MP SPEAKS On Aug 21, Research for Social Advancement (Refsa) organised a talk by renowned architect Kun Lim in the Library for Social Democracy at the DAP headquarters, titled 'City Design for People'.
As Kun Lim was the concept master planner of Putrajaya, I had my doubts about whether the architect behind such a mega project would hold progressive views.
I had my views on Putrajaya. In 2002, when I was studying in Australian National University, I took a course called 'Psychological Perspective on Politics'.
In one of the assignments for the class, I wrote about then-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Putrajaya construction mania.
I later rewrote it as a chapter for a Chinese book, and in 2013 it was translated into a Malay book, 'Putrajaya Milik Siapa?'
During my research, I could not find the name of the planner behind Putrajaya's concept.
I concluded that it must have been conceptualised by Mahathir himself.
I found out that Kun only publicly admitted his role in the drafting of Putrajaya’s conceptual plan after 2003, even then it was a not very well-known fact, confined to the circles of architects.
Kun told the audience that the boulevards he imagined in Putrajaya were never meant to be the sprawling, massive symbols of power that point straight to the Prime Minister's Office complex (the Perdana Putra Building).
In fact, the original plans had buildings which were much humbler in scale. So my guess was not far off, Mahathir had a hand in designing many of the architectural details of the city which he envisaged would symbolise the wide-ranging centralised powers.
Kun shared frankly about the challenges faced by architects in the tussle of ethics and compromises which involve power and money.
His honesty was refreshing. From his sharing, he had a deep understanding of spatial and power tension.
We share some similar views, particularly on the usage of waterways in cities.
Kun had been involved in the design of monorail tracks before.
The monorail was part of the stalled Kuala Lumpur Linear City project which aimed to build 12.4km of commercial building structures suspended above the Klang river.
It was an idea proposed by a businessman to Mahathir during the 1990s boom era, but the project was shelved after the 1997 financial crisis. Only the monorail structure remained.
In 1999 when I was working for the newly-elected MP Teresa Kok, I assisted in a case involving compensation for squatters who would be displaced by the KL Linear City project.
Looking back, the project was a ridiculous product of its era.
Now, Kun was talking about using waterways to reconnect the cannibalised road system.
This is close to my idea, I always felt that Malaysia has placed too much emphasis on private cars and land transport, without opening our imagination to the possibilities that waterways could hold.
I often said jokingly that the "railway tracks" of Penang are the water in the straits between the island and Seberang Perai.
The federal government controls ferry transport, giving not much leeway for the state government to innovate this mode of transport.
Ferries could be a new model to transport passengers between Johor and Singapore, too.
Kun's reflection on mega infrastructure projects such as the monorail are also close to my views.
In Seattle, where he lives now, he pointed out that various modes of transport (bus, LRT, tram, bicycle paths, ferry) form a mutually complementary public transportation system.
He joked that if public transport was only about building large infrastructure projects, one might as well pay residents to move out of congested downtown areas.
I told him that my view was slightly more extreme. If I were the Transport Minister, my core policy would be to "pay people to take the bus".
Unlike Singapore or Hong Kong, our cities in Malaysia are not as dense. Busses, therefore, are the most flexible and lowest-cost means of mass transport.
The easiest way to get people to take the bus is to begin from the policy standpoint that public transportation is a public good.
In other words, if everyone takes public transportation, the roads will not be congested and there will be less carbon emissions, and there would be no need to build extra roads.
Since it will benefit the whole society, the government accepts that subsidising the cost of public transport is inevitable.
However, building public transportation heavy infrastructure involves great cost. By switching to a bus-based public transport system, it would save the government in terms of subsidies, hence they can afford to "pay people to take the bus".
This could be manifested in a free bus system or incentives such as lucky draw prizes for frequent bus passengers. There could be many ways to achieve this.
Kun also talked about how economic inequality in cities is linked to a higher crime rate.
Conversely, cities with a smaller income gap between residents proved to be relatively safer.
An architect's responsibility is to give voice to the dialogue between architecture and cities, in the process we will find our own language and formula for our cities. It is a beautiful dialogue.
LIEW CHIN TONG is the MP for Kluang and Johor DAP chairperson.