WHEN I worked as a reporter not too long ago covering issues affecting communities, one of the attitudes I frequently encountered from the public was apathy: so long as their personal lives were unaffected, people rarely cared about what was around them.
Take, for example, middle-income urbanites who turn an unthinking blind eye to the problems and economic hardships of squatter colonies in their neighbourhoods. After all, why should busy people with decent incomes that are earned through hard work bother with their neighbours’ problems?
In 1998, the Selangor government began a massive “zero squatters” programme, implemented in the name of giving the urban poor proper homes by 2005.
Though yet to be completed, the programme looked good on paper, since the land occupied by these squatters is prime real estate, and relocating them to low-cost flats would allow developers to make better use of the vacated land while ensuring that the squatters finally get proper houses.
X marks the spot of a squatter house waiting to be demolished in Ampang Jaya, Selangor, in 2000
(Pic by Tan Jo Hann, Permas)Many squatters have moved to low-cost flats because of this programme. A few of these flats were well constructed, but many lacked one or more of the following basic facilities: playgrounds, community halls and surau.
The lack of such basic facilities can exacerbate social tension among different communities. A few years ago, the Malays and Indians from the Lembah Subang public housing scheme near the Putra LRT depot almost came to blows over two funerals that were being held simultaneously. The near altercation happened after water for the rites from one ceremony almost flowed into the site of the other.
Also contributing to the friction was the fragile history of the Lembah Subang community, who were resettled from Kampung Medan, where clashes between Malays and Indians in 2001 killed six and severely injured scores.
There are other consequences of equal concern. Lacking options for fun and play, restless children cooped up in small flats resort to playing in corridors and lifts, something I myself saw at the Desa Mentari low-cost flats in PJS 5, Petaling Jaya, where some 6,000 units are housed in five blocks that tower 12 storeys or more.
And when lifts get damaged from such improper use, residents are liable to pay for repairs through their contributions to a sinking fund. However, in most cases, many low-cost-flat residents do not pay, and damaged lifts are ignored until there is only one functioning, leaving the local council no choice but to foot the bill to keep the lifts running.
Low-cost flats and crime
When you take into consideration that families who live in low-cost flats have five or more children each, you can imagine how hard it is for them to make ends meet and why they would resist paying for additional expenses such as repairing lifts.
In many ways, these former squatters now have higher monthly expenses: they are required to pay rental (about RM124 a month for former squatter residents and RM250 for families earning below RM2,000), and are subjected to more expensive water rates on top of all their other bills. (The water rate for landed property is 57 sen per cubic metre, while for stratified properties it is RM1.38 per cubic metre for the first 20 cubic metres. The different rates come from an arrangement between water concessionaire Syabas and stratified properties, which calculates water supply to flats on a bulk meter rate.)
So parents who earn RM1,000 or less find that their salaries are no longer sufficient for raising a family in the city. With the escalating prices of fuel, toll charges and food, and a social environment that is not conducive for raising a family, these urban poor will be hard-pressed to stretch their ringgit, and some invariably turn to drugs and resort to crime like snatch theft, or both, to sustain their families.
Taman Desaria residents experienced first-hand the connection between low-cost flats and crime. They fought the then Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (now Petaling Jaya City Council or MBPJ) at the High Court to oppose the construction of low-cost flats in their neighbourhood. Although the residents won the lawsuit in 2005, the flats were built and the former squatters moved in because no “stop work” order was issued against the developer for fear of a countersuit.
Squatter homes being torn down in Ampang Jaya, 2000 (Pic by Tan Jo Hann, Permas)Snatch thieves are the ones causing grief and fear to the middle-income group — the very same group who is apathetic about the urban poor in their midst. I do not condone the crimes that poor people commit to make ends meet, but the reality is that poverty can drive people to desperate measures, especially when there seems no other way to extricate themselves from their daily destitution. We should also realise that no sane person would risk a life of crime and the possibility of jail if he or she could very well make a living through legal means.
Connecting the dots
Therein lies the rationale for this column’s name Ampersand: I believe that the problems we face as a society are interconnected in one form or another, though the reasons may not be obvious at first and it may take a little thinking for us to connect the dots.
Only when we start being concerned with what happens to our neighbours will we see fewer problems caused by them as a result of their plight. In the long run, I believe that to care for others in our community is to care for ourselves and our families.
So to the urban middle class who think the plight of squatters does not concern them, take another look. And while squatter villages are not the most conducive environments for families due to the lack of sanitation and amenities, the low-cost flats built to replace them are hardly the solution either, bringing with them a whole new slew of problems that impact on society as a whole.
Since being made MBPJ councillor in July 2008, KW Mak has been able to connect many more dots. Connecting the dots and finding a solution, however, are two different things.