safeguard investments in the form of their houses.

The city then becomes an investment scheme rather than a social settlement. Little wonder then that in a 2011 paper published by Penang Institute, it was found that in the 10 years between 1991 and 2000, there was a glut in luxury housing in Penang – because with the old regime, building houses was no longer about providing shelter, but rather about providing investment opportunities.

Unlike other states in Malaysia, the Penang state government recognises that new developments can and should find ways to accommodate “peneroka”, or city pioneers – often called squatters. The classic cases of Kampung Buah Pala and Kampung Tok Subuh ran counter to Engels’ thesis, which I previously cited: the state government actually ensured that the villagers were accommodated in the same area with proper and affordable housing once the original slums made way for new development.

All these do not happen by accident or in a vacuum. They involve policy decisions on the part of the state government, and at times these are not very popular decisions because for better or worse we are zealous guardians of our personal and social space against our neighbours.

But the visionary influencer of New York city planning Jane Jacobs herself wrote about how tolerance and ultimately cooperation are only possible “when streets of great cities have built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together.”

In other words, development policies must consciously include making us accommodate our neighbours.

Yet, really, “Who is my neighbour?” In the story of the Good Samaritan, the answer is obvious: the one who is a stranger from a different race, a different religion, a different culture and a different lifestyle – the toxic Other whom we often find difficult to love, much less live with.

Steven Sim Chee Keong is MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also on the board of directors of the Penang Institute.

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