A Balanced Society? The Planning Must Start Now



This article first appeared in our September 2015 issue.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we put together for you in this issue some of our most memorable articles.

Penang aspires to be an international and intelligent state, and is developing fast with ambitious plans. But first, let’s plan the planning.

Malaysia follows a plan-led development system, with top-down multilevel plans ranging from the National Physical Plan to State Structure Plans and Local Plans; within Local Plans, there are also the Special Area Plans (SAPs).

With so many structures and plans in place, why does it often feel like there is no plan?

In part, this is because of a bureaucratic planning system and the length of time it takes to prepare plans. But mainly this is because of the lack of flexibility the planning system offers. While our planning processes occur as per the guidelines, the pace of actual development runs far ahead of our planners. If our plans are always playing catch up then they are not plans at all; they are simply confirming on paper what is already happening. What we really need is a long-term vision and set of principles that can guide our development.

The state government’s strategic development plan, the Penang Paradigm, has put forward the concept of “The Balanced Society”. As the state government moves to gazette the various plans, it is time to talk about the future direction of planning in Penang – with one eye on the next set of plans – and examine how we can approach our planning process in a different way, how we can open up the process to greater community and business engagement, and how we can address the inflexibilities of the current system and the constraints of the Structure and Local Plan system.

How are we going to plan for a balanced society?

Planning in Malaysia and Penang

While Malaysia’s planning system is based on the system inherited from the British, it has failed to keep up with reforms and developments in planning approaches in the UK and elsewhere. Does Malaysia need to relook its system of planning? A quick look at the reality of the plan-led development system in the country, specifically Penang, would certainly lead many to that conclusion.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1976 sets out the planning framework and guides development, ensuring uniformity of law and policy in the states in Peninsular Malaysia. It has been reviewed four times (19931, 19952, 2001 and 20073) and is currently in the process of being reviewed by parliament. The Town and Country Planning Act (Amendment) Act 2001 (Act A1129) provided a radical reform of the planning system, with the introduction of a regional tier of the planning system and the development of federal authority in spatial planning through the development of the National Physical Planning Council.

The 2001 reforms cemented a commitment to the Structure Plan/ Local Plan system with the time horizon for all plans to be set at 2020 to align with Vision 2020. While all states have successfully prepared and gazetted their Structure Plans, it has taken up to 10 years in some instances to reach this point, with Perlis only gazetting its plan in recent years. Of the 93 local plans in Malaysia, 84 have been gazetted, and of the 23 SAPs, 19 have been gazetted. Penang has a gazetted Structure Plan, though its review is behind schedule. Its local plans are currently not gazetted, while only one of the three SAPs prepared since 2008 has been gazetted4. This reflects both the bureaucracy and the inflexibilities inherent in our planning system.

Penang State Structure Plan 2005- 20205

Structure plans should cover a 20-year time horizon and should be reviewed every five years. However, the Penang Structure Plan 2005-2020 (a 15-year plan set to align with Vision 2020) was not gazetted until 2007, with a review due in 2012. The current review began in July 2012 and, while the plan is prepared in draft, it is estimated that it will be finalised at some point next year. This process will have taken almost four years and reflects the cumbersome nature and bureaucratic processes involved in planning.

Local Plans

Local Plans serve as vehicles for detailed and site-specified development and control at a local level. According to the National Physical Plan-2, Local Plans, by their more consultative process of preparation, act as agreements on the use of all land within the planning areas between the local planning authorities, local residents and land owners. Local Plans therefore offer a basis of democratic governance and the protection of citizen development rights; they have a direct and high impact on the daily lives of the people.

The Penang Island Local Plan has been put on hold since 2008, pending a review and the addition of SAPs that were commissioned by the state. It is now in its final stage of development, with the George Town SAP being publicly displayed before it can finally be gazetted. Given the long wait, we can expect a very comprehensive examination of the plan by the public and interested NGOs.

Seberang Perai is operating on a different timescale and the Draft Local Plan (2006-2020) comprises Special District Plans for the northern, southern and central districts of mainland Seberang Perai. For the northern district, the planning process began in March 2012, with inquiries and hearings in November 2013. Objections were not heard until October 2014. In Seberang Perai Tengah the process began at the same time; inquiries and hearings were held in December 2013 and objections were heard in January 2014. Meanwhile, the planning process for Seberang Perai Selatan is on hold, as the rapidly developing Batu Kawan requires continual changes and updates which the current planning system cannot accommodate6.

George Town. The Penang Island Local Plan has been put on hold since 2008, pending a review and the addition of SAPs that were commissioned by the state. Photo: cat_collector.


Since 2008, the state government has encouragingly initiated three SAPs, designed to protect, preserve and enhance our built and natural environments, and these have been prepared following the same procedures as the Local Plan and have the same effect as a Local Plan.

George Town SAP

With the listing of George Town as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 came an expectation to develop and submit a detailed land use plan to the World Heritage Centre and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) by February 1, 20117. The Draft SAP was produced by AJM Planning and Design Group, submitted to Unesco and exhibited for public viewing from April 11 to May 9, 2011. It was finally adopted by the State Planning Committee in 2013.

In November 2014, Think City engaged the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, recognised as one of the foremost organisations involved in matters of architecture, conservation and urban planning, to develop a planning and design guide for four major areas of the city: the north seafront, east seafrontport area, the Clan Jetties and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. A decision was taken to include this design guide as an addendum to the SAP. The current target is to gazette this plan by December 2015, approaching five years from its first public viewing.

Penang Botanic Gardens SAP

The Penang Botanic Gardens SAP is the only SAP to have been gazetted. Also prepared by AJM Planning and Design Group, it was announced in May 2011 and presented for public feedback in January 2012. A hearing was held in June 2012, objections were considered in July 2012 and it was approved in October, subsequently being gazetted in December 2012.

Penang Hill SAP

The Penang Hill SAP was also prepared by AJM Planning and Design Group, with the process starting in August 2013 and presented for public feedback in December 2013. Inquiries and hearings of the draft have also been held; however, this plan is yet to be gazetted.

Land reclamation and other concerns

The development approach adopted over the past few years by the state government has attracted much debate. While there has been some opposition to the state’s planning approach, particularly with regards to land swaps and land reclamation rights, it is important to contextualise it with the lack of federal support8. For example, public transport is the sole prerogative of the federal government (more specifically the Prime Minister’s Department, with the creation of Spad, and not under the Ministry of Transport). However, because the federal government has not been cooperative, Penang had no choice but to utilise its power over land to trade reclamation rights in exchange for the development of the strategies in the Penang Transport Master Plan to resolve the state’s traffic woes.

View from Penang Hill. Inquiries and hearings of the Penang Hill SAP draft have also been held; however, this plan is yet to be gazetted. Photo: Pandora Voon.

In Seberang Perai, the last major site of government-owned land is being developed into a new 21st century township. The area covering 2,887 acres had long been in the planning, but it was with the confirmation of the second bridge in 2006 that the wheels began to move in motion. The development of an Eco-town Policy Framework was pursued in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the Global Environment Centre Foundation, both based in Osaka. The plans for Batu Kawan are ambitious, and reportedly half the land has now been sold to a whole range of investors who, in the coming years, will develop Batu Kawan into a mixed use township. The MPSP, however, has expressed concern that the original vision is being diluted and that it lacks the sufficient power to direct private sector developers.

To gazette or not to gazette?

The state government has cited that gazetting a plan removes flexibility for a fast developing state. Perhaps the real issue is not whether the plan should be gazetted or not, but whether the planning system is fit for the purpose.

There is a serious argument to be made: that once a local plan is gazetted and plans are set in stone, there is no more opportunity to object to development plans, with a review only allowed once every five years. However, the position of uncertainty that arises from having no gazetted plan places undue pressure on the local authorities who are stuck between competing pressures, and local authority capacity in this regard is being stretched.

Developing a new approach to planning

A number of commentators have recently called for an urgent review of the planning system. Datuk Goh Ban Lee, a former municipal councillor, highlighted the need to boost the skills and capacity of planners to improve the quality of urban planning. According to Goh, in the current system “it is largely politicians and businessmen who make the decisions concerning what to build, the density of projects and the shape and even the colour of buildings9.”

Effective planning is based on solid data about the environment being considered. In Malaysia data is not highly valued and is inconsistently updated – it is collected and is often protected, and not shared, to the detriment of evidence-based policies. A lack of information at the disposal of our planners means that the foundations of a plan are not in place.

A solid base of planning data is essential for the effective use of Geographical Information Systems, which are increasingly shared online resources. OneMap in Singapore, for example, is an integrated, multi-agency mapping system for government agencies; it is an integrated online geospatial platform that provides reliable, timely and accurate location-based information which supports detailed planning. As technology advances, more and more cities around the world are experimenting with ways to use data to better understand their urban environment. However, without sufficient data, these new technologies cannot be employed, and sub-optimal decisions will be made in urban management and planning.

Examples from far and near

Former Housing and Planning exco member Wong Hon Wai has argued in favour of a wholesale review of the entire planning system10, citing examples from the UK, which abolished structure and local plans in favour of a more flexible approach, and Singapore’s long-term concept plan.

In the UK, Local Development Documents (Core Strategies)11 replaced old Structure/Local plans with a portfolio of individual documents that could be tailored to suit the different needs of a particular area and could be easily and quickly updated. One of the compulsory documents included was the “statement of community involvement”, which makes clear how communities are to be involved in the development or review of any plan from the outset.

The National Planning Policy Framework introduced in 2012 included a new framework where Local Plans should be “succinct... setting out a positive longterm vision for an area” which can be reviewed in whole or in part to respond flexibly to changing circumstances. A new level of neighbourhood planning has also driven down planning processes, encouraging greater public engagement. Neighbourhood planning provides a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community12.

Esplanade Park, Singapore. The country has a long-held vision of being the “City of Gardens”, as stated by the late former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in the 1960s. Photo: Jnzl's Public Domain Photos.

Nearer to Malaysia, Wong highlighted Singapore’s use of a concept plan – a broad long-term 40 to 50-year conceptual plan that is reviewed every 10 years. Penang has much in common with Singapore: both are limited in land and natural resources, and while the development paths of the two islands have diverged, both share a common cultural history and have strong social and familial ties.

Singapore has a long-held vision of being the “City of Gardens”, as stated by the late former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in the 1960s. The Garden City concept was incorporated into the Concept Plan of 1971, setting out a vision that has broadly been achieved over the past 40 years. With limited land in Singapore, careful longterm planning is argued to have supported strategic decision-making over land use, and Singapore may argue that because of this, it is well placed to address future challenges.

Moving forward

As the state government moves toward finally gazetting its plans, there should be positive discussions about how we can reshape our planning processes and planning approaches. Given the absence of Penang in the 11th Malaysia Plan’s proposed city-level master plans13, we should now start to look post-Vision 2020 and begin to plan for “The Balanced Society”.

A closer look at what is possible within the constraints of the Town and Country Planning Act is needed – we need a planning system that considers the local institutional setup pertaining to legal, administrative, financial, human resources and technical capacities while also acknowledging that in a fast developing state, the plans need to be developed quicker and need to have inbuilt flexibility.

The World Bank’s recently published Malaysia Economic Monitor14 adopted a theme of “Transforming Urban Transport” and highlighted a need for integrated transport planning in Malaysia. It argued that the fragmented nature of transportation planning and the lack of conurbation level delivery agencies mean that the complexity of cities and their needs are not being addressed. This is of great concern given the amount of investments Penang is about to make in its transport infrastructure; billions of ringgit of new infrastructure may be developed in the coming years, but the worry is that without the right-scaled planning of transportation systems across public and private transport, transport modes, functions and levels of government, and geographical and administrative boundaries, investments are unlikely to be optimised and efficiently delivered.

There is a clear need to plan at the metropolitan scale which in Penang may include looking outside of our state boundaries. Our travel-to-work patterns and economic linkages do not stop at arbitrary lines on the map as the recently announced Rapid Penang services to Sungai Petani in Kedah and Parit Buntar in Perak show, while the expansion of the Kulim High Tech Park should clearly be considered to include Penang. In fact, the advanced planning of an international airport in Kulim surely highlights a failure of planning beyond boundaries – it is to be located just 35km (straight line) from Penang International Airport. The RM1.6bil proposal is being studied by the Economic Planning Unit15.

The devolution of transport planning to a regional level could be viewed as a step towards bringing power closer to the people it affects and developing transit agencies that can deliver efficient urban transportation systems. The economic corridor bodies established under the 10th Malaysia Plan are federal bodies that may serve as a useful test bed to start the process of devolving power, and the 2001 reform of the Town and Country Planning Act can provide a basis for stronger regional planning. This may be a pragmatic way forward given there is likely little appetite for devolving transportation planning to the states – it recognises the increasing demand for metropolitan areas to have greater planning powers and the federal government can move towards an established planning consensus without relinquishing power.

How we plan and shape our city and its hinterland will shape how we develop, and if we really want a materially prosperous, culturally vibrant, environmentally sustainable, intellectually creative, socially progressive and politically empowered society, then we will have to plan for it.

And that should start now.

1 This was to include provisions relating to activities to be consistent with the Sewerage Services Act 1993 (Act 508).
2 The amendments made as part of efforts to address and strengthen the law relating to the environment.
3 To confer the executive authority on the Federal Government over certain matters in relation to the control and regulation of town and country planning in Peninsular Malaysia.
4 Jabatan Perancangan Bandar dan Desa, July 2015.
5 The structure plan sets out the policies and general proposals for the development of land within each state, providing guidance for spatial development on states’ issues of structural importance. The structure plan operates within a framework of national spatial policies (National Physical Plan-2) as well as regional spatial policies.
6 The Penang Paradigm (Draft) called for a SAP to be adopted for Batu Kawan in February 2013.
7 http://whc.unesco.org/en/decisions/1870
8 The George Town Outer Ring Road was part of the Ninth Malaysia Plan, for example, as was the Penang Monorail.
9 Goh Ban Lee, “Bringing city planning up to date”, Penang Monthly, June 2014.
10 Opalyn Mok (2014), “Penang backbencher wants end to rigid structural and local planning”, The Malay Mail Online, accessed on June 26, 2015.
11 Compulsory local development documents (core strategy, development plan documents, statements of community involvement). Optional local development documents (area action plans, supplementary planning documents, local development orders).
12 The ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area. Neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan. To facilitate this, local planning authorities should set out clearly their strategic policies for the area and ensure that an up-to-date Local Plan is in place as quickly as possible. Neighbourhood plans should reflect these policies and neighbourhoods should plan positively to support them. Neighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies.
13 City competiveness master plans are to be developed for KL, Johor Bahru, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
14 Malaysia Economic Monitor: Transforming Urban Transport, World Bank, June 2015, accessed on July 10, 2015 (URL: www.worldbank.org/en/news/pressrelease/ 2015/06/16/integrated-local-levelplanning- can-reduce-high-costs-of-congestionand- boost-growth-in-malaysia).
15 “Proposed RM1.6b Kulim airport’s initial focus on cargo services” (URL: www.thestar.com.my/ Business/Business-News/2015/03/31/Mukhrizsays- Proposed-Kulim-airport-initial-focus-oncargo/? style=biz).

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