There were many revelations at the one-day seminar on urban poverty last Thursday.
Some were just scary. Government agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), researchers, university lecturers and economists shared their perspectives about eradicating urban poverty.
Almost everyone came out from the seminar with one mind — let’s get things organised and tackle urban poverty in a comprehensive way.
Let’s do a proper job once and for all. Cover every ground and spare no one from ground zero right up to the policy-makers.
Get the NGOs involved. They work on the ground 24/7. They have a wealth of information and knowledge about urban poverty. With their limited resources, these NGOs do their bit to alleviate urban poverty.
It’s about time they got proper recognition in whatever field they operate in, said Tan Sri Sulaiman Mahbob, former head of the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department.
There are NGOs which are active in the Chow Kit area where they help feed the homeless, provide clothes and moral support to children of sex workers; there are NGOs which help provide tuition to underprivileged children; and there are organisations which engage minority groups to help them get a better quality of life.
Sulaiman was of the view that NGOs can provide a deeper insight into urban poverty. It’s time their thoughts and experience received acknowledgement, he said in his presentation at the seminar.
And true enough. Zainal Rashid, a media man who is the founder member of an NGO named Laskar4Life, gave a heart-rending presentation of the daily life of the urban poor.
Zainal’s presentation includes four video clips shown throughout the day-long seminar in Putrajaya.
Zainal told us the story of Wahab Lebai Naib, a 72-year-old resident of Projek Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) Intan Baiduri in Kepong.
As most of us know, the PPR multi-storey flats were built many years ago for squatters in and around the city.
PPR offers them water and electricity, a one-room or two-room accommodation with proper sanitation and other common amenities. But PPR living offers a different set of challenges.
For one, they have to pay RM124 a month for the unit. If they pay the fees well and regularly, they can buy the nit outright. We now know that not all PPR dwellers can pay even the RM124 monthly fees.
Wahab, interviewed by Zainal, said: “I suffer from chronic asthma. I stay in the PPR with my married son, who has six children, four of whom are school-going. With a very small income, we struggle daily to survive.”
Zainal said: “Wahab used to get some financial assistance from the Welfare Department. But since he stays with his son, this has stopped. The rule says only one person residing in the same house is eligible to receive the cash handout.
“Since Wahab’s son is getting the cash handout, the old man’s portion has been cut off.”
Zainal’s NGO is an active contributor to the homeless and the poor in and around Chow Kit. He gave another insight.
On many occasions when he distributes food, clothes, diapers and other items to the homeless, he finds that even those living in the PPR join the homeless to get free food!
And then let’s hear the stories narrated by Simpson Khoo, who for many years has been doing programmes to get children of the poor to stay in school and get proper education.
Khoo said the number of dropouts among children from the PPR and elsewhere is rising.
The last few years Khoo did his best to get these children to stay in school. Without such intervention, the number of dropouts would have been higher.
Such inputs from people on the ground are valuable in addressing urban poverty.
Zainal and Khoo are just two of the urban warriors in urban poverty alleviation. Let me introduce you to S. Pasupathi, a lawyer and a director of another NGO called Myskills Foundation.
Myskills has helped more than 2,000 children from dysfunctional families, the homeless and other “problematic situations” to acquire new skills and help them become productive and independent.
Myskills operates a campus in Kalumpang, which is about an hour-long drive towards Tanjung Malim in lower Perak.
Since 2010, Myskills has reached out to 12,000 children and managed to get 1,600 of them enrolled in various courses ranging from plumbing, air-conditioner repair, automotive maintenance and repair, culinary and agriculture.
Another speaker, Zulkefli Mohd Nani, from Salam Relief, narrated his experience as a boy in Singapore in the 70s. He said he used to live in a one-room flat with his family of 10.
He said: “It was really tough. But we had help in the form of tuition for our studies. The least was to help us finish our homework. We learnt discipline. Today, urban poverty in Singapore has been greatly reduced or eradicated. Let’s learn from Singapore.”
With all the inputs coming from 16 speakers and opinions from the audience, it was obvious that new efforts must be thought out if urban poverty is to be tackled effectively.
This led Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad to announce that a master plan is needed to look for an enduring solution to urban poverty.
He correctly said that many efforts have been made. And many more are ongoing. But it’s time to re-assess the effectiveness of these efforts, in line with the Shared Prosperity policy outlined by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in October.
Khalid has given the seminar organisers between six and nine months to come up with the master plan. So, urban warriors, let’s get cracking!
The writer is a former NST group editor. His first column appeared on Aug 27, 1995, as ‘Kurang Manis’
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times