Monday, June 29, 2009

Being charitable to a fault

I WAS having dinner with a friend in Setapak recently when a male beggar, whom I reckoned to be around 60, approached us.

Apart from his scruffy look and the aluminium crutch he was occasionally leaning on, he appeared to be able-bodied.

If he had been clean-shaven, had worn a coat and tie, and had walked into a hotel lobby, he would have passed off for a corporate figure or even a politician.

A doorman would have gladly opened the door for him and call him “Sir”.

But that evening, he cut a forlorn figure as he hobbled from table to table, right arm extended and palm cupped.

He would bow, mutter something under his breath, and look so pitiful that it would take nerves of steel not to sympathise with him.

Some of the diners did not have those nerves, so they dug out some loose change and gave him — for which he bowed even lower to show gratitude.

Others pretended he wa s n ’t there but the less forgiving few just shooed him off with a wave, just as theywould a hovering fly.

But the beggar appeared unperturbed, diligently moving from table to table.

When he saw that I was watching him, he quickly hobbled up to us and asked for a ringgit.

Not more, not less, just a ringgit.

And he kept bowing until I reached for my wallet, when my friend stopped me with a piercing stare.

Realising that he could not get what he wanted out of us, the beggar immediately stopped bowing and hobbled to another table.

When he was out of earshot, my friend, who lived in Subang Jaya, said he had seen the beggar making his rounds there.

My friend’s daughter had seen the same man walking without his crutch one day and had told her father about it.

I was about to give the beggar the benefit of the doubt when what happened minutes later made me reconsider.

A diner seated next to our table pointed at a familiar silhouette across the road.

It was the same beggar, running in full stride towards a cab with his crutch held high.

Any injury which had caused him to hobble from table to table just moments ago seemed to have disappeared.

I wonder how many people had been fooled by the beggar that evening.

Those who had given money to him and seen what happened later must have kicked themselves for having been so gullible.

In bad economic times such as these, who can tell if a beggar is really what he or she appears to be underneath those tattered clothes? Anyone who looks like a beggar, and acts like a beggar, can just as easily tug at our heartstrings and get our ringgit.

Even those who claim to be collecting donations and who can produce all the “endorsement papers” from the “author ities” stand to laugh all the way to the bank if we fail to temper our charitable nature with some common sense.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Paying a high price for poor man's greens

YESTERDAY, when my wife told me we had spent RM40 for grocery at the wet market, I was delighted. That was RM20 less than the previous week.

But my happiness was short-lived once we reached home and I looked into the content of the grocery basket. We bought a bittergourd, Chinese chives, cauliflower, a packet of fried beancurd, a bunch of sweet potato leaves, a sengkuang (yam bean), two sweet corns, broccoli, French beans, some four angled beans, a papaya and several local sweet potatoes.

We forgot about meat, fish and poultry -- which explained why the dip in spending.

Next week, we may have to fork out more since the meat stock in the fridge is running low.

I would probably end up RM50 poorer, depending on whether I go for fish, poultry or meat. Even fish and poultry are not cheap these days, be it at the wet market, pasar malam or pasar tani.

Sweet potato leaves, which used to be the poor man's greens and sold for 50 sen a bunch back then, now cost twice as much.

Two weeks ago, I had a shock when the green grocer told me it cost RM2.50 per kilogramme because of the dry spell. I am praying that global warming would not put the price of my favourite vegetable out of my reach.

The price of poor man's greens like sweet potato leaves have been increasing ever since it found its way into the menu of city restaurants -- along with petai (stinky beans), kangkung (water convolvulus), kacang botol (four angled beans), pucuk paku (fern shoots).

At the rate they are going, it won't be long before the poor man has nothing left to eat.

But I am luckier than my colleagues staying around Bangsar, I am told. Their grocery bills can easily be twice as high as mine, especially since prices of goods have a knack of keeping up with the economic status of the neighbourhood.

When I was growing up in the kampung, a small patch of land in front of the house slightly smaller than a badminton court allowed my family to grow sweet potatoes, cabbages, and lettuce.

In between the beds, on trellises, gourds and long beans gave us our fresh supply. A hedge of serai (lemon grass), kunyit (turmeric), and lengkuas (galangal) completed our needs. Although my parents did not save much in grocery spending despite our vegetable patch, we were at least assured of fresh, insecticide-free greens.

When I moved to a condominium more than a decade ago, I was quite sure I could grow my own food. But I soon discovered that it was more fruitful to stop kidding myself that I could have an edible garden.

With a balcony no bigger than the size of the attached bathroom, even a hydroponic garden was out of the question because I would eventually end up paying more in equipment than I could save on my grocery purchases.

Sure, I could plant a pot each of serai, limau purut (kaffir lime), bunga kantan (torch ginger) and even some cili padi in the small flower trough on my balcony but I doubt I could stomach tomyam soup every day.

Edible gardens are just not meant for people pigeonholed into strata living, at least not in Kuala Lumpur. They are only practical for those staying on landed property.

But if you can afford a landed property in the Klang Valley, chances are you won't want to dirty your fingers or waste your time growing vegetables which can easily be bought in the supermarkets.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Bad habits washed ashore

I LOST my camera's memory card during a trip to Pasir Bogak in Pangkor last week. I had taken so many pictures, mostly of the scenery and of the family while on the way to the island.

Some of the pictures were meant for stories I wanted to write. Some documented the fond memories we had during the trip.

I had called the resort the moment I realised that I could have dropped the card but there was no memory card among their lost and found items.

I am now praying hard that someone will find the card and return it to me.

However, my distress is nothing compared to what a fellow holidaymaker from the United States went through. His sister-in-law had stepped on a hypodermic needle left on the beach.

I recalled the worried look on his face, not knowing who was the last user of the needle. Although his sister-in-law sought medical treatment immediately, she would no doubt continue to have sleepless nights thinking about the incident.

Immediately after I was informed of the incident, my friend and I scoured the beach, hoping to find something which would reassure the woman and her family.

Instead, I found another discarded syringe and a small bottle with some brown liquid.

Both the syringe and the bottle could have been discarded into the sea and washed ashore. The label on the bottle was missing and there was no way to tell what the brown liquid in it was.

Sadly, many of us treat our rivers and the sea as a huge dumpsite. Fluorescent tubes, beer bottles, condoms and plastic bags are thrown into rivers and the sea without any hesitation.

The environmental pollution aside, this irresponsible behaviour pose a great threat not only to marine life but also to humans, as has been shown in this case.

What if a child playing on the beach had picked up the needle?

It also does not paint a good picture of our country as a tourist destination if our so-called beautiful beaches are littered with rubbish.

I am now praying that the needle that the woman had stepped on did not come from a dadah addict or someone with a contagious disease. I guess it is too much to hope that the culprit is reading this article and realising what he or she has done.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The challenging games of our childhood

THE other day, my friend's 10-year-old son showed me his collection of PSP, Xbox and Wii games. He asked if I wanted to join him in one of the games. I declined. I said the last time I played Street Fighter was more than two decades ago.

"How did you guys manage to pass your days?" he asked. "Must be very boring back then."

On the contrary, I told him. In fact, life was pretty exciting and there were never enough daylight hours to enjoy ourselves when we were not working part-time to supplement the family income.

Weekends and school holidays would see us scattered all over the countryside with bamboo poles fishing for sepat (gouramy) and puyu (Malaysian perch) in the irrigation canals and abandoned mining pools. When there were no fish, we hunted for waterfowls, magpies or spotted doves.

When the sun was too hot, we sought the cool solace of streams, rivers and disused mining pools. One of us would be on the lookout for nosey adults who might report our misdeeds to our parents.

Lunch comprised free helpings of wild jambu batu (wild version of today's guava) or pisang asam, a sour variety of banana that could be found in abundance. If we were lucky, the richer among us would treat us to popsicles or ice balls oozing with red syrup.

What we lacked back then, we improvised. No PSP or Wii, but our RPGs (role-playing games) were much more realistic. "War craft" was more interesting because we played with real people. And if you want to get drafted, you had to have a "gun", which, in its simplest form, was a wooden contraption that allowed you to shoot unripe cherries at your enemies.

Battles were fought around the village, in the vegetable farms and padi fields until a team triumphed or until everyone lost interest and sought a new game.

When there was no company, we would hunt for the kareng (local fighting fish) in the padi fields and canals armed with a rattan sieve "borrowed" from construction sites. We also scoured pandan groves or jackfruit trees for spiders.

And once the bounties were collected, we would seek out friends with similar pets and challenge theirs to duels. Although there were no prizes up for grabs, owning and training the best fighting fish or spider was every boy's dream back then.

At night, armed with torchlights "borrowed" from our parents, we would go frog hunting in the vegetable farms and irrigation canals. We would sweep the beams into the darkness and zoom in on our targets when the reflection from the frogs' eyes gave away their position.

Of course, the fun came with risks, too. One night, I thought I had found an easy target when a fat frog did not budge even when I trained my torchlight's beam on it.

Instinctively, I swept the beam further and another pair of eyes greeted me -- that of a snake, in striking position and barely a metre away from the frog. I dread to think of what would have happened if I had reached for that frog.

For parents living in the city today, it would be unthinkable to allow their children to take part in such activities. Playing video and computer games in the safe confines of the house is less risky.

It allows you or your maid to keep an eye on your child.

But I wonder if these modern games are any less dangerous or healthier in the long run.

Monday, June 1, 2009

More high-rise slums in KL if freeloaders have their way

AN article in this paper recently pointed out the difficulties faced by managers of high-rise condominiums and apartments when collecting maintenance fees. It may sound ridiculous that people living in highrises would actually refuse to pay maintenance fees and that some had actually threatened the property managers with bodily harm but that is the reality.

While some refuse to pay because they are dissatisfied with the running of the property or the transparency of the accounts, others are just bad paymasters, selfish parasites who prefer to feed off the charity of others.

Cursed are the high-rise properties if so much as a handful of their population are freeloaders because given enough time, others would follow suit.

Unless the management bodies are strong enough to act against them, the condition of the property would soon fall into disrepair due to lack of funds.

Following the amendment to the Strata Titles Act 1985 and the implementation of the Building and Common Property (Management and Maintenance) Act 2007, high-rise property owners were hopeful that issues with the management of such property would be solved.

The mandatory setting up of a Joint-Management Body (JMB) was seen as better able to protect the interests of both sides. However, this apparently has not materialised as can be seen at the two-day seminar for high-rise building management organised by City Hall recently.

As highlighted by disgruntled building managers at the seminar, the Commissioner of Buildings (COB) has to compel errant property owners to pay their maintenance fees and the arrears, especially if there are provisions in the Building and Common Property (Maintenance and Management) Act 2007.

In a city like Kuala Lumpur, there are many management bodies which have run into financial trouble because of poor fee collection. Signs of this can be seen in badly maintained lifts and unpainted exterior.

Some managers have even abandoned security patrols altogether because they cannot afford to employ security guards. As a result, some properties are beginning to look like city slums.

In the past, the Federal Territory Land Office was entrusted with overseeing the management of strata titled properties. The number of condominiums and apartment complexes which have become eyesores today speak volumes of how well the responsibility was carried out.

There is very little building managers can do to get errant property owners to pay maintenance fees or recover arrears if the COB's office is hesitant to enforce the law and to do so without fear or favour.

Management bodies usually comprise residents themselves and many have been threatened with bodily harm or have their property defaced for displaying the names and addresses of the bad paymasters on the notice board. Short of lodging police reports, many continue to suffer in silence, or have given up and moved to landed properties.

Mayor Datuk Ahmad Fuad Ismail, who is the designated COB for KL, should take a look into the current state of affairs affecting highrises before they become unmanageable.

Already Ahmad Fuad has acknowledged that there were 1,785 high-rise housing schemes out of a total of 4,552 that had yet to set up their respective JMB.

Even if all have set up their respective management bodies, what good will it do if enforcement to compel errant property owners to pay maintenance fees is lacking? Several years down the road, Kuala Lumpur may be full of high-rise slums because building managers do not have the funds to maintain them.