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Putrajaya: Malaysia’s new federal administrative capital
Center for Urban and Global Studies, Trinity College, 70 Vernon St., Hartford, CT 06106, USA
Received 30 August 2009
Received in revised form 23 October 2009
Accepted 1 November 2009
Available online 27 November 2009
Southeast Asian city
Islamic urban design
Master planned city
In the early 1990s, the Malaysian government conceived of a new federal administrative capital built
from a tabula rasa on former oil palm and rubber plantations called Putrajaya. It was designed to be
the new home to all of Malaysia’s federal government ministries and national level civil servants, host
all diplomatic activities for the country, and function as a potent symbol of the nation’s ambitious mod-
ernization agenda and of its new ‘progressive Muslim’ identity. As one of many new cities recently built
as seats of power in Southeast Asia and the ‘global south’, Putrajaya is emblematic of the trend of former
colonies to reject the colonial capital and to replace it with a city that symbolizes the state’s national ide-
ology and aspirations. This article provides a brief overview of the history and development of Malaysian
urbanism that set the stage for the creation of Putrajaya and critically examines its claims of being ‘green’.
Particular attention is paid to how a national identity has been constructed through the design of the city.
Ó2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
A master planned city built on a tabula rasa
The city of Putrajaya is one of a series of ambitious urban pro-
jects in Malaysia that reﬂect the state’s commitment to craft a par-
ticular national identity and to gain recognition on the world stage.
As the new federal administrative capital of Malaysia, Putrajaya is
the new home to all federal-level government ministries, civil ser-
vants and their families. About 100,000 of the expected 350,000
residents are now living in Putrajaya and the city is slated for com-
pletion in 2011. Reminiscent of the classic master planned cities of
Chandigarh and Brasilia, Putrajaya is a valuable contemporary
example of a master planned government showpiece and illus-
trates the struggle of many former colonies to forge a distinct na-
tional identity that both reﬂects the values and aspirations of the
new nation and distances itself from its colonial past.
Putrajaya’s size, scope, and speed of construction are ambitious.
As the most ostentatious and expensive administrative capital in
, Putrajaya provides insights into current directions
in Malaysian and Southeast Asian urbanism. The generous state
ﬁnancial backing for the city has ensured its completion and has se-
cured Putrajaya a prominent place in the pantheon of grand master
planned capitals. Malaysia’s oil-driven economy combined with the
ruling elite’s capacity to allocate unlimited amounts of public money
to mega-projects that serve nation-building purposes make Putrajaya
an important and fascinating city to examine.
Putrajaya is the latest in a tradition of postcolonial master
planned cities built on a tabula rasa. Like other master planned cit-
ies, the creators of Putrajaya subscribe to a utopian belief in the
possibility of the ideal city, that engineering a society’s – even a na-
tion’s – success is possible through design (Scott, 1998; Vale, 2008
). Beyond realizing such practical goals as relieving conges-
tion or creating a healthy urban environment for residents, the pri-
mary objectives in master planning capital cities is to construct,
communicate, and normalize national identity to the citizenry.
Not only are cities ‘the medium by which the powerful express
their inﬂuence’ (Kong, 2008, p. 26), capital cities in particular re-
veal how the state imagines itself or how it aspires to be, as well
as how it wishes to be seen by others (Vale, 2008 ).
Putrajaya was begun in 1995 as an urban showpiece for the
country, intended to demonstrate both to Malaysians and the
international community that Malaysia is a stable, prosperous, pro-
gressive, and technologically sophisticated Muslim country, but at
the same time, showcase Malaysia’s rootedness in traditional cul-
ture and religion. The city is part of a series of mega-projects initi-
ated by former Prime Minister Mahathir that were intended to
propel Malaysia onto the world stage and as a way to attract
foreign investment (Olds, 1995; Morshidi and Pandian, 2007).
0264-2751/$ - see front matter Ó2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
*Tel.: +1 617 999 7051.
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org,email@example.com
Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), is another expensive
and ostentatious Southeast Asian city built in recent years to replace the colonial capital
of Rangoon (now Yangon). Little, however, has been written on it to date and the city is
shrouded in secrecy by the ruling military regime. It is highly likely that state ofﬁcials in
Myanmar have visited Putrajaya as Myanmar participates in ASEAN meetings, some of
which have been hosted by Malaysia. Future research on Naypyidaw may reveal
connections to Putrajaya and other new cities in Asia and the Middle East.
Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/cities
Author's personal copy
The name is a reference both to the ﬁrst Malaysian Prime Minister,
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, and the Sanskrit-derived putra, mean-
ing ‘son’ or ‘prince’ and jaya
, translated as ‘success’ or ‘victory’. The
underlying goal in Putrajaya was to create a ‘model city’ that would
set a new standard for Southeast Asian cities and would be looked to
as a template for other cities to emulate (Putrajaya Holdings, Bridges
of Putrajaya, 2003, p. 9). While all of the federal ministries are
located in Putrajaya, parliament is still located in Kuala Lumpur,
which, for now, technically remains the capital city. However, Putra-
jaya has become an important national symbol and the venue for na-
tional events including the festivities surrounding Independence
Relatively little has been published to date on the city of Putra-
jaya itself. Scholarship on Putrajaya has generally been tied to
broader discussions on the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), a
high-tech zone stretching between KL south to the new national
airport, and the Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Area, which includes
Putrajaya, Cyberjaya (Putrajaya’s high-tech twin city), Petaling
Jaya, Shah Alam and Klang (Bunnell, 2002; Bunnell, Barter, and
Morshidi, 2002; Indergaard, 2003; Bunnell, 2004; Ramasamy, Cha-
krabarty, and Cheah, 2004; Bunnell and Coe, 2005; King, 2008; Goh
and Liauw, 2009). There is, however, merit to a focused study on
Putrajaya as the city has been a source of inspiration for other cities
in Malaysia, other states in Southeast Asia, and for countries as far
away as central Asia and Africa.
This paper provides a critical look at an important and symbolic
new Southeast Asian city and its attempt to forge a new national
identity through the design of a city. I begin by introducing Putra-
jaya’s location and Malaysia’s unique demographics. I provide a
brief overview of Malaysia’s diversity of urban inﬂuences and place
Putrajaya in the context of Malaysia’s era of mega-projects. I then
examine Putrajaya’s master plan and the turn in Malaysian state
architecture towards a generic Middle Eastern imaginary. Finally,
I highlight some of Putrajaya’s challenges and shortcomings re-
lated to its claims of being a ‘green’ city, constraints of its master
plan, and critically evaluate Putrajaya’s aspiration to be a ‘model’
Urban history in peninsular Malaysia
Location and demographics
Putrajaya is located on peninsular Malaysia in the Klang Valley
25 km south of Kuala Lumpur in the Multimedia Super Corridor
(MSC), a 50 km long stretch between Kuala Lumpur and KLIA (Kua-
la Lumpur International Airport) (Fig. 1). As Malaysia’s most popu-
lous urban region, the MSC was conceptualized as a Malaysian
version of California’s Silicon Valley in a bid to nurture the coun-
try’s budding knowledge economy and attract international high-
tech industries. Although the MSC has not achieved the anticipated
level of success (Bunnell, 2004), the state’s intention was for it to
become a sophisticated information network based on multimedia
technologies and serve as the digital backbone to support interac-
tive government, community, commerce and society. Kuala Lum-
pur and the MSC have been examined in a previous City Proﬁle,
‘Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Area: a globalizing city-region’ (Bun-
nell, Barter, and Morshidi, 2002), that focuses on the increasingly
global orientation of the city and its implications for the wider ur-
Located just a few degrees north of the equator, Malaysia is hot
and humid all year. Rainfall averages 2–3 m (100–200 in.) per year
and usually falls in heavy monsoons, depositing 10–30 cm within
just a few hours. Putrajaya sits on hilly terrain that was once trop-
ical jungle but was transformed in colonial times into a vast series
of plantations growing cocoa, rubber and oil palm. To create the
city of Putrajaya, large tracts of agricultural land were bought up
by the state, displacing around 2400 plantation workers (Bunnell,
Malaysia’s population is over 27 million, 70% of whom are ur-
ban and 15% of whom live in the Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Area
(Department of Statistics Malaysia website). Rates of urbanization
in Malaysia have dramatically increased since the end of the colo-
nial era, from 26.5% in 1957 to 66.9% in 2005 (Thompson, 2007).
Due in large part to colonial policies, Malaysia is an ethnically
and religiously diverse country. Large numbers of migrants from
China and to a lesser extent India and what is now Indonesia mi-
grated to the Malay Peninsula in the 19th and early 20th centuries
seeking trade opportunities and to work as labourers on colonial
plantations (Cho, 1990). These migration patterns are evident in
Malaysia’s current demographics: Malays
and other indigenous
people constitute 61.4% of the population, people of Chinese descent
23.7%, people of Indian descent 7.1% and others 7.8%. Muslims con-
stitute 60.4% of the population, with the remaining 40% split be-
tween Buddhists (19.2%), Christians (9.1%), Hindus (6.3%),
Confucianists, Taoists, and followers of other traditional Chinese reli-
Malaysia’s diversity of urban inﬂuences
Malaysia has a long and rich urban history with many diverse
inﬂuences. During the second half of the 20th century, Malaysia
shifted from a largely rural to a largely urban population (Leete,
1996). According to Southeast Asia historian Anthony Reid, the
percentage of city dwellers prior to the colonial era was extremely
high in the commercialized areas of the Straits of Melaka (Reid,
1993). The cities were rarely walled, and even the walled cities ap-
peared to be a different kind of city to visitors as they were partic-
ularly green, sparsely settled, ﬁlled with fruit trees and built
entirely of wood. Ross King (2008) sees similarities between
descriptions of past cities and contemporary Malay settlements
in their spaciousness, the lack of geometrical layouts and the prior-
ity placed on the growing of fruit trees for each household. While
there were large settlements centered around trading ports in
the pre-colonial Malay Peninsula, these were made of wood and
have not survived except in travellers’ tales. Moreover, contempo-
rary urban Malaysia did not evolve from indigenous settlements
but from colonial administrative centers and the international
trade activities of the British colonial government and immigrants
(Evers and Korff, 2000).
As the governing colonial power in what is now Malaysia, the
British had a signiﬁcant impact on Malaysian cities. The approach
to planning introduced by the British in Malaysia was hierarchi-
cally ordered and produced the administrative town. A distinct
ethnicized urbanization was developed according to British preju-
dices that viewed the Chinese as thriving in urban settings and Ma-
lays as an inherently rural people. These racial assumptions
resulted in the Malay Reservation Enactments in the 1930s, a series
of policies that placed Malays on rural reservations and thus insti-
tutionalized an urban/rural divide based on race, of which the
repercussions are felt today.
As a primarily urban-based community and as the second
largest ethnic group in the country, the Chinese–Malaysians have
had a signiﬁcant impact on Malaysian urbanism. Broadly speaking,
Jaya is a common part of place names in Indonesia and Malaysia: Nusajaya, Irian
Jaya, Petaling Jaya, Subung Jaya, Aceh Jaya, and Jayakarta, the pre-colonial name for
This category includes those who had migrated from what is now Indonesia,
including Javanese, Bugis, Batak and so on.
286 S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
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Malaysian urbanism can be characterized by its unequal geograph-
ical distribution of Malays and Chinese. Starting in colonial times,
the Chinese produced a distinctive urban form that consisted of
dense areas of ‘shop houses’. The shop house, dating from colonial
British times and found throughout Malaysia and Singapore, is an
architectural form unique to Southeast Asia in which the ground
ﬂoor of a row house is used for commercial purposes with the
upper few storeys for residential use. The upper storeys hang over
the sidewalk in front of the shops and are supported by columns,
thus creating a covered sidewalk that protects pedestrians from
the elements. The density and order of the Chinese urban areas
contrast with the more dispersed, leafy Malay spaces. Until re-
cently, Chinese have constituted a majority of the urban popula-
tion in most cities in Malaysia. This has changed in recent
decades with the introduction of policies meant to encourage more
Malays to live in cities. This, however, has led not to blending but
to the further creation of ethnic enclaves (Thompson, 2007).
The colonial British left a strong impact on urban Malaysia in
three key areas. First, the British created grand administrative
buildings for their colonial bureaucracy, many of which remain
as prominent and visible parts of Malaysian cities. In the larger
administrative centers, the British introduced a neoclassical ‘Brit-
ish Raj’ style, with elements of Victorian, neo-gothic, Moorish
and Mogul (generally referred to then as the ‘Mahometan’ style)
architecture and featuring fantastical domes, arches and arcades.
The ‘Mahometan’ style was adopted ostensibly ‘to acknowledge
the Malay rulers in whose name the British would govern and to
honour their religion (though not their culture)’ (King, 2008,p.
16). Many of the iconic British Raj buildings in Kuala Lumpur were
designed by British architects who had previously worked in India.
Second, colonial British racial philosophy resulted in the geo-
graphical division of races both on a city scale and a broader scale.
On a city scale, there were racial enclaves that gave distinct form to
different neighbourhoods. For example, the distinctive form of the
Chinese shop house became a highly visible element in Malaysian
cities. As mentioned, the British introduced policies that encour-
aged Chinese people to live in cities and Malays to live in rural
areas and as a result, the proportion of Chinese residents in most
cities has historically been far higher than the national average.
The migration of many rural Malays to urban areas in recent years
has shifted demographics, for the ﬁrst time making Malays the
largest group in most cities.
Third, British planners were hired to create new cities in the col-
ony based on then-contemporary planning philosophies which
have in turn inﬂuenced generations of Malaysian designers. Inﬂu-
enced by the then-current ideas of Ebenezer Howard and his ‘Gar-
den City’ concept, the British believed that growth should be
controlled through the construction of new towns and green belts.
The strategy of creating new towns was continued after Indepen-
dence and has become standard practice in Malaysia, with Putra-
jaya the latest in a long tradition of new towns.
After Malaya gained Independence in 1957 and the subsequent
formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963
, KL went through
a period of nationalization. Iconic monuments were added to colo-
nial spaces and streets were renamed after prominent nationalist
leaders (King, 2008). Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Malaysia’s ﬁrst
Prime Minister, and the architects he employed eagerly followed
international architectural movements and the architecture built
immediately after Independence displays clear International Style
geometries, decorative sub-shading and landscape settings in a
‘tropical idiom’ (Lim and Tay, 2000). While the International Mod-
Fig. 1. Location of Putrajaya.
For discussion on new towns in Malaysia, see (Lee, 1980).
Independence from the United Kingdom was gained to the Malay Peninsula in
1957, although the formal name remained Malaya. The name changed to Malaysia
after Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined in 1963 to form a Federation.
S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297 287
Author's personal copy
ernist urban design and architecture during this period came to be
considered by many as a western cultural import, it was free of
ethnocentric references and nationalistic hyperbole, a contrast to
the neo-traditionalism that would follow in the subsequent
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was the leader who was the
most active in engaging the design of the built environment in the
service of nation-building. Mahathir’s nationalist vision had a last-
ing impact on the course of Malaysian urbanism and set the condi-
tions that would lead to the creation of Putrajaya.
An era of mega-projects: designing a new capital
Mahathir attempted to dismantle the legacy of his predecessor
in a variety of ways that extended to projects in the urban environ-
ment. National projects built under the rule of the Tunku were
‘demolished, left to deteriorate or ... overshadowed by Mahathir-
memorializing additions or replacements’, consistently on a mas-
sive scale that came to be Mahathir’s signature (King 2008,p.
124). The MSC was to de-emphasize Kuala Lumpur and spread
around the development, ensuring growth in the Klang Valley.
During his tenure as prime minister (1981–2003), Mahathir prior-
itized what he called Wawasan 2020, or ‘Vision 2020’, a blueprint
for the country to become a ‘developed nation’ by the year 2020.
Mahathir aggressively pursued an ambitious agenda to modernize
Malaysia, transform it into a ‘First World’ country, and propel it to
the international stage. He sought to skip ugly stages of develop-
ment and leap-frog the country straight into a knowledge-based
As part of ‘Vision 2020’, Mahathir used the country’s large oil
revenues to fund the building of spectacular mega-projects in-
tended to showcase Malaysia as a modern, efﬁcient country that
was committed to economic development. Among Mahathir’s
mega-projects are the Petronas Towers (also known as KLCC, or
Kuala Lumpur City Center) which, until recently, were the tallest
buildings in the world, the massive Kuala Lumpur International
Airport and the Multimedia Super Corridor, and the twin cities of
Putrajaya and Cyberjaya located within the MSC. The projects are
manifestations of Mahathir’s ambition to transform Malaysia into
an international player.
With increasing trafﬁc problems and crowding in Kuala Lum-
pur, the idea for a new administrative capital was conceived of dec-
ades ago as a way to relieve congestion. Kuala Lumpur was felt to
Fig. 2. Aerial image of Putrajaya in 2009, labeled with places mentioned in this article: (1) Putrajaya International Convention Center (2) Putrajaya Lake (3) Putrajaya’s main
axis, the 4.2 km Putrajaya Boulevard (4) Putrajaya Sentral and ERL Station Putrajaya, the main transportation (5) Putra Mosque, the ‘Souq’, and the circular Putra Plaza (6) park
and Shangri-La Hotel.
See Goh and Liauw (2009) for an excellent overview of how architectural shifts in
post-Independence Malaysia have reﬂected changing national priorities and under-
standings of national identity.
288 S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
Author's personal copy
be old and cramped, plagued with transportation and infrastruc-
ture problems, and burdened by its colonial past. As is the rationale
in many former colonial cities, the construction of a new capital
was seen to be the solution to these problems, a move that would
distance Malaysia from its colonial past while emphasizing its new
identity as a sovereign nation. High-proﬁle international architects
have been frequently selected to design highly visible national pro-
jects such as capital cities (e.g. Swiss architect Le Corbusier for
Chandigarh) and for several Malaysian mega-projects (Argentin-
ean–US architect Cesar Pelli for the Petronas Towers, Japanese
architect Kisho Kurokawa for Kuala Lumpur International Airport).
However, for Putrajaya, the Malaysian state wished to demonstrate
the nation’s high level of expertise by using only local engineers,
architects, and artisans.
Several locations were suggested before Mahathir settled on a
tract of plantation land conveniently located between Kuala Lum-
pur and the site for the new international airport and within the
MSC. While Kuala Lumpur was to remain the ﬁnancial and com-
mercial center, Putrajaya was to become the government center
and symbolic focus for the country and the two were connected
with a light rapid transit line. Putrajaya was intended as an inde-
pendent city employing federal government employees and those
in service industry positions to serve them (cooks, transportation
workers, cleaners, gardeners, technicians, etc.).
As the most potent and expensive symbol of Mahathir’s pet pro-
jects, Putrajaya is inseparable from the former Prime Minister. This
leaves Putrajaya simultaneously vulnerable to possible neglect by
future leaders who oppose Mahathir and his mega-projects and
as a model for future Malaysian cities. Abdullah Bedawi, Mahathir’s
successor, has slowed spending in Putrajaya’s construction while
directing funds to his own pet project, a grandiose new capital
for Johor state, ostensibly designed to both compete with and over-
shadow Mahathir’s legacy.
The master plan
In 1993 the federal government under Mahathir invited six
Malaysian consulting ﬁrms to create conceptual proposals for
Putrajaya. Five schemes were presented
and Mahathir accepted
the entry of BEP Akitek in 1994. All teams were then instructed to
form a consortium to develop the winning team’s design. The head
architect began with an axis as ‘capital cities have axes’ (interview
cited in King, 2008, p. 150) and then decided the plan needed to
‘get organic’ to relieve the formality of the axis. Putrajaya’s master
plan has the geometric formality of many planned capitals and
makes liberal use of formal axes and radial roads that recall the gran-
deur and ostentation of other planned cities such as Paris, New Delhi
and Washington, DC. However, its layout is also inﬂuenced by topog-
raphy; in contrast to main roads, secondary streets follow the con-
tours of the land, reminiscent of the Beaux Arts design for
Canberra (King, 2007). The strongest elements of Putrajaya’s master
plan are the artiﬁcial lake and the main axis that leads from the
Putrajaya International Convention Center to the Prime Minister’s
Ofﬁce along which most government buildings are located (Fig. 2
and 3). The main axis, Putrajaya Boulevard, is 4.2 km long and serves
Fig. 3. Looking north from the Putrajaya International Conference Center at the far south of the 4.2 km ceremonial axis. Photo: Author, August 2008.
See Ross King, 2008, p. 148 for an overview of the ﬁve conceptual proposals
submitted for Putrajaya.
S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297 289
Author's personal copy
as Putrajaya’s main ceremonial route where national parades and
celebrations have been held in recent years, replacing Kuala Lumpur
as the primary venue for national day events.
The master plan divides the city into two main areas, the core
and the periphery. The core is intended as the administrative and
symbolic center for the city and for the country and is meant to
showcase Putrajaya’s identity through grand civic buildings. The
core also contains hotels, shopping centers, commercial ofﬁces,
exhibition and convention centers, private colleges, a private med-
ical center, and various tourism facilities.
The periphery is designed to hold fourteen residential neigh-
bourhoods with 67,000 units of housing. Within each neighbour-
hood, there is a variety of housing for a range of incomes,
including detached homes, row houses, shophouses, and high-rise
apartments. There are numerous commercial clusters in neigh-
bourhoods throughout the city where residents can walk to buy
groceries in a wet market, supermarket or corner shop and a mos-
que. This form has been replicated in Putrajaya in many neighbour-
hoods (see Fig. 5) and engages ideas developed in New Urbanism
(Katz, Scully, and Bressi, 1994) with regards to density, walkability
and traditional scales of living. Each neighbourhood is visually dis-
tinct, thus helping residents to cultivate a sense of identity and
attachment to their neighbourhood.
Reminiscent of the organization of Chandigarh into sectors,
Putrajaya is similarly divided into 20 precincts, each with distinct
functions such as entertainment, commerce, government, housing,
as well as one precinct speciﬁcally for foreign diplomats (see
Fig. 4). Unlike Chandigarh’s system of identical ‘sectors’, Putrajaya’s
precincts have been made visually distinct from one another
through clustering buildings made from the same materials. Fur-
thermore, while planners of Canberra, New Delhi and Chandigarh
at least initially ‘assumed class segregation and reinforced it by
the provision of a hierarchy of residential patterns descending
from the privileged position of the capitol’ (Vale, 2008, p. 137),
planners of Putrajaya, like Brasília, have created neighbourhoods
that include a variety of incomes and a range of housing types.
Of Putrajaya’s 4931 hectares, one third is designated as ‘green
areas’, which include parks, gardens, Putrajaya Lake and the
Fig. 4. Putrajaya’s Precincts and Putrajaya Lake.
290 S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
Author's personal copy
adjacent wetlands. Through ﬂooding, a 650-hectare lake and
197 hectares of wetlands in 23 parcels were created. The lake
serves both recreational and ecological functions, providing a body
of water maintained at a level safe for skin contact (although not
for swimming) while helping to mitigate ﬂoods and treat runoff
with a wetland that forms a part of the lake (Putrajaya Wetlands,
1999) (see Fig. 6).
Integrated public transportation is a key aspect of the master
plan with buses and a future monorail intended to alleviate some
of the need for car travel. With extensive public transit built or
planned, and bicycle and walking trails, the design for Putrajaya
is meant to prevent the trafﬁc problems and the resulting pollution
that plague many cities in Malaysia and the region (see Table 1).
Turning to an imagined Middle East
An examination of KL’s architecture and urban fabric reveals a
rich variety of cultural inﬂuences including colonial British, Chi-
nese, Malay, Indian and post-Independence national. Putrajaya,
however, shows none of this diversity; rather, the design language
chosen for the city draws on the architectural traditions of an
imagined Middle East. Many of Putrajaya’s architectural focal
points and key government structures are based on various
well-known classics of Middle Eastern architecture from a variety
of origins including Iran, Iraq, Egypt, North India, Moorish Spain,
central Asia, the Ottoman Empire, and so on. Styles reference a
range of historical sources, yet very little has been adopted from
Fig. 5. Designers of Putrajaya created distinct neighbourhoods through various types of housing with different designs anchored by neighbourhood amenities such as shops,
wet market, or shopping plaza. Photos: Author, August 2008.
Fig. 6. A variety of ‘green’ space has been created in Putrajaya that has recreational and or ecological functions. Photos: Author, August 2008.
S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297 291
Author's personal copy
indigenous forms, despite the many rich design traditions, wood
carving and building methods from the region. Instead, it is fantas-
tical domes and arches that dominate Putrajaya’s skyline and geo-
metric Islamic landscape features that decorate the shopping
centers, bridges, streets and parks (Fig. 7). Through its simulta-
neously ‘fantasy Islamic’ and high-tech architecture, Putrajaya
announces the state’s ambitions to be known as a progressive Mus-
Masjid Putra, or the Putra Mosque, is a major focal point for the
city, and extends into the lake where there are clear sight lines
from many angles around the city (Fig. 8). According to a book pub-
lished by the developer, Putrajaya: the Developer’s Perspective
1995–2002 (2003, p. 153), the design of the Putra Mosque was in-
spired by three main sources: a mosque in Uzbekistan, the Per-
sian–Islamic architecture of the Safavid Period and the minaret of
the Sheikh Omar Mosque in Baghdad. In keeping with the Middle
Eastern theme, there is an Arab-themed ‘Souq’ under the Putra
Mosque that is clearly intended to evoke the ‘exotic’ bazaars of
Cairo and Damascus.
Such mixed stylistic borrowing can be seen in many of Putra-
jaya’s bridges that straddle the lake. Putra Bridge, the ceremonial
bridge along the main axis, is closely modeled after the 17th cen-
tury Khaju Bridge in Isfahan, Iran, and is decorated with ‘Islamic’
motifs, including ﬂoral designs, star motifs, screens, arches, and
octagonal towers covered with grille panels. While the Seri Per-
dana Bridge is loosely Moorish (particularly in its iwans, or vaulted
nooks) and is decorated with tiles that evoke Central Asian domes.
Similarly, the Seri Bakti Bridge has distinctive Islamic detailing and
mihrab-shaped observation decks with dome-shaped roofs in the
same shade of green as the main dome of the Prime Minister’s
While there have been numerous attempts in Southeast Asia to
develop a modern urban form that draws on vernacular architec-
tural and planning concepts (Tajuddin, 2005; Nas, 2007), it is sig-
niﬁcant that designers of Putrajaya have summarily rejected local
forms. King (2008) argues that this turn to a Middle Eastern imag-
inary was the inﬂuence of Prime Minister Mahathir, who closely
oversaw the development of Putrajaya’s design, has publicly ex-
pressed anti-Western sentiment, and has been determined to ﬁnd
a modern national identity that is not Western. As King (2008, p.
xxiv) argues, the underlying agenda of Putrajaya is ‘the advance-
ment of Malaysia as a Malay-Muslim polity, a new kind of high-
modernist Muslim nation, one pole in an emerging pan-Islamic
world and noble counter to more venal globalist ideals’. Similarly,
Goh and Liauw (2009, p. 71) point to the ‘growing enmeshment of
Malaysian nationalism within global political Islam which has led
to the pre-eminence of Islamic over Malay identiﬁcations in Malay-
sian nationalism’. Designers of Putrajaya have consciously drawn
Putrajaya: vital statistics.
Ofﬁcial name Putrajaya, the Federal Administrative Center
Location 25 km South of Kuala Lumpur, 20 km north of Kuala
Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)
Population (current) Almost 100,000
Total size 4930 hectares
Land use (%) Government 5.3%
Civic and cultural 0.2%
Public facilities 10.1%
Utility and infrastructure 18.2%
Green areas 37.5%
Core area 1069.1 ha
Government precinct 236.2 ha
Civic and cultural precinct 35.3 ha
Commercial precinct 213.3 ha
Sports and recreational 329.1 ha
Water bodies, wetlands
Periphery area 2925.3 ha
Putrajaya Boulevard 100 m wide, 4.2 km long
Intracity – monorail, taxi buses
Intercity – express rail link, north–south link
KL-Putrajaya-KLIA dedicated highway
Implementation Statutory authority Perbadanan Putrajaya
Developer Putrajaya Holdings Sdn
Project manager Kuala Lumpur City
*Adapted from Abidin, Azizan Zainul, ‘Putrajaya: Building for prosperity’ in Yeoh,
Michael. (2002) 21st Century Malaysia: Challenges and Strategies in Attaining Vision
2020. London: Asean Academic Press, p. 183.
Fig. 7. Islamic identity as national identity? Photos: Author, August 2008.
292 S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
Author's personal copy
from the ‘great Islamic civilizations’ in a way that implicitly places
Malaysia in the progression of grand Islamic civilizations. The
choice of design for Putrajaya also reﬂects the political agenda of
, a key member of the ruling coalition, ‘to be Islamically
purer than the strident, fundamentalist-leaning and ever-threaten-
opposition and thereby to represent a secular state that is
still authentically Islamic’ (King, 2008, p. 165).
Challenges and shortcomings
It is almost as if the founders of Brasília, rather than having
planned a city, have actually planned to prevent a city. (Seeing
Like a State, James Scott, 1998, p. 126.)
Putrajaya has already attracted many Malaysian critics whose
views about the city are voiced primarily in the blogosphere. Blog-
gers have referred to Putrajaya as a ‘wilderness’, a ‘white elephant
project’, and ‘forlornly desolate.’ One letter to the editor in an on-
line newspaper compares Putrajaya to the city of Fatehpur Sikri,
an opulent city built by Akbar to serve as the political capital of
the Mogul Empire but was abandoned soon after completion
(Malaysiakini, 8 June, 2007).
While it is still early to fully assess Putrajaya’s strengths and
shortcomings, a large enough portion of the city has been con-
structed and is currently in use to offer a preliminary critique. This
section examines several of the major challenges facing designers
and how they have been handled with varying degrees of success.
The climate is one of the primary challenges to urban designers
and architects in Malaysia, where daytime temperatures hover in
the low 30s Celsius (86–90°F) throughout the year and humidity
is high. One of Putrajaya’s main shortcomings is that the climatic
response in planning, architecture and landscape architecture is
minimal. With great design freedom, an expansive budget and an
explicit goal of creating a ‘garden city’, the designers for Putrajaya
have missed an important opportunity to advance microclimatic
design and to create a ‘green’ city cooled passively through design
and planting rather than relying primarily upon air-conditioning.
While Middle Eastern motifs and symbols have been employed lib-
erally throughout the city, designers of Putrajaya have failed to
reproduce the innovative and resourceful microclimatic features
historically developed in the Middle East that provide respite from
the intense heat (Hakim, 1986). For example, rather than narrow
streets that provide shade throughout the day, Putrajaya’s wide,
formal avenues expose pedestrians, buildings and trafﬁc to direct
sunlight. Furthermore, unlike the ﬁne-grained urban fabric found
in ancient cities in the Middle East such as Tunis, Isfahan, Mar-
rakesh, Jerusalem and others, Putrajaya’s master plan is spacious,
comparatively low density and is peppered with grand, open
Fig. 8. View of Putra Mosque across Putra Lake. Photos: Author, August 2008.
Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, or the United Malays National Organisa-
tion, is a founding member of Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition that has ruled
Malaysia since Independence. One of UMNO’s key platforms is that Malays as the
indigenous peoples of Malaysia are entitled to special privileges that those of other
ethnicities (Chinese, Indian) are not.
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or the Islamic Party of Malaysia, seeks to establish Islamic
law. The main support base of PAS is in rural states of north eastern peninsular
S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297 293
Author's personal copy
There is no evidence that designers have attempted to minimize
Putrajaya’s ecological footprint through the use of local materials.
In general, buildings have not been designed to use a minimum
of power. Rather than using design as a cooling strategy, too many
buildings require massive amounts of air-conditioning for dra-
matic glass atriums and other energy-inefﬁcient features. In fact,
many of the buildings in Putrajaya are made of steel and glass,
allowing direct sunlight to enter (Fig. 9). Even the Putra Mosque,
modeled after the naturally-cooled mosques of the Middle East,
has such small windows that air-conditioning is a necessity (Tajud-
din, 2005). This is compounded by the fact that, despite borrowing
from New Urbanism’s emphasis on dense building and walkability,
Putrajaya is still relatively low density and it is a long, hot walk to
get anywhere. Bicycles are encouraged as recreation rather than as
a mode of transportation as is made clear by the lack of contiguous
bicycle trails on key routes through the city. As Ross King (2007)
points out, the bicycle culture in Malaysia has long been lost and
there is no evidence to date of any state efforts to encourage civil
servants to bicycle to work.
While there has been an attempt to manage and treat runoff
water through the constructed wetland system and the parks pro-
vide wildlife habitat and diversity, Putrajaya cannot be included
Fig. 9. Many buildings prioritize a high-tech Islamic image over energy efﬁciency, allowing direct sunlight to enter the building thus relying heavily upon air-conditioning.
Photos: Author, August 2008.
Fig. 10. There is a lack of planting that provides adequate shade on routes intended for pedestrians and cyclists. Photos: Author, August 2008.
294 S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297
Author's personal copy
among the leading innovators in the push to create ‘green’ cities.
Other new cities such as Dongtan (China), Masdar (Abu Dhabi),
New Songdo (South Korea), Tangshen (China), and King Abdullah
Economic City (Saudi Arabia) are experimenting with more radical
approaches to being ‘green’, including bolder commitments to
renewable energy and attempts to produce the city’s own energy,
mandating the use of green roofs, attempts to create a zero-carbon,
zero-waste, car-free city, and the adoption of experimental green
algae composters, microturbines, and other leading-edge technolo-
gies. Furthermore, Malaysia’s half-hearted commitment to being
‘green’ may well be limited to Putrajaya as the country is increas-
ingly hosting Formula One and other major motorsport events and
has a growing number of indoor skiing venues and other energy-
intensive recreational facilities.
The many parks and gardens threaded through the city make
green space truly accessible to residents of Putrajaya. However, be-
yond the large parks surrounding the lake, little attempt has been
made to make the urban environment ‘green’ in a way that would
reduce mid-day temperatures. As mentioned, most of the urban
planting is decorative with the majority consisting of decorative
shrubs, trimmed hedges and ﬂower beds rather than far-spreading
shade trees, which, if planted at strategic locations, would have re-
duced the need for air-conditioning (Fig. 10). Most of the sidewalks
throughout the city have no vegetative cover at all and when there
is a planting scheme, the trees or shrubs selected will not provide
shade even when mature. The lack of shade also discourages
‘green’ forms of transportation such as walking and cycling as it
is only bearable to move around the city in an air conditioned
car. The planting is a far cry from that found in the nearby city–
state of Singapore, where 1.3 million trees have been planted since
the Singaporean state launched its ‘Garden City’ program in the
1960s (Chua, 1991; Yuen, 1996). The feeling of lushness in Singa-
pore, even on the busiest thoroughfares, derives from the tall shade
trees planted along each road often in a double allée, climbing
plants covering many infrastructural surfaces, planters designed
into road infrastructure, and the creation of planting opportunities
wherever possible. As can be seen from Figs. 7–10, there is a feeling
of starkness in Putrajaya that is more reminiscent of a Middle East-
ern city that the architecture seeks to emulate than a ‘garden city’.
Constraints of a master plan
Master planned cities inevitably raise questions of vibrancy and
aesthetics. Master planning an entire city with just one developer
rather than encouraging a more piece-meal and slow growth struc-
tured around urban design guidelines can make a city appear
homogenous, over-designed and lacking in the spontaneity that
makes great cities stimulating. Master planned housing develop-
ments, particularly clusters of massive apartment complexes, often
lack a ‘sense of place’ (Jacobs, 1961; Jackson, 1995) and tend to
look monotonous, with little room for residents to individualize
their homes (Teo and Huang, 1996). While planners of Putrajaya
have made an effort to create neighbourhoods in Putrajaya that
have a distinct identity, the housing currently feels somewhat
A more troubling aspect of Putrajaya’s design is its emphasis on
Muslim identity to the exclusion of non-Muslims. There are no
spaces in Putrajaya’s master plan allocated for the practice of any
other faiths; no Chinese temples, Indian temples, or churches have
been built. Planners are currently discussing the possible creation
of distinct neighbourhoods for various cultural groups, namely a
Chinatown and a Little India.
This unfortunately recalls policies
of spatial segregation based on racial identities found throughout
colonial Asia and Africa, not exactly a model of sensitive and socially
inclusive urban planning to which Putrajaya, as a cultural symbol,
ought to aspire (Ross and Telkamp, 1985). This lack of diversity in
Putrajaya is further problematized by being ‘locked’ into a master
plan, which does not provide a great deal of ﬂexibility for changing
needs and demographic change. For example, if the Hindu or Chinese
population of Putrajaya were to grow, there is no place in the master
plan for adding facilities for particular communities. Not only is
Malaysia’s cultural diversity not evident in the design of Putrajaya,
there is not a trace of Malaysia’s own indigenous architecture tradi-
tions – even the vernacular Muslim traditions – in Putrajaya. More-
over, some critics feel that the Middle Eastern-derived ‘Islamic’
idiom employed does not accurately convey the essence of Islam.
As Tajuddin, Putrajaya’s most vocal critic in Malaysian academia
points out, ‘Islamic cultural heritage is not exempliﬁed by big domes,
arches and expensive ornaments but [is] rooted in the idea of humil-
ity’ (Tajuddin, 2005, p. 19). Tajuddin also argues that Putrajaya’s
architecture is culturally inappropriate and is designed more for
tourists than the faithful and for a kingdom rather than a democracy
(Malaysiakini, September 15, 2008).
A model city?
Putrajaya will become a vital development catalyst due to the
role it will assume as a model city – as the nerve center of the
nation and an ideal place to live, work, conduct business
and engage in sports and recreational activities. (i-putra, Putra-
jaya Community Portal: http://www.i-putra.com.my/about_
Putrajaya’s aspiration to be a ‘model city’ carries the implication
that it is possible for other cities in Malaysia and the region to
emulate Putrajaya. While government material touts Putrajaya as
a ‘model’ city, it is perhaps more accurately described as a ‘show-
piece’ or ‘ideal’ city as it was built with massive government fund-
ing on a tabula rasa that poses no challenges with regards to
historical preservation or aging infrastructure. While there may
be some lessons to be learned from Putrajaya’s prioritization of
public transportation (at least on paper) and the easy access to
generous urban recreational space, the option to build new cities
with limitless budgets as an antidote to urban problems is neither
viable in most places nor is it a sustainable approach. Furthermore,
building new cities on greenﬁeld land (undeveloped or agricultural
land) rather than investing in the improvement of existing cities
and the re-use of brownﬁelds (abandoned or underused industrial
sites) is not ultimately the most sustainable and ‘green’ approach.
Generally speaking, more environmental beneﬁt can be drawn
from retro-ﬁtting and improving existing infrastructure rather
than creating new cities.
While Putrajaya has been criticized in academia and in the
press, it is widely viewed as a success story by government ofﬁcials
in the Muslim world, a model for balancing religious identity with
modernity and high-tech ambitions. Putrajaya is an important new
symbol for Malaysia in the region and aspects of it are being imi-
tated closely in several cities in Malaysia. In fact, many little Putra-
jayas are currently springing up around the country as regional
state-level ofﬁcials look to Putrajaya as the new standard for Ma-
lay(sian) urbanism (Tajuddin, 2005). Many aspects of Putrajaya
are replicated in Nusajaya, a new city currently being constructed
by Abdullah Bedawi, Mahathir’s successor. Designed as the new
capital of Johor province and as a catalyst for high-tech industries
and global elite, Nusajaya is intended to compete with Putrajaya
and the MSC. Nusajaya is clearly inﬂuenced by Putrajaya’s grandi-
ose Islamic/Malay imaginings. Several new Indonesian cities that
serve as seats of political power have also been modeled, to varying
Based on a discussion with a planner at Putrajaya Holdings in August, 2008.
S. Moser / Cities 27 (2010) 285–297 295
Author's personal copy
degrees, after Putrajaya. After the devastating tsunami of Decem-
ber 26, 2004 that destroyed much of Banda Aceh, the capital of
Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, the Malaysian gov-
ernment offered their planning expertise complete with the assis-
tance of Putrajaya’s developer, in the city’s reconstruction (Nah
and Bunnell, 2005). Ofﬁcials and designers of Dompak, the new
capital city of Indonesia’s recently-formed Riau Islands Province,
clearly looked to Putrajaya as a source of inspiration. Government
ofﬁcials working on the development of Dompak visited Putrajaya
multiple times over the past few years and claim Dompak will be
‘more beautiful and more grand than Putrajaya’ (interview with
government ofﬁcials in Tanjung Pinang, June 2008).
Putrajaya’s impact is also being felt throughout much of the
Muslim world in such regions as Africa and Central Asia, where it
is seen as a model progressive ‘Islamic’ city that is grounded in reli-
gious values that are expressed in a recognizably Islamic idiom. In
recent years, ofﬁcials, planners, architects and students from Africa
and Central Asia have travelled to Putrajaya to view the city ﬁrst
hand. Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, the Multimedia Super Corridor and
Mahathir’s Vision 2020 have also served as inspiration for a similar
high-tech development in the South Indian city of Hyderabad as
part of India’s own Vision 2020. Like Putrajaya, the developments
in and around Hyderabad are intended to act as a catalyst for a
knowledge economy through designing a ‘high tech’ urban envi-
ronment with global connectivity complete with a new high-tech
twin city being built next to Hyderabad, called Cyberabad. Regard-
less of whether Malaysia’s high-tech agenda successfully fulﬁlls its
promise or not, Putrajaya has become a template for many leaders
in the developing world who hope to leap-frog from manufacturing
into a new information age and a model of a city that has struck a
balance between progressive ideas, tradition and religious values.
It is unclear at this stage whether Putrajaya will continue ex-
actly as planned until completion or whether it will adapt and re-
spond to criticism. Despite Malaysia’s, and particularly nearby
Kuala Lumpur’s, diverse population, planners of Putrajaya have
constructed a national identity that prioritizes Malaysia’s connec-
tion to Islam over its religiously and culturally diverse population.
While it is possible that planners of Putrajaya will change course to
create a more inclusive city and to reﬂect Malaysia’s post-Mahathir
national visions, drastic change seems unlikely.
As Putrajaya is completed and ﬁlls up in the years to come, it
will be interesting to see whether the city follows in the footsteps
of other master planned cities such as Brasilia and Chandigarh and
will in time be ‘completed’ with informal housing and squatter
areas (Holston, 1989) or whether it could ultimately end up like
ghost town, half empty (Columbijn, 2005). Since Malaysia does
not have the massive population pressures found in both India
and Brazil, it may be able to successfully house its more modest
population, particularly since growth in Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and
the MSC in general has been much slower than anticipated. This
is partly due to the general global slowdown of the high-tech
industry and partly because of the Asian economic crisis of the late
1990s. Furthermore, while the construction workers in Brasilia
simply stayed in the city after its completion immediately render-
ing the master plan obsolete (Holston, 1989), the construction
workers in Putrajaya consist largely of foreign nationals who are
more easily managed and who do not have the right to remain in
the country indeﬁnitely.
Putrajaya is a fascinating example of current Malaysian urban
design that draws on various contemporary urban design philoso-
phies, particularly in attempts to make it environmentally sustain-
able and ‘intelligent’. Like Chandigarh and Brasilia, Putrajaya is an
ambitious and grandiose vision intended as the embodiment of a
new political entity intent on constructing a new identity that
breaks with the past. Also like Chandigarh and Brasilia, Putrajaya
could not be integrated philosophically or physically into existing
urban forms but required a tabula rasa in order to carry out the
grand vision. However, unlike these famous planned cities, the
planners of Putrajaya have learned lessons from the failures of
modernism and have designed the city with greater sensitivity to
the daily life of its residents. Putrajaya also indicates a trend in
Malaysian urban design and architecture to borrow from general-
ized traditional Middle Eastern motifs, rather than drawing on
their own vernacular design traditions.
More research will be required in the future to determine how
successful Putrajaya is both as a city and as a device for promoting
and instilling a sense of national identity. However, Putrajaya re-
veals a new direction for Southeast Asian urbanism and is a key
manifestation of contemporary Malaysian cultural and racial poli-
tics. As such, Putrajaya’s design effectively reveals tensions be-
tween national identity, ethnic identity and religion in Malaysia.
I am grateful for the support of a postdoctoral fellowship at the
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. I would also like to thank the editor and
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