Monday, February 23, 2009

Heart-wrenching stories of housebuyers

I SYMPATHISE with the plight of Taman Sri Manja residents in Old Klang Road, whose houses are sinking. Reading their story recently reminded me of the predicament faced by my father-in-law in Malacca 15 years ago, although on a lesser scale.

The poor man had used his savings to buy his dream home. However, unknown to him, the house was built on swamp land and six months after he moved in, the foundation began to sink. Another six months down the road, cracks started to appear on the walls and soon, some of the gaps were large enough to allow one's hand to slip through.

Although the house was considered safe because the beams did not show signs of impending failure, my father-in-law and his neighbours knew that the developer had not been entirely honest with them. Patching up was done at the developer's whim and fancy, and before long, two years had passed and the liability period during which developers were required to undertake any remedial measure for free had ended.

My father-in-law has since accepted his bad luck and continues to live in the house, occasionally reminded of the mental anguish he had to live with when guests asked about the partially patched-up cracks which bore grim reminders of his encounter with a bad developer.

News about house buyers being given the short end of the stick is not new. The path to successful house purchase is littered with even more heart-wrenching stories of deals gone sour. Some of the luckier ones only have to deal with poor aesthetics but the not-so-lucky ones end up with a lifetime of problems -- or until they manage to sell the property to an unsuspecting secondhand buyer.

The unluckiest ones are those who have no choice but to live with the nightmare for the rest of their lives. This is because more often than not, they have spent their entire savings on what was supposed to be their dream homes.

The guidelines for successful house ownership are simple: check the developer's reputation and track record and don't be taken in by sweet sales talk. But really, is there any guarantee that cunning will not outwit intelligence and you will not end up with a lemon after all the trouble?

If you remember, back in the mid 1990s, the frenzy of house ownership had driven property prices sky high and everyone who had any opinion would tell anyone who would listen that one should live far away from the city to avoid traffic jams and to get better value for the shrinking ringgit.

Droves of sensible people made a beeline for the new townships north of Kuala Lumpur. Houses were unbelievably cheap and at that time, it appeared quite logical to live away from the city centre, after all there is a highway which connects the townships with the city and it shouldn't take more than 30 minutes' leisurely drive to get to work and home daily.

What the careful buyers forgot to figure out then was that fuel prices would go up one day, and so would toll charges. And when the combined expenses amounted to a huge chunk of their salaries, many realised that it was wiser to stay put in the city.

The glossy townships painted in the developers' colourful advertisements are today sparsely populated urban outbacks. Some of the housebuyers were careful people like you and I. But in the end, they end up paying for the bank loans and maintenance fees for a place that they no longer want.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Paying more for less in the city

HOW much does it cost to get by in Kuala Lumpur these days? When life was less complicated two-and-a-half decades ago, rooms cost about RM70 a month on the fringe of the city -- unfurnished, except for a table, a chair, and maybe, a thermos flask. No beds -- you just use your own two-inch thick tilam (foam mattress) which you got from the pasar malam for RM15. Furnished rooms, with bed, table and study light cost about three times more back then.

Breakfast was only about 90 sen -- 40 sen for a roti canai kosong and 50 sen for a glass of teh tarik. A budget of RM1.60 will get you a modest two vegetables and one meat chap fun (mixed rice) for lunch. Iced Chinese tea or suet char costs only 10 sen. Some stalls even throw in free tea but usually by the time you got there, the dishes would be all gone.

Dinner cost about the same and if it were the end of the month and the paycheque was nowhere in sight, two roti canai kosong downed with ais kosong (iced tap water) would usually be sufficient to fill a growling belly.

Transport cost about RM1.50 a day then, if you take two buses to work and about RM3 a week on petrol if you go on your Honda cub like the wiser among us did.

For about RM450 a month, you could survive in the city. You spend about RM250 on food monthly, RM70 on board and lodging, and about RM50 for transportation. You could still send home about RM50 every month to your family. Heck, if you know how to save, you could even have a bare-bones treat at the cinema once a fortnight.

Of course, you would have to do your own laundry, join the queue to see the doctor at the Klinik Kerajaan if medical treatment is not included in your job offer, and for entertainment, you would have to depend on your landlady's television set -- if you pay your rent on time, that is.

Today, despite earning three times what you earned two-and-a-half decades ago, it is still not enough to make ends meet. Rooms go for between RM600 and RM800 unfurnished, 50 per cent more if furnished, and more if you choose to live anywhere near upper class suburbs like Bangsar. There are cheaper areas, of course, but only if you don't mind the rowdy neighbourhood or longer travel distance to work.

Food can easily set you back RM20 a day. Nescafe tarik costs RM1.60 and roti canai RM1.20. Even the price of nasi campur has leapt to about RM4 for a two-vegetable, one-meat set. Some places even charge for iced tap water -- 30 sen or more depending on the location. And we have not even factored in transport costs yet or cigarettes, if you smoke.

A salary of a thousand ringgit today will probably take you only a quarter of the distance which it got us in those days, and much less if your expectations are higher than what your pockets permit.

It's tough living in the city, but not impossible. The streets, at a glance, may not be paved with gold but there are precious nuggets if you know where to look.

Being frugal, not trying to keep up with Ali, Ah Kow or Ramasamy, and tailoring your needs to the size of your pockets can stretch your ringgit pretty far. Of course, working hard helps, too.

Monday, February 9, 2009

More has to be done to fight an old enemy

ARE you concerned about the aedes scourge? You should be, especially if you live on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur, such as in Old Klang Road, Ampang, Gombak or even Sentul, where illegal factories, squatter areas, construction sites and dirty hawker centres are the norm.

A few weeks ago, Health Minister Datuk Liow Tiong Lai released these worrisome numbers -- 4,221 dengue cases with 12 fatalities were reported from Jan 1 to 23. The figure was almost double the 2,153 cases and five deaths recorded during the same period last year.

The majority of cases happened in the Klang Valley, with Kuala Lumpur recording 409 cases and two deaths in the first three weeks of this month, compared to only 270 cases for the same period last year.

As usual, the public has been told be on the alert and to take measures to keep aedes at bay, etc, you know, the usual drill when there is not much left to say.

The dengue scourge is not new. Go through the newspaper archives and you will find enough reports to make a book. And in most of the stories, the faceless Joe and Jill Public have been blamed for the scourge's continuance and told to be more responsible. I couldn't agree more -- dirty people breed diseases.

I do consider myself a responsible member of the public. Where I live, the management of the condominium frequently carries out fogging.

I am sure other condominium managers do the same -- it is immaterial whether it is done out of duty, a guilty conscience or required by law.

But while we, the members of the public, are trying hard to keep our compounds aedes-free, barely a shouting distance away, illegal factories and dirty hawker stalls are happily raking in the money with nary a care for their surroundings. They are not bothered if their surroundings are clean, waterlogged, or close to becoming an open garbage dump that not only breeds aedes but is also home to disease-carrying rodents and other pests.

I can, of course, initiate a gotong- royong every alternate day of the week, get my fellow condo dwellers to clean up every inch of our compound. We could, as humanly possible, even clean up the entire one-kilometre radius around our homes.

Heck, if we have the time, we might even give the roadside pebbles a good scrub and the rusty lamp-posts a polish so they gleam with pride.

But then, wouldn't that be running council workers out of their jobs -- which we are paying for through the payment of assessment, quit rent and other taxes?

These are the people who are supposed to make sure garbage is not indiscriminately dumped and become aedes breeding grounds. They are also supposed to catch the culprits and mete out the harshest punishment permitted by law.

They are also supposed to be patrolling the city and making sure that no illegal factories are set up, or to demolish existing ones.

And then, there are the council's health department officers who are attached to the vector-borne diseases unit. These officers should not only be monitoring outbreaks of dengue but they should also identify the patterns of periodic returns and take measures before the disease hits us.

Of course, the dirty public should also not be spared. If caught breeding mosquitoes, they should be fined or even face sterner action.

All these are necessary if we want to ensure our city is dengue-free.

Meanwhile, my friend Dr Loo has warned of another aedes-related threat -- chikugunya.

Transmitted by the aedes mosquitoes, it is believed to have originated in the African and Indian subcontinent. Chikugunya did not emerge until the mid-2000s. Some observers believed that it was brought in by infected travellers.

I am just keeping my fingers crossed that it will not be as widespread as dengue for when it does, I shall not hesitate to pin the blame on the public servants -- those people at the Health Ministry, Immigration checkpoints and City Hall.

Monday, February 2, 2009

KLites -- warts and all

KUALA LUMPUR celebrated its 35th year as a federal territory yesterday. It was also its 37th anniversary as a city. The "muddy confluence" that marked the meeting of the Gombak and Klang rivers has certainly come a long way since its days as a miners' trading post.

Old timers will remember the hostage-taking drama by the Japanese Red Army at the AIA building in Jalan Ampang in August 1975 in exchange for the release of five of their imprisoned comrades. And also a soldier's shooting spree in Kampung Baru a decade later. Or the public protests of the 1990s that spilled into the new millennium and which sent shivers down the spines of those who had lived through the horrors of May 1969 and whose fears were rekindled each time there was a public demonstration - whether it was peaceful or not.

You will also recall, albeit with much amusement now, how we dealt with the "social menaces" of the 1980s when the skateboarding, breakdancing and BMX craze blazed through the city's sidewalks. Self-appointed guardians of public morality promptly blamed "western influences", urging the authorities to act before decadence turned our youths into permanent sidewalk residents.

But of course, nothing happened -- those fads faded away, just like many before them did; remember bellbottoms and miniskirts?

When commuting became more difficult in the mid 1970s, mini buses were a welcomed respite. However, their drivers' death-defying antics, bullying tactics and penchant for breaking every traffic rule in the book saw the pink terrors taken off the streets in the late '90s and left regulars to mourn their passing.

We had our share of urban legends, too. Remember the orang minyak (oily man) of the '70s - the black arts apprentice who was cursed to become an oily humanoid and could become human again if he had 21 virgins? At a time when kerosene lamps still lit parts of the city outskirts, it was a hot topic at morning markets. And yes, hantu kum kum also had her fair share of fame several years down the road. But as it turned out, the tale was a cruel joke played on a homeless old lady who had to earn a living selling socks door-to-door rather than the child-kidnapping witch someone made her out to be.

KL had its moments under the world's spotlight, too, in the many "put KL on the world map" events held since its formative years.

Among them were the first PATA conference in 1972, Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in 1989 and the Commonwealth Games in 1998. Remember how council workers feverishly spruced up the city with "instant" trees and shrubs? And how unappealing sections of the city were hastily hoarded up from view?

Most of us who still remember can smile at how much we had gone through to have come this far. There were some shortcomings but then there were also achievements that we can take pride in.

Our city's skyline today is as much our bragging right as is our latest shopping mall if architectural accomplishments and amenities are the yardsticks one uses to measure a modern city with. If connectivity is the benchmark, then rest assured that KL is well connected. Just sniff the air for WiFi or Wimax and chances are that you will catch some, easier than you would a cold.

But I think KL's greatest asset is its people, fondly known as KLites, a term collectively used to describe those who call this city home.

You see them in the mornings at mamak stalls and you fight with them for tables at hawker centres at lunch. You bump into them again after work as you try to stop their flashy cars from cutting into your lane.

You stumble upon the same cars again later in the night, happily double-parked near your neighbourhood watering hole, with their drivers blissfully missing.

If you are new to the city, you will learn to get used to the idiosyncrasies of its people, warts and all. Some of them are nice and helpful, others ignorant and opportunistic; some are friendly, others hopelessly arrogant. Some are rich, some are poor -- chances are that neither will let you know.

KLites irritate you like hell sometimes but if none of them were around, such as during festive breaks like this, city life would not be the same -- unless of course you speak and understand Nepalese, Indonesian, Tagalog or Burmese.