In the last several decades since independence Malaysia has been experiencing accelerating urbanisation as a result of the structural economic change from dependence on mining and plantation agriculture to manufacturing and services. There has, however, not only been rapid urbanisation but also, in the census decade 1991-2000, a less obvious but highly significant trend in urban development. This is the centripetal concentration of the urban population in a small number of city regions, namely the conurbations around Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Johor Bahru. Indeed, the main concentration is in the Kuala Lumpur conurbation, with George Town and Johor Bahru struggling to keep pace. Johor Bahru has the advantage of proximity to Singapore and can benefit from overspill development from Singapore. George Town has a long tradition of cosmopolitan urban services to its regional sphere of influence and maintains its position as the second city of the Peninsula (having lost its first position to Kuala Lumpur soon after the selection of Kuala Lumpur as the national capital).
The changing world economy superimposes its effects on individual industrialising countries, and these effects are felt particularly in the pattern of urban centres. While the accelerated pace of urbanisation may be driven by internal forces, the concentration of productive investments and population into a small number of city regions is as much a response to external forces, with the necessity to direct international trade, communications and exchange of information, movement of people, and so on, into concentrated channels and points of contact and commerce with the wider world.
It may appear logical to expect that only one large centre would have emerged in a small country like Peninsular Malaysia while other centres would have declined. However, Malaysia is fortunate in that a strong urban hierarchy had already been developed over many years in the colonial and post-colonial eras and this hierarchy, with strong local groups of entrepreneurs, continues to provide a sustainable geographical base for further industrialisation and economic modernisation. A pattern of polycentric interdependent urban centres has emerged with the Kuala Lumpur conurbation being the ‘advanced’ city supported by the George Town and Johor Bahru conurbations.
The vision for ‘Kuala Lumpur - A World Class City’, encapsulates the ambition of Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020 (KLSP2020) to make Kuala Lumpur a city that will assume a major global and sub-global role for the benefits of all its communities, workers, visitors and investors. The KLSP emphasizes that the vision and goals of Kuala Lumpur has been formulated with the aims of creating a sustainable city with City Hall ensuring that the planning for Kuala Lumpur will strike a balance between physical, economic, social and environmental development.