The politics of housing: Navigating access to land for Malaysia’s social housing

Author: Nur Fareza Mustapha

It is vital to anchor any discussion on land and housing in the idea that property and our relationship to it– that is, how we control, use or transfer property – is fundamentally defined by the rights that we hold upon it. Given the contiguous nature of land to its surroundings, actors can only control or exercise the rights to their plot of land with the agreement of others as any alterations to one’s holding directly affects the value and usability of other plots (Evans, 2004; Ryan-Collins, 2017). Control over how to use land is in fact, achieved and made legitimate, by the ongoing societal interactions with various elements to the benefit of those who can influence outcomes in these processes. It is crucial then to acknowledge that the process by which rights to land are allocated is inherently political and that land markets, ultimately, act as a medium to transfer the power to control land between actors, a feature that is often not accounted for in the economic analyses of these markets. Conceptualizing property as situated in the rights conferred to its property rights holder and not as a physical good to be traded allows us to explore how these rights are utilised and traded within the wider societal system beyond the limitations of a market. This conceptualization makes clear what is already implicit in practice, that is, the market is not the only mechanism used by actors to negotiate or secure rights to property (i.e., land or housing) nor by which the demand and supply for housing is met. This is especially relevant for social housing; the provision of land for social housing can be allocated through other mechanisms, for example, by hierarchy or by networks (Needham & de Kam, 2004). 

The idea that the market is not the only mechanism used by actors to negotiate or secure rights to property is especially critical for Malaysia. Housing provision in Malaysia cannot be easily delineated into a dichotomy of market versus social housing that is frequently used to illustrate the distinctive spheres of productive capacities in housing systems (Scanlon, Whitehead & Arrigoitia, 2014). Within this context, the housing provision system in Malaysia can be more appropriately described by anchoring the analysis not on the characterization of its housing markets or sectors but rather, on the way rights to property are allocated, distributed, and negotiated within the system. In Malaysia, gaining access to land for housing development is a complex exercise, where rules that structure the system may be different depending on what is being developed, where it is developed, who is developing it and why it is being developed. This research sets out to describe how this process plays out in practice.  It is motivated by two critical research questions that underlie this objective: (1) what land is available for the development of social housing and who owns the rights to them, and (2) how do social housing providers attain the rights to development for social housing? 

In this study, a distinction is made between housing delivery mechanisms where power differentials form the major force in determining housing outcomes. For analytical purposes, the housing system is broadly segmented into two different sectors – one in which power differentials drive outcomes and one where it does not. Within both sectors, a multitude of actors and institutions ranging from public to private interact to deliver housing outcomes. Power is defined as the ability to compel others into action (Portes, 2006) and differentials between actors indicate that outcomes may be determined by the actor’s interest rather than efficiency or viability. In the Malaysian housing system, power differentials among actors and institutions that operate within the system determine how rights to property are secured, allocated and distributed. 

This study draws upon qualitative data from in-depth interviews with critical actors as well as documentary evidence from public repositories. A total of 18 interviews were undertaken over a period of 7 months between June-December 2020 with high-ranking administrators in relevant government departments or agencies and property developers across different categories. Data drawn from the study indicate that two main pathways can be identified in the delivery of non-market housing, which is defined by the different levels of entrenchment of power that guide the actors and institutional behaviour and their corresponding bargaining positions. These are identified as constitutional and operational. Within the constitutional pathway, the power to drive or compel housing provision from actors and institution is extracted from visible and concrete sources. Forces of power can be derived from tangible vehicles that provides legality to these actions, for example, formal legislative devices such as federal or state constitution, legal code or acts, and state council proceedings as well as administrative structures and levels. Under the operational pathway, the force of power is entrenched and less visible. It is derived from intangible sources that provides legitimacy to these actions, for example, political structures or patronage as well as social, economic, or cultural capital.

Situating power and the effect of power differentials between actors at the root of housing outcomes allow an analysis into the source of power and how it attains legality and legitimacy in the context in which it operates. For this study, it provides a conceptual lens through which the land supply constraints in the development of social housing in Malaysia can be framed and analysed. These observations provide insight into the role of power as an alternate mechanism to transfer rights allocated to land and housing, external to the standard conceptualization of this process through land and housing markets. The reported power differentials constrain actors and produce outcomes that benefit the interest of those able to use these differentials to their advantage. This affects the provision of social housing in the country in many ways, mainly by introducing constraints in the development process and by altering the mechanism by which social housing is allocated.


Evans, A. W. (2008). Economics, real estate and the supply of land. John Wiley & Sons.

Needham, B., & de Kam, G. (2004). Understanding how land is exchanged: co-ordination mechanisms and transaction costs. Urban studies, 41(10), 2061-2076.

Portes, A. (2006). Institutions and development: A conceptual reanalysis. Population and development review, 32(2), 233-262.

Ryan-Collins, J., Lloyd, T., & Macfarlane, L. (2017). Rethinking the economics of land and housing. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Scanlon, K., Whitehead, C., & Arrigoitia, M. F. (Eds.). (2014). Social housing in Europe. John Wiley & Sons.

About the author

Nur Fareza Mustapha is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge. Fareza received a bursary to attend the Housing Studies Association Annual Conference 2022. As part of the bursary, recipients are expected to contribute to the HSA blog, and this blog post is based on the paper presented at the HSA conference. 

Find out more about the HSA conference bursaries

The Housing Studies Association (HSA) is a limited company registered in England and Wales under company number 13958843 at 42 Wellington Road, Greenfield, OL3 7AQ.
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