TOM was a squatter for many years.Recently, he moved to a multi-storey flat with two rooms, a small kitchen and a storeroom that he converted to a bedroom for his brother.
The squatter house that he lived for many years has been demolished, along with many others in the area.
Tom now enjoys piped water and electricity.
It’s a far cry from the wooden shack where he lived with his wife, son and younger brother.
Tom is one of thousands of Kuala Lumpur’s urban poor, living on his daily income as a taxi driver.
His wife works as a cleaner.
Tom’s brother worked as a security guard, but has a problem holding on to a job.
Tom’s life is filled with the daily struggle to survive.
His taxi makes daily pick-ups in and around the city.
He takes Sundays off and he would stay home and enjoy his wife’s cooking.
The cycle is repeated, with slight variations on public holidays and festivals.
I asked him to look at the crystal ball and tell me where he would be in five years or 10 years.
He gave me a blank look. Instead, he said: ‘Tengah fikir kat sapa nak bagi taxi ni. Kat anak atau adik...’ (I’m trying to decide whom to pass the taxi on to, my son or my brother).
That is a small reflection of the urban poor. Who is he going to pass his poverty to?
In five years’ time, the taxi would have depreciated in value.
Not much to leave behind, actually.
Like many other urban poor, Tom struggles to make ends meet.
There are others whose situation are far worse than Tom’s.
There are salaried men with four or five children and their wives are not working.
There are hawkers and petty traders facing mounting debts, living in crammed houses with very small disposable income, if any.
They leave home early in the morning, leaving the children to fend for themselves.
We all read about children playing truant, dropping out of school without going to secondary school and gradually finding themselves drawn into drug abuse, petty crimes and gangsterism.
So where is the future for the urban poor? Is there a future for them? Who really are the urban poor?
Is it true that the urban poor is those commonly referred to as the Bottom 40 per cent category of income earners?
How big is the urban poor population in the city?
Will they be poor forever?
There must be answers to these questions.
It is partly with this in mind that a seminar on alleviating urban poverty will be held this Thursday in Putrajaya.
The problems of urban poverty are not new. They have been around for years.
At one time, the most glaring measure of urban poverty in the city was the huge colony of squatter houses.
The rural-urban migration which intensified in the 1970s saw wooden shacks springing overnight on government and private lands.
Public sanitation was unheard of. Wells were dug and shared.
Later, the government provided standpipes, which enabled the squatters to share clean water.
Latrines were seen along streams, threatening public health like never before.
Over the years, longhouses and low-cost flats replaced squatters.
People like Tom benefited from government-initiated housing projects.
Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel. But wait. These flats only offer better housing than squatters.
A quality life remains elusive. People like Tom struggle everyday to eke a living.
The Thursday seminar is intended to look for fresh and practical ideas on how to alleviate urban poverty.
The one-day seminar is to kick-start a year-long search for a comprehensive and holistic solution to the problem.
Fresh data are to be collected; surveys will be done; interviews will be held to determine who are the real urban poor; what went wrong with all the previous and ongoing efforts to alleviate urban poverty. These are some of the issues to be discussed and debated at the seminar.
Speakers include prominent policymakers, top administrators, former government thinkers and top civil servants, such as Tan Sri Dr Sulaiman Mahbob and Tan Sri Dr Kamal Salih, former Kuala Lumpur mayor Tan Sri Ahmad Phesal Talib and media personality Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar.
They will be joined by professors and researchers from several universities and numerous social activists.
Federal Territories mufti Datuk Dr Zulkifli Albakri will also give his religious perspective on urban poverty.
Non-governmental organisations will also have a voice at the seminar.
Don’t be shocked when you hear their stories.
One of the speakers will tell you how flat-dwellers also join the homeless to take food distributed by good Samaritans and corporate donors in the Chow Kit area.
After the seminar, focus groups and brainstormings will be held between six months and a year to work out an action plan to combat urban poverty.
Researchers, activists, government officers and experts will huddle looking for answers.
We can’t allow the poor to be poor forever, can we?
The writer is a former NST group editor. His first column appeared on Aug 27, 1995, as ‘Kurang Manis’