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Catching-Up Studying Urbanisation and Urban Growth in Malaysia

In this first installment of Insights, Amira highlights how urbanisation has and will be a major issue in the ever-growing Malaysia.

Human networks are important– and frankly, the biggest knots of them are in cities.

I must admit that I possess a high interest in the field of urbanism. By combining urban planning, design, architecture, and sociology — urbanism takes an interdisciplinary look at how people who live in towns and cities interact with their built environments. Reflecting on my favourite course during my exchange term at Universiti Sains Malaysia, the “Issues of Urbanisation” course began by covering theories that deal with urbanisation and its history in Malaysia.  Students were exposed to issues related to urbanisation and its implications for development.  Along with that, emphasis was given to urbanisation issues such as land-use changes, population, industrialisation, transportation, sustainable development and food security. 

One of the most interesting topics that were covered in class was Malaysia’s New Wave Urbanisation. This prompt was based on the current dire reality in Malaysia, in which there is a trajectory of urbanisation of towns, affecting the state’s pattern of migration. Simply speaking, urban-to-urban and urban-to-rural migrations have become more significant instead of rural-to-urban migration. Demographics aside, the physical landscape has also transformed. The new federal administrative capital of Putrajaya, the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers, the Light Railway Transit (LRT) system and Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) have all changed the appearance of Malaysia. Over the last 40 years, the urban landscape of Malaysia has been markedly transformed through a high level of urbanisation. From a humble beginning of 26.8% in 1970, Malaysia’s urbanisation level reached 70.9% in 2010, and is expected to rise further in 2020 to 75% (refer to Figures 1 and 2). The United Nations estimated that nearly 90% of Malaysians will live in cities by 2050 (see Figure 2).

The states of Penang and Selangor have achieved more than 90 per cent urbanisation, while the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya have been fully urbanised (refer to Figure 3). The quantity of towns has also grown quickly, from 72 in 1980 to 228 in 2010. The policy of spreading out economic activity across the nation played a significant role in the rapid growth.

Figure 1: Malaysia’s Level of Urbanisation
Source: Abdul Rahman Hasan and Letha Nair Prema, Growth of urban towns in Malaysia. Paper presented at the International Population Conference on Migration, Urbanisation & Development, 8 July 2013, Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Figure 2: Percentage of Malaysians Living in Cities
Source: The 2009 UN Revision Population Database

The pattern of migration is shifting as a result of the high level of urbanisation and a growing number of municipalities. Rural-to-urban migration has diminished in importance in favour of urban-to-urban and urban-to-rural migration. On the one hand, data shows that between 1995 and 2000, urban-urban movement accounted for nearly two-thirds of all internal migration, which is about 50% more than it did from 1986 to 1991. On the other hand, rural-urban migration decreased from 17% to 12%. Migration from rural to urban areas decreased to 6.4% in 2011 whereas urban-urban and urban-rural migrations rose to 58.5% and 24.3% respectively.

Figure 3: Percentage of Urban Population by State

There has also been a tremendous increase in the nation’s transportation network, albeit often causing severe traffic congestion and road accidents. These issues are related to the Theoretical Model of Urban Growth and the Theory of Urban Bias. According to Michael Lipton, the urban-to-rural disparity is increasing in poor countries as a result of government interventions in the market that impose taxes on agriculture. In this sense, the rural people were described as being parasitized by urban populations, who greatly benefit from the consumption of inexpensive goods from the rural settlements and beautiful urban structures from the tax revenues from these rural areas (Dixon and McMichael, 2016). This bias in favour of the urban settlements has created a disparity between the rural and urban areas; as regards consumption, wage and productivity levels; necessitating mass exodus of the rural dwellers to cities for greener pastures and an improved standard of living (Bradshaw, 1987; Corbridge and Jones, 2005).

According to proponents of the urban bias theory, there are groups that restrict the economic growth of rural areas by pushing the government to defend their interests by favouring urban areas at the expense of rural ones (Ades and Glaeser, 1994) and it has been embedded in the political structure by the urban groups (Varshney, 1994). Therefore, the people in these rural areas continue to suffer from stunted growth, reduced investments, lower public goods provision and political repression due to the lack of political will or power to aid their development. 

Thus regulating urbanisation also entails the government taking into account the problems that urbanisation poses for rural communities. Depopulation is a problem in many rural areas, which contributes to localised labour shortages. This phenomenon is leading to a widening of the rural-urban gap. At the same time, with a high urbanisation level, there is a greater and more urgent need to ensure sufficient job creation and growth in cities to cope with the large population growth. Historically, poverty eradication programs have been focused on rural areas but the trend is shifting towards urban poverty due to said growth. These can be achieved by promoting good urban governance. There is room for the present system to be more inclusive and responsive to local needs.

Created by : Amira Fairuza

Amira is from Universitas Indonesia majoring in geography and she had the opportunity to receive the Indonesian International Student Mobility Award to Universiti Sains Malaysia. She has a high interest in studying the Urbanisation field, aspires to be a city planner, and is currently cultivating her portfolio and knowledge regarding urban issues


Hasan, A. R., & Nair, P. L. (2014). Urbanisation and growth of metropolitan centres in Malaysia. Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies, 51(1), 87-101.

Lim, S. B., Malek, J. A., Hussain, M. Y., Tahir, Z. U. R. I. N. A. H., & Saman, N. H. M. (2021). SDGs, smart urbanisation, and politics: Stakeholder partnerships and environmental cases in Malaysia. J. Sustain. Sci. Manag, 16, 190-219.

Mazlan, M. (2014). Malaysia’s new wave of urbanisation’. ISIS Focus: Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.

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