Minister for all Malaysians

DEAR YB Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan

Congratulations on your appointment as minister of housing, local government and urban wellbeing. Your "double promotion" from being a Member of Parliament to a minister means that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak must have much faith in your ability to get things done.

As a minister, you are not only in charge of housing, local government and urban wellbeing, but also urban planning, solid waste management, fire brigades, landscaping, money lenders and pawn shops. The weight on your shoulders is indeed very heavy. Besides, the local authorities have a long list of responsibilities that also affect directly the quality of life of the people.

As a developing country, the quality of life of Malaysians is relatively good. For example, according to ECA, which conducts liveability of cities based on the opinions of assignees from Asian countries, George Town is ranked 73rd and Kuala Lumpur 76th out of 263 cities in the 2012 survey. The top 10 cities in the world are Singapore (1), Sydney (2), Adelaide (3), Brisbane (3), Kobe (5), Perth (6), Canberra (7), Dublin (8), Melbourne (8) and Copenhagen (8).

If only Asian cities are considered, George Town is ranked 8th (together with Seoul) and Kuala Lumpur 10th. They are ahead of cities like Bangkok (11), Shanghai (12), Bandar Seri Begawan (13) and Beijing (14). The Asian cities that are ranked higher than George Town are Singapore (1), Kobe (2), Hong Kong (3), Tokyo (4), Yokohama (4), Taipei (6) and Macau (7).

Despite the respectable rankings of George Town and Kuala Lumpur, there is still a lot that can be done to improve the quality of life not only in these two cities but in other towns and cities. The towns and cities, especially the drains, including George Town and Kuala Lumpur are still dirty. Public transportation is not good.

Young couples, including those with university qualifications are having problems owning houses. Pedestrians are almost totally neglected. The fear of crime has turned many residential areas in the Klang Valley into gated communities, legally or illegally.

Being a new minister, there is little doubt that you will be very enthusiastic in fulfilling your responsibilities. However, unlike many of your colleagues in the cabinet, you do not have direct power over the workings of authorities or departments that implement projects that affect the quality of life. For example, you do not have any role in the appointment of the mayors or presidents and councillors of the local authorities.

You also have almost no role in the making of structure plans or local plans that regulate the development of the towns and cities or the workings of town planners in the town planning departments in the states or local authorities.

But the lack of direct power does not mean that you have no role in the development and management of towns and cities, including those in the states under the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) governments.

For example, if there are serious problems in the disposal of solid wastes in the municipalities in which the state governments have chosen to stay out of the federalisation of solid waste management and public cleansing, like Petaling Jaya or Penang Island, you should feel the sufferings of the ratepayers and offer assistance. After all, you are the minister of the whole country.

Sometimes, your very presence in a location that is having problems will result in remedial works being implemented.

A new responsibility, urban wellbeing, has been given to your ministry. You were quoted to have said that "urban wellbeing is about making the cities happy".

While this is a clever answer in an interview, much work has to be done, especially in identifying specific areas and strategies so that concrete programmes can be launched to promote urban wellbeing. Very little was done to improve urban wellbeing in the last two years or so when it was under the Ministry of Federal Territories.

It is also good to know that you are not against local government elections. But your excuse of not pushing for elections is that they may result in electing the wrong people to run the local authorities.

This is a poor excuse. There is no guarantee that only good, honest and capable people win elections, be they for local councils, state governments or even national governments. But local councils are also governments and in democratic countries, the leaders of governments are to be elected.

Thank you.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: