WHOSE OPINION MATTERS? Lessons from a stakeholder engagement process for Penang, Malaysia

This study examines stakeholder involvement in a transportation plan in Penang, Malaysia. The study employs a qualitative methodology and uses select indicators to evaluate the engagement process. Despite a concerted effort to engage the public, the government failed to resolve conflicts with key stakeholder groups.

Author: Minal Pathak • MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program 2017
* PDF Download available from https://goo.gl/AhBC4o


Transportation-related decisions, like many other public policy issues, are complex. They involve multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting interests, and influence multiple sustainability dimensions over space and time. In response to this complexity, governments often make decisions based mainly on advice from experts, offering limited opportunities for public participation in the decision making process.

This study examines stakeholder involvement in a transportation plan in Penang, Malaysia. The study employs a qualitative methodology and uses select indicators to evaluate the engagement process. Despite a concerted effort to engage the public, the government failed to resolve conflicts with key stakeholder groups.

Three key findings emerge from the assessment:

• First, a poorly designed process can be counterproductive, resulting in delays and loss of trust;

• Second, involving stakeholders at a later stage limits opportunities for meaningful stakeholder contribution; and

• Third, stakeholder groups can mobilize and shift the balance of political power.

For all these reasons and more, decisions in the public arena must go beyond meeting the mandated requirements, and move towards a deliberative process aiming for shared decision-making.

The study proposes a set of recommendations for a more effective process.

   * Full text here – https://goo.gl/AhBC4o


In line with several other reported case studies, the Penang case reiterates the failure of the traditional “top down” process of consultation. It also highlights the pitfalls of a poorly managed and executed participatory process. An inadequate engagement process further alienated stakeholders, as they felt the government was insensitive to their interests.

Such conflicts are especially inevitable in cases such as Penang, where private interests appear to dominate.

Governments presume that consultative processes can serve dual purposes of meeting the regulations and gaining political legitimacy. Revisiting the classic planning debate of whether public participation leads to desirable outcomes, the study illustrates that participation by itself is not useful. In fact, poorly designed engagement exposed the weaknesses of the process, allowing opposing groups to mobilize and thwart the plan.

For engagement to be purposive and meaningful, stakeholders should be involved at an early stage, in a transparent and deliberative manner. This can reduce the time and costs, enhance government credibility, improve trust, and help develop long-term relationships between the government and stakeholders.

Such a process would not only address the principles of fairness and equity; in all likelihood, the solutions would have a higher probability of implementation.

Malaysia is on a rapid development curve. Urban and economic development is expected to result in unprecedented demand for investment in public infrastructure. The insights from the study offer timely and relevant inputs for designing inclusive and efficient participatory processes. The paper sets out key elements as a way forward.

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About the MIT- UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program

The MIT- UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program (MSCP) is a five-year effort, initiated and run by faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Universiti of Teknologi of Malaysia (UTM), with generous support by the Ministry of Education Malaysia.

The MSCP mission is to study and document sustainable city development efforts in Malaysia. Visiting scholars from around the world spend September through December conducting research in Malaysia. They spend February through May at MIT developing research findings into instructional materials to enhance and extend the teaching of sustainable city development across universities in the global South. Each January, graduate students and faculty at MIT and UTM partner with UTM to study, review, and refine the direction of the research in progress. The MSCP is housed in the Science Impact Collaborative in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and the Institute Sultan Iskandar (ISI) at UTM.

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About the author:

Dr. Minal Pathak is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Her areas of research include solutions that balance multi-dimensional sustainability objectives in Indian cities, transportation decarbonization, and mainstreaming climate change in urban development. Recent co-authored reports include the Earth Institute’s Second Assessment Report on Cities and Climate Change, Low Carbon Transport in India, Green Growth in Practice, and the UNEP Gap Report. She is part of the Technical Support Unit of Working Group III (Mitigation) of the IPCC. Dr. Pathak received her PhD in environmental science from Gujarat University in 2007.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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