The death and life of asian cities - The Challenge of Good Governance

History has two important lessons for humanity:

Firstly, every major civilisation was destroyed because it did not make peace with the environment.

Secondly, if you want to know where any country's future is heading, look at their main cities - if they cannot manage their cities, they have little hope in managing their future. A 'sick city' is a sign of a sick civilisation.

The Five 'Plosions'

Cities in Asia are undergoing some of the most dramatic and spectacular changes ever.

  • Asia has the tallest buildings - The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the successors will also be in Asia.

  • Asia has the most priciest cities for expatriates - Tokyo and Hong Kong. Eight of the ten most priciest cities in the world are Asian cities.

  • According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) study, 13 of 15 cities with the worst air pollution were in Asia (air pollution, including lead poisoning, in Jakarta, Indonesia, according to a Asian Development Bank study, was costing more than US 2 billion a year in terms of brain damage to children and premature death and illnesses generally).

  • Urban poverty is potentially the most explosive political, economic and social force - in India, for example, the number of urban poor are exceeding the rural poor, with profound consequences.

  • We have cities like Singapore that are aiming to be, and will probably succeed to be, the world's most intelligent city - management wise and information wise.

The Asian urban landscape is one of immense contrast - of ostentatious plenty and abject poverty, of great beauty and terrible ugliness, of vast opportunity and yet rampant oppression. 17 of the world's projected 27 mega-cities will be located in the Asia region.

Five key processes are impacting on Asian cities.

Firstly, we are seeing a horrifying explosion of people and new kinds of both richness and poverty.

Secondly, we are witnessing a deafening implosion, a deepening alienation, and anger, manifesting itself in urban violence, and even more, in urban terrorism; the cities are becoming war zones.

Thirdly, we also see a painful displosion, a disintegration, a breaking up of family, of community, of indigenous values. We see wasted lives of young children turned into sick streets, and sicker values.

Fourthly, we face a 'techplosion', the introduction of a new complex, often ruthless, technologies operating in environments inappropriately prepared for such ventures. We see the mindless proliferation of armaments of all kinds. We see them side by side with problems requiring, but not getting, the simple technologies that will give clean water, adequate nutrition, basic literacy and the kind of livelihood opportunities that could wipe out poverty in a decade, if not in a generation. Instead we get potential Bhopals. (Bhopal was a city in India that suffered an industrial holocaust and became a mega gas chamber). Our cesspool of sewage also ends up as poisoned cocktails. Not so long ago, a test for lead levels was done on the umbilical cords of some 2 dozen babies born in a leading hospital in one of the Southeast Asian capitals. The shocking news was that every one of those samples had lead levels higher that those acceptable. These innocent babied were doomed to mental retardation. Is that to be our future - maddening development, and mad people!

Fifthly, we are also seeing an 'infoplosion' - proliferation of mindless entertainment and propaganda that is overwhelming and confusing, often creating anew addictions and new distractions, often enlarging the bower of bureaucracy and commercial propaganda. The taping of the power of these new information technologies by the community, especially the 'information poor' for knowledge and for advocacy is going to be necessary, but it will not be easy, for power will more readily move to the already powerful.

Forgive my use of pyrotechnic images - explosion, implosion, displosion, techplosion and infoplosion - but these are 'hot' issues and our cities are in crisis.

Good Growth and Bad Growth

Asian Cities are growing, but growth can be good and growth can be bad. The United Nation Human Development Report describes five kinds of bad growth:

  • Jobless growth - the overall economy grows, but fails to sustain, enrich or expand job opportunities.

  • Ruthless growth - the rich get richer, and the poor gets nothing.

  • Voiceless growth - the economy grows, but democracy/empowerment of the majority of the population fails to keep peace.

  • Rootless growth - cultural identity is submerged or deliberately outlawed by governments or destroyed by the global telecommunications revolution.

  • Futureless growth - the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

There is fear that in many of our Asian cities, we are being trapped by 'bad' growth.

The Vision

There is a need for a clear vision for our cities, a need for a holistic approach.

I suggest a 'Panchasila' or five principles that can help us with shaping the future of our cities. The five key elements are that id we want our cities to be our homes, they have to be developed in ways that are:

  • Socially Just
  • Ecologically Sustainable
  • Politically Participatory
  • Economically Productive
  • Culturally Vibrant

We need to make Asian villages, towns and cities outstanding examples of this 'Panchasila', with the five values central to their vision, the planning and their actions.

Sick Cities

If you wanted a strategic checklist of the 'Sick City', there are ten areas that are crying out for attention:

1.Access / Mobility
2.Air Quality

We have to address these in a creative an integrated way. Unfortunately, at the present time many of our growing cities are barely coping. We have both a 'caring' and 'caring' crisis. If we are not careful, we may end up with what one sociologist had called 'Urbicide'.

What Can We Do?

The world is undergoing a triple crisis.

Firstly, there is a global economic crisis - manifesting itself very starkly in currency and stock exchange collapses - sweeping the globe and as devastating as hurricanes and typhoons.

Secondly, there is an environmental crisis fuelled by the misuse of the planet's life sustaining resources beyond what the ecosystem can sustain.

Thirdly, there is an equity crisis which manifests itself in increasing poverty, increasing gaps between the rich and the poor, even unjust development and double standards in the use of military power and sanctions.

The 'mother of all crisis', if I had to chose one, is what can be describes as 'Governance Failure'. It links the 3 crisis of economics, environment and equity. There is also a gross imbalance in the 3 principal actors - the State, Business and Civil Society. Globalisation and liberalisation has seen the emergence of economic and business as the dominant and critical actors. The dominant new paradigm seems to be 'Privatising Gains, Socialising Costs'. A cruel, more violent, moor unjust world seems to be in the making.

In this context of the crisis, chaos, and rampant corporatism, what hope is there to address the core linking issue - The 'Governance Failure' and what can cities do.

About Good Governance

The UNDP has suggested 10 characteristics of 'Good Governance'. They are:

  • Participation - All men and women should have a voice in decision making, either directly or through legitimate intimidate institutions that represent their interest. Such broad participation is built on freedom of association as well as capacities to participate constructively.

  • Rule of Law - Legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially, particularly the laws on human rights.

  • Transparency - Transparency is built on the free flow of information. Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them.

  • Responsiveness - Institutions and processes try to serve all stake holders.

  • Consensus Orientation - Good governance mediates differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interest of the group and where possible, on policies and procedures.

  • Equity - All men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well being.

  • Effectiveness and Efficiency - Processes and institutions produce results that meet need while making the best use of resources.

  • Accountability - The decision-makers in government, the private sector in civil society organisations are accountable to the public as well as to institutional stake-holders. This accountability differs depending on the organisation and whether the decision is internal or external to an organisation.

  • Strategic Vision - Leaders and the public have a broad and long term perspective on good governance and human development along with a sense of what is needed for such development. There is also an understanding of the historical, cultural and social complexities in which that perspective is grounded.

  • Respect and Tolerance - We have a complex, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious domain and need a culture of proactive respect for diversity.

There are two things which Dr. David Korten, a leading thinker on good governance, has articulated which are useful to keep in mind:

1.Firstly, that there is the challenge of 'democratic pluralism' where 'Unaccountable State Power' and 'Unaccountable Corporate Power' (see Appendix I). State tyranny and market tyranny are a lethal combination.

2.Secondly, there is the challenge of the competition between two kinds of economic visions - The 'global' economies' and 'the planetary economy' (see Appendix II). The struggle for the planetary economy is the emerging movement of the civil society.


The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will be happy to work with Indonesia in four areas:

1.Information - There are now excellent web-sites and perhaps the Ministry can develop a portal to access these.

2.Networking - We can link you with hundreds of initiatives, local, national and global.

3.Capacity Building - We can link you with training programmes of all kinds that can

4.Advocacy - We can work together to help develop better vision for our cities.

5.Resource Mobilisation - We can together link and access resources for new ideas and programmes on better governance for our cities.

The cities of Asia have a great opportunity to be the leaders of what has been described as the Asian miracle. With vision, good strategies and the kind of resources that come with partnership of all stakeholders, Asian cities can continue to give life to the Asia miracle. If we do not, Asian cities will be showcases of decay and destruction.

The alarm bells are ringing! Let's move into action.

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