• Too Seng Zhao

Poor Economics of Desa Mentari

By Too Seng Zhao (P.104 Kelana Jaya Intern, 2016)

Built along the New Pantai Express (NPE) freeway and camouflaged amongst the poorly maintained concrete jungles lies Desa Mentari. Its subtle presence and architectural design are nowhere near exceptional, given the majestic Lion Head of Sunway Pyramid Shopping Mall located across the freeway. However, Desa Mentari’s overall significance, economical contribution, and impact towards Bandar Sunway mustn’t be taken lightly.

Desa Mentari is a low-cost housing project that was undertaken by the Mentari Group of Companies in the early 2000s in line with the Selangor State government to achieve the zero squatter status. Thirteen blocks of eighteen floors each, about 6,205 high-rise affordable units with 341 shops at ground level were built across Petaling Jaya South (PJS) 2, 5, 6, 8 & 10 on state alienated land. Each unit, about 650 sq. ft., is equipped with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and one toilet with the rental ranging from RM400 to RM600 per month.

Amongst other low-cost housing areas such as Desa Ria and Kampung Lindungan in the P104 constituency, Desa Mentari was our primary focus for the annual welfare program conducted in June and spearheaded by the Kelana Jaya Member of Parliament, YB Wong Chen.

The three-year-old program is established with a small sum of funds given to the office every year. While the ideology of “giving a man a fish” may not be a popular choice for long term solutions, the program serves to temporarily assist rather than to significantly improve the financial state of the hardcore poor.

Throughout Welfare Month 2016, we have received an overwhelming response from nearly 800 applicants, with more than 400 of them staying in Desa Mentari. Interviews and series of screenings were carried out by the officers and interns in hopes to eliminate fraudulent cases so that the funds actually go to the truly poor.

Interestingly, most of our welfare applicants do not fall under any of the ‘poor’ categories as defined by Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, CEO of PEMANDU. According to Idris Jala, there are two categories of poorness: extreme poverty and poor. Extreme poverty refers to households that fail to earn enough for basic survival needs such as food, clothing and shelter. Typically, such households earn an average monthly income of less than RM460 in Peninsular Malaysia. On the other hand, the poor refers to households that fall short of certain standards of consumption, which are deemed necessary to maintain a decent livelihood in the society. Typically, these households earn an average monthly income of less than RM710. With such ridiculously low threshold, no wonder Idris and Najib has declared there is almost zero poverty in Malaysia!

This raises serious concerns about government standards for living conditions across different urban areas. As a less-developed urban poor area with a population size of 35,000 residents, Desa Mentari struggles to keep up with the rapid urbanization. With skyrocketing living standards, inflation, and the ever-weakening Ringgit, Desa Mentari residents are extremely vulnerable towards any sorts of financial crises or basic increases in prices. It is fascinating how Desa Mentari is placed in an extremely strategic geographical location, yet fails to strive like the rest of Bandar Sunway.

It is known to all that poverty links closely with employment, education, and health. The majority of the Desa Mentari residents actually do have some sort of employment. However, many of them are denied access towards better jobs with greater pay and benefits due to the lack of skills and education qualifications. As such, they are often left with no choice but to settle for low pay and less skillful jobs to make ends meet.

Undoubtedly, education plays a vital role in employment in today’s world. Most Desa Mentari residents do realize the importance of education in achieving financial freedom. Hence, children in Desa Mentari are most likely sent to school and receive some kind of education. While formal education in Malaysia is free, parents still need pay miscellaneous fees such as textbooks, uniforms, and transportation fees, which place too much financial strain for many families. This is precisely why some of children living in Desa Mentari drop out of school to work in effort to alleviate their family’s financial burden. This is where the ‘generational poverty trap’ begins for some of Desa Mentari residents.

The hardcore poor who are living on welfare aid and minimum wage, most find themselves stuck in an endless cycle of poverty. Hence, the random sampling method was used throughout interviews to verify some of the supposed causes of the poverty trap in Desa Mentari.

The findings were intriguing. We discovered that the people’s overall mindset and sense of prioritization on their needs and wants are the main contributors towards their current state. For example, some may spend their little money on unnecessary items, such as cigarettes and alcohols. To them, it is a much needed relief from stress. Some of these irrational behaviours originate from their own beliefs, that one’s destiny has been determined since birth. Hence, many are reluctant to actively seek for jobs and ‘challenge’ their destiny, choosing to give up and rely on public support and donations.

The link between health and poverty is irrefutable. What is really intriguing is more than 35% of our welfare applicants fall under the ‘Medical’ category; meaning they have long term health issues.

With an unimaginable low wage, it is already extremely difficult for one to purchase any food, let alone healthy nutritious food. The United Nations FAO agency estimates that nearly a billion people across the globe are undernourished, partly due to how nutritious food is statistically much more expensive than the mass produced canned food. Even then, average food prices are steeply increasing across Malaysia.

In Desa Mentari, many are diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol level, diabetics, heart problems and other chronic diseases. Even worse, some of them may need urgent surgeries. They neither have the money nor health insurance. Instead they wait for months for surgeries at public hospitals. This eventually lands them into health-based poverty traps.

Poverty is hunger. Poverty is scarcity. Poverty is feeling sick yet not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not being able to receive any kind of education; not knowing how to read or write, and not knowing how to communicate in a proper way. Poverty is not being able to work, to sustain a family, and to live one day at a time. Poverty is powerlessness yet those who suffer from poverty walk amongst us. Reference: