Just days before the May 9 election, Shanti (not her real name) was promised a new lease on life: a home.
She resides in Projek Perumahan Rakyat Kota Damansara (PPR KD) with her husband and six children in a 700sqft flat for the past 12 years. Life is tough and far from functional, but she survives with the help of charitable bodies and odd jobs.
“Monthly rental here is RM250,” she says. “But it’s very expensive for me, especially with our current condition.”
Her “current condition” means she owes thousands in arrears due to missed payments on rent and utilities. She is still living in the unit – illegally.
She is not the only one eking out a living this way in this low-cost housing project where just a few kilometres away, large hypermarkets, shopping complexes and upmarket condominiums line the streets.
“We have appealed but the authorities did not help us,” she says. “They tried to disturb us by coming over and sticking an eviction note. But we just keep quiet and every time we hope nothing more happens.”
As there’s no security for people like her, Shanti and her family are fair game for politicians, especially when election euphoria hits a fever pitch.
During the last lap of electioneering, the BN candidate for the Sungai Buloh parliamentary seat, A. Prakash Rao, promised her a unit of her own, through the government’s rent-to-own scheme.
“He told us if we voted for BN and he wins, in the next five years, we’ll have a unit of our own,” Shanti says.
She understands this means voting for the same party twice for a home, and that such methods do not guarantee her any security. But she will to take the chance, after all it’s just a matter of filling up a form.
But, Prakash Rao is not the only one. Shanti reveals that R. Sivarasa of PKR, now Sungai Buloh MP, proposed to “help” them with their arrears.
“He gave us two Giant vouchers at RM100 each previously and we have met his team before for aid,” she says, referring to the hypermarket chain which has a branch nearby her residences. “This time, he said if he wins, he will help us with our problem.”
Prakash Rao was not available for immediate comment but Sivarasa, in a text message, said “help” meant negotiating for better repayment terms.
“If ‘help them’ means paying for them, we don’t make such promises. If any of my service centre staff did this, they would be terminated,” he adds. “Because we don’t have the money and it would be a false promise, and also wrong to do in principle.”
Shanti and her family still lives in that unit. The promises turned out to be empty.
Rusty railings, death and politicisation
PPR KD made headlines in 2013 and 2015 after two five-year-old boys died falling from the sixth and 14th floors, due to badly maintained facilities and rusty railings. Just like other PPR flats around the country, it’s also a hive of drugs and crime.
These problems are as old as Kota Damansara itself. Mokhtar Dahlan, the Kota Damansara state assemblyman from 1999 to 2008, engineered a plan to build low-cost housing and fill them up with former settlers. One of the first projects was PPR KD.
A. Sivarajan, secretary-general of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, believes the entire programme was politicised.
“Mokhtar was the exco, he was the one who demolished those houses, and he was the one who gave them those units,” he says.
“All they needed to do was come to his constituency and they had to vote for him. That’s how it worked.”
Mokhtar’s programme had its abuses. Journalist R. Nadeswaran, in his column with theSun, says more than 500 employees (past and present) of Majlis Bandaran Petaling Jaya (MBPJ) owned, directly or indirectly, units in PPRKD, and they earned a steady income by renting them to third parties.
The scam was unearthed in 2010 but according to Nadeswaran, as of 2016, it continued to exist. “No thanks to a policy of the previous state government,” he said in a column published October that year. He was referring to the squatter resettlement programme.
Sivarajan believes the present state government, led by Pakatan Harapan (PH), have done little for the residents of PPRKD.
“PPR homes were designed as transit homes,” he says, “but market prices have made owning a home relatively unaffordable.”
Sivarajan finds the alternative, state public housing scheme Rumah SelangorKu, equally odious for PPRKD residents.
“Why? Because it’s some joint venture with big developers, and the houses are in isolated places such as Setia Alam. The government uproots the local population and puts them somewhere else. It does not care about the locals,” he says.
When Hazwany Jamaluddin, an independent consultant, embarked on a year-long study of PPRKD, she observed that there was a lack of accountability within the local council. In the case of the low-cost flats, it is MBPJ.
“What people do not know about PPR Kota Damansara is, it was originally an abandoned building. So the state government of the day quickly converted it to low-cost flats, meaning there was no certificate of fitness,” she says.
Hazwany surveyed and studied the community from December 2015 to January 2017 while working for open government advocates Sinar Project.
“There was also no SOP or written agreement when the ownership of the flats was transferred from MBPJ to Perumahan dan Hartanah Selangor (PHSSB),” she says.
PHSSB is a real estate company wholly owned by Lembaga Perumahan dan Hartanah Selangor (LPHS), the state housing and property board.
During the transfer of ownership, there was confusion over which agency managed the building. It took the death of two boys to settle the confusion with PHSSB stepping in with a RM5 million allocation to replace the rusty grilles.
Many charity organisations testify that complaints were made prior to the deaths, but nothing was done.
Hazwany questions the use of the RM5 million allocation after applying for a copy of the expenditure sheet using the Freedom of Information Enactment 2011.
“I find they used the money to not replace the railings entirely, but more for beautifying the area, such as painting an entire block. However, the money is purely meant for replacing the railings,” she says.
Visits to the PPR blocks confirm Hazwany’s remarks where in some floors, the grilles were missing. Some residents and aid workers say new grilles were fitted into existing ones through spot welding, leaving the structures relatively weak.
The voice of the people?
One way to work around these problems is to have a functional councillor who’d act as the voice of the residents.
Councillors do a wide range of tasks as defined in the Local Government Act 1976. Some of them include shaping policies, monitoring corruption, and helping solve local issues.
The problem: they are political appointees.
Case in point, last year, Kota Damansara councillor Shatiri Mansor was replaced despite having only four months left until his contract expired. Residents were shocked at his termination as they believed he was hardworking and well-liked.
But in an interesting twist of events, Shatiri is now the Kota Damansara state assemblyman after winning a four-way fight during the May 9 polls under the PKR ticket.
Such instability, with political parties calling the shots, only breeds neglect for residents. One MP who is pushing for local council elections is Maria Chin Abdullah.
“This is for participatory democracy. Local council elections help empower citizens to vote for representatives who are in tune with their needs and concerns,” she says.
“If representatives do not produce, they can be voted out. This ensures good and improved delivery of services”.
This will be the third term Selangor is governed by a non-Barisan coalition. This time it’s PH while the last two terms were under defunct Pakatan Rakyat. The difference now is PH has also formed the federal government.
Yet there has been no effort on the part of the state government to introduce local council elections.
According to Maria, who serves the Petaling constituency, local council elections is not in the PH manifesto. She believes the issue has not been broached earlier as it is “sensitive”.
“To start the ball rolling, there has to be consultations with various groups including the grassroots,” she says. “But it will take time to implement.”
Mak Khuin Weng, an MBPJ councillor from 2008 to 2012, says despite the restrictions, Selangor could have implemented a limited election exercise.
“Mostly though, they were in bed with PAS that did not agree to local council elections, so the pledge never went anywhere, because it would have been a case of agree to disagree,” he says.
Mak stresses such “excuses” are invalid given PH is in government and the coalition can table a motion in Parliament to amend the clauses in the local government act.
Hazwany says places like PPRKD need better infrastructure, and the first step is to ensure residents feel safe.
“You are looking at emergency exits during a fire or easier access for ambulances. The lifts have to be functioning at all times. When I was doing my studies, one of them didn’t work and when I asked the residents, they told me they could only use one lift as the rest weren’t working.
“People living in upper floors will generally have a problem in an emergency. There’s also no proper lighting. At night time, if you are a woman, you are not safe at all. There have been reports of rape, sexual predators,” she says.
PPR KD is a microcosm of what goes on in other low-cost housing. But this systemic rot can only be dealt with when there are checks and balances in the system. Many of these issues can be actively pursued by a local councillor.
Even though an elected representative is not the end-all and be-all for tackling the complex problem in areas such as PPR KD, it adds a layer of transparency and accountability.
It also moves away from cosmetic aid such as Skim Peduli Sihat, which subsidies healthcare for households earning monthly income of RM3,000 and below.
Reality is, the urban poor, especially in projects such as PPR KD, can self-organise and work for the betterment of their own future provided they have capable leaders, says Mak.
“They can easily organise themselves if they have a capable leader. Low-cost flats can act like a vertical kampung and residents can come together to help each other, and a single person can act like a ketua kampung,” he says, referring to their involvement in a residents’ association or neighbourhood watch.
Hazwany believes that residents here have the ability to stand up for themselves and to deal with their problems.
“The women I met are willing to go the distance, but you know what? It’s like they are clapping on one side. ‘I am doing the work, but the government doesn’t clap back,’ they say.
“There’s no follow up. Nothing. So what’s the point? The problems in PPR KD is not new. It happens again and again. So, I’d understand when they say they are tired. Enough is enough.”
But a better future for the urban poor, including those in PPR KD, can only be realised if there are functional structures in their favour.
In this case, the first step, is an elected local councillor who can get the job done.