A tale of two cities

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Photograph: 1901.blogs.com/buddyfication/food_for_the_homeless_programme/

We need an overhaul of the kind of developmental economics in Malaysia, especially when the number of senior citizens is rising, along with the cost of living, says Nicholas Chan.

Two personal run-ins with senior citizens some time ago have been memorable – and sad.

No. 1 happened in Kuala Lumpur. A friend and I were taking the KTM Komuter in a roughly one-hour ride to Klang. We stood for most of the journey until we noticed a vacant seat next to an ‘uncle’. However, when we approached that seat, the uncle reacted in a surprisingly wildly manner.

He seemed very defensive of the seat (from his body language, because he did not utter a word). His eyes were darting left and right –for a very long time – just to stare at us. This is the fastest movement of the pupils I have ever seen in a living person.

To be honest, I didn’t know how to deal with the situation. The uncle was like a frightened animal let out of a cage.

We did not take the seat, and he finally calmed down, although still crunched in the seat. Through observation of his dirty fingernails and the soiled bag he carried, I finally figured out he was homeless.

He did not seem to have any plan to get off the train. Perhaps the ride was his way of seeking refuge from the insufferable sun.

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No. 2 happened in Penang. I was having dinner at this refurbished underground level at a mall near Komtar where they had turned the place into a dining zone. You had some ‘middle-class’ eateries and nicer still, a stage for a live band to perform at the public space in the middle.

As the troupe sang, an ‘uncle’ swung his body to the music in a child-like manner, together with his imaginary guitar. Two youngsters came and danced with him in a mocking fashion, as I went back to my food.

The next thing I knew, a tussle had broken out between the two and the uncle. If not for the gallant intervention of the keyboardist and a waitress, the thugs would have beaten up the poor man. A lot of screaming went by, and the people went back to their food and the music.

It should be obvious by now both the uncles were mentally challenged. It is also very likely uncle No. 2 is homeless, too. They were broken, psychologically and socially.

That is not the striking thing. The striking thing is how easy it is for us, the middle class or middle-class aspirants, to forget this part of the world.

It speaks of how when we enjoy ‘development’ by lamenting about the GST holding a Starbucks tumbler, the centrality placed in our perception of this fast-paced consumerist-driven social-media-ready world has made us oblivious to how frayed the fringes really are for urban living.

I can’t help but think what if I had not taken the train (only 17 per cent of the commuters in Kuala Lumpur use public transport, according to a World Bank report) or if I had not dined at a location which packages itself as a middle-class hangout zone but is located surreptitiously in the Komtar region (locals would know this is where the downtrodden loiter) and is placed near the exit, towards the motorcycle parking zones (where customers of lower economic status would have to walk past to claim their vehicles), how would I get in touch with this side of reality?

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That, despite our socio-economic (or even mental health) differences, we are sharing the city.

If I had driven or hung out at my usual places, which are arguably the routine of most middle-class urbanites, there would not not have been a chance for me to see this at all.

The truth is, in cities, we live and socialise in fortified fragments, only interacting with those who pass a certain benchmark in material comfort levels. The lives of the fortunate and secure often do not overlap with those who are debilitated and cast aside by modernity.

This makes it very easy for us to neglect the social costs of the kind of development and materialist expansionism we often take for granted.

Development might be crazy to us with its over-priced condos, hedonistic indulgences and so on, but development actually can drive people crazy, at least some people.

Yes, statistics and reports are abundant – and I believe they point to a rise in homelessness and mental illnesses among our urban populace – but to experience it first-hand is very different.

We can go on some old-folks home or orphanage visit once in a while, but I reckon to have those who literally live amongst us in the cities separated from us will create a dire situation.

It gives rise to a perception, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that we or the city can simply function without them. Inconvenient truths can be buried like how we bury our sorrows with retail therapy.

Tellingly, the two uncles mentioned are Chinese – which is unsurprising given that, according to government statistics, the Chinese actually form the largest group among the Kuala Lumpur homeless.

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To clarify, I am not the saying that the problem has an ethnic dimension to it. But, the dominance of race-based narratives about poverty in the country where the Chinese are often perceived to be omnipotent and rich – vis-a-vis other communities – means that the chances for the uncles to get any assistance are even slimmer.

To its credit, the government has decided in the 11th Malaysia Plan to uplift the socio-economic status of the bottom 40 per cent, regardless of race or religion.

But I am not sure if this group – the elderly, homeless poor – will be covered under state interventions that operate under the political and economic logic that marginalised them in the first place.

The gestures of kind Samaritans can only do so much. What we need is an overhaul of the kind of developmental economics in this country, more so when the segment of elderly citizens is rising, together with the cost of living.

As he danced to the melodies of “Oh! Carol”, the uncle, despite losing quite a bit of his mind, apparently still remembered the song. But sadly, the city appears  to have forgotten him.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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