If the issue of urban poverty is not addressed in totality, it will have a debilitating impact on the economy and the social fabric of our people in the long run.
MOST Sundays, before joining my teh tarik buddies at a stall at Malayan Mansion, I will take a stroll along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, passing through Dataran Merdeka, walking near Masjid Negara until Taman Tasik Perdana and back.
During my walk, I notice there are many homeless people along the way, especially in front of the national mosque.
In fact they are everywhere in Kuala Lumpur. Many people will be queuing for food at soup kitchens in the evening.
They are part of the city, for better or for worse. You can’t deny nor ignore their existence. In fact this bustling and mostly intolerably chaotic and noisy city is being defined by their presence.
But they are merely part of the poverty landscape. Many more lived in homes, squalid or otherwise, living from hand to mouth, trying to survive in KL.
KL welcomes everyone. The bright lights bring hope if anything else. People keep coming from the villages and small towns trying to chase “the Malaysian dream” – not to be millionaires but just to survive in a city that promises, at least, a better future.
KL is stretched to the limit. It is a huge challenge for politicians and city planners to manage its urban dwellers. Even to provide basic amenities and infrastructural support are a huge challenge.
KL is about Orang Itu (That Lady) in Low Ngai Yuen’s little-appreciated movie about the homeless which was brought to life by actress Sofia Jane. KL is about the poems of T Alias Taib and Baharuddin Zainal. KL is also about my play, Kotaku Oh Kotaku which I wrote in 1975, or Dinsman’s Protes.
KL is about class struggle depicted by Kala Dewata in Atap Genting Atap Rumbia or about the lives of young people who lost their souls in Abdullah Hussain’s novel Kuala Lumpur Kita Punya.
KL’s poverty is well represented in the work of men and women of letters, painters, even sculptors. KL is about a city of bricks and stones where humanity is lost and irredeemable.
KL can be cruel and unforgiving, yet the abode for people trying to earn a living. KL is part of the national consciousness and psyche on inequality, class struggle and poverty.
KL is very much part of our popular culture – from songs to films, short stories and paintings and poems to novels.
But urban poverty is real. It is not just a work of fiction.
KL is not the Singapore depicted by A. Samad Said in his novel Salina or Sungai Mengalir Lesu.
KL is not about the story of abject poverty in a village named Banggul Derdap in Shahnon Ahmad’s classic Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan. And KL is not Charles Dickens’ or the Brontes’ London of the 19th century.
But remember, KL was once lavishly populated by people of the slums – at one time there were at least 150 such “colonies” in and around the city.
But these setinggan (squatters) settlements are fast disappearing. The likes of Kampung Kerinchi and Jalan Jelatek have transformed into urban dwellings beyond the reach of most KLites, not to mention its former inhabitants.
But KL needs to address its poverty issue. It is not as simple as uprooting those living in Kampung Kerinchi or Jalan Jelatek and placing them in pigeon holes somewhere else. That is moving poverty horizontally. Most claimed they lived worse than before.
Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad was right in arguing that KL needs a better plan to eradicate poverty. It cannot be business as usual. Trying to solve the matter devoid of a holistic approach is not going to work.
There have been many gallant attempts to solve the problem but most failed to meet its objective.
According to Khalid, many of these measures were just like prescribing paracetamol; it helped
ease the pain but the problems persisted.
He has taken almost a personal crusade to find a solution to urban poverty. In fact he has sanctioned an initiative to organise a one-day seminar on Eradicating Urban Poverty last week. The event saw NGOs, academicians and social activists deliberating on 16 relevant papers related to poverty.
We can argue about what constitutes urban poverty. We can even disagree about the definition and the yardsticks in measuring poverty. But poverty is about people. It can’t wait for a total solution.
Urbanisation is already changing the landscape of our nation. More than 72% of our people are urban dwellers now.
We have to look at poverty from a new prism, one that uses a multidimensional approach.
We must address the issue in totality, taking into account that poverty is race-blind, and in the long run it will have a debilitating impact on the economy and the social fabric of our people.
The seminar is the right way forward.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
We're sorry, this article is unavailable at the moment. If you wish to read this article, kindly contact our Customer Service team at 1-300-88-7827. Thank you for your patience - we're bringing you a new and improved experience soon!
What do you think of this article?