I grew up in a suburban area in one of the Northern states of Malaysia, what most people call "the rice bowl of Malaysia", I called it - home. Kedah Darul Aman is where I spent my days growing up as a child and a teenager. It is still fresh to me the days I walked to the far end of another terrace unit for some packets of Super Ring with the portion of pocket money saved from school earlier that day or my struggling years as a technical stream of a boarding school student, trying to not mess up the technical drawing assignment with the huge A3 black shoulder Rotring bag. I had fond memories growing up. My parents would always drive our family around in the flashing blue MPV and every time I would always opt for the window seat if possible (fights included), for bigger visual access to the cityscape. We would pass by as I call it in my pure Kedah tongue "Jam Besaq" or the clock tower at the centre of Sungai Petani (SP, for short). It is the second-largest city in Kedah after Alor Setar. That's my early introduction to what a landmark is.
Jam Besar seems to have a meaningful affection to us locals. It is not just that we can recall the structure mentally, we always include them in our wayfinding. "The ETS train station is near to Jam Besar, just need to drive up to Hotel Sri Malaysia for drop off", "Want to renew your identification card? Right before you arrive at Jam Besar, turn left and you'll find JPN", "I'm a student a student of SMK Khir Johari, near to Jam Besar" or "Will this year Bazaar Ramadhan near Jam Besar be opened?" and the narratives goes on. I love Sungai Petani to how humble it is. Right at the heart of the city centre, the surrounding building scale seems to pay respect visually to the 12-meter clock tower built in 1936 to commemorate the reign of King George VI which holds sentimental and emotional context to the locals. It is considered a landmark and reference as described by Kevin Lynch in "The Image of a City".
In his book, Kevin Lynch introduces the idea of imageability - a physical object quality that evokes a strong image" in its shape, colour or arrangement facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment.". Imageability can also be influenced by the social meaning of an area, its function, its history or even its name. As quoted, "A highly imageable city invites people's sight and hearing to greater attention and participation of the city structure and identity".
There are five types of elements that describe the content of a city image that is often referred to as physical forms: paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. These elements are often not isolated but integrated into constructing an apparent, legible or visible city image. For me, the Jam Besar stood with pride and claimed by locals as the point-reference and landmark of the city. Standing tall robust local classical monument in light sand colour - contrasting among the decent modern backdrop at Dataran Zero Kilometer projects a distinct image of the city and I hope it stays that way, despite the growing force to built more in cities due to ongoing urbanization and growth of cities.
It is rather unfeasible to resist the future development of downtowns which carries both importance as an economic engine and commercial activities of the town. There is a growing demand for development to take place, however, we seek future development to consider the image of the city that locals value and cherish the most. Cities provide a cultural and social tangible presence to locals. Collaborative work in acknowledging the image of the city between local authorities and local resident through advocacy planning and active public participatory in preserving the very identity and character of a place is vital. There is, nonetheless, no one-size-fits-all strategy as every city are unique on its own.
I believe everyone has their own attachment to an image of the city buried deep in us as Malaysians. Mine is the old-looking clock tower Jam Besar, what's yours?