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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Cities are Many Different Creatures


By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial in Penang Monthly, April 2016.

Thinking about the liveability of cities makes me wonder in what ways cities are similar enough to each other for us to compare them to each other, not to mention their liveability.

By virtue of size and significance, it is common that one differentiates between primate cities and secondary cities. According to recognised definitions, the former are those that are at least twice as large as the next largest city in the nation (or contains over one-third of a nation’s population), are usually very expressive of the national culture and are usually the national capital[1]. For Malaysia, that would be KL, including its surroundings, of course.

Secondary cities in turn are those “acting as centres for public administration and delivery of education, knowledge, health, community and security services; an industrial centre or development growth pole; a new national capital; or a large city making up a cluster of smaller cities in a large metropolitan region[2]”. In Malaysia, four cities may be considered as having that status. These are Putrajaya, Malacca, Johor Bahru and Penang.

Demographic requirements aside, cities can be many different things. And if considered as different phenomena, what passes for advancement in each case would therefore differ substantially – and even essentially.

To an amateur observer of urban life like me, there are two ways of categorising cities. (No doubt, there are many others, but I leave that for discussion another day.) The first focuses on major cities as essentially being either a seat of government or a centre of trade and commerce. The former is an administrative capital while the latter is usually a port of some kind. Now, why is this difference important? Well, the mindset of a capital city concerns itself with regulating, legislating, regimenting and defining, while that of a port deals with change, diversity, borderlessness and novelties. This has great import.

In a national capital, a disproportionately large number of households would have at least one parent who is a government bureaucrat or technocrat. Many other parents would be working in the headquarters of MNCs and whatnot. This greatly affects the culture of the place over time and makes it generally conservative. In a port, the need to handle changes and manage diversity in everyday life is strong and urgent. This makes for a more adaptive culture, which cannot afford to be stick-in-the- mud and introverted.

While the regulation of social space by the authorities in capitals will be intense, ports are difficult to control, and there, street corner cultures tend to flourish.

My second way of understanding cities is to consider whether they had developed organically or explosively. Older cities tend to comprise villages or towns that have merged together over the decades, if not centuries. The rural is thus subsumed in the urban; the local in the cosmopolitan.

The twain does not part easily. Cities that grow too quickly, on the other hand, tend to smother the rural impulse and leave behind little that is recognisably local.

The factors affecting liveability in the city types mentioned previously will obviously differ, and sometimes in essential ways. The general values of the city types would differ, as would what inhabitants wish their city to be.

“Liveability for whom?” is therefore always a relevant question. For the local elite? For the mobile rich? For the socially mobile? For the better educated? For the lower classes? For the minorities? For the young, the old, the handicapped? These are questions that are hard to find easy answers for. Much of the solution will be technical, but just as much will be political.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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