Chapter 7. Iskandar, Malaysia

Chapter 7 describes the natural disaster risks facing Iskandar. The chapter begins by examining the threat of natural disasters in Iskandar, and how the city and metropolitan area can build greater resilience to them, systematically and comprehensively through a variety of means.

This chapter is divided into three sections: 1) the natural hazards that pose the greatest risk to Iskandar are identified; 2) the current state of DRM policy in Iskandar is assessed; and 3) governance issues of vertical and horizontal co-ordination are discussed.

This chapter was informed by discussions held during the 2nd Knowledge-Sharing Workshop, ‘Spatial development strategies in Iskandar Malaysia: how to plan, manage and maintain local assets under rapid urbanisation’, that took place in Johor Bahru, Malaysia (November, 2014).

Main Points
  • Iskandar is vulnerable to periods of heavy precipitation and flooding, as well as episodes of trans-boundary air pollution. Iskandar experienced major flooding from heavy rains caused by Typhoon Utor in 2006-07 which led to almost half a billion dollars (USD 489 million) in damages. Flash flooding is also a recurring challenge.

  • The land area covered by natural resources is declining. In particular, the loss of coastal mangrove forests exacerbates Iskandar’s natural risk factors. Coastal mangrove stands declined by 33% between 1989 and 2014 and can be largely attributed to pressure from encroaching urban development and rising pollution. Coastal habitat loss is leading to increasing erosion which poses a major threat to two of Iskandar’s three internationally renowned RAMSAR wetlands, while the third is affected by industrial development.

  • The rapid urbanisation of Iskandar is characterised by spatial development challenges brought about by large investment in the real estate sector, urban sprawl, low-quality urban infrastructure, and degradation of local natural resources. To address these challenges, investment in high-quality urban infrastructure and the preservation of natural resources in coastal and suburban areas must be ensured.

  • Although hazard identification studies were conducted in Iskandar, no comprehensive vulnerability and risk assessment (VRA) has been undertaken. The prioritisation of a VRA must be complimented by investment in critical urban infrastructure to achieve multi-dimensional “co-benefits”. Initiatives like the Segget River restoration project enhance attractiveness, quality of life and DRM.

  • Strengthening the role of the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and establishing a dedicated local government agency for DRM within it would lead to greater vertical policy alignment than at present. Such an agency could also work to ensure the implementation of DRM policies which would produce better outcomes.

  • Singapore is Malaysia’s main economic partner and total bilateral trade and direct investment between them reached USD 1.7 billion in 2014. In consideration of the range of shared environmental challenges, Singapore and Iskandar should improve existing cooperation and propose joint solutions to enhance DRM, especially regarding port activities.

  • The Sensitive Environment Framework prepared by IRDA was created to address the need to raise public awareness. The framework should be translated into actions on the ground given its comprehensive approach of involving NGOs by targeting different institutions and stakeholder groups.

Natural disaster risks

Iskandar is located on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula along the Strait of Johor and in close proximity to the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. It incorporates the Johor Bahru administrative district and the sub-districts (Mukim) of Jeram Batu, Serkat, Sungai Karang and Kukup Island (located in Ayer Masin) within the Pontian administrative district (Figure 7.1). Roughly three times the size of Singapore, Iskandar covers an area of 2 217 km² with 64 kilometres of coastline.

Figure 7.1. Map of Iskandar

Source: Iskandar Regional Development Authority (2015a), “Answers to the OECD case study questionnaire”, internal document, unpublished.

As the fastest growing urban region in Malaysia, Iskandar is also one of the most economically dynamic regions too. In the context of fast economic growth driven by significant investment in the manufacturing and real estate sectors, urban sprawl is rapidly expanding into green field areas, while its population is forecast to increase from 2.0 million in 2015 to 3.1 million by 2025 (IRDA, 2015b). While this presents further economic growth opportunities, the magnitude and speed of change also creates significant challenges vis-a-vis the city’s DRM. None more so than Iskandar’s expanding built environment which in some cases has damaged precious natural resources that act as a buffer to natural hazards.

Iskandar is vulnerable to periods of heavy precipitation and flooding, as well as episodes of trans-boundary air pollution. Over the new-year period in 2006-2007, Iskandar experienced major flooding from heavy rains caused by Typhoon Utor, which also struck the Philippines and Viet Nam shortly beforehand. These floods led to almost half a billion dollars (USD 489 million) in damages (Chan, 2012). Flash flooding is also a recurring challenge and inundated Iskandar’s downtown in Johor Bahru most recently at the end of 2015 (Straits Times, 2015). It is worth noting that unlike other cities in this study, Iskandar’s proximity to the equator actually mitigates the risk of typhoons. Furthermore, Peninsular Malaysia and the broader Southeast Asian region experienced significant transnational air pollution in 1999, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2015 (Tajudin, et al., 2015). Trans-boundary haze in Iskandar has been linked to large forest and peatland fires in neighbouring Borneo and Sumatra (Indonesia) which exacerbate already poor air quality levels (Gaveau, et al., 2014).

Iskandar is endowed with valuable environmental resources and services, such as large agricultural tracts, wetlands and forested land. Many of these assets are located in coastal areas, which account for 19.6% (434.28 km2) of Iskandar’s land (according to the demarcation established in the Comprehensive Development Plan). These include wetlands and rivers, and adjoining ecosystems rich in flora and fauna. For instance, Iskandar is home to the protected Dugong species, which reside near the mudflats off the Sungai Pulai River Estuary and are supported by an abundance of sea grass (Khazanah Nasional, 2006). Iskandar is also home to three of Malaysia’s six RAMSAR wetland sites: the Sungai Pulai, Pulau Kukup and Tanjung Piai. Forest reserves and mangroves are very important natural assets as well, which can be found all along the coastline, and cover 8% of Iskandar’s territory (18 369 ha). Their rich biodiversity provides a range of valuable co-benefits to local communities, local businesses and the economic health of Johor state. Most importantly they protect the coastline from erosion, flooding and salt water intrusion. They also support offshore fisheries; filtrate impurities from water supporting aquaculture; harbour rare and endemic species, such as transitory migratory birds; and support freshwater fishing industries. Indeed, it is estimated that 35% of the value of commercial fisheries in Johor state is dependent on maintaining healthy mangroves (Khazanah Nasional, 2014).

The land area covered by these crucial natural resources which contribute to Iskandar’s flood resilience is in decline. For the most part, their destruction can be attributed to pressure from encroaching rapid urban development and rising pollution. As a result, there remains an air of uncertainty over their long-term preservation, especially in regard to the mangroves. For example, natural areas, such as forest reserve and mangroves, declined by 10% between 2005 (20 376 hectares) and 2015 (18 369 hectares) (Khazanah Nasional, 2006; IRDA, 2015b). Moreover, between 1989 and 2014, stands of coastal mangroves have declined by 33% (Kanniah, et al., 2015), which is a major source of concern among local authorities and populations. The loss of coastal habitat has led to increasing erosion in Iskandar, further accentuated by ship wakes emanating from maritime traffic in the Malacca Strait (Khazanah Nasional, 2014). The loss of coastal territory through erosion poses a major threat to two of Iskandar’s three internationally renowned Ramsar wetlands (Tanjung Piai and Pulau Kukup). Their shorelines have retreated by more than 300 metres in the last three decades (IRDA, 2011a).

The Pulai River Estuary, which forms the basis of the Sungai Pulai Ramsar wetland, is the largest intact riverine mangrove forest in Peninsular Malaysia and covers an area of 9 126 hectares. However, in 2009, 913 hectares were de-gazetted and lost to a petrochemical hub, while a further 242 hectares of these mangroves are clear felled annually on a rolling 20-year basis. More than 80% of the Suingai Pulai site is less than 20 years old and shows signs of lower recovery rates (Khazanah Nasional, 2014). Sungai Pulai wetland is further jeopardised by Iskandar’s expansive physical growth and projects such as the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, which has narrowed the river mouth by 50%, bearing important hydrological implications (Khazanah Nasional, 2014;IRDA, 2015a).

Changes in water quality endanger the seagrass meadows that support large tracts of riverine mangroves and endangered species such as the seahorse, pipefish, dugong and sea turtle. Commercially important fish, crabs, prawns, and invertebrates such as sea stars, sea cucumbers, anemone, etc., that thrive in the seagrass beds are affected as well (Hangzo, et al., 2014). Another source of concern is the numerous land reclamation projects which narrow the Straits of Johor and may affect ship routes. Preserving natural coastal (and suburban) natural resources has therefore become critical to ensure long-term green growth in Iskandar.

Urbanisation has also created some social challenges in these natural areas. A study reported that the fishermen who have lived in Danga Bay for more than 30 years state that the water has become dramatically polluted as a result of land reclamation along the banks, such as the construction of apartment complexes. This has resulted in a decline in aquatic fauna which the fishermen have relied on for their livelihoods over many generations (Nasongkhla, et al., 2013).

Assessment of DRM policies

The rapid urbanisation of Iskandar is characterised by spatial development challenges, such as large investment in the real estate sector, urban sprawl, low-quality urban infrastructure, and degradation of local natural resources. These spatial issues already contribute to a range of socio-economic and environmental problems, which will undermine the metropolitan area’s DRM and compromise long-term urban green growth if nothing is done. To address these spatial development challenges, investment in high-quality urban infrastructure and the preservation of natural resources in coastal and suburban areas must be ensured. Managing the rapid urbanisation of Iskandar through more effective land use planning stands out as the tool by which to anchor other urban policies and is one of the metropolitan area’s most important objectives as it strives to enhance its DRM.

Vulnerability and risk assessment

While Iskandar’s guiding vision to develop a “strong and sustainable metropolis of international standing” has influenced numerous cross-cutting measures, the study has found that the current policy frameworks have paid little attention to DRM.

No comprehensive vulnerability and risk assessment has been undertaken in Iskandar. Although some hazard identification studies have been completed, the assessment process has not been comprehensive and does not link hazards to at-risk and vulnerable populations. For instance, Iskandar has identified drainage and stormwater management as major hazards with the potential to negatively affect the economic performance of Iskandar. The Drainage and Stormwater Management Plan: Blueprint for Iskandar Malaysia aims to: support and improve existing public policy related to drainage and stormwater management to an international standard; and develop a master plan to mitigate floods in Iskandar. However, this sectoral assessment considers neither other hazards, nor those populations potentially at risk. Although the Johor Port Authority’s Green Port Policy Strategy 2015-2020 for Tanjung Pelepas includes air, water quality, eco-system and waste management standards, it does not appear to focus on resilience at all.

It is an urgent task for Iskandar to carry out a complete vulnerability and risk assessment, identifying all the different hazards threatening Iskandar, as well as the zones at risk and the vulnerable populations, in order to increase Iskandar’s preparedness for and awareness of natural disasters.

Land-use policies

The continued loss of natural environments and coastal mangroves in Iskandar is a critical issue because it erodes the city’s natural defences against flooding. This remains a persistent challenge, as it is in many other fast-growing cities in Southeast Asia. Urban areas in Iskandar Malaysia increased by 53.5% between 2000 and 2010 (an annual growth rate of 6.7%), from around 271 km2 to 416 km2.1 Iskandar’s natural and agricultural land is disappearing quickly, while urban land characterised by low-density development patterns is expanding rapidly (OECD, 2016). Low density development is the determining factor behind the urban region’s poor transportation links because urban sprawl makes it harder to provide public transport access to a larger share of the population. Much of this new development is taking place in the north-eastern suburbs along highways, resulting in high levels of traffic congestion, lost productive time for commuters and elevated pollutions levels.

Iskandar’s Shoreline Management Blueprint is a detailed document intended to guide policies for coastal management, containing six objectives: i) to conserve, protect and enhance the natural beauty of the coastline; ii) to maintain and improve, where necessary, the environmental health of in-shore waters affecting the coast; iii) to facilitate and enhance the enjoyment of these areas by citizens; iv) to identify areas at risk from coastal erosion, marine pollution and other negative environmental impacts; v) to take account of the social, economic and cultural needs of the numerous communities that live along Iskandar’s coast; and vi) to take account of the need of agriculture, fishery and forestry activities (IRDA, 2014e). Another important issue noted by this Blueprint is the preservation of Tanjung Piai National Park, a rich wetland and mangrove forest.

Several other strategies have sought to address the issue of coastal management in Iskandar. Within the Resource Optimisation and Low Carbon chapter, the Comprehensive Development Plan 2014-2025 (CDP-ii) noted the importance and necessity to protect and enhance natural areas by rehabilitating degraded Environmentally Sensitive Areas, especially mangrove forests and seagrass beds. They recommended achieving this by gazetting parks and public open spaces, improving river water quality and protecting marine life ecosystems along the Straits of Johor. One of the “Five Big Moves” of the CDP 2014-2025 is devoted to implementing these strategies. Coastal protection zones and biodiversity buffer zones (including RAMSAR sites) are included in the Spatial Management Plan of the CDP-ii. The CDP-ii also recommended the creation of an Environment Trust Fund, which is currently being developed by the Environment Department of the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA).

The Low Carbon Society Blueprint also recommended strengthening law enforcement of illegal mangrove clearing, to set up mangrove species audit measures and regeneration programmes in mangrove areas (UTM Low Carbon Asia Research Centre, 2013). The Strategic Framework for Sensitive Environments in Iskandar Malaysia – although it is without the status of a guideline and has no legal value – promotes the creation of a range of tools to more efficiently monitor sensitive environments of coastal zones in Iskandar (e.g. GIS maps, survey, research programme), involve civil society (environmental NGOs) in the planning and management of coastal areas and resources, and create a trust fund from local and international donations to support forest restoration and landscape protection programmes.

The proposed polycentric development of Iskandar could also be a model for spatial development in other fast-growing Asian cities. The CDP-ii’s compact urban development strategy promotes higher density, non-motorised transport modes and the renewal of the Johor Bahru urban centre (brown-field development) to guide sustainable land use. Similarly, the Blueprint envisions compact development that could feasibly support integrated public transportation between key nodes located in the five flagship zones. However, the CDP-ii also states that such a development strategy should be incorporated into the planning process to ensure its implementation. The Johor state government and the five local authorities have the urgent task of ensuring their vision and strategies are incorporated into legally binding plans that control future development patterns based on the Malaysian Town Planning Act. At present, local land-use and development plans in Iskandar do not describe effectively how they would accommodate the region’s increasing population as forecasted in the two CDPs and Blueprints. For example, local authorities could provide clearer planning guidance and the necessary instruments in local plans for this purpose.

Private companies are increasingly involved in the protection of coastal lands in Iskandar. For instance, some have developed mangrove preservation projects and public awareness-raising programmes about the importance to preserve these environmental resources and supported mangrove regeneration projects involving students and schools to plant mangrove trees.

Urban infrastructure

Iskandar’s policies for preventing floods lack co-ordination with policies to improve river water quality. Iskandar’s rivers are considered to be among the most polluted in Malaysia because Iskandar’s wastewater treatment system has not been able to keep pace with the rapid population growth. As of 2005, there were 797 treatment plants across Iskandar (KN, 2006), although most of them were small and old. Johor state’s 363 km-long sewer network pales in significance when compared to Selangor’s 1 698 km network, Penang’s 1 412 km network, or Kuala Lumpur’s 2 034 km network. As a result, several areas lack adequate services. For example, in Johor Bahru, while the population equivalent demand for wastewater treatment was equal to 577 413 people, the treatment capacity was only adequate for 175 720 people (Khazanah Nasional, 2006). Consequently, untreated domestic wastewater is discharged into the drainage system, and then into rivers and lakes.

Solid waste disposed from squatters and informal settlements located along riverbanks are also a serious problem. Johor state authorities report that 11 tonnes of rubbish are retrieved from local rivers each month (Gasper, 2010). This is exacerbated by contaminants found on the streets, alleys, parking lots – on any surface that washes off with the rainwater – especially the first rains of the monsoon which often deliver a “toxic shock” to rivers and streams, resulting in massive damages to the area’s ecosystems.

The Segget River restoration project is a symbolic initiative that forms part of wider flood mitigation measures. The project seeks to ensure that core urban areas are not affected by 100-year flood levels, to clean up the once heavily polluted river, to improve floodwater management and to enhance attractiveness of Johor Bahru’s urban centre and quality of life (ADB, 2016). In the 1990s, the Segget River, formerly a conduit for trade in Johor, was heavily polluted due to poor wastewater management and had been paved over by a 1.5km-long road. However, a project to remove the road, clean the river and provide waterfront recreation space for local citizens is already underway, supported by the federal government as an Entry Point Project. Continuing such pilot projects will help to build citizens’ support for such green investments. The continuation of these pilot projects will help to build citizens’ support for investment in critical urban infrastructure and is applicable in other cities in Southeast Asia.

Another major infrastructure project aiming to achieve “co-benefits” is the proposed USD 14 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) corridor between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore via Iskandar. Future investment in large scale projects, such as the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail link, presents an opportunity to take the lead by incorporating long-term DRM planning into new infrastructure projects. The 350 km link will cut travel times between the two cities from 3-4 hour connections by plane to less than 90 minutes (MoTS, 2015). Transporting 66 000 passengers daily (or 24 million annually based on modelling from Malaysia’s Land Public Transport Commission), the rail connection has the potential to largely increase transport capacity between Iskandar and Singapore, while diminishing travel times for commuters. Although the project has been put on hold, such infrastructure would benefit Malaysia and Iskandar in the long-term both environmentally and economically.

Assessment of DRM governance structure

Horizontal and vertical co-ordination

In Iskandar, there is no dedicated local government agency co-ordinating DRM, which would be required to support such a pathway. Instead, Malaysia’s National Security Council co-ordinates DRM efforts through the National Disaster Management and Relief Committee which is also present at regional and district levels of government (CFEDMHA, 2016). However, co-ordination mechanisms between national and local government appear weak with no reference to how Iskandar’s five local municipal governments could contribute to DRM efforts. The National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) was established in 2015 under the Prime Minister’s Department, taking over the responsibility for disaster management from the National Security Council. While NADMA functions as a focal point for Malaysia’s disaster management, co-ordination mechanisms between national, state and local governments remain unclear with no reference to how Iskandar Malaysia’s five local municipal governments could contribute to DRM efforts.

Aligning policies across the different levels of government, not only between the IRDA and local authorities, but also with state and federal governments, is a necessary condition to develop DRM in Iskandar. IRDA is only a planning agency with little legal authority and lacks the financial and human resources to carry out a potential role as a co-ordinating entity. In parallel, local authorities also lack the technical, financial and human resources capacities. Therefore, the leadership and financial support of state and federal government levels is needed to implement all of the decisions, activities and investments associated with a green growth strategy.

Malaysia’s federal government already exerts a strong influence over regional strategies. The CDP-ii, in particular, integrates the strategies of the National Physical Plan and the Johor State Development Plan. The National Physical Plan is itself co-ordinated with the economic and social strategies of the federal government (e.g. Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Malaysia Plans). The federal government has also elaborated complementary plans and strategies that relate to green growth, although it has not directly adopted the concept of green growth. The National Green Technology Policy (NGTP), started in 2009, marked a turning point in the country’s sustainable growth and development strategies. One of its many initiatives was to showcase Putrajaya and Cyberjaya as pioneer green cities. In line with the NGTP, the Low Carbon Cities Framework (LCCF) was initiated to provide a framework to achieve sustainable development that would subsequently reduce carbon emissions (UTM and Asia Low-Carbon Centre, 2012). The document can be used by all stakeholders, in settlements of any size, whether new or existing cities, townships or neighbourhoods, to measure the impact of their development decisions in terms of carbon emissions reductions (KeTTHA, 2011).

The actual translation of these strategies from the national level to the local level has sometimes been difficult according to IRDA. While the 11th Malaysia Plan places significant emphasis on green growth, there is still a lack of clarity about how it will cascade down to regional and local plans. The document does not explain how green growth strategies can be implemented at the local level; it is instead envisioned only as a national challenge and lacks any analysis or proposed role for the local dimension of adopting a green growth pathway. Furthermore, there is a lack of focus on the myriad dimensions of DRM. In this context, it is difficult for regional and local authorities to understand clearly how to integrate national green growth strategies into their plans and strategies, or how to enhance local DRM.

In some cases, national policy frameworks are not comprehensive enough to foster green growth initiatives at the local level. The LCCF sets broad goals without providing detailed plans for each of the green growth sectors. For example, Malaysia lacks a clear national transport policy framework. Even though low carbon mobility and public transportation are acknowledged as important objectives in several national policy guidelines, there is no specific and detailed implementation plan for it taking root at the local level. In addition, the lack of clear national stimulus or financial support is an obstacle to green growth at the local level. IRDA has experienced difficulties securing financing for several important infrastructure projects, such as the development of its public transportation networks. From this perspective, the federal government should strengthen national green growth policy frameworks by detailing the role of cities and local governments in their implementation, which would help align policies and secure financing at the local level.

An interesting lever to ensure the translation of national strategies into local projects already exists in Malaysia: the Entry Point Projects (EPP), which allow regional and local authorities to submit development projects in some key policy sectors, with the possibility to receive funding from the national government. However, this initiative does not cover critical sectors such as transport. The national government should expand the areas covered by the EPP and ensure DRM sectors are included, using the 11th Malaysia Plan as a reference. Since local authorities often lack the technical and human capacities to implement policies contained in the CDPs, the federal government could assist regional and local authorities with technical aspects. Technical assistance programmes could be set up to help the five local authorities achieve the visions of the national strategies which should be translated concretely in the CDP-ii.

Strengthening the role of Iskandar Regional Development Authority

The study recognises a unique role that the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) has been playing in economic development at the metropolitan scale, and potential expansion of its role in pursuing green growth and improving DRM.

The IRDA was established as a statutory body under the IRDA Act of 2007 (Act 664) and was appointed as the development authority for the Iskandar Malaysia Economic Region. It was created at the same time as the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority and the East Coast Economic Regional Development Council. These economic regions were part of the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9th MP) to tackle development imbalances throughout the country (MLIT, 2015). While economic considerations stand at the core of its mission, DRM and floodwater management are two particularly important areas of policy focus. IRDA’s main functions are to:

  • Establish national policy directions and strategies that have a direct impact on the development with Iskandar;

  • Co-ordinate the performance of development activities carried out by government departments and agencies in Iskandar;

  • Plan, promote, and facilitate to stimulate and undertake the development in Iskandar; and

  • Act as the principal co-ordinating agent on behalf of government agencies in relation to receiving, processing and expediting the required approvals (Government of Malaysia, 2012).

IRDA represents a joint and co-ordinated approach between state, federal and local governments, and it is co-chaired by the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Johor. IRDA’s mandate includes implementing the vision and objectives of Iskandar in its efforts to become a metropolis of international standing. An important contribution of IRDA has been in assisting Khazanah Nasional (Malaysia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund) in the development of the Comprehensive Development Plans (CDPs) for Iskandar that translates national and state spatial developments plans (National Physical Plan and State Structure Plan). IRDA has developed a great number of initiatives – 649 in total – recommended in the 24 blueprints. For instance, the Low Carbon Society Blueprint alone contains 12 actions and 281 programmes, and IRDA’s Transportation Blueprint 2010-2030 proposes 84 strategies.

However, IRDA’s impact on the development of Iskandar may not be as high as envisioned by the IRDA Act of 2006 because implementation at the local level is a critical obstacle. In part, this is because local authorities are relatively autonomous in the way they choose to implement national, state or regional development strategies, based on local finance and capacities. Another factor complicating efforts to implement plans and blueprints harmoniously in Iskandar is the fragmented and uncoordinated actions of the five local governments. This is an important obstacle to address, but it is also the justification for the existence of IRDA, whose purpose represented an experiment and attempt to co-ordinate spatial and economic development and growth in the region.

In the context of rapid urbanisation and economic growth with their associated externalities, IRDA’s role should be strengthened, in particular in relation to supporting the five local governments, in order to pursue a green and resilient pathway. Specifically, IRDA’s mandate could include stronger green and resilient aspects in alignment with the current national strategies of the 11th Malaysia Plan.

Disaster risk financing

Fiscal decentralisation is not advanced in Malaysia. The proportion of total tax revenue collected by local governments is very low at around 3.3% in 2013, while on average in OECD federal countries the share is around 7.6%. State governments in Malaysia do not collect any revenue, while on average in OECD federal countries they collected around 16.5% of total tax revenue in 2013. The Malaysian central government collects 95.2% of total revenue, leaving little responsibility to subnational levels of government.

In order to boost subnational financial resources and increase subnational capacity to undertake more DRM investment, the national government should consider structural reforms of the financial system. In 2013, total tax revenues only represented 16.9% of Malaysia’s GDP, while this share is around 34% on average in OECD countries. The share has been decreasing slowly over time: in 1991, it was around 21% (OECD, 2015c). Indeed, Malaysia has a narrow tax base: only 1.8 million individual taxpayers paid tax in 2013, while 6.4 million were registered. Likewise, of the 508 150 companies registered that are supposed to pay tax, only 107 043 did so in 2013 (OECD, 2013). In addition, social security contributions are almost absent of tax structures, in particular, while taxes on income and profits account for 68.6% of total tax revenue in 2013. On average, social security contributions, taxes on income and profits and general consumption taxes accounted for respectively 26.2%, 33.6% and 20.2% in the 34 OECD countries in 2012. Strengthening social security contribution systems could not only help to balance finance but also to address poverty issues in the country. Continuing current efforts to increase the capacity and efficiency of the fiscal administration is also a key issue (OECD, 2015c).

Cross-border co-operation with Singapore

Iskandar is located in a highly strategic geographic context next to Singapore. This proximity creates significant cross-border dynamics, resulting in major socio-economic and environmental opportunities and challenges. Indeed, Singapore is Malaysia’s main economic partner and total bilateral trade and direct investment between Singapore and Malaysia has been increasing fast, reaching around USD 1.6 (2013) and USD 1.7 billion (2014) (IRDA, 2015a). Singapore’s investment in Iskandar accounted for 16% of FDI in Malaysia in 2013. One of the most important cross-border dynamics between Iskandar and Singapore are the gas and water pipelines that cross the Johor Strait to supply Singapore, not to mention the number of daily border crossing trips which stood at 245 000 in 2007 and are expected to increase by nearly 60% (reaching 386 000 daily trips) by 2025 (IRDA, 2011b). While these cross-border dynamics provide economic opportunities, they generate environmental challenges, especially in relation to natural resources, such as water, because the environmental impact of development in Iskandar extends much further than its physical territory. Activities in Johor’s ports put tremendous stress on local marine biodiversity and fauna and flora of the Johor Straits on both sides of the border. The Straits’ mangrove forests are affected by erosion emanating from development pressure and ship wakes. In addition, due to rapid urban development and growing industrial activities, the air surrounding Iskandar and the Straits is poor, while most of the rivers in Iskandar are polluted.

In consideration of the range of shared environmental challenges, Singapore and Iskandar should improve existing cooperation and propose joint solutions to enhance DRM in the larger cross-border metropolitan region. One promising policy example is the plan to extend Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system into Tanjung Puteri in Johor Bahru and upgrading cross border taxi and bus services. The High Speed Rail linking Iskandar and Kuala Lumpur would also extend to Singapore, and should bring more fluidity to commuting flows (DBS Asian Insights, 2013). There are other existing forms of co-operation specifically focusing on environmental issues. Since 2013, the environment ministers of both countries have collaborated to improve the overall water quality of the Straits of Johor and prevent chemical and oil spills. In the area of biodiversity conservation, they agreed to continue exchanging data on the status of the ecology and morphology in and around the Straits of Johor (Hangzo, et al., 2014). However, there is room for improvement to extend such collaboration to enhance urban resilience.

A concrete area where such complementarity could yield high benefits is in port activities. The ports of Johor and Singapore taken together represent the busiest port in the world. Such co-operation could include training and knowledge sharing about how to green port activities (e.g. green bunkering programmes, on-shore power supply, etc.). Bilateral co-operation should also place strong emphasis on DRM in the ports. Existing environmental co-operation programmes in or around the Johor Straits have been mostly reactive measures designed to be deployed after a crisis has occurred (Hangzo, et al., 2014). More extensive and proactive measures are needed for better DRM.

IRDA should form a strategic local partnership with Singaporean authorities to address their locally-specific concerns and challenges because at present, such a partnership only occurs between the government of Malaysia and its Singaporean counterpart (e.g., the HSR). This prevents the development of horizontal governance networks with IRDA and other subnational stakeholders. Government authorities in Singapore and Iskandar should therefore work together to resolve the environmental issues facing the region and extend activities to include DRM to enhance preparation, response and prevention planning.

Stakeholder engagement

Local communities and citizens could play a larger role in the policymaking and implementation processes such as awareness-raising campaigns to foster and support DRM initiatives. The Low Carbon Society Blueprint (LCSB), which discusses the need for more public awareness-raising efforts through public outreach measures, such as: enhancing school children awareness-building programmes, displaying green education catalogues in shopping centres, hosting periodic low carbon society workshops to involve a diverse set of stakeholders, diffusing low carbon policies and progress updates through mass media outlets (UTM-Asia Low Carbon Centre, 2012).

The Sensitive Environment Framework prepared by IRDA was created to address the need to raise public awareness. This document recommends involving the Green Earth Society, the Malaysia Nature Society, KIKO Iskandar, and other NGOs and NPOs to reach out to a wider audience in promoting and disseminating information on IRDA’s Green Growth Agenda. It also proposed using the Iskandar Malaysia Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (RCE Iskandar Malaysia), which is led by the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). The RCE would engage diverse stakeholders, such as schools, universities, NGOs, media, museums, botanical gardens, state bodies, local businesses, civil society groups, local communities and individuals working in education or in other spheres of sustainable development (i.e., economic growth, social development and environmental protection) with the objective of educating the public on sustainable development matters. The Sensitive Environment Framework also promotes the production of public awareness literature, such as Iskandar’s ‘Low Carbon Lifestyles’ brochure and the Low Carbon Society Blueprint for Iskandar Malaysia Booklet ‘Actions for a Low Carbon Future.’

The Sensitive Environment Framework should be translated into actions on-the-ground by targeting many different institutions/stakeholder groups. The RCE would be particularly useful in collecting data and creating analytical reports on the environment and green growth, but more efforts should be made to improve communications and diffuse information to a wider audience. For instance, the RCE could develop a strategy to involve the media more significantly as an active and important stakeholder group given their high capacity to reach out to many citizens.

Main policy recommendations
  • Complete a comprehensive assessment of Iskandar’s natural areas and assets, including an analysis of the impacts of urbanisation and development in recent years and of the decline of these assets and the measures to prevent the latter; land use strategies to protect natural resources should be integrated into the local planning system.

  • Carry out a complete vulnerability and risk assessment, identifying all the different hazards threatening Iskandar, as well as the zones at risk and the vulnerable populations, in order to increase Iskandar’s preparedness for and awareness of natural disasters.

  • Incorporate DRM into the local land use planning system, as well as the proposed polycentric development of Iskandar aiming to increase density, renewing Johor’s city center and promoting non-motorised transport, into the local planning process to ensure its implementation, as stated in the CDP-ii.

  • Promote investment in critical urban infrastructure that prioritises multi-dimensional outcomes and integrates and synergises varied sectoral goals, such as waste water and solid waste treatment, in order to respond to population growth.

  • Reinforce national green growth policy frameworks by detailing the implementation role of cities and local governments as well as establishing dedicated local government DRM agencies.

  • Strengthen the role of the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, in particular in relation to supporting the five local governments, in order to pursue a green and resilient pathway that enhances DRM.

  • Set up technical assistance programmes and capacity building exercises with the five local government authorities in order for them to achieve the national and regional visions contained in the CDPs under the same banner.

  • Improve existing cooperation with Singapore to propose joint solutions to enhance DRM in the larger cross-border metropolitan region.

  • Enhance engagement with local communities and citizens on policy making by translating the Sensitive Environment Framework into on-the-ground action and through entry point projects like the Segget River restoration.


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← 1. The figures presented in this sentence do not include urban areas in the Pontian District, which is partly included in the official territory of Iskandar Malaysia.

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