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It's a hard life for M'sia's urban poor

Angammah needs the help of several of her neighbours to carry her physically disabled husband, Jeyaraman down a flight of stairs. The six-storey blocks are walk-up flats./The Star

Publication Date : 14-01-2014


The writer takes a look at some of the core issues plaguing the urban poor in Malaysia


The Selangor state in southern peninsula Malaysia has 1.36 million urban poor and one of the more downtrodden areas is the Taman Desaria flats in Petaling Jaya. The Star's StarMetro takes a look at the core issues plaguing the community there.

In a dimly lit room, 73-year-old S. Kamalavelli waits patiently for her children to return home.

She has not seen one son, her main financial provider, since Deepavali in November.

Kamalavelli has not eaten a nutritious meal in days.

To make ends meet, she sells betelnut leaves to fellow residents at the dingy Taman Desaria low-cost flats in PJS 5, Petaling Jaya.

“There have been days where I go without a proper meal, but the money from the betelnut leaves helps me buy a bun or bread to fill my stomach.

“I cannot expect my children to come to my aid all the time. They have their own families to take care of as well,” she said.

Kamalavelli holds a red MyKad (Malaysian identification card for permanent resident status) and has made several attempts to obtain a blue one.

Without it, she is not eligible for many forms of aid, especially from the social welfare department.

She, like so many other residents in Desaria, are struggling to keep afloat each month.

Despite living a few hundred metres away from the bustling Sunway and Subang townships, residents here live in deplorable conditions, brought on by poverty and lack of awareness on their rights and responsibilities.

Another resident, Dhanaletchumy Mariappan,76, lives in a two-bedroom flat with her mentally challenged 46-year-old son, Perumal Subramaniam.

She receives 850 ringgit (US$260) a month from Socso (social security) and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) as her late husband was a contributor.

Her other son, the family’s sole breadwinner, passed away in November due to an accident.

Having applied for welfare aid, she now receives an additional 300 ringgit ($91.98) but her application for her mentally disabled son was rejected.

With little formal education, Dhanaletchumy did not appeal the decision or seek assistance from other organisations.

“What do I know? They said they had rejected it so I left it at that. People tell me my son is entitled to welfare aid as well but I do not know anything,” she said.

Poor living conditions

The residents’ lack of awareness is also evident in their neighbourhood and cramped living conditions.

The neighbourhood provides a sobering insight into how the urban poor live.

Rubbish is strewn around, the stench is overpowering and the dark stairways are a journey into the unknown.

Wires have been stripped off by drug addicts, staircase banisters have long since disappeared, postboxes are left to rust while open manholes pose a danger.

Physically-challenged residents have a tough time manoeuvring through the dark and dingy staircases.

Angammah Govindasamy, 75, needs the help of several able-bodied neighbours to carry her physically disabled husband Jeyaraman Ratnam, 79, up and down the stairs because the six-storey blocks are walk up flats.

A diabetic, both his legs had to be amputated four years ago and a stroke has left him unable to speak and paralysed on his right side.

“We are grateful for helpful neighbours,” she said.

Joint Management Body members Chandraboss Ramalingam and Prakash Marimuthu said residents had to fend for themselves since the developer was no longer responsible for the maintenance of the units.

The residents, a mix of Indians, Chinese and Malays, are formerly from the Kampung Tun Ismail squatter settlement and are unaccustomed to paying a maintenance fee.

Chandraboss said many owners had moved away and were renting out their units.

A large number of foreigners have moved in and do not pay the maintenance fee.

According to him, more than 150 units have been abandoned as the owners could not take the living conditions.

Illegal extensions, he said, have also become a norm for many residents staying on the ground floor, causing blockage in the sewerage system.

Making a difference

Jolting the apathetic residents into altering their attitude is no easy task as many people see no way out and are used to their poor environment.

Some residents, however, refuse to give in and are trying their best to improve their living conditions.

Sumathi Subramaniam, 47, has lived in Desaria for over 22 years, ever since the flats were built, and cleans the front of her ground floor weekly.

“I have spoken to the neighbours on upper floors about indiscriminately throwing rubbish down and most have stopped doing it.

“However, the children are hard to control,” she said.

The corridors of the floors above, however are spick and span thanks to the efforts of people like Chandraboss and Prakash

However, it is an uphill task and they have been physically threatened and had their property damaged.

A simple gotong-royong (joint volunteer cleanup) exercise two months ago led to a fight when some residents refused to cut down overgrown bushes and trees.

They had to spend thousands of ringgit on car repairs and repainting after their vehicles were vandalised as a sign of protest.

“I had vulgarities painted all over my car. It was not cheap to repaint it,” said Prakash.

He said it was not easy changing the mindset of everyone living there but both men are determined to make the place more livable.

“It is a tough job but we are determined to soldier on,” said Chandraboss.


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