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The Kampong Medan Tragedy

Act now to resolve the problems of marginalised communities!

by Dr Xavier Jayakumar

squatters It is another day with the sun rising over Letchumi’s house as she opens the windows. The Twin Towers can be seen in the distance, but she doesn’t even glance at them. She has to send her husband off to work while her children leave for school, without breakfast as usual. She will herself go to work as casual help in a nearby office. About her house, there is the pervasive stench of uncollected rubbish. It is part of life for those living in the KTM rumah panjang (longhouse) in Kampung Medan.

Welcome to Kampong Medan

Let me introduce Kampung Medan, an area which lies within the Petaling Jaya Selatan parliamentary constituency. It is PJ’s backwater where politicians visit only to seek votes, once every five years.

An area of ethnic diversity, Kampung Medan’s residents comprise 70 per cent Malays, 20 per cent Indians and 10 ten per cent Chinese. The Malays live in low-cost flats and houses. The Chinese are scattered, while the Indians live in longhouses and squatter settlements.

The longhouses were meant to provide temporary shelter, but the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has defined ‘temporary’ to be as long as 25 – 30 years.

Residents in certain areas obtain electricity from a private company which charges a higher rate than Tenaga Nasional Berhad. There is no proper water supply. Sanitation is very poor.

As you enter the area it becomes evident that poverty does not recognise race. The residents of all races share the same problems: cramped living conditions, clogged drains, poor drainage and rubbish everywhere.

There are no medical facilities, no playgrounds and no recreational facilities whether for children or adults. Most of all one senses a pervasive feeling that nobody cares.

Groups, Gangs and a Time Bomb

Here groups and gangs are formed to meet basic needs since guidance and attention are lacking in a crowded home and a competitive neighbourhood. The young ones turn to a big brother for advice and safety in the belief that loyalty and honour will provide for their basic needs.

They do get security and respect but the only way for them to maintain either is to be part of a politics of violence and fear. Drugs are readily available and drug addiction is common. It is said that prostitution is also present.

The Kampung Medan society comprises factory workers, petty traders, hawkers, drivers, mechanics and, surprisingly, some civil servants (a fact which now embarasses the ruling elite.) Promises have been made to the residents but the promises have not been fulfilled. The people feel that they have been left to fend for themselves. The situation was a socio-economic time bomb, just waiting to go off.

What Actually Happened?

There were a funeral, a wedding and a misunderstanding over a broken lorry window. These led to an episode which rapidly got out of hand and became full-blown racial clash.

When we visited the area, we were told that fights were a common occurrence and hence nothing to worry about. (What an environment in which to bring up children!) Typically the people involved in the fights would be sent to the clinic and no one would even bother to make a police report. After that life would go on as ‘normal’.

But this latest episode was different. Why?

The Police Force has to answer a few questions. Why were the police so late in attending to the initial problem? Stories have been told about the complacency of the police and how they did not respond when some atrocities took place in front of them. Faster and firmer police action could have reduced the extent of injuries and deaths.

Reconciliation and Responsibility

A group of us from Barisan Alternatif (BA) went to Kampung Medan to start a process of reconciliation that would tone down fear, tension and distrust between the different communities. Our purpose was to convey BA’s solidarity with the residents and help bring peace, harmony and goodwill to Kampung Medan.

The BN government had to be pushed to provide aid, shelter and protection for the people. The ADUN for the constituency made a malicious, inflammatory and provocative statement but that went unnoticed by the MIC. It is ironic that the ADUN, having won the previous election with strong backing from Kampung Medan’s Indian community, forgot the community at a time when they most needed her assistance.

Even one death in these circumstances would have been a tragedy. The six deaths at Kampung Medan make the episode a catastrophe. Never in the history of the country, apart from May 13 1969, have we seen such atrocities. We Malaysians started the new millenium with a huge bang and so it is very unfortunate that something as disastrous as this could happen.

Keep on waiting?

It is shameful that after 43 years’ experience of ruling, MIC had to wait for six deaths and 42 injured, some seriously, before it could get street lights fixed and a road built to provide a separate entry to the main road.

Once again the residents are promised low-cost houses. But how many more deaths will it take before a medical clinic can be set up? When was it necessary for Malaysians to sacrifice lives to have their basic needs met? The police presence has helped calm the situation but the police must constantly take and be seen to take fair and firm action when discharging their duties.

The biggest share of the blame, however, must go to the decision-makers and specifically to key Cabinet ministers. It helps no one for them to shed tears in the hospital. If they truly feel so helpless, the correct thing for them to do is to step down. The minority and the marginalised have to be protected by the majority and by the people in power. Elected representatives have to be very sensitive regarding what they say.

One wonders if there is a hidden agenda according to which unscrupulous people play with the lives of a group of people who are poor and marginalised and don’t have much political clout. It would be a shame if the poor are treated as if they are merely somebody’s dispensable tools.

Genuine Unity and Positive Action

It is everyone’s duty and responsibility to come together and resolve this together. Let’s not just think of ‘Malay unity’. It is more important that we talk about interethnic unity or national unity. Let’s not forget that there are ‘Kampung Medans’ all over Malaysia.

Even as we discuss the problems of the marginalised in our society (often comfortably in middle-class homes), numerous children go to school without first having proper meals. These children, whether they come from estates or squatter areas, will probably not do well in school. They will be caught in a vicious cycle of failure.

Mere words will not help in any way. Many Malaysians feel like they are third class citizens. Their ‘realism’, cynicism really, comes from experience and knowing that mainstream society ignores them. The result is the perpetuation of an increasingly aggrieved population.

To resolve this problem, political leaders must change their attitudes. They must see the need for the government to play a central role, via affirmative action, to uplift the lives of the marginalised.

We must realize and accept that ethnic relations in our country are very superficial and fragile. This is the result of 43 years of rule by the powers that be. Their policies, which include institutionalised racism, have produced a situation where poverty and squalor can be the trigger which sparks violence and bloodshed.

Now is the time for all Malaysians to stand together against those, from any quarter, who, for their personal gain, threaten the precious live we have.

Dr Xavier Jayakumar is a member of the Supreme Council of Parti Keadilan Nasional.