Reading space aims to make KL inclusive for underprivileged

by Gan Pei Ling, 25 Feb 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

IN downtown Kuala Lumpur, an outdoor mini library has become a reading haven for low-income families and curious tourists.

Housewife Nur Hidayah, 28, from Sabah was browsing through the book collection with her husband and three young children when met on Saturday evening.

“I have been looking for a place (like this). I want to bring my children to the library but am afraid they will be told off for being noisy,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

Her two children – aged four and six – were badgering her to read them the books they found while the youngest, aged two, held on to the father quietly.

Equipped with a random collection of fiction, magazines and children’s books mainly in English, the cosy open-air library in front of the Pit Stop community cafe in Jalan Tun HS Lee was set up by the Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) in early February.

“Previously this was just an empty, idle space. We have a lot of such inactive spaces in KL that can be converted into community spaces,” said the project coordinator and MIP sustainable development committee member Juwariyah Ho.

She said the space, called Lanai MIP, was meant to be a showcase for the World Urban Forum that took place in the capital from February 6 to February 13.

“We’re pleasantly surprised that a lot of people are using it. We hope DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) will let us transform it into a permanent structure,” said Ho.

She said they have received requests to stock more books in Malay and Mandarin and host community activities at the space.

Cities for all

Aside from serving as a free educational space aimed towards younger people and underprivileged communities, Ho said Lanai MIP could also be a case study for town planning students.

“We have brought town planning students from UIA (International Islamic University Malaysia) here. They have only studied in theory about place-making, here they see what it means (in real life),” said Ho.

She explained that place-making is a concept in sustainable development to create inclusive spaces for all, including for the least privileged members of society.

“We hope this would be an eye-opener to local councils. Previously some people were skeptical about our initiative, warning us that the books would be stolen.

“But what we have found is that people would actually ask for permission from our volunteers to read the books,” said Ho.

A week after they removed the volunteers, the space remained well kept and free from vandalism.

Ho said the Petaling Jaya and Shah Alam local councils have also expressed interest in creating such community spaces in their cities.

“Hopefully it will help us bring back the culture of reading,” she said.

Tourist attraction

A mini bus installation at the site has also become popular with local and foreign visitors.

Dozens of tourists paused to take photographs with the installation in the span of less than two hours of The Malaysian Insight’s visit to the site.

“A lot of young people didn’t know that this was a mini bus hub. Only the older generation appreciates the historical value of this space.

“If you tell them Bangkok Bank, automatically they will remember this was a mini bus hub but the young people don’t,” said Ho.

As such, she said MIP is also considering installing an actual mini bus to house the books should DBKL allow the institute to maintain the space for a few years, if not permanently.

“We could have a gallery to educate the young about the mini bus. It’s part of the city’s heritage,” said Ho, a town planner with more than two decades of experience.

MCA chief stands on shaky ground in inflation-hit Bentong

by Gan Pei Ling, 29 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

ASK most locals in the town of Bentong, Pahang, what they think of MCA president Liow Tiong Lai and almost every response will be of approval and praise.

Liow, the member of parliament for Bentong since 1999, is credited with his attempts to boost the local tourism industry in the town, and is described as “down to earth”, “approachable” and “diligent” in his weekly visits and walkabouts.

However, Liow’s constituents’ fondness for him may not necessarily translate to votes at the 14th general election, as concerns of the rising cost of living and inflation have caused many locals to question their earlier support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

The owner of a Chinese restaurant, located just a stone’s throw from Wisma MCA in Bentong, said profits have dropped by up to 60% in the last three years because of the rising cost of ingredients, and with fewer people dining out as many tighten their belts.

“People prefer to eat at home to save cost. Property prices, including shophouses, in town are beyond the reach of people like us,” she said, adding that she has been renting her shop lot, located just a stone’s throw from Wisma MCA, as she cannot afford to buy it from the owners.

This growing discontent, echoed by many others who spoke to The Malaysian Insight during a visit to the town centre, is something the opposition hopes to use to their advantage.

Last night, DAP launched an offensive into the town best known for its lush, rolling hills, fresh produce and the hilltop casino resort of Genting.

DAP has declared its intentions to take down Liow along with MCA deputy president Wee Ka Siong in Ayer Hitam, Johor, in GE14, which must be held by August.

Liow’s position was already shaky since he retained Bentong by a paper-thin margin of 379 votes in 2013, a marked decrease from the thumping majority of 12,549 votes in 2008.

Bentong is one of only seven parliamentary seats that MCA managed to retain in the 2013 polls. It also managed to win 11 state seats nationwide.

No to party loyalty, yes to help

When asked if they thought DAP stands a chance to take over Bentong at the next elections, locals remained tight-lipped on which party they vote would for but told The Malaysian Insight they just wanted a leader who could address and alleviate their economic hardships.

The owner of a coffeeshop, who only gave her surname Lok, said most are grateful to Liow for developing the town.

However, Lok said, while there are more tourists, the prices of goods have skyrocketed and affected locals.

“It’s good that the town is more happening now but food prices like roti canai and durians have increased a lot,” she said.

She added that with the shrinking value of the ringgit, people have to tighten their belts.

“Last time, when we go shopping, RM100 is more than enough to fill the trolley, now even RM200 may not be enough.”

An MCA party insider conceded that it would be a close fight for Liow in the next elections.

“The locals are okay with him but their children who work in the Klang Valley tend to be anti-BN and might sway their parents to vote against Liow,” said the source.

The Chinese restaurant owner, who has been a long-time MCA member, said while Liow is an affable and diligent representative, he has neglected small businesses like hers in his haste to try and bring in larger-scale developments to the former mining town.

This, she said, could well be what sways her vote at GE14.

“It’s not just about the party. It’s about who can solve our problems.”

We don’t know 1MDB but cost of living bites us, says housewife

by Gan Pei Ling, 27 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

RISING goods prices have hit semi-rural households hard, Amanah Bentong chief and former school principal Norhaizan Abu Hassan told the Pakatan Harapan state convention in Pahang today.

“As a housewife, we control and manage all household expenses, we are like the internal minister at home.

“We may not understand the 1MDB scandal fully and its long chronology but increasing petrol price, GST (goods and services tax) have made everything more expensive,” said the 59-year-old mother of five in Kuantan.

The former principal at SMK Tembangau, Triang said homemakers in semi-rural areas in Pahang are struggling to make ends meet as prices of rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar and other basic food items have increased since Barisan Nasional gradually removed their subsidies in 2010.

“Before this, I could buy 10kg of 3A rice for RM18, now it’s RM28.

“If before we can buy 5kg of cooking oil for RM13.50, now it’s RM23,” she said.

Norhaizan added she has received a lot of complaints from housewives in areas like Chemomoi, a Felda estate about an hour from Bentong town.

“Many of them are upset. They tell me they don’t know whether they should continue to support BN.

“A lot of housewives who sell nasi lemak or goreng pisang to supplement their household income are complaining they are not making money anymore.

“What they earn is just enough for them to cover their living costs, they cannot save for the future and their children,” Norhaizan told The Malaysian Insight on the sidelines of the convention.

She hopes Pakatan Harapan can return the subsidies on basic food items to relieve the people’s financial burden, especially for poor families.

“Please make sure basic food items are sold at stable and reasonable prices.”

Norhaizan spoke during a morning session allocated for representatives from various segments of society in Pahang to air their views and grouses at the PH state convention.

Other representatives include from the Orang Asli, varsity students, environmental NGOs and Felda.

Orang Asli still marginalised after six decades of BN rule in Pahang

by Gan Pei Ling, 27 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

ORANG Asli still lack recognition for their customary land rights and access to basic infrastructure such as electricity, roads and water till today, representatives said at the Pakatan Harapan convention in Pahang today.

“We know the Malaysian government can rob our land in future. We are afraid our children may not have homes to take shelter in and lands to feed themselves,” said Singgol Oleh, 43, from Kampung Tual, Pos Sinderut, Kuala Lipis.

“We are afraid future generations of Semai people will be forgotten because of the lost of our ancestral land. This has to change.”

He told the 200-odd audience that their ancestral lands around Cameron Highlands have been gazetted as permanent forest reserve.

“This means that the land belongs to the Malaysian government. It also means we have lost our customary land, and our identity as natives is threatened,” he said.

Pos Sinderut is home to some 14 Orang Asli villages with about 1,200 people.

Singgol said he hopes a new government will return the Orang Asli their customary land.

Zainal Kaptar, 36, from another village in Pos Sinderut, said the lack of electricity supply in makes it difficult for their children to study at night.

“We often hear that Malaysia is becoming an advanced country, with skyscrapers, luxury hotels, highways… do you know that a lot of us still live without electricity?” said Zainal.

He added that when it rains, some villages are totally cut off from the outside world as the roads are destroyed by landslides.

“There is a stark difference between the infrastructure given to the Orang Asli compared to other races. Why does this difference exist? Aren’t we Malaysians too?” said Zainal.

Norhadi Nordin, 25, also from Pos Sinderut said many Orang Asli children want to further their studies but lack the opportunity.

“There is only one primary school in Pos Sinderut. Some pupils still don’t know how to read, write or calculate properly after six years of education.

“Whose fault is it? Whose responsibility is it to teach the children in schools? Our village chiefs have spoken to the school a few times but our appeals fell on deaf ears,” he told The Malaysian Insight at the side of the convention.

Norhadi added that it is still difficult for Orang Asli youth to get a place in vocational colleges.

“We hope the future Malaysian government can take education for Orang Asli seriously,” he said.

Hannah Yeoh on balancing politics, family life

by Gan Pei Ling, 22 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

HANNAH Yeoh made history when she was sworn in as the youngest, first female state speaker in the country at the age of 34 on June 22, 2013. She also became a mother after giving birth to her second child earlier that year.

Barely a few months into her term though, the new Selangor speaker was thrown into the deep end when PKR initiated the controversial “Kajang move” to remove Khalid Ibrahim as the Selangor menteri besar.

“That was probably the most challenging time in my five years as speaker,” Yeoh told The Malaysian Insight at her office in Shah Alam.

Nonetheless, the political dramas that ensued did not distract a focused and driven Yeoh to cement the legislative reforms her predecessor Teng Chang Khim had initiated.

In 2014, the Selangor assembly amended its standing orders to make it compulsory for the opposition leader to be made the Public Accounts Committee chairman.

The state assembly also amended its standing orders to make it mandatory to broadcast live its proceedings and to give the opposition leader a last chance to speak at the end of a sitting by introducing opposition time.

Although Selangor Barisan Nasional has not made full use of these opportunities, Yeoh said it is still important for her to push through these democratic changes to set the Selangor assembly apart from the others.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come to an ordinary girl my age. I wanted to make full use of the time and prove that a woman can perform when we are given the opportunity to do so.”

She also introduced Adun Muda (youth assemblyman), allowing youth age between 18 and 24 to experience debating in the state assembly.

“The experience is unique to them. The whole idea is to make the state assembly a more human place. If we want to encourage young people to become lawmakers, we have to start them young.”

If there is any regret for Yeoh, it would be the failure to push through the Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment (Selesa) 2009 that would restore the state assembly’s financial independence.

Yeoh, who won Subang Jaya seat by 13,851 votes and 28,069 votes in 2008 and 2013, said she is contented with being an assemblyman and has no aim to become a member of parliament.

Here, she shares the challenges of being a female politician and the wisdom she has gained after a decade in politics.

TMI: Do you face challenges to your job as a speaker because of your sex?

Yeoh: Thankfully, no. I never saw it as a disadvantage. The only thing I didn’t like is the costume of the speaker. I requested for the height of the songkok to be lowered so that I look like a woman. It’s not feminine enough, that’s my only complaint.

Also, when I attended official functions with my husband, they didn’t know how to treat him. He was with the wives of the other excos (executive councillors). It was awkward in the beginning.

TMI: How is the relationship between you and the menteri besar?

Yeoh: I think it’s a healthy tension that every speaker needs to have with the head of the executive. I will be more worried if the speaker feels indebted to the head of the executive.

Azmin Ali is a very hands-on menteri besar. He is always in the house. He takes down notes as the assemblymen are debating.

The house becomes a real platform for assemblymen to raise issues when they know the head of executive is there listening.

I think Selangor and Penang have also worked out a good model where the head of legislative and executive come from different parties.

TMI: You joined politics in 2008. It has been almost 10 years. Can you share some of the key lessons learnt?

Yeoh: I think politics have done a lot of good for my soul. My stress level is a lot better compared with when I was a lawyer.

Last time, I would have been easily stressed out by a nasty email. Now I have learnt not to take it personally. You know you have to deal with malicious lies and full-time cybertroopers who will use your faith as a weapon against you.

After I gave birth, I gained weight and they would always choose the fattest photo, who would want that permanently on the internet?

(But) when you are faced with this kind of challenges every day, you have to force yourself to remain sane. You cannot be stressed out.

You have to be very disciplined at what you carry at the back of your head when you go home. I’m also a mother and a wife, if I allow that kind of stress to affect me then I cannot function as a mother.

As a working mother, when I’m at work, I feel guilty for not being with my children and when I’m with my children, I feel guilty for not being at work. I don’t know whether other working women have that kind of tension within them, but I definitely do.

TMI: Have your children or husband complained?

Yeoh: My children are not old enough yet to physically stop me from going out. But they have asked me why do I have to work at night.

Weekends are supposed to be family time but as a politician, we are expected to work over the weekend.

My husband always says we have to be fair to our kids. They never signed up for a public life. Finding the work-life balance is crucial.

I have not been the perfect mother. There is a lot of room for improvement. It’s still work in progress.

TMI: Is your husband supportive?

Yeoh: I don’t think I can find a more supportive spouse in my role as an assemblyman and as a speaker.

I think it’s crucial for women in politics to have a spouse who is equally interested in politics. I can discuss politics with my husband.

I tell a lot of single women who want to join politics, you have to make sure your spouse will understand you. The work is very demanding and time consuming.

I think with the right support structure – family, spouse, party and coalition, you can flourish.

TMI: Does this mean you will stay in politics?

Yeoh: I will continue for as long as I’m needed. I think the danger of people who see politics as their life calling is that you can overstay when the people don’t want you any more.

There are a lot of politicians who feel entitled, that they need to continue, that the nation needs them. I actually look forward to the time when I’m no longer needed.

There are some politicians who don’t know what to do if they are not in politics. I don’t ever want to be that. I don’t want to change who I am just to win power or win votes.

I surround myself with people who can still speak to me and tell me to my face “no you’re doing the wrong thing”. (Laughs) I have a lot of friends like that. It keeps you grounded. It’s so important.

Don’t change your friends when you’re in power.

The green warrior fighting to save our forests

by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

ARRESTED, stonewalled by state agencies and politely shunned by friends and politicians, outspoken environmentalist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil has colourful tales to tell of her thankless role as a defender of the forest.

Since setting up the Association for the Protection of Malaysia’s Natural Heritage (Peka) in 2010, Shariffa Sabrina has waged “war” against deforestation in Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Selangor and Penang.

But it’s a lonely battle that she and very few like her are fighting.

“When we meet the Forestry Department, they always say their hands are tied. When we meet the federal government, they say forests are under the state governments.

“We’re often treated like ping-pongs,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

In late 2016, the 55-year-old and her assistant Norhayati Shahrom were arrested and remanded for allegedly making insulting remarks against the Johor ruler.

“We were thrown in a lock-up and treated like criminals just because we asked why the last permanent forest reserve in Mersing is being degazetted to plant oil palm,” she said.

“Our forests are like ATM machines for some people. They think logging is a fast way to make money. Once the forests are cleared up, how are you going to make money?

“And what do you get from logging? Can you make the rakyat rich? (The) Pahang (government) is still in debt. The Kelantan people are still poor.”

Lonely fight

Over the years, the owner of the award-winning Tanah Aina Resorts in Pahang said she has tried in vain to pitch to state governments the idea of adopting eco-tourism as a means of sustainable development over logging.

Peka’s success in halting logging activities around Fraser’s Hill in Pahang last year is one of the environmental watchdog’s rare victories in its struggle for nature conservation.

“Eco-tourism is sustainable even though it takes a longer time to develop. You also provide long-term jobs for the locals as tour guides and hospitality staff,” said Shariffa Sabrina, citing Taman Negara as one of the successful examples of eco-tourism.

When asked whether some of her friends from wealthy and influential backgrounds have backed her environmental campaigns, Shariffa Sabrina’s answer was in the negative.

“They just say what I’m doing is good. Full stop. They won’t go beyond.”

Instead, she said, the answer to halting unrestrained deforestation lies in the power of the people.

“The only solutions I can find are the voices from the rakyat. Society, residents of the kampung should come out and go against destruction of green lungs like (the those in Taman Tun Dr Ismail did for) Bukit Kiara.

“If we’re strong together to go against deforestation, the government will think twice (before cutting down forests).”

The certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor draws motivation to fight the unpopular battle against environmental wrongdoings from her love for the forests.

“I look at things differently… My parents divorced when I was four years old. I never had a mother’s love. My mother left me.

“Two things made me happy (growing up): playing sports and trekking in the forests.

“When you go back to nature, it makes you feel very serene, peaceful and happy,” said the feisty Penangite wistfully.

“It gives us so much of benefit, why are we destroying it?”