How to be happy in the city

How to be happy in the city
-A +A

Some people say small-town folks are often happier than city folks. It may not be so throughout the world but Happiness in the City Index 2017 showed that this could be true in Malaysia.

The survey was conducted over a period of one month from April 28 to May 28 to find out how happy Malaysian city dwellers are and what could be done to make their living quality better. The online survey — which focused on the Klang Valley, Johor Bahru and Penang — garnered a total of 1,796 respondents.

The survey showed that only 50% of city folks are happy living in their cities. The question is, how do we add a bit more happiness among the other half, of whom 43% found life in the city tolerable while the rest felt unhappy and very unhappy. Penang, however, stood out as the happiest place as 77% of respondents there said they were very happy and happy.

Pondering on the results of the index, panellists at a roundtable on Happiness in the City Index 2017 held on Aug 21 endeavoured to first find out the root of the unhappiness among Klang Valley folks and then proceeded to share their thoughts on the attributes of a happy city.

Moderated by managing director and editor-in-chief Au Foong Yee, the participants of the roundtable were Lafarge Malaysia president and CEO Thierry Legrand, Think City urban solutions programme director Dr Matt Benson, Rehda Youth chairperson Carrie Fong, Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar, Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) president Ezumi Ismail and Eco World Development Group Bhd executive director Liew Tian Xiong.

Keys to a happy city

According to the survey, 77% of respondents ranked safety as the second-biggest concern after the cost of living.

The panellists agreed that a feeling of insecurity over crime and other safety issues has caused a lack of trust among people — even among those living within the same building.

“I think the level of trust even among neighbours is low, which is why security is such a big issue and gated-and-guarded communities are becoming more and more popular,” said Liew.

However, Think City’s Benson believes gated-and-guarded communities are actually segregating people and discouraging them from interacting with others beyond their own community. He also mentioned that a place needs diversity and vibrancy, which could indirectly reduce crime.

“Jane Jacobs once said: ‘The safest street is the busiest street’. The many eyes on the street and the ownership of the street among its users are what make a safe street. People usually don’t commit crimes in their own neighbourhood,” he offered.

Benson also pointed out that living in a smaller city might be less stressful and makes its residents happier.

“Just like Penang — the survey showed that only 3% of Penang folks were unhappy and very unhappy. It is probably because Penang is smaller, and so it brings people closer together. It is possibly a big part of the reason that Penangites are happier,” he noted.

But, Legrand asked, whose job is it to build happy cities?

“Is it the planner’s job? Is it the government’s job? I think it is the people’s job to think. You know, as a company, we could have stayed with our past goals, which is producing cement and concrete, but we would like to help build better cities. Yes, we are still producing cement and concrete, but we are encouraging people to have ideas and letting them know that they have a small part to play in a bigger role. It’s everybody’s job,” he expressed.


Besides safety, MIP’s Ihsan pointed out that a city also needs to be liveable. Currently in Kuala Lumpur city, the city centre is more of a commercial hub where people work and do business. However, many cannot afford to live in the city centre.

“A very limited number of people can afford homes in the city. But what happened in Melbourne? It is the world’s most liveable city but it started with a lot of problems, such as an oversupply of office space in the city, but they converted them into apartments and attracted people to live in them. That’s something we should learn from Melbourne,” Ihsan noted.

Benson also felt that Malaysian houses are overpriced and unaffordable to many. In response, Ezumi raised the issue of hidden costs in property development such as the cost of doing business, cost of building infrastructure and subsidies for affordable housing schemes.

However, he believes that normal house prices should be left to market forces while the government takes care of public housing.

A city can also be more liveable when its residents find it easy to walk or cycle from one place to another. “We have too many cars and carbon [in the city]. Walking and cycling are something we can look at. However, it has to be connected to the safety aspect,” said Ihsan.

A sense of belonging

What would you do if you were the mayor? Many of the panellists said they want to retain the identity of the city and make the environment safer and more pleasant.

“When you talk about top cities in the world, you remember straightaway their character that you enjoyed. We need to maintain and keep that character in our cities, not hide them,” said Rehda Youth’s Fong, citing Eiffel Tower in Paris as example where no development is allowed around the city’s landmark so that the iconic skyline and identity can be mantained.

The panellists agreed that a city with its own character can evoke a sense of belonging and identity for its citizens.

“I think a sense of belonging is vital as having ownership on where you live is important. Malaysians like to adapt and follow [foreign] culture, but rather than doing that, we should embrace our own culture and practise it,” offered Liew.

roundtable-happines-2017-city_110917 roundtable-happines-2017_110917

Are you happy? editor-in-chief Au Foong Yee: Being happy is very important. Otherwise, what is life all about?
So, my question is — are you happy?

Think City urban solutions programme director Dr Matt Benson: Happiness in the cities can be measured by happiness indices such as Happiness in the City Index 2017 as they can give some indication of people’s feelings.

I think, for myself, happiness is about how many people you know. It is about your network and support system. That is what really defines an individual’s happiness. Obviously, money counts. A trustworthy government counts. But a big proportion of happiness, particularly in the city, lies in your social network — which includes your immediate family, as loneliness is not something that is going to make you happy. Social direction, social capital and support network — those are some of the things that make a person happy.

Eco World Development Group Bhd executive director Liew Tian Xiong: If you ask me if I’m living happily in KL, the answer is yes. I studied in Melbourne and upon graduating, I came back to Malaysia.

I enjoy living in the Klang Valley, but I don’t enjoy going into KL city centre because the traffic is bad. Car parks are difficult to find. Shopping is a very typical thing to do in the city centre, but the brands there [at the malls] can also be found all around the world. Hence, this is why I spend more time in the suburbs like Mont’Kiara, Damansara Heights and Petaling Jaya, where you will get a more unique and localised experience.

I think it is the unique sense of belonging combined with connectivity that makes a place everyone can feel happy to live in.

Lafarge Malaysia president and CEO Thierry Legrand: I have been in KL for two years with my family, and yes, we are happy. The life here is quite easy although there is traffic jam. The public transport is not the best and the green spaces of the city are not comparable to the other cities that I have lived in. But, compared with other places in the region, it is rather good. And we have a community where we can get connected quite easily.

PAM president Ezumi Ismail: I am from Kota Bharu and I stayed in a “kampung” when I was four or five years old. At that time, every morning I followed my grandfather to the restaurant he was operating in the city and then back to the “kampung” in the evening. I am still doing the same thing after I moved to KL. I work in the city and go back to my “kampung” at Bukit Antarabangsa at night.

There are different characteristics of people living in town and those living in the “kampung”. In the “kampung”, you will know almost everybody there and you can guess a person’s behaviour. But in the city, you cannot guess what a person is going to do. Hence, everybody is like an enemy as you don’t know whether he or she is a good person or not; whereas in the “kampung”, everybody is like your friend.

So, the city folks put up barriers and fences around their living environment to feel more secure. This, however, actually breaks up the neighbourhood. People lose interaction within their community.

The other thing I observe is that everything has started to become pricey in the city, but in the “kampung”, everything is priceless as people share hope together — and you can’t buy that kind of relationship.

Legrand: I think the way condos, districts or towns are built will determine whether or not it is easy for people to connect with each other. You have condos that are built in such a way that there is no way you will meet your neighbours. But we also have some places where it is easier to connect with each other.

Benson: I come from Perth and have lived in Melbourne for a while. I have been living in Penang for the past five years. Penang is top of the list [in being happy] in the survey, isn’t it? If that is true, I would suggest it is probably because Penang is smaller, and so it brings people closer together. It is possibly a big part of the reason.

Rehda Youth chairperson Carrie Fong: I’m from Ipoh and our family moved to KL when I was six as my father found that there were more job opportunities in the city. Since then, I have been living in KL, so I cannot imagine living outside the city but I can imagine living in different cities.

The city is going to have a greater influx of population. The World Economic Forum has estimated that there will be another 2.5 million people coming into the city. As the city has a life of its own and needs to constantly grow and adapt, we need to find ways to ensure that despite development growth, people are not left behind. You can see in some countries — for instance, in China — where the development is going at such a rapid pace that some are worried whether or not the people can keep up with it.

MIP president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar: I’m happy to be here but I’m not happy on my way here [Petaling Jaya] because of the traffic and to be caught in a jam. And like what Ezumi said, I’m happy with the people around me, my community. I stay in Shah Alam where it is less dense and is a mixed community.

On what Liew said — he is happy in the city but the city itself has problems such as not being very walkable. We are not taking full advantage of the city centre and this is probably why our youngsters are very car-oriented. KL is actually so much better than it was and it is truly wonderful to walk — along the river, Dataran Merdeka and Medan Pasar — compared to a few years back.

And there is no city in the world that has the oldest virgin forest right smack in the city centre — the Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Sometimes we fail to tell that story. So I think we should walk more in the city, as that will make us happier and healthier.

As for gated communities and safety, among other things, I think it is a failure of our system and community. Like Ezumi said, these gated communities are actually creating enclaves and separating people, so I think we are going in the wrong direction. For me, real happiness is about getting to know new friends and feeling safe and comfortable in the city.

Au: That’s a good point about people putting up fences because it is inevitable due to security reasons. In fact, 77% of respondents in our survey ranked safety as the second-biggest concern after the cost of living.

Fong: When you segregate people within gated communities, it is kind of like schools, right? Like you belong to this school while I belong to that school, but the schools don’t really mix. So imagine we have inter-township games — let’s say, a swimming gala to get people to mix with each other.

Ihsan: Yes, but there is a cheaper way to do it. We have gated communities because we don’t feel safe, that is the general reason. Carrie [Fong] pointed out correctly about inter-community activities to get people to interact more. But for designers like me and Ezumi, what we are more concerned with is the need to have more public spaces that belong to everybody.

The work that I do is to create public places that you want to go to and you feel safe being there. There are many things that we can actually do to enjoy the city life besides shopping.

Legrand: I like walking very much, but KL is unlike Paris, where there will be some walkways for pedestrians in the city. In KL, sometimes you have to take your car and go the long way to get to a place, even though it is just within walking distance, because there is no other way for you to get there. Hence, I think it is the way we do the connection.

Ihsan: You are right — it is called barriers. We need to create a barrier-free city; give KL a chance of being barrier-free and get the community more involved. We are doing it now; we are slowly picking up. Compared to 10 to 15 years ago, there is now more participation in urban design in the city. It is still quite new for us.

Consider the recent incident in Taman Tun Dr Ismail [in KL] where the people are not happy with the proposed public housing coming up on green space. At least now we have the avenue to question the government. It is something impossible 10 years back as people would not have questioned [such a proposed development] at that time.

Ezumi: To have a barrier-free city, we need to first tackle the crime rate. I have observed that in Putrajaya, the originally fenceless terraced [homes] are being fenced up because of crime. I think we have failed to control crime properly.

Benson: So does putting up more barriers create less opportunities for crime [to take place]? If you take Medan Pasar in downtown KL as an example, it doesn’t feel particularly safe at night. One reason people don’t go there is nothing is open. This reminds me of what Jane Jacobs said: “The safest street is the busiest street.” The eyes on the street and the ownership of the street is what make it the safest street.

Fong: I’ve been a [crime] victim three times! We really need to look at the root cause of the problem. The people who are doing this are in a bad position and they are probably among the urban poor. I think they have jobs, but they could have an emergency and they need a little bit more cash. Hence, the quickest way is to resort to crime. We really need to drill down to the root of the problem and it starts from education, jobs, income and the cost of living.

How to build a liveable city?
Au: Matt [Benson], you have touched on a very interesting point about Medan Pasar. In your opinion, what needs to be done? Is there a role for the government or the people themselves, or maybe a combination?

Benson: I think the answer is a combination. It is not a person or an organisation’s responsibility. So there are people like the MIP, PAM and Think City — all these organisations have some obligations to address this issue. Meanwhile, the business owners, property owners, migrant community and even the homeless have some responsibility.

To be fair, Medan Pasar is a transitional space with bus stops and other public transportation. In a transitional space where there is less ownership, safety issues will be created. People usually don’t commit crime in their own neighbourhood and I remember someone said a few years ago: “The best thing to turn off a crime is a mother with a child.” So having a family presence in an area will actually change the way people see the space. I think we need more diversity of lives in the area.

Legrand: I have lived in really different environments. From a safety point of view, I truly believe that safety is fundamental for good quality of life. It is a combination of a lot of things — enforcement, clean and beautiful places, and many, many other elements to prevent crimes from developing.

Liew: When we first launched our projects in Eco Majestic, Semenyih, we were selling terraced homes without walls and partitions to separate the roofs, but one of our customers asked us to build the wall so that the neighbour can’t climb over and break into his house through the roof.

If you are going to live in that area, you should trust your neighbours and if you do not trust them, why would you live in the area? I think the current level of trust, even between neighbours, is low. Hence, gated-and-guarded communities are becoming more and more popular. But like what Ihsan said, even with a gated-and-guarded community, you need proper planning to integrate the public spaces, so that you can move from one area to the next area safely.

I think a good example is Desa ParkCity. Despite its exclusivity, it is a very brought-together community where residents interact with each other a lot and are able to enjoy outdoor activities. That is what we [EcoWorld] are trying to do as well.

So apart from just building gated-and-guarded homes, it is essential to ensure that residents feel secure while encouraging activities among them. The role of a developer is not just to build and hand over the homes to their customers. It is about bringing together the community and to sustain the longevity of the township, so that a culture that is unique to the township is created.

Au: In terms of liveability, how do we compare with other cities in the world?

Benson: Like Penang.

Ihsan: Yes, what is it about Penang that makes it safe and exciting? It’s the vibrancy. It’s like there is a festival all the time. You don’t have this in any other cities in the country. A mosque, a church and Chinese temple in the same place.

Benson: That counts. But the thing I want to say is unfortunately, or fortunately, most people in Penang are from Penang, whereas people in KL come from all over the country. Do you have a family network? Do you have an attachment to the city?

Ezumi: There is a sense of ownership in Penang. Some of the old uncles and aunties have been doing the same things for the past 10 years. They know they can change their lives if they want to but they choose not to change and they keep doing the same thing. They sell coffee at the coffee shop, the original way. But there’s one thing I want to mention here. We talk a lot about the hardware of the cities — the city design, the landscape, the softscape, the buildings. But we don’t really talk about the software of the city. This is a good start for us to talk about happiness. Happiness is a software.

We cannot physically measure happiness by the size of your car or house. We need to look at the software as well. A city with built environment is not enough. We need more activities. We need to be aware and focus on the emotions and beliefs of the people.

Au: And whose job is it to create awareness and to instil this sense of belonging?

Legrand: Is it the planner’s job? Is it the government’s job? I think it is the people’s job to think.

As a company, we could have stayed with our goal in the past, which is producing cement and concrete.

Now, if we want to get people motivated and emotionally linked to the company, we need to have something with more value that they can contribute to. Then we came to building better cities and helping others build better cities — I mean, people working on all kinds of solutions. And this works. I can see the level of motivation and engagement we can get and it has nothing to do with cement production. Yes, we are still producing cement and concrete but we are encouraging people to have ideas and letting them know they have a small part of a bigger role. It’s everybody’s job.

I have lived in Paris — you see everyone commuting from many countries to Paris or London and they are emotionally linked to the city very quickly even if their parents came from Greece or Perth, for instance. I feel it is very important to develop the heritage and the ability to embrace the heritage.

Benson: Take Penang, for example. Because we [Think City] have been there the longest, our programme there is a bit more matured, and it [a sense of belonging] is not necessarily the direct result of the city. Data showed volunteerism and membership of societies have increased over the last eight to 10 years. I think, partially, when George Town received the Unesco world heritage status, there is something to attach yourself to. For some of the old family groups that used to be part of the “kongsi”, there is increased ownership. But I suspect it is not so much about the urban regeneration as it is about Unesco and heritage and worldwide recognition of this space. But on the ground, the ownership of spaces is not easy — it is a difficult thing.

Ihsan: At the end of the day, one has to feel like this city belongs to him or her. That they are part of the city. Let me just divert a bit. I think Malaysia should start giving more power to the local government for local governance. We are mature enough to say the day-to-day running of the city should be given to the people.

When you ask me, “where do you want to live?”, I say here. I know we are changing — it is a long battle but we are changing as a country, city, people. And what Lafarge is doing is great. We should find solutions together.

Liew: A sense of belonging is actually an aspect of community living. Like I said earlier, the uniqueness of a place can evoke a sense of belonging. At EcoWorld’s projects, we do not have a cookie-cutter template. In one of our projects, Eco Ardence, for instance, we have etched out 26 acres out of the 533 acres together with the lake to house recycled containers, which will form a lifestyle as well as food and beverage hub — Ardence Labs. We are encouraging new businesses, home-grown local brands to use this as a platform to link the entire township.

And through our bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways, we get people to walk and cycle as their everyday experience.

Au: On public transportation and connectivity — do you agree it is crucial for a better city? Ihsan, I recall that you believe in trams?

Ihsan: Yes, yes, I do. When I was in charge of the Urban Design Guidelines for KL, I first mentioned about trams in a meeting and there were actually sniggers in the room. The tram is what we call the last-mile connection. It’s hop on and hop off. It works in Melbourne; it works in Vancouver; it works in European cities. And it can work with us.

If cost is an issue, bus lanes can work too. Our bus lanes, however, need a bit of tweaking. You know, our bus lanes are on the left.

In places like Curitiba, Brazil, the bus lanes are in the middle and they connect people to the other side of the street via overheads, underpasses or undergrounds, and it works fine. That’s the thing you want. Trams will give a certain character to the place. We are going that way — we have free buses like the GoKL.

Benson: SPAD [Land Public Transport Commission] is doing a feasibility study on that now. I agree with Ihsan that the city centre serves a commuter population. It is great to get in and out of the city but not around the city. So, I take your point on the last mile. It will improve the internal mobility within the city centre.

Legrand: During the summer, I went back to my own small hometown in France where it is known for its middle-age heritage. There were a lot of tourists and activities there. For instance, you may find yourself suddenly playing a game with someone else, and this connects people.

Fong: I have to admit the covered walkways in KL city centre and the lighting have improved especially at night. The money DBKL [KL City Hall] has spent to build all this is great.

Ihsan: We are all for sustainability. Too many cars, too much carbon. Walking and cycling are something we can look at. But safety is important.

I am not keen on elevated paths because once you are up above the footpath, you are taking the people away from the street experience, which is supposed to be the best experience.

Fong: Places like Hong Kong have elevated paths because one can walk to criss-cross the buildings.

Ezumi: Twenty years ago, a proposed 22km elevated walkway in KL city was rejected because it was feared it might spoil the character of the city. Back in 1997, the only rapid rail line we had was the STAR LRT. Since then, you can’t see the façade of Jalan Tun Perak.

Does owning a home make you happier?
Au: Nature is said to be able to make people happier and healthier. If that is so, what do we need to do to make our space a little bit more green?

Ezumi: One of the things we can do is urban farming. It will work if we really want to. But people would rather go to the supermarket to buy vegetables. We are blessed with many cheap things. Cheap water, cheap electricity, cheap petrol and cheap parking. This is one of the reasons we have so many problems because everything is cheap. Every time I mention something related to prices, people would say because I have money. That’s not true. One of the reasons why opportunities are rare in certain places is because everything is cheap. For example, curry puff here is RM1 for one, but in some “kampung” they are still selling five for RM1. This is why people are still living in the “kampung” because it is cheap, but they don’t have much opportunity to really make money. However, they are happy. But here in the city, we have money and can buy everything. That’s why we are more careless. Sometimes it is very difficult to get a good balance.

Au: Is the provision of public spaces in townships sufficient? Could we do more?

Fong: The great thing about the townships built today is that developers are not just trying to attract residents but are also place-making.

Take, for instance, Desa ParkCity; I know that there are many people who will travel all the way there just to use the spaces — they don’t live there. Besides the city, the decentralised areas with dense working communities also need public spaces and green areas.

The Taman Tugu initiative to create a central park in KL city is a great initiative. Such initiatives should also be from the government and not just the private sector.

I wish to add that our young people have a great sense of belonging. I think the number of social enterprises initiated by young people who want to improve the city and retain its culture is great.

Ihsan: Definitely, definitely. There’s a difference between the public place and the public space. A public space is the road, the paths. But a public place is where you want to be and want to go because it is happening. It’s a place that excites you; it’s a safe place.

We have a ready-made culture for 24/7 activities. We have the Chinese who eat breakfast early in the morning and supper late at night again. You have the Muslims who wake up early and go to the mosque. It is a nice mix, you see.

We have missed this opportunity to tap on the richness of our culture to make our city safer and happier. These are the things that we, as a planner, need to look at.

Whenever I am being interviewed, I always say awareness is important. Public awareness, whatever you do in the city, has an effect. You can’t talk about housing for a certain income group without thinking of the rest of the society.

You see, Malaysia used to provide low-cost houses that were merely boxes — boxes with windows and a door you can kick down. There is no privacy. That’s one thing we have failed with public housing. And throughout the years, what has happened is we have abused certain words in our financing system. Now people talk about affordable, affordable, affordable. But I keep asking, affordable to who?

Is it affordable to the banks to give the loans because you have that much salary so you can afford to take that loan? But it is not really affordable. You are taking a big chunk of somebody’s basic income and leaving him with very little to survive. I think Malaysia needs to change.

We need to change our mindset of owning a house. We don’t need to own a house anymore. It is an ideal. You see in Malaysia, what makes you successful? I graduate, I have a car, I have a house. A better car, a better home.

Ezumi: And you have a loan to pay.

Benson: Correct me if I am wrong — I think Malaysia has one of the highest home ownership rates in the world. It’s like over 70%, whereas in European countries, it is only 50% to 60%.

Ihsan: Yes, that’s the benchmark that we set. If you can’t afford to buy a house, the government and developers could come up with public housing. All the low-cost, so-called “affordable housing” are not in the city centre — they are way out. People will then have to spend money on transport. Really, it is like punishing people for being poor. Stay away, spend more on your public transport, pay for a house you can’t really afford. That’s putting things in a nutshell. People might not agree with this kind of thinking, but this is what is happening. What you want to do is pull people back to the centre, so that it is cheaper.

Benson: I would like to make three comments if I may. First comment: KL particularly has a very high proportion of household income and transport cost — one of the highest in Asia. It is a reflection of the layout of KL. Second comment: It’s not so simple about people living in the city centre — we know that the population of citizens in the city centre has declined and perhaps it is also about jobs. Where are the jobs? Are they in the city centre? Third comment: In Australia, we have stopped talking about affordable housing decades ago, and now we are talking about housing diversity. Generally speaking, I think Malaysia used to be like that. I think over the last two decades, I have seen more and more segregation between the rich and poor. It’s not race, it’s class.

Ezumi: We shouldn’t look at pricing. We have to look at whether it is affordable to own, to live or to grow. That is affordability of a home. There were houses in Rawang that were sold for RM40,000 to RM50,000 just four years back but nobody wanted to stay there, because there were no jobs, no transport, no opportunity there. The house is affordable in terms of price but is not affordable for people to live there.

So when we look at affordable housing, we need to look at all the factors — it must be affordable to live there, to find jobs and activities there and to grow. We should also look at how the community can grow.

Legrand: From our [Lafarge’s] perspective, we also look at how new solutions can ease the cost of building houses. There are still a lot we can do to build affordable houses for those who want to buy. This is one axis we are putting a lot of our energy on. The way we build our houses is still very traditional but we can build our houses quicker and with good quality.

Ezumi: I also want to mention something about privacy in affordable housing. People think that a lack of privacy in affordable housing is a failure, but the way I look at it, the lack of privacy is a success. The reason why people don’t really share common places and are not going to public places is because they are too comfortable in their houses. They have everything at home.

I’m trying to relate it to a “kampung” house. It is just one house and no privacy, so you stay at home only at night, while during day time you go outside. You go to common places where you can meet a friend.

If you have your own room with everything in it, you will not go out — siblings may not talk to each other or father and children probably meet only once a day even though they are staying in the same house. This is because there is too much privacy inside the house. That is why I don’t think too little privacy is a failure. Probably we should change, make it less private in the home.

Maybe affordable housing can have less privacy as a starting point. You don’t need so many rooms. People try to relate to social problems caused by lack of privacy, but I believe that it is the other way around. Less privacy will make people behave better.

Ihsan: When you are talking about “kampung”, you can just walk out of the house. But in a 600 sq ft urban housing on the 20th floor where you live with three children, it is stressful when you live in such a small place without privacy. Some houses even have such low ceilings that tall people will hit their heads!

But I agree that a low-cost project can be nicely designed and be a comfortable house that looks good as well. I’m not saying we should be a communist society, but to me, comfort is the most important thing in no matter what kind of housing.

Ezumi: I think “affordable housing” is to sell it in its actual value. It is not about bringing down the price but by increasing the income.

Benson: Frankly speaking, I think Malaysian houses are overpriced. It is not affordable to many.

Ezumi: That is for the high-end. But today, developers are forced to sell houses at RM42,000 while the construction cost and land price are RM50,000.

The house you buy at RM600,000 actually costs RM400,000 — the remaining RM200,000 is to [cross] subsidise the affordable housing schemes. The price of a house includes costs such as infrastructure. The cost of doing business is high. There are a lot of hidden costs that a developer has to pay.

Ihsan: Even if they build low-cost housing, are developers going to close down? No, they are just making less profit. It is the social function of a developer. I mean, developers make money!

Au: This is very interesting. What do you see as the role of the government in this?

Ihsan: We are talking about the social system now. Are we going to get the market to think about public housing? Low-cost and subsidised housing is a small portion. The big one is the middle-income group who is finding it hard to buy a RM200,000 to RM300,000 house. That is the worry and that is the gap!

Ezumi: Why is that the gap? You see, the house is supposed to be sold at RM200,000, they marked up to RM400,000 to subsidise the social houses. That’s why you see the gap.

Ihsan: I do not agree. But my conclusion is those [mid-range] houses are overpriced. I do believe the government has a role, and so do the developers as well as the banking system.

We are talking about affordability and very limited people can afford homes in the city. But what happened in Melbourne? It is the world’s most liveable city but it started with a lot of problems, such as oversupply of offices in the city. These were converted into apartments. That’s something we should learn from Melbourne.

So where are we going? We have these cities to learn from, so let’s not do the same mistakes. The solution that Melbourne provided was when there is an office oversupply, they converted them into homes in the city centre. I’m not saying let’s do that tomorrow, but that’s probably the solution to office oversupply and getting people back into the city. Maybe some people do not agree with what the government is doing, but I think the focus on public transport is right — this is the way forward.

Ezumi: The objective of a private entity is to make money, no doubt. The government is not supposed to make money from the people, so how to balance this?

If the developer sells a house at RM1 million which is valued at RM200,000, let it be. But the government has to balance it by creating houses priced at RM200,000. That will balance it out. This is a natural correction because people will go for the government [built] houses. So what will private developers do? They will need to bring down the price. This is market forces.

Ihsan: We allow market forces and we also allow selling at prices beyond the value and selling property to foreigners. We have accepted it as a negative problem but not changing it to something positive. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

Attributes of a happy city
Au: Name three attributes of a happy city.

Ihsan: The people have to be happy, the environment has to be taken care of and we have to feel safe.

Fong: I think happiness in the city is about inclusiveness for people of all races, gender, religions and social groups. Basic amenities must be accessible to people from all social groups. Also, a city’s identity must be maintained. When you talk about the best cities in the world, you identify their character; it is something you will remember and enjoy of the city. Just like Eiffel Tower, there is no development allowed around the tower in order to maintain the best view of the skyline, thus maintaining Paris’ identity. We have the Twin Towers in KL and right now, I’m a bit concerned because it is a bit overshadowed by other upcoming skyscrapers. I am being emotional maybe because I feel a sense of belonging to this city. We need to maintain our identity.

Ezumi: A city has to be liveable — where people do not harm each other. It has to be loveable and memorable. Every time people come to the city, they love the city and remember the city so they will come again and even live in the city.

Legrand: I like the idea of inclusiveness. A city has to be inclusive for different ages — the young, the family and old people. All people should be able to stay and enjoy the city. Green and sustainable are the second attribute, and third is being connected and beautiful. I think KL is beautiful.

Liew: Apart from safety and connectivity, I think a sense of belonging or having ownership of where you live is important. Culture is also important. Malaysians like to adapt and follow other people’s culture, rather than embrace our own culture.

Benson: According to the Global Happiness Report in 2016, Malaysia was ranked 42 out of 150. Not too bad. But my one word to move up the happiness level is to have more “kampung-ness”.

Au: If you were the mayor, what would be your top three priorities?

Ihsan: First would definitely be to improve connectivity and make the city barrier-free because once you make spaces connected and get more people into the city, I think people will be happier. Secondly is to improve public places. Thirdly, put effort into providing safer homes in the city. The city belongs to everyone.

Fong: I don’t know if I can influence but I would like to create more jobs and maybe bring in more regional offices. You know, regional offices are hardly based in KL but in Singapore and Hong Kong. It is quite sad because I think we have a lot to offer, such as cheaper rents for the same amenities and infrastructure, but we just don’t have that crowd.

The next one is architectural. We have a lot of eco, green architecture. I would love to cooperate with more local artists and turn our buildings into something that can tell our city’s character. I think Penang is our best example, as well as Melaka.

Many old heritage shops are forced to move into malls. We are going to lose the affordability or the ability to find RM1.50 nasi lemak because we are moving the retailers into establishments that come at a higher cost.

Ezumi: I think if I had the opportunity, I would listen to the people, gather the people and work together with them. But first I would like them to believe we can do this thing together.

The first thing I would like to do is get the houses built in the city centre. I believe I can solve the problem but I know many do not believe this. I would want to take the opportunity to prove that it can be done.

We no longer have problems with joblessness. We just need to create activitives and give people more opportunities. We can put talents together and provide them chances to sustain in the city while retaining our culture. For example,we can provide handicraft training and jobs, such as wood crafting or wau and wayang kulit making.

I know there are still a number of people who are masters in these skills. We can ask them to transfer their skills to others. If you can get this model successful, people will start believing in you. But we have to work together.

Legrand: I think connectivity and raising the visibility of the country’s heritage is what I will do. What strikes me in the Happiness in the City Index 2017 survey was that so many people are not optimistic that the city will be better in 10 years.

If I were the mayor, I would invite more collaborations, debates and contributions from all over the nation and beyond the nation. I would wish to create more engagement.

Liew: I would focus on the details of the town planning, such as how you walk from one end to another end, how you walk from home to the neighbourhood coffee shop; how the place is maintained; and how to maintain our culture and promote it rather than let it die off.

Benson: For me, it is all about building up the teamwork and connectivity between government agencies and people.

Legrand: What about you, Foong Yee? What are your thoughts?

Au: For me, it is about the people, community, integration, joining the dots and a sense of belonging. The trust factor placed in the system is key. I feel we are now in a trust deficit of how things are managed and organised. We need to overcome and change the negative perception. This is urgent as such negative sentiments could lead to self-fulfillment.

This story first appeared in pullout on Sept 8, 2017. Download pullout here for free.