Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning from Malaysia, Learning In Malaysia

I am pleased to be part of the five year Sustainable Cities Partnership that MIT just initiated with the Universiti of Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Malaysia' #1 Engineering and Science School.  More about the Partnership in a moment.

Malaysia is sometimes overlooked. It has a population of just under 30 million people. It shares land borders with Thailand and Indonesia and maritime borders with Viet Nam and the Philippines.  The country has two segments with roughly equal land area -- the peninsula under Thailand where the majority of the population lives in big cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and where the country is connected to Singapore via a bridge. And,  a second more rural portion of the country, quite far away in the South China Sea, over Borneo.  Malaysia is a progressive Islamic nation, a democracy that operates in the British style.

The population is about one-half Malay, one-third Chinese, just under 10% Indian (Tamil), and the remainder a range of other minorities and aboriginal peoples. So, we are talking about an ethnically diverse Islamic democracy with a GDP that has grown about 6.5% for the past 50 years. Why is Malaysia, with its commitment to democratic ideals and sustainable development not the focus of attention when Americans think about Islamic nations?  It is a country that has invested its oil and gas revenues in education, shifting in just a few decades from a predominantly agrarian and extractive economy to a high-tech, knowledge-oriented economy with excellent entrepreneurial universities. UTM, MIT's partner,  has more doctoral students than MIT does (and two-thirds are women). It has research partnerships with more than 100 well-known universities in the developed world.

While Malaysia faces environmental problems, like air pollution, that are partially the result of deforestation and rapid urbanization, the country has a commitment to promoting more sustainable development.  They are ranked 25th on Yale's Environmental Performance Index (out of 132 nations), making improvements and trending in a sustainable direction, especially with regard to air quality and the management of maritime resources.  They are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, not insignificant in a country that has 20% of the world's animal species. They are working hard to preserve the important mangrove forests in a protected Ramsar site across from Singapore, even as they try to develop that area into their own international port.

Malaysia is ranked 64th out of the 186 countries listed on the UN's Human Development Index. It invests a substantial amount of money in improving health care. The status of women's health has improved markedly over the past few decades. At last count, the GDP per capita was about $10,000 (US). Per capita income was about $15,000 (US).  The country is home to two World Heritage Sites, including Georgetown, the city at the center of the northern island of Penang, a predominantly Chinese section of the country where high-tech investment has been booming.

Queen Raja Zarith Sofiah is Chancellor of UTM.  She has a PHD from Oxford in Chinese studies. The Prime Minister, although facing strong pressure from the Chinese segment of the population to ensure that public policy creates the same opportunities for them that it does for the Malay majority, is committed to diversifying and globalizing the country's economy.

The new MIT-Malaysia Sustainable Cities Partnership will bring 10 scholars from universities in developing (G-77) countries, each year for the next five years,  to UTM for half a year and then to MIT for half a year.  These Visiting Scholars will be working to answer key questions about the effectiveness of sustainable development efforts in Penang, Kuala Lumpur (especially Putrajaya, the planned government center about 25 kilometers south of KL) and Johor Bahru. How can developing countries introduce high-tech investment while preserving the culture and traditions of local areas?  How can growing cities in the global South increase their economic well-being while maintaining ecosystem services and achieving sustainable use of natural resources?  How can national energy policies grow electricity supplies needed to support new investment while reducing greenhouse gas emissions?  How can the ill-effects of deforestation and inadequate attention to marine resources be remedied while at the same time permitting investment in eco-tourism, restoration of fisheries and air quality improvements? How can a nationally-driven federal system implement high quality and coordinated infrastructure improvements while empowering states and localities to shape development in ways that reflect their priorities and decentralized ethnic and political concerns?  These are just some of the questions the Partnership will be trying to answer, with reference to actual efforts on the ground in Malaysia.

After spending a half year working with cities, development agencies and faculty at UTM, each year's
Visiting Scholars will then spend a second half year at MIT, working with faculty and doctoral students there (under the umbrella of MIT's Community Innovator's Lab) to prepare video teaching materials summarizing what they have learned.  We hope these video inserts can be distributed through the new MITx and Edx channels currently being used to put MOOCs on-line.  The goal of the Partnership is to strengthen the teaching of sustainable city development in the global South, not replace what is taught there with courses developed in the North.  At the end of five years, we hope to have an international network of at least 50 scholars committed to shifting the city development and regional planning strategies taught at universities around the world from an emphasis on economic growth to a more sensible emphasis on sustainable development -- all with illustrations and analysis growing out of the Malaysian experience.  It is our contention that development strategies taught in the North, about the North,  are not especially relevant to the problems facing mega-cities in the global South.

The Partnership is searching for the next ten Visiting Fellows (  These must be full time academics teaching about some aspect of city and regional development at a college or university in the developing world. It doesn't matter what there discipline is. They will need the endorsement of their academic department. If selected, they will receive full salaries for a year along with a stipend to cover travel and living expenses in Malaysia and at MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA). The goal will be for each Fellow to contribute to a growing digital library -- available for free via a video channel at MIT -- depicting the results of their field-based research regarding the success and failure of particular sustainable development efforts in Malaysia. If you are interested in being added to the Partnership mailing list, please email me at