Malaysian Ambassador Dato Ramlan bin Ibrahim
By Kim Se-jeong
The project to establish Malaysia’s administrative city Putrajaya began shrouded in doubt, but it eventually became very successful, said a top Malaysian envoy Thursday.
“We had similar doubts at first,” Dato Ramlan bin Ibrahim said during an interview, referring to the newly opened Sejong City, an administrative district located two hours southwest of Seoul. The first tenant will be the Prime Minister’s office, which is currently undergoing the process of moving.
“If you ask any Malaysians today, everyone is very proud of Putrajaya city,” he said.
Located 25 kilometers south of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya began development in 1990, and over the next decade, all federal government moved to the new administrative center.
One exception is the trade ministry, which was left strategically in the commercial hub Kuala Lumpur.
The administrative center is 49 square kilometers, 18 times smaller than Sejong City, and has a population of 67,964.
The ambassador said the government established the administrative city to ease traffic congestion in and outside the capital.
Efficiency has also improved, Ramlan added, because travel time to all offices in the vicinity has been reduced.
“We have lots of inter-governmental consultations, and a lot of time was wasted on traveling from one ministry to another (in Kuala Lumpur),” he said.
Putrajaya was named after the first Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. Sejong was named after the Joseon Kingdom’s King Sejong the Great, who with the aid of his court scholars, invented Korea’s alphabet, Hangeul.
The administrative district in Korea was conceived of to decentralize activity from the capital Seoul, in which politics, commerce and culture are centralized.
With an objective to disperse power and encourage investment and economic activity outside the capital, the late President Roh Moo-hyun put forward the idea in early 2007 to create a new special administrative center hosting nine ministries and four public agencies.
Sejong City opened in July this year, and 36 government agencies are expected to move there by 2015.
Four government bodies — Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of National Defense — will remain in Seoul.
As other ministries and departments have started to move, debate was rekindled on whether the city would live up to expectations.
Questions to be answered
One big question is efficiency.
Critics argue that the administrative district will hinder the efficiency of government bureaucracy. This concern is not completely groundless, as four agencies still remain in Seoul, and important meetings will require the presence of ministers and the Prime Minister, who will have to travel one and a half hours on the KTX, the speediest journey between Seoul and Sejong City.
Moreover, due to the heavily militarized neighbor in the north, skeptics say if tensions between South and North Korea escalate, the dispersion of ministries will hinder communication and could cause serious damage.
To address those concerns, the government rolled out video conferencing. Yet it remains to be seen whether it can adequately address concerns over efficiency.
The ambassador Ramlan said 22 years after its conception, Putrajaya has become self-sufficient.
Currently, nearly 70,000 people reside in the city, enough to sustain a range of commercial activities. The ambassador’s home is located on the outskirts of Putrajaya, only 15 minutes away.
The district, which contains buildings in a variety of unique architectural styles, has become a tourist attraction. “People go to see attractive buildings and designs. It became a kind of architects’ dream because of unique designs of the city in the city center. You see many unique designs,” the ambassador said.
Sejong City is projecting something similar.
According to the city council, Sejong City aims to have a self-sufficient economy with vibrant commercial activities. It has also created a few parks, and is planning to add tourist attractions as well.
Relocation of people is another concern.
In case of Putrajaya, the government offered housing schemes, which encouraged prospective residents to move into the city. For Sejong, no clear picture has yet been drawn in terms of how to help people settle down in the brand-new city.
Having seen Sejong with his own eyes in July, the envoy dismissed critics, saying he was quite impressed. “It is an eco-friendly city and is going to create space for people to come and eat.”
To skeptics, the ambassador said concerns stem from fear of the unknown.
“Because people fear the unknown, they can’t visualize the new administrative center. Eventually when people slowly become used to it, they will begin to appreciate the value of having the administrative center.”