Public and Private Housing in Malaysia

Commentary / 1st Quarter 2022

Public and Private Housing in Malaysia

by Assoc Prof Dr Zalina Shari

March 16, 2022

Malaysia’s population has increased from 6.3 million during the country’s year of independence in 1957 to 32 million today. Around 75 per cent of the population now live in the major urban areas, making Malaysia one of the most urbanised countries of East Asia. Unsurprisingly, public housing provision and housing affordability, especially in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Penang, continue to be hot-button issues in the country.

This essay attempts to address the following questions:

• How did public housing fare in the country? Is it sustainable?
• Can terraced housing, being the most common residential form in Malaysia but often criticised for being unliveable, be transformed into Green/biophilic architectural housing for a more optimistic outlook for this housing stock?
• What is the future of housing in urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur city centre, especially for the younger generation?


The developments of high-rise low-cost housing in Malaysia’s urban areas are not without any problems, especially in public housing. Low-cost housing implies a lower standard of housing—in trying to provide affordable housing, the standard of housing is often compromised. Studies revealed that this housing type suffers issues related to physical safety, habitability, defects and shoddy quality.

High-density, low- to medium-cost housing is often problematic because it is challenging to form joint management bodies and enforce service fee payments for maintenance. Today, maintenance, management and anti-social behavioural problems are still the major issues that need to be addressed. Examples revealed by various local studies include lack of focusing on repairs and remedial work; unavailability of financial resources; limited participation of residents and understanding of their responsibilities; vandalism; and large rental payments due from residents.

A poorly maintained place could also be due to bad design. For instance, the long corridors and staircases, hidden away at the side, often end up as rubbish dumps. Moreover, without a balcony and backyard space—a common omission in low-cost housing—residents tend to dry their laundry in the corridors. Over time, mildew accumulates, making it costlier to maintain them. Where open corridors and balconies are provided, they become play areas for children, leading to falling cases among small children.

Such housing also has limited open space and recreation areas, such as a multipurpose hall or playground for community activities and interaction. The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light how low-income residents, especially those with large families, had suffered living in cramped conditions throughout the movement control order period.


Conventional design approach In the urban areas, terraced housing is much preferred over other housing types due to high land prices and value, as well as possibilities for modification. Terraced housing, a common sight in the urban areas by the 1970s, is made up of rows of identical housing units along the rigid lines of a gridiron layout. However, in contrast to high-rise residential buildings that have undergone drastic changes in design, layout and concept, terraced houses still reflect elements of conventional habitation—many common features are design concepts prevalent in the 20th century, which are rarely suited to the current/modern lifestyles.

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Since the development of terraced houses is driven by the economy of scale and is mainly based on the efficient use of land and setbacks, the deep, narrow floor plan hinders daylight penetration. Coupled with the ‘boxy’ design aimed to fit the use of air-conditioners or to seemingly protect dwellers’ privacy, the daylight quality in the inner space is considerably low. Besides, a limited fenestration at the front and rear façades, and compartmentalised spatial planning, lead to a highly constrained allowance for natural ventilation, resulting in poor indoor air quality and thermal comfort. Also, the visual connection between floors is never provided. Moreover, the constricted spatial planning in terraced housing leaves residents with no access to private green open spaces. Generally, they have little connection with nature, are uneconomical in energy use, and do not respond to the looming problem of climate change.

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This dilemma has prompted the recent phenomenon of ‘terrace transformations’, especially in Peninsular Malaysia. As most pre-existing housing designs are not in tandem with changes in people’s lifestyles, housing modifications have become commonplace and accepted as part of Malaysian culture. Many old terraced houses have been reimagined to blend with nature, as well as improve cross ventilation and natural daylighting.

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Assoc Prof Dr Zalina Shari is Deputy Dean of Academic and Student Affairs & Alumni at the Faculty of Design and Architecture, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). She received her PhD in Architecture (specialising in building sustainability assessment) in 2011 from the University of Adelaide, South Australia. She served as a board member of the Malaysia Green Building Council2 for five years (2014-2018) and chaired the Education and Research Committee. Her ambition in teaching is to generate future architects who see sustainable living and architectural design as a moral obligation and the only ethically acceptable way to act. Her passion for sustainability education has landed her with the Vice-Chancellor Fellowship Award by UPM for excellence in teaching.

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