HER work is close to the people’s hearts. After all, Zuraida Kamaruddin’s job as Housing and Local Government Minister involves looking after where we live and our surroundings.
“My ministry holds the pulse of the nation,” says the Ampang MP with a smile.
“We oversee housing, waste management, local authorities and even the bomba (Fire and Rescue Department), who tend to various calls for help from the public.”
It has been 10 months since she took office in the Cabinet, but Zuraida still has a long to-do list and is just as fired up to bring her plans to life.
But after all this time, she says she still doesn’t feel like a minister.
“I have been an MP for 10 years, serving the people. It’s the same thing now. In terms of time, effort and commitment, there isn’t much difference.
“Minister or not, taking action is nothing new to me. But of course, now, I have more power to do greater things,” says Zuraida, who is also PKR vice-president.
In fact, she came full circle when she became minister, as she was able to kick-start the redevelopment of the Highland Towers site, which was abandoned after the deadly 1993 landslide.
Zuraida had tried to set up a fund to redevelop the site when she was an Opposition MP, but failed due to lack of access.
“So when I became minister, I remembered that. And there was closure for me,” she says of the project located in her constituency.
As a politician who likes spending time on the ground with her constituents, Zuraida also wants to improve low cost housing projects for the benefit of those in the low income bracket.
“I was frustrated when I was just an Opposition MP to see them living in small, congested spaces.
“These are things I can look into to make a change. Back then, I knew the solutions but I couldn’t do it.
“Now, I can,” she says.
And that makes all the difference.
It has almost been a year since Pakatan Harapan won the general election on May 9. What would you say are the best achievements by this government so far?
In terms of legislation, a lot has been done, including scrapping the Goods and Services Tax. We have fulfilled some promises and reforms. For my ministry, we will fulfil our promise to deliver one million units of affordable houses in 10 years. So, for the first year, we will build 100,000 units. We have enhanced housing policies with the National Affordable Housing Policy to ensure the B40 group has easy access to comfortable homes. We want to ensure they have good facilities so they can enjoy life within their community. For the first time, the ministry has also organised a national convention for local councillors. This helped to expose newly appointed councillors in the new states that Pakatan Harapan won (after the GE14) to SOPs and law so that they can do their job well, including conducting enforcement.
What is the ministry’s next focus?
My next focus is abandoned housing projects. There are about 354 abandoned projects nationwide, with Selangor having most of it. But if you look around, you know it is more than that. I will need to study this issue deeper but I am thinking of shortening the time frame for a project to be declared as abandoned. It should be kept at six months, with less red tape, to hold the developer more accountable. We will also consider increasing penalties for irresponsible developers. We also want to empower home buyers to know what action they can take.
More Malaysians are living in stratified buildings like flats, condominiums and apartments. What improvements can be made?
I’m trying to make the laws more simple to be executed, including the Strata Management Act. There are inconsistencies in practices among different joint management bodies (JMBs) and management corporations in terms of electing committee members and developers handing over projects to JMBs. But these moves take time as it involves amending the law. As for low cost housing projects (PPR), the ministry will form a corporation to train residents to manage their own buildings so that they can be independent and learn to maintain their own property. We have done a pilot project among 20 PPR projects, to be extended to the existing 127 under the ministry.
Are local council elections still in the pipeline?
The ministry is still working on it. In three years or by 2021, I will come up with a proposal to the Cabinet to recommend the best model, mechanism and implementation plan. From there, I will leave it to the Cabinet to decide. As far as I am concerned, I have done my duty. As minister, I need to have that vision to hold local council elections. It will reflect our maturity, full democracy and progressiveness. Otherwise, Malaysia will not be seen as advanced nation. But it is still subject to the Cabinet’s decision.
Three years is a long time, though.
It will take time to sink in for the both the Government and the people. We need to have programmes to educate people about the benefits of local council elections, and how as the rakyat, you can choose your mayor. At the moment, we are still at the workshop stage and holding awareness campaigns to educate the public. In three years, we will also be in a more stable financial position to do this. We need money to carry this out. That is why it will take three years.
Should more women be part of local councils?
As a woman minister, I am all for the participation of women in leadership roles. I want women to make up 30% of the councillors. So in the next term, local governments should look into this.
The ministry is drafting a Residential Tenancy Act to better protect landlords and tenants from racism. When can we expect the new Act to be ready?
The new law will not only curb racist practices by landlords and tenants, but will also ensure both get a fair deal with better protection and no manipulation. The Bill is expected to be ready for a first reading by the end of this year. Under this Act, we can set a maximum cap of rental rates in housing areas, especially for low cost housing projects. This is to avoid landlords from simply charging a high price which doesn’t commensurate with the property. Some irresponsible landlords charge a higher rate to foreigners and this is unfair.
Your ministry has lifted the freeze on plastic waste approved permits (AP). So far, how many APs have been issued?
We have new criteria for companies to follow. We conduct inspection at such plants before we approve any APs. We have approved 19 companies in the first batch, while 25 are still undergoing more inspections. To me, this issue is under control. It’s just that the local authorities have to be more stringent and conduct enforcement against illegal factories processing imported plastic waste. So far, five cases of illegal plastic waste importation and processing have been brought to court.
How are the ministry’s plans to transform landfills into waste-to-energy (WTE) parks?
We will transform them within two years, or by the end of 2021. Land space is getting scarce, so the best way forward is to have WTE parks. With such parks, we can turn waste to wealth. We will increase recycling programmes. If people understand the simple economy of turning trash to money, they will take part and separate rubbish, get it to be recycled and gain income from it. I will centralise recycling plants for plastic, tyres, metal scraps and others to a designated waste park. So far, the states involved are Johor, Selangor, Penang, Perak and Kedah. I have asked these states to identify land to create waste parks so we can put all these factories in one place for easy monitoring and management. Any factory outside of such centralised waste parks will be illegal.
The waste parks will become tourism attractions too as it will demonstrate how new products are generated from waste. Every state should have a waste park but some states are bigger than others, so we must look into it.
What is the budget for these waste parks?
It is up to independent operators to develop their factories in the land assigned by each state for such waste parks. All these recycling factories will have to buy the land from the state.
But as it is now, most people do not separate their trash. How do you propose to change this?
That is why I am increasing recycling awareness programmes. Under the ministry, we are restructuring the work scope of officers. More staff will be involved with the public to train, guide and educate them to recycle. We will increase community engagement to boost recycling.
What are other plans are on the cards from the ministry?
We are working on creating gender-friendly cities. Subang Jaya is adopting such a concept, whereby the planning of infrastructure is more inclusive, considering the needs of women, and other sectors of the community like the disabled. We plan to have women sports complex in Subang. But all local authorities in Malaysia are encouraged to adopt this concept. Facilities should be planned to ensure it is inclusive, safe and accessible to all. For example, if there is to be a football field, then there should also be a netball court too.
Are there plans to upgrade the Fire and Rescue Department?
I hope to upgrade the department. Their job has such an open scope. They tend to almost everything. They are just like other uniformed forces like the army and police. They do not have pistols but they do so much. For example, in the Sg Kim Kim toxic pollution incident, our Bomba were the first arrive at the scene and the last to leave. It is high time to show more appreciation to our firemen and their positions and remuneration should be upgraded. This is something I need to fight for.
How do you personally feel after a year of being a Cabinet minister?
I have been an MP for 10 years, serving the people. It’s the same thing now. But of course, now I have more power to do greater things. The community knows me because I am always on the ground. I am no stranger to the people. As a minister, I treat everyone the same, I cannot discriminate anyone or any place. What I do is for the rakyat. It doesn’t matter whether it is an opposition or Pakatan Harapan state. We are one nation. I have to make the country look good, keep it clean and progressive.