Last weekend, I made a visit to the other side of the tracks. The occasion was a sad one. It was to attend a Hindu prayer ceremony for a young woman of 40 who passed away from leukemia after a brief illness. She was the daughter of M, a long time family friend of Indian descent.
He worked for my parents on and off for some 45 years, initially as our gardener and later on in various roles as the need arose. He watched me and my siblings grow up. In the same way, we also witnessed his family grow up and his pride as he toiled hard to provide for his four children, giving them education and opportunities in life that he and his wife never had.
I had visited M and his family many years before in their home which was at that time in an illegal squatter village but after saving money and lobbying the government for affordable low cost housing, he and his family moved into a tiny two room, 600 sq feet flat.
This was my first visit to M’s current home. My wife was very concerned. It was located on the “wrong side of the tracks” – an area that in the mind of middle-class citizens like myself is out of bounds; a nasty and unsafe place with gangsters ready to pounce on anyone that doesn’t belong there.
Indeed, there was a feeling of neglect and apprehension when I got there. M’s home is part of a series of low cost flats. There were seven blocks; each block had 20 floors with 20 units on each floor. But the units are tiny and the corridors are cramped. The stairwells are dark and dirty. Everyone was in so close proximity and the walls were so thin that privacy was practically non-existent. While we were participating in the prayer ceremony, we could hear the neighbors cheering on the national soccer team whose game with rivals Singapore was being telecasted on the TV.
The main prayer ceremony took place in M’s small hall which could only accommodate about 20 people standing packed like sardines around the priest who sat in a lotus position in front of an altar. Another 10-15 peered in from the narrow corridor outside the flat and another 30 well wishers sat near a modest offering of food and refreshments that had been placed near the stairwell. Unlike the flats in Singapore which have a communal hall in each block for residents to use for such occasions, these flats do not have such facilities.
I was very conspicuously out of place. Firstly, every body else present was of Indian descent; very dark skinned. Despite my recent attempts at a tan, I was whiter than Snow White by contrast (or should I have said, Prince Charming?). Next, with the exception of M’s eldest son, I stood a full head and shoulders over everyone. Almost all of them knew very little English and while they could speak Malay, the national language, most chose to use their mother tongue, Tamil. Hence, my conversations were limited to polite chatter about the food and the weather.
The weather! Despite the rain, it was stuffy and humid and I stood out again cause I was sweating like a pig whereas, the rest were quite used to the conditions and were perspiration free. (Actually, do pigs sweat a lot? Just wondering where the saying comes from.)
So to summarize, I was white, tall, sweaty, non-Tamil speaking and clearly not from the hood.
Anyway, the reason for this rambling post is that it was a reminder to me how much the gulf between worlds of the rich and poor in Malaysia has widened.
Don’t get me wrong. I have seen abject poverty; families living in wooden shacks with leaking roofs, rotting floorboards and in real danger of collapsing. M is not poor. He is in the lower income group. He has worked hard. His children have all done better than he has in terms of better paying jobs. He would be proud of his achievements. But this is what gets me. He deserves to be living in better conditions than this urban and concrete monstrosity. I feel he had more space, had more privacy, a cooler environment and a more lively and caring community when all he had was a squatter hut.
I am ashamed to say that I was quite fearful for my safety as I left the flat that night. It felt like I was on the radar of every predatory gangster as I walked along the poorly lit path back to my car.
This wasn’t always the case. I remember that when I was growing up, the gap between the rich and poor was not so wide. I had childhood friends from every tier of society. I had friends who lived in palatial homes full of marble and rosewood furniture. I had friends whose mothers would treat us to cake and imported chocolates when we visited. I also had friends who lived in dark dingy spaces above sundry shops in old pre-war buildings in the centre of town. Dark and dingy but yet I remember them as cool and welcoming too. I also had friends who lived in tiny pigeon hole flats but there was much more community spirit in those days. Why, one childhood highlight was to visit one such friend during Chinese New Year and take part in a fireworks war where we shoot off rockets at other schoolmates who live in the block of flats opposite. One day, we would visit someone and play with his drum set and the next we would visit someone else and catch tadpoles in the drain behind his shack.
In those days, being rich did not make you separate from the rest of society. You may build a big mansion but it would still be found in the same neighbourhood with everyone else. You may be rich but back then you still did your marketing in the same neighbourhood wet market or at the same sundry shop. You may be rich but everyone enjoyed sipping coffee in a traditional Chinese coffee shop.
In contrast, today, the rich seclude themselves behind security walls and gated communities and the poor are hidden in distant parts of town or behind colourful billboards and hoardings. The rich today have abandoned the wet market and shop only in high end supermarkets and complexes. The coffee shop has been abandoned in favour of Starbucks and CoffeeBean. Their children are now enrolled in private schools where everyone is from some shade of wealthy.
And so, many of the rich have no idea what life is on the other side of the tracks. Like me, I think we need to go there and be reminded that life is about much more than just money in the bank.
For M, his daughter leaves behind a young son (his father died in a road accident before he was born) and despite M’s advanced age, he may have to keep on working to help raise the boy. His struggle continues but so does his joy for he has done much with his life with what he has been given.