5 girls and a tale of hope, despair in Kuala Lumpur’s public housing
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5 girls and a tale of hope, despair in Kuala Lumpur’s public housing

THEY are the children left behind in Malaysia’s race for high-income status.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur’s public housing flats, these girls lost the lottery of life at birth. Now, in a wealthy city, they grow up in a tragic mix of food deprivation, non-reversible cognitive development and lost opportunities.

But they are hopeful for the future. These are their stories:

Ika

It’s normal for Ika to skip meals. For the teenager living in the Desa Rejang social housing project, just 15 minutes away from KL’s gleaming Twin Towers, the end of the month means going hungry for at least one meal. Sometimes, almost every day.

“My stomach’s used to not eating. It’s normal,” the 16-year-old told Asian Correspondent.

There’s just not enough money to buy food. Or furniture. In her unit, they sit on a cement floor to watch the TV in the living room.

Her mother, 48-year-old Sayani, earns RM500 (US$128) monthly from babysitting two of their neighbour’s children. Ika’s dad does not give alimony, she says. They get some government aid, but barely enough for her and her two children living with her, to get by in their 700-square-foot unit.

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Desa Rejang social housing project. Source: Lee Lian Kong

From the outside, the recently painted public flats look like they could belong in the affluent Malaysian city. After all, their neighbourhood Sri Rampai, hosts some of the most luxurious condominiums available in Kuala Lumpur,  where some penthouses fetch more than RM1 million (US$255,820).

These properties surround Ika’s RM124-a-month (US$30-a-month) home but they are of two different worlds: One for the haves, the other for the have-nots.

SEE ALSO: In wealthy Kuala Lumpur, the tragedy of child poverty in its public flats

It’s clear which one is Ika’s – the one where pools of water flood the common areas when it rains. Where faeces and urine plague the stairs. Where snatch thieves roam. Where children study on the floor, because they can’t afford tables.

It’s hardly a place for a child to grow up in. Yet, these public flats are where thousands of the city’s children call home.

Almost all (99.7 percent) live below the relative poverty line, a recent Unicef report found.

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A teddy bear is dumped near the parking lot of Desa Rejang public flats. Source: Lee Lian Kong

Sayani tears up when she describes how she tries to treat her two children on weekends.

“Do you know the RM1 (US$0.25) sundae cone McDonald’s has?” she asks. That’s all they can afford, she says.

Ika, weighing 49kg for her 1.61m frame and underweight by international health standards, knows she’s poor. But she says her family is not the type to show this.

“Mum always tells us to just accept what we have, and what we don’t.”

Ain

Ain is Ika’s best friend who lives on the opposite block. Once a year, she goes to the bookstore to buy romantic novels using money she gets during Eid.  “Kimchi Untuk Awak” (Kimchi For You) is her favourite.

But Eid money isn’t enough to pay for her school supplies at the beginning of the school year. Textbooks are provided, but each student in Malaysian schools has to buy their own exercise books, notebooks and other school supplies.

For Ain’s family, that added up to more than RM300 (US$76) – 10 percent of their household income – for the four school-going children this year.

SEE ALSO: Long denied education, Rohingya children start school in exile

Though Ain is slightly more privileged than Ika by having a double-income family, her parents’ salaries alone aren’t enough to cover these costs. As a driver and clinic assistant, they work just as hard as the average worker in Malaysia, but for far less. Data shows for every hour a worker elsewhere earns RM12 per hour (US$3 per hour), workers like Ain’s parents from KL’s public flats earn only RM9 per hour (US$2.30 per hour).

They ended up borrowing from relatives.

They have to. There are bigger bills to pay. Ain’s younger sister, Aina, is getting her chronically swollen tonsils removed this month.

If given financial aid, Ain says she doesn’t want any of it for herself.

“I will use the money to lessen my family’s and sister’s burden,” she says.

Hasinah

From where they stay, Ika and Ain can see the 88-floors KL Twin Towers rising over the rest of the city. Another 118-floors megatower is being built nearby.

The public housing they live in is also an architectural feat – In an area less than 40,000sq m, 2,791 units can be squeezed into the twelve 19-storey tower blocks.

How the girls go up and down these blocks – Ika and Ain both live on the 17th floor – changes every day. If the lift isn’t working, which they say is often, they take the stairs – all 17 floors of them – to get to school.

Another friend of theirs, Hasinah, says this is the most difficult part about living here.

“The stairs are full of urine and rubbish,” she said.

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Rubbish found in the common area in the tower block Hasinah and Ain live in. Source: Lee Lian Kong

Hasinah thinks it is unfair that she is poor. There’s no certainty about anything, and her life is dictated by how often the lift decides to break down and stay broken without being repaired.

It’s a lifestyle at risk of mental illness in the future. There’s always a mental health cost to growing up poor, according to Dr Asbah Razali, a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at University Malaya.

Feeling deprived since young puts them at “high risk” of mental illness, she says. It’s worsened when they constantly feel negative emotions such as sadness, stress, isolation and shame among their more privileged friends.

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Hasinah says she is happiest when she is with her three cats. Source: Lee Lian Kong

“It’s hard for us to imagine having an easier life,” Hasinah said.

Once a year, however, her mother tries to give her that. At a nearby supermarket, is a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant where she takes Hasinah to during the end-of-year school holidays. It’s the only Colonel’s meal Hasinah gets all year.

Arina

Less than one in eight public housing residents live above the relative poverty line. In KL, that means earning more than half the city’s median income, which is RM4,536.

Arina’s family earns less than that, but the confident 16-year-old insists she is not poor.

She explains she has enough, doesn’t go hungry and can pay for her school supplies. The only thing she wishes there’s more money for is for tuition and so that she can take more subjects in school.

“We aren’t poor. We just can’t afford,” she says.

This reasoning would bode well for a government that wants to believe in the success of its economic and anti-poverty policies. Official statistics define families like Arina’s as living above the urban poverty line, set at  RM970 a month. Based on this, only seven percent of KL’s public flats households are considered poor.

That is a futile indicator, at best. In reality, it disguises what children like Ika, Ain, Hasinah and Arina live through every day.

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How the Malaysian government measures poverty masks the reality of these five girls’ lives. Source: Vikneswaran Gnanasegran / data from Unicef

A truer representation of poverty uses the relative poverty line, which measures income according to the minimum amount of money needed to maintain the average standard of living in the society in which they live.

By this measure, the results are truer. And more tragic – Almost all (99.7 percent) of children like Ika, Ain, Hasinah and Arina living in Kuala Lumpur’s public flats live in poverty.

If there’s need for more proof, they could measure their waistlines. Malnutrition is rife among them – among those aged below five years old, stunting and wasting is twice the city’s average.

Hanisah

In advocacy, it is considered a good strategy to use children as the face of a campaign. People tend to feel more emotional from this, sparking more action and donations. Politicians, in turn, usually respond.

This did not happen with the recent Unicef report which highlighted the deprivation these children in Kuala Lumpur’s public flats face.

The Federal Territories Ministry, which is in charge of public housing, denounced the report as “highly suspicious” and told local daily The Star that they and the government “have never been negligent in providing the best services in every aspect”.

“We are a very caring government,” said the city’s mayor Mohd Amin Nordin Abd Aziz.

The education minister said the report is “not true”. 

All did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

In Parliament, the Speaker rejected a motion by the lower house to debate the report, saying the ministries involved are already going through the report.

“It is not a matter of public urgency or interest,” wrote the rejection letter.

Yet, it’s hard to find a more worthy cause for the government to invest in.

Unicef’s Deputy Representative Dr Amjad Rabi said Malaysia has the capability to eradicate child poverty because of its “tremendous achievement” in reducing extreme poverty. Pre-independence, half the country’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, only less than one percent of its population today still do, the senior policy specialist said.

And one intervention that could significantly improve these children’s wellbeing is through targeting help towards the time from pre-birth to five years. More nutrition and help during these early years can prevent stunting, which can impair children’s cognitive development irreversibly, according to medical research.

A RM200(US$51) universal monthly child care allowance would allow mothers to invest in more nutrition for the cognitive development of their children. It would cost the Malaysian government around RM3 billion a year (US$0.77 billion), less than one percent of its GDP.

Failure to take action now will cost the country’s productivity in the future, Amjad said.

It may already have cost Hanisah her dreams.

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Hanisah is an aspiring photographer while her best friend, Erin, wants to be a doctor. Source: Lee Lian Kong

Hanisah spends her waking hours in front of the television, analysing how popular shows set, arrange and create their scenes. Her favourites are Project Runway and Ready, Set, Action.

One day, she wants to be the person in charge of taking those beautiful shots.

But she’s yet to tell her mother about this. Her mother feels she should get a job with the government instead, as the income will be more stable.

It’s another facet of poverty we often overlook: Opportunity. Hanisah may have just as much talent as any other child in Kuala Lumpur but the opportunities for her are far fewer.

SEE ALSO: Beijing’s migrant crackdown leaves up to 15,000 children without education

Many of us cling on to the hope that if they study hard, poor students can escape poverty. It’s a hope Hanisah holds on to as well.

But education is no longer the great social mobility tool it once was.

With no preschool background, no tables to study on and no nourishing food, these children in public flats are expected to compete for the same grades, same scholarships and same jobs as their more privileged, privately-tutored peers.

It’s a race they’ve lost before it’s begun.

Hanisah doesn’t know this. For now, she’s hopeful of one day travelling the world as a photographer or camerawoman. With enough money saved up, she wants to buy a bigger house for her parents and siblings to stay in.

“I want a better life for my family.”