Anwar walks abroad, we crawl in traffic at home: Malaysia’s car problem

From financial burdens to deadly roads, cars are crippling Malaysian cities. Here's how we take back our streets

Anwar and his team hit the streets in Germany in March 2024 - ANWAR IBRAHIM/FACEBOOK

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By @urbanist.kuala.lumpur

In the last few months, pictures of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim strolling serenely through a German park, by a river in Australia and across a street in New York City went viral in Malaysia, but not for the picturesque scenery.

Such a casual walk by our politicians in our own cities feels like a fantasy.

The photos prompt a deeper question: why can’t we, the people of Malaysia, walk around our own cities with the same ease?

Car-centric crisis

The simple answer is that our cities are built for cars, not people.

Since the launch of Proton in the 1980s, locally made cars have become a more affordable choice, leading to a surge in car ownership.

The government has invested heavily in building and expanding roads. This focus on increasing car infrastructure, encouraging car ownership and providing blanket fuel subsidies has prioritised private vehicles over other forms of transport modes.

Today, our streets are choked with 34 million vehicles – about the same number as the Malaysian population. The congestion has suffocated our cities and turned them into spaces for cars, not pedestrian havens.

Such car dependency comes at a hefty price.

  • Financial burden: Cars are money pits. According to, owning a car for five years can drain your wallet of a staggering RM95,720. This burden is a significant contributory factor to the alarming youth debt crisis, ultimately affecting national financial stability
  • Public health deterioration: Car dependency fosters a sedentary lifestyle, a key driver of Malaysia’s alarming diabetes rate. (The country is ranked 16th globally). This public health crisis translates to billions of ringgit diverted towards healthcare costs. In stark contrast, the Netherlands, renowned for its cycling culture, estimates health benefits from cycling at nearly RM97.7bn annually
  • Deadly roads: Malaysian roads are a terrifying gamble. Last year, 6,600 lives were lost, with motorcyclists bearing the brunt. Our fatality rate is a shocking eight to 10 times higher than most developed countries
  • Pollution hell: Air and noise pollution is suffocating us. Highways slice through neighbourhoods, spewing toxins and making a good night’s sleep a luxury. The healthcare costs associated with this environmental degradation are staggering
  • Subsidy sinkhole: Blanket fuel subsidies are a RM45bn black hole in our national budget (2022 figures). That is money desperately needed for education, healthcare or any other critical areas more important than artificially cheap fuel. Targeted subsidies need to be rolled out as soon as possible
READ MORE:  Beyond GDP: Promote active mobility over fuel subsidies

Creating liveable cities

While the status quo may seem entrenched, cities are inherently dynamic and capable of change.

Encouragingly, Transport Minister Anthony Loke is hastening improvements to the public transport system: buying and refurbishing trains and buses to increase their frequency and implementing dedicated bus lanes in the Klang Valley.

However, these are just the initial steps required in a long-term transformation process. A multi-faceted approach is necessary, with contributions from various stakeholders:

  • Curb urban sprawl: Instead, prioritise development within urban areas that fosters pedestrian and cyclist-friendly neighbourhoods with easy access to essential services and public transportation
  • Rethink car dependence: Reduce excessive parking infrastructure, redesign streets to promote slower vehicle speeds, and prioritise pedestrians and cyclists
  • Emulate successful initiatives:A recent project in Danau Kota 2 Primary School – spearheaded by a collaborative effort between Global Streets, Bike Commute Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur City Hall – serves as a prime example. By redesigning streets to prioritise pedestrian and cyclist safety while slowing down vehicular traffic, this project demonstrates the rapid transformation that is possible

Transformative urban mobility reform

Serene walk: Anwar and his delegation stroll along a waterfront in Germany in March 2024 – ANWAR IBRAHIM/FACEBOOK

Malaysia’s urban mobility landscape badly needs a fundamental change. The current system fails to meet the people’s needs, leading to the problems mentioned earlier.

Transform our neighbourhoods. Create networks of protected bike lanes. Design wide and inviting pedestrian walkways lined with shady trees. Ensure that pedestrian crossings are safe. Put in place proper street lighting.

Walking and cycling should not be a nerve-racking experience, but a normal part of a healthy daily life.

Anwar’s leisurely strolls should not be something that the ordinary people of Malaysia can only dream of doing when they are overseas.

READ MORE:  Beyond GDP: Promote active mobility over fuel subsidies

Instead, our elected officials should be active participants in the urban landscape – by walking, cycling and taking public transport regularly. This would foster a deeper understanding of the people’s needs.

The dependence on personal vehicles and fuel subsidies – particularly for low-income folks – should be reduced. Instead, affordable and reliable public transport options would empower the poor and ease financial burdens.

A 10-minute walk to local amenities does not have to be a luxury. Everyone deserves safe, accessible routes for daily errands.

This is the transformative urban mobility reform that Malaysia urgently needs: a comprehensive strategy prioritising safety, equity and sustainability is crucial for a thriving future. Let’s create cities that work for all.

Urbanist Kuala Lumpur is an Instagram page dedicated to sharing, criticising and praising everyday moments in transport and urban planning in the Klang Valley.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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pat Adam
pat Adam
6 Apr 2024 11.20pm

We are donating to Gaza which is a lost cause as Every Rich Arab state/ country do not want them. They remember Black September. They bit the hand that fed them. So many beggars and homelessness in Msia . So many Malaysians selling tissue in the coffee shops. So many illegals immigrants selling petai, watches, pillows and working in fear in restaurants etc.
we have become a country indah khabar dari rupa.