University of Melbourne Magazine

Visionary planner: Khairiah Talha

  • Khairiah Talha left Melbourne University in 1980 with a degree in town and regional planning, her future husband, and what she considered a radical concept – she was allowed to think for herself.

    The planning department (now part of the Melbourne School of Design) “taught me how to think and express my opinions,” she says. “At that time in Malaysia, subordinates were supposed to do what they were told. Women, in particular, were supposed to do what they were told.”

    Talha and her husband, fellow Malaysian scholarship student Moslim Othman (BE(CivEng) 1977, International House, University College), started their careers as government employees in Terengganu, then Penang.

    Talha was young and outspoken. Although she wore traditional Malay Muslim dress, she was comfortable with Western ideas. Malaysia did not particularly welcome such people in leadership positions at the time and the fact that she prevailed, and paved the way for other women leaders in Malaysia, is one of her lasting achievements.

    “My career in government was cut short because I expressed my opinions too much,” she reflects.

    But she flourished in the private sector. In 1996, Talha set up her own planning consultancy, KWA Planners, in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur.

    “Some people think that town planning is about design of streetscapes, roads and parks,” she says. “It is a lot more than that. It is preparing to manage existing and new developments to cater for the needs of different communities at different times, in a cycle of change and renewal . . . For cities to thrive, they have to be planned in consultation with the people who live in them.”

    KWA Planners has won major awards for its work in areas ranging from urban redevelopment to strategic and integrated master plans for rainforest preservation and eco-adventure tourism. The company also designed Precinct 11, a residential area in Putrajaya, the new administrative capital of Malaysia created to reduce congestion in Kuala Lumpur. Talha’s largest project for 2018 has been preparing a strategic plan for Subang Jaya, a town between Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, part of the Klang Valley Corridor.

    As the first female president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners (1999 to 2003), Talha established a council of advisers and devised a code of professional conduct. She was Secretary General of the Eastern Regional Organization for Planning and Human Settlements from 2002 to 2010, forging close links between professionals across the region, including Australia. “I surprised a lot of people, being a Muslim woman — opinionated, upfront, employing Western consultants in my private practice,” she says. “There are people who build bridges. There are people who build walls. I prefer bridges.”

    Increasingly, Ms Talha sees her role as mentor, helping encourage new generations of town planners. She cites as one of the main challenges in planning the need to gain political support for implementing policy.

    “It should be the role of town planners to make politicians see the benefits of good planning in the longer term,” she says, “not just for winning the next election.”


    By Michele Nayman (BTRP 1980)