Saturday, October 3, 2009

A View of Urbanization in Asia

By Moin Ahmed, Guest Contributor

In the past two years I have visited Dhaka, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I have lived in New York, San Francisco and Seattle and have spent my vacations in London, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich and Tokyo at one time or another. Therefore, I believe I can to some degree consider myself qualified to talk on the subject of traveling in urban cities of the developing countries. I will not delve into the technical aspects of urbanization as others have amply expounded upon it in other blogs. My goal is to try to shed some light on a few cities by comparing some similarities and differences. Though my comments are mostly subjective they are meant to provide insight to future travelers visiting these exotic areas.


I define urbanization as the adoption of technological structures in an attempt to improve the life of a people. Urbanization is not to be confused with civility and civic sense as they are distinctly exclusive and independent of each other. Civility in my mind is showing respect for other human beings in the day-to-day course of life. Civic sense on the other hand, is possessing a deep sense of preservation of one’s heritage and culture and awareness of the environment we live in. A city or town does not have to be urbanized to display characteristics of civility and civic sense in its population and like wise it is possible for a highly urbanized city to have a population lacking civility and civic sense.

Appreciation and Preservation of Cultural Heritage

In Eastern Europe, even when it was behind the Iron Curtain, the people of these cities and towns displayed a great amount of civic sense. They rebuilt the cities that were totally destroyed in WW ll. Instances of looting of the historic artifacts or furniture from the government and military buildings that were destroyed were rare. If you visit any of these cities now, Prague, East Berlin, Warsaw etc you will not believe that these were the same places that were destroyed by the ravages of WW ll. They have completely rebuilt their cities. They have even restored their old Plazas and market squares to their former glory. Possessions of their former Monarchs (who they hated) have also been preserved (not destroyed and looted) and put in Museums. Even the officials who were corrupt stole only money but did not steal and plunder what belonged to the city and its people as they considered it as part of their history and culture. Paintings and sculptures of the hated tyrants and rulers were also preserved and or restored with great care. As a result of the efforts of its citizens these highly urbanized centers have become a showcase of their glorious past-where the ancient and the modern live side by side in complete harmony.

Civil Etiquette

The polite mannerisms of the royal courts in Europe got transferred to the general population when education became open to the public. This is why we find the Western societies, in general, to be civil and polite in their day-to-day interactions with others. The same thing happened to the people living around the Moghul capital of Delhi. Even to this day they are very polite with each other and there is a lot of ‘aap’, ‘janab’ and ‘pehley aap’ in their language. With the exception of North India most of India escaped the direct exposure of the Moghul Courts. Lahore was basically a distant outpost remotely managed from Delhi. This is the reason, regrettably, even the highly educated people in many parts of Pakistan and India do not possess the basic civil etiquette that is inherent in most other societies outside of the Sub Continent.

Hybrid Cities

Both Dhaka and Kula Lumpur have a population that is not only civil in their manner but display a lot of civic sense. Yes, there are dirty and filthy areas in both cities but that is due to the inability of its local governments to handle the exploding sanitation issues due to a meteoric rise in population in the past two decades. What has happened is that parts of Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur (Downtowns, business centers, areas surrounding government buildings etc) are urbanized in the sense that they have roads, train stations, bus stations, mono rails, malls, hi rise office and apartment buildings etc. but a few miles from these locations vast areas exist that cannot be classified as urban.

So, these are hybrid cities consisting of rural and urban patches where majority of the people work in urban centers and enjoy the urbanization of their cities and come home to a lazy sleepy village-like locality where they actually live.

Psyche of the People Makes a Difference

Both in Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur the people are very mild in nature, generally, and deal with life’s issues with a sense of stoic understanding. Kula Lumpur, due to its affluence, is cleaner than Dhaka. I saw in Kuala Lumpur scores of sanitation workers who show up early in the morning in each neighborhood and sweep and clean all the public areas including roads. And take the trash away in trucks. (Just like it was done in Karachi when I was in school and Karachi was very clean then) Even though a great majority of the people in Kuala Lumpur is Muslim the Hindu and the Buddhist minorities enjoy the same amount of freedom and are considered equal as citizens. The Hindu minority in Dhaka is treated similarly and holds many respectable positions in private and public offices.

My Impression of Dhaka

Dhaka, on the other hand has its shortfall in its weather. It is at the mercy of nature every year. Numerous hurricanes rip up entire neighborhoods and shantytowns and floods wipe out large chunks of the city each year. All is quickly cleaned up and rebuilt after each destruction. People are forced to live in the low-lying delta areas only a foot or so above sea level because they have nowhere else to go. For these people who live on a season-to-season basis sanitation is not an issue or a priority. They live off the river. They wash in it. They bathe in it. They do their laundry in it. They eat from it. They dispose of their garbage in it. You have to see it to believe it. These people are so intertwined with the water that surrounds them that it has become part of their daily environment and they are like fish out of water without it. To an urban dweller they may appear primitive and perhaps they are in an economic sense. But educated or uneducated I found them to have a great sense of appreciation for art, music and crafts. In their spare time a lot of them paint, practice music and dance, read poetry and attend local theatrical shows and performances. Generally, men and women are treated equally. And the practice of purdah is not common. However, respect for women and girls, by men and boys, far exceeds anything I have seen in Pakistan. In a textile factory that I visited men and women worked together just like you would see in any office in USA. And I guess the number of men and women in this particular factory were nearly equal.
I also visited a slum and an industrial area in Dhaka. I found the slum to be fairly cleaner than I expected. Sure there was some filth and flies etc. But the residents themselves had relatively clean clothes and were very well behaved. As camera toting tourists we were not surrounded by a mob that would be following us had we been in the slums of Karachi or Bombay. No one begged for money or food. They went about their daily chores of cooking, cleaning etc while we walked around and took pictures. I was surprised to learn that they had pooled in money and installed two tube wells for their clean water supply. With the help of a local charity they had also built some shared squat toilets. Separate ones for men and women. I was told that community hygienists regularly visited them to teach them cleanliness and hygiene. The open mindedness of these poor people to learn new things and a desire to better their environment amazed me. As we were leaving a woman jokingly asked us, “When are you going to give us electricity?” When our guide angrily responded, “What are you going to do with electricity?” she quickly responded, “I will cook rice with it. I do not want to use wood for fire. It causes too much smoke. Electricity is better, right?”

Even areas where factories and industries exist conscious consideration to the environment have been given and a heightened awareness of the surroundings is apparent. Several of the factories have wastewater treatment plants, flower gardens and shade trees to soften the industrial setting and workers are encouraged to plant vegetable gardens on the factory grounds. Material was kept in organized piles and scraps and waste were quickly disposed off for recycling. Generally, the factory workers appeared to be in good health and I did not see signs of abuse or harsh labor.

One textile factory I visited was immaculately clean, had fire extinguishers, proper signage, child care facility for working mothers, an infirmary and adequate lighting on the work floors. This factory could easily serve as a model for many US and European cities.


My 2008 visit to Karachi did not impress me with any kind of a positive feeling. It did not appear to have changed much in character (despite the flyovers and new roads) from my 2003 and 1989 visits. On the contrary, it appeared to have gotten much dirtier. Clearly the meager resources of the Sanitation Department were unable to cope with the tons of garbage generated daily by the citizens of Karachi. Streets and back alleys were littered with piles of debris and garbage surrounded by swarms of flies.

Residents of Karachi are rough, impolite, and ready to cheat and hustle. I had to be cautious and wary all the time. It does not have the characteristics that would attract the tourists and foreigners. Safety is a big issue here. In the 70’s lots of tourists from the Middle East used to visit Karachi and would send their children to study in the schools and colleges there. Now, for tourism and education, they are bypassing Karachi and going to New Delhi, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur etc. Also in the 70s it was very common for people from the Middle East to come to Karachi for medical treatment. Now, they too are going to India, Thailand and Malaysia bypassing Pakistan altogether.

Communication is another issue. Most people in Karachi do not even have the ability to help someone needing directions. They have a tough time being polite and patient guiding someone from out of town. Most will try to avoid conversation with a stranger (or a tourist) and say they cannot help them even if they can. I do not know if it is out of shyness or fear. Even storekeepers are short and would rudely say, “Go to the next store and ask there.” Perhaps, one would have greater success if they spoke in English. Language of the Farangis, I found commands a lot of respect and attention, especially with government officials. Speaking in Urdu puts one at a lower rank in their minds. Speaking in English at the expense of Urdu tells these officials that you are at a much higher social status than them and they have been trained for decades to be subservient to people of higher social class than themselves.


Singapore is the jewel of S.E. Asia. It beats any N. American or European city hands down in technology, education, civic and civil sense, and urbanization. Among the top 10 most attractive cities of the World it ranks as #8 or #9 in my mind. I did not give it a 10 because of the year-round hot weather, which I do not like.

Essential Ingredients

In summary, if certain key ingredients are missing any one would be hard pressed to call a city civilized no matter how urbanized it may get. The main ingredients of a civilized urban center being: safety, communication, respect for other people and other cultures, good public transportation, proper sanitation and a passion for its cultural heritage.

In the Developed countries the cities became urbanized over a long span and had the advantage of growing with and around new technologies as they came about. However, in the Developing countries urbanization in several cities is taking place at a break neck speed and often without much planning and consideration to infrastructure necessary to support such a change. With the exception of Singapore, the cities that I recently visited, Dhaka, Kula Lumpur and Karachi, were missing some or all of the essential ingredients cited above.

You can take the Paindoo out of Pind but you cannot take the Pind out of a Paindoo

I tend to think that Pakistan’s cities in particular are nothing but large villages as the people choose to live like villagers in them. I have personally witnessed residents of fancy hi-rise apartments throwing trash out of their windows and beetle leaf chewing men regularly spitting the brown colored liquid in corners of stairwells and elevators. Let us not forget that Karachi was always a haven for tourists and out-of-towners. Yes, these were and always will be the people from NWFP, Punjab, Baluchistan and interior Sind. Why does it need tourists from anywhere else?

Future of these New Urban Centers

Emulating its Southern neighbor, Singapore, I do not see any hindrances in the way of Kuala Lumpur becoming a successful Urban Center in the near future. But I have my doubts about Dhaka. The love of its people for their village life, the annual toll taken by nature on this city and the political instability that has dogged Bangla Desh since its independence may all keep it from getting fully urbanized for few more decades. This may surprisingly turn out to be a good thing for Dhaka as it will help it preserve its original character for much longer. Karachi on the other hand being a near 100% immigrant city is embarking on an urbanization experiment of its own. Its multi lingual and multi cultural population of about 15 Million, consisting of 9 Million original immigrant families whose parents came to Karachi from India after Pakistan’s independence, and its 6 Million migrants from other Provinces that have settled there for better economic prospects, gives it a unique blend of chaos and confusion not found in any other city. Ten years from now, assuming it can solve its infrastructure problems, Karachi may become a nice gleaming metropolis of S.E. Asia with a grid of criss-crossing highways and freeways, ritzy hotels, and tall glass and metal hi-rise towers vying Dubai where it will not be out of the ordinary and even considered acceptable to see in the financial district a Lala Bhai urinating on the fa├žade of Al Burj Karachi.

Moin Ahmed

Related Links:

Eleven Days in Karachi

Urbanization in Pakistan Highest in South Asia

World's Dirtiest Cities

Do Slums Offer Hope?

Light a Candle, Do Not Curse Darkness

Total Fertility Rates for Countries of the World

Orangi Pilot Project

Orangi Beats Dharavi

Can Slumdog's Success Improve Lives of Poor Children?

Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan

UN Population Fund Report 2007

Urbanization Levels of Countries of the World

Karachi: The Urban Frontier

Slums Offer Hope

Urbanization Challenges in Pakistan

Karachi Fourth Cheapest for Expats

Cities and Environment

Pakistan's Choice: Talibanization or Globalization

Patterns of Urbanization in Pakistan

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