Dead fish in the River of Life

Thor Kah Hoong

The River of Life project has a budget of RM4.4 billion but critics say it has failed to solve problems like rubbish and flooding. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 4, 2017.

Over a meal of tosai and curries, Thor Kah Hoong’s guests to discuss the redevelopment of Kuala Lumpur’s historic centre and the attendant problems and threats, are Elizabeth Cardosa, president of Badan Warisan; Lee Jia Ping, programme director of Think City KL; and Yeoh Lian Heng, of arts/culture collective Lostgens, based in Chinatown.

IN this session of “Over Teh Tarik”, the River of Life and the beatification projects around Masjid Jamek, Sultan Abdul Samad building and Dataran Merdeka were raised and unwittingly sparked a firestorm.    

Elizabeth: What River of Life? Today, I stood at the bridge at Masjid Jamek and looked at the river. What did I see? Dead fish, more dead fish. Today, there was not so much rubbish floating by, but there have been times… 

If one is looking at a River of Life, surely one would think about rehabilitation, rejuvenation of the water, its quality, contamination, waste management. Why are we investing money in landscaping? For whom? And at what cost? 

(NB: The River of Life budget of RM4.4 billion has RM3.4 billion for cleaning the rivers and RM1 billion for landscaping.)

Lee: They’re trying to deal with sewage, but more pollutants surface daily. They have to go upstream to deal with the problem.

Elizabeth: Sorry, it’s a bugbear of mine. My father wrote me a story about fishing for prawns in the Gombak river when he was young. The water does not have to be clear, but it must be clean to bring back life to the river.

Landscaping is just giving it a coat of paint. Removing vegetation that is natural to a river’s edge. Canalising it. Planting vegetation that is alien to a riverbank.

It’s a landscaping project. Does it touch what’s inside the buildings? If you say the place has historical importance because of its story, then some of the physical changes are not in line. 

Is it for tourists or for the people? If it is historically important, it should be for the people. If tourists also come, good, but it should be for the people first.

They had a three-month lab with hundreds of participants. I am not against it. They have the right intention. They just missed the point.

They invite you for a “fgd” – focus group discussion. We went when we were perceived as being able to contribute in terms of information, knowledge. 

You say your piece, I say my piece, he says his piece, but it fails because there is no feedback. 

We just get the decision, but no reason for it. It’s not that Badan Warisan is upset when our views were not taken into consideration, but it would be good to know what was taken into consideration.

There needs to be an engagement with the people who live there, who work there, go there, its day-time constituents, its night-time constituents. 

The local plan only looks at the physical. Even for that, who decides that this is what the tourists want? Were tourists polled?

(From left) Lee Jia Ping, Elizabeth Cardoza and Yeoh Lian Heng talking about the River of Life project and its impact on Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Seth Akmal, September 4, 2017.

Yeoh: There is a nine-storey building coming up in Chinatown.

Elizabeth: Two lots?

Yeoh: Yes.

Elizabeth: That has to do with plot ratio. I give you this space in front, I go up at the back. As long as the place is not gazetted or recognised to have heritage value…

Yeoh: Wasn’t there a plan announced in 2008 to gazette parts of KL?

Elizabeth: There is no gazette yet. It is still in draft, and the goalposts keep shifting. There are buildings that are gazetted.

Yeoh: But no zones?

Elizabeth: There are areas considered sensitive like the padang area. But it’s unclear who is in charge – City Hall, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the Federal Territories Ministry. 

Who decides that suddenly there is a musical fountain at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers? A parachute project. Has anyone thought about the river when it floods, as it still does, and the water rises to the level of the road? 

TMI: World’s first underwater musical fountain. A crowd-puller. 

Yeoh: They must educate people. And have transparency about the project. All the projects, like the MRT one, the public is supposed to be consulted. They never consulted the public. They put up a signboard announcing the project. That’s it.

Lee: They don’t mind listening to everyone. It’s just that sometimes they don’t know what to do with so much feedback.

What we have done is go to them and say, let’s do things small instead of holding big huge forums. Let’s do a walkabout where we talk to people, invite small groups of businesses for a meeting. 

They saw there’s another way to do things that are not confrontational. There are other ways to manage an engagement. 

For example, there was a narrow strip of land in Medan Tuanku, which they wanted to turn into a small pocket park. When they asked us to work with them, we asked if they had talked to the people there. They said no. 

The consultant wanted to close the service road to increase the size of the space. He said nobody used the road. We counted the traffic and it was well used, the shops needed the service road.

We do ronda, knock on doors. Someone said I represent this society and we have a grievance with City Hall. As soon as someone raises his voice, the walls come down. We don’t want that to happen. Can we talk? There may be anger, but can we work it out? When we de-escalate, there is progress.

I must say City Hall people are receptive to new ways of doing things.

The problem is what to do with the homeless, illegal immigrants and traders. Enforcement would help. As simple as cars parked on top of sidewalks and pavements, to my staff and I witnessing bloody fights in the streets. If you don’t enforce, you are enabling.

Rubbish from upstream bobbing at Sungai Klang in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 4, 2017.

TMI: Talking about involving the people, isn’t Think City’s Art on the Move programme elitist? Good to see Malaysian poems on the tunnel walls linking both sides of the Masjid Jamek station, but how many of the tens of thousands of hurrying people going to stop to take in a few lines?

Lee: Only a few a day may stop, but that’s only one dimension, one vehicle. The images were widely shared on Facebook, Instagram.

We had the Sarawak Sape Collective perform for two hours. Maximum capacity standing in the evening at the Masjid Jamek LRT station is about 80 people, but the performance was recorded and shared and 35,000 people enjoyed or were introduced to the instrument and its music.

At the moment, our efforts are still showing only in pockets in town.

Elizabeth: What worries me about these pockets is that they are class-defined, I belong to this coterie, these are my interests, education background.

Gentrification – I am not against it per se, but there can be a tipping point when the new dominates the old. The incremental can creep up on you and you don’t realise until it’s too late. That was our experience in Malacca.

There must be a place for diversity,

Lee: The other day we laid out a chessboard on a table and we put it in Medan Pasar as an experiment. This local sat down and waited for an opponent. A migrant sat down. The local was taken aback but they started playing and a level of understanding was reached.

So there needs to be more conversation about who we were, are, and where we are going. Surely there is enough room in Malaysia to accept other people, as we were accepted. – September 4, 2017.  

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  • Hahahahah!!

    The River of Life?

    More like The Putrid River of Death.

    The RM4.4billion is just being pissed up the wall, or should that be down the river.

    Just stand at the bridge at Pasar Seni and watch the filth pour into the river from the drains.

    What is the point of cleaning the river if untreated filth is just being continuously emptied into the river by the numerous drains?

    Clean up the drains first, and then the river.

    Posted 6 years ago by Musa Ng · Reply

    • Who to blame ? If the Rakyat choose to throw rubbish into the drains ?

      Posted 6 years ago by Mofaz mofaz · Reply