Squatter settlement persist amid Malaysia's sky-scrapers

Posted: 21 April 2001

Author: Selvi Gopal

Tucked between the sparkling new sky-scrapers and housing estates in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, lie pockets of squatter colonies which persist despite government promises to provide alternative housing. Selvi Gopal reports.

Close to two million people have made Kuala Lumpur, the smallest but fastest growing metropolis in Southeast Asia, their home. But not all of them have a decent roof over their heads. These squatter colonies, for instance, house close to 400,000 poor Malaysians and migrant workers seeking their fortune in this multi-racial country.

Poor living conditions and fighting for survival in the squatter colonies has had another fallout - violence, which is often classified as racial between Malays and Indians. Recently when a group of Malays and Indians crossed swords, the government announced that the squatter areas would be restructured and proper houses provided to the poor to prevent recurring violence.

The promise of decent housing for the poor, however, is not new. Dr Nasir Hashim, President of Suara Warga Pertiwi, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with squatter communities, for one, is not impressed by the concern shown by the government and the politicians. "The government has often talked about providing more low-cost houses for the urban poor but unfortunately very few get built. The reality is that the poor have no choice but to stay in squatter colonies as they have nowhere to move to," says Hashim.

Squatter colonies became a prominent feature in the Malaysian landscape in the 1970s, when the government encouraged urban migration as a solution to the lack of human resources in the fast growing manufacturing industry in the country. People moved to Kuala Lumpur to take up low paying jobs in these factories. The city at that time had insufficient housing facilities and as a result the new work force built wooden homes on vacant land.

Two decades later, while the influx of people to Kuala Lumpur continued, land became a scarce commodity. The squatters were constantly forced to move and wherever they went, eviction notices followed because the land was often acquired for either commercial development or new housing estates.

Since then, the government has been promising that the poor would not be forgotten. And it did take a few steps, at least in theory, to achieve this. For instance, property developers were required to build low-cost homes for squatters for every residential development they took on. But such steps have not borne any fruit.

Says Hashim, "The reality is that houses that are built don't always end up for the poor. People with connections buy these houses and rent them out to the poor. Others resort to paying money under the table to get the houses as they are restricted to only those people who earn minimum wages."

Moreover, these houses are priced high - between US$10,000 and US$12,000 - and hence they are often beyond the reach of the poor. "Squatters with stable jobs are often too old to get bank loans while others can't raise the 10 per cent deposit to buy the houses," explains Hashim. According to him, people who live in squatter colonies are under a lot of pressure and stress but it is these people who are needed the most by society. "If the squatters were to leave Kuala Lumpur, the city could come to a standstill as these people sweep the roads, clean the drains and collect garbage. Yet, they are not appreciated. They have no security as their homes are constantly under threat," says Hashim.

At another level, it is believed that people living in squatter colonies are prone to more violence because of the pressures of coping with poverty. Hashim also adds that Malaysian society is crisis-oriented. "Something drastic has to happen before the government acts. People have to resort to violence before their welfare is considered. What the government does not acknowledge is that the people who turn violent are angry poor people. We are not a poor country but we have warped priorities," says Hashim.

According to Hashim, Malaysia's greatness does not lie in its ability to build the tallest building in the world but in its ability to promote racial harmony. "But first we have to provide the poor with a secure roof over their heads," he adds.

Source: Women's Feature Service (WFS), April 21, 2001.Selvi Gopal is a Malaysian-based journalist with a special interest in development issues.