Keramat community weeds out pushers, grows a garden

Thor Kah Hoong

Flats Columbia in AU2 Taman Keramat, made up of 18 blocks of low-cost flats, opened for occupation in 1973. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 24, 2017.

FLATS Columbia, AU2 Taman Keramat, was first occupied in 1974. 

Its name came from a flight of Selangor State Development Corporation’s imagination. The reality was 18 blocks of low-cost flats – 560 one-room units (43sq m), 64 two-room units (54sq m) and 64 three-room units (66sq m).

It is just 2km away from the religious school in Kampung Datuk Keramat where fire claimed the lives of 21 pupils and two teachers recently. Seven youths under investigation for their involvement are facing possible charges of arson and murder.

It has become a home for pensioners, the jobless, children, oddjob workers, and salespersons. 

It was also known far and wide for the availability of drugs, at first heroin, then crystal methamphetamine, or syabu.

“Flats Columbia, semua tahu (everyone knows),” says resident Raja Aris, 70, pensioned from Selangor State Development Corporation. Needles, empty ampules and pushers infest the place.

On the banks of the river spawned a settlement of Indonesian illegals, dangdut joints, gambling and prostitution dens. Then the authorities swept them away and the place became overgrown with weeds.

Pensioner Raja Aris and his wife Nooriza Mahasan enjoy working with the plants at the community garden in AU2 Taman Keramat, Selangor. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 24, 2017.

The Rukun Tetangga was formed. Its chairman is Mohamad Halim, 45, a mechanical engineer in education and profession.

His success in life has not distanced him, his house being nearby, from alleviating the plight of the poor in his neighbourhood.

They got rid of the drug problem with their nightly patrols. He says the pushers were “outsiders, not from here, but we earned the reputation.”

As for changing the attitudes and behavior of the youth, Halim says it took time: “One time, yes, you tell them they are wrong, you got scolded. But slowly, slowly, they changed. It takes time to make people realise things.

“Initially, many people said, how can there be a garden? Now that it is a success, more people are involved.” 

Halim refers to the three-quarters of an acre community garden that was started in 2015, on the fringe of the Klang River, on land belonging to JPS.

The garden has had help from Maybank, and Halim says their relationship with the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) is “so close”, help is just a phone-call away. 

Now that he has been appointed head gardener, Aris’s long, empty days as a pensioner, occasionally relieved by the “balik kampung” trip to Kuala Selangor for a day’s fishing, are over.

“Now with the garden, my days are full.”

Kids play football on a field at Flats Columbia in AU2 Taman Keramat, Selangor. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 24, 2017.

Every morning around 8am, Aris and his wife, Nooriza Mahasan, are at the garden – to have breakfast, and then to tend, trim or replant plants there.

There are vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, flowers, corn, tongkat Ali, even a small patch of padi, because Aris wants the city kids to recognise what plants feed them. 

Unfortunately, none of the kids are interested in the garden. It’s the adults back from work in the evening, or retirees who help in the gardening.

There are also two concrete tanks of ikankeli. Every week, a bag of 25-30kg is sold at RM6 per kg to a stallholder at the Jalan Pasar market.

Aris says he has not had to buy vegetable from the market since the garden started.

Residents in need come to the garden to get what is available, even if they have not contributed time and effort in the garden.

Another resident, “Misai” (Moustache, his obvious facial feature; everyone calls him that), an odd-jobber, is available for carpentry/plumbing problems.

“Energy, Inshaallah, many will provide. Sports, gotong-royong, no problem. Dari segi financial sahja (It is only the financial aspect that is a problem),” says Halim.

Flats Columbia residents go about their daily lives in AU2 Taman Keramat, Selangor on September 23, 2017. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 24, 2017.

Problems like the RM1,100 or so needed for a new pump to replace the old one, its innards rusted beyond repair, that was used to draw water from the river 20m below to water and irrigate the plants.

There is a need for organic fertilisers and bio-rich top-soil. An analysis of the soil found that 80% of the nutrients in the soil had been bleached out.

“It’s difficult for us to ask for money from the residents, because many of them are struggling to survive,” Halim said.

“Now even in primary school you have to pay for this and that. If you don’t have money, how? There are families with 2-3 school-going children not in school. There’s no money, their parents are jobless.

“One family appealed to us for help. The son is smart. We can help once, but we are not welfare, we can’t do it all the time. To go into the university it’s a couple of thousand. If we ask a friend, there is loss of face and if we cannot repay, we must disappear.”

Halim blames politics for the redevelopment of the run-down, cramped 18-blocks.

Developers had offered free flats double their current size, and compensation for rent when families have to evacuate while the new flats were being built, but this did not come to pass.

“In our committee, we have people from every political party, but here, there is no politics. We appeal to both sides, and we have had help from both sides,” says Halim.

Flats Columbia residents work at the community garden in AU2 Taman Keramat, Selangor on September 24, 2017. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 24, 2017.

On the morning of Awal-Muharram, over a dozen residents were clustered around tables in the garden, filling questionnaires for a case-study/survey by Universiti Putra Malaysia students. 

After that it was a convivial lunch of nasi lemak prepared by residents, who then went off for noon prayers.

At four they were back to cook a big pot of soup with a bread or noodles accompaniment, and more nasi lemak contributed by a resident.

With The Malaysian Insight present, Norjamezah, a PuteriUmno member, received a lot of ribbing about you know who and you know what from the women, but it was all good-natured and she took it in good fun.

At the end, as she washed plates and utensils with two of the men,  she invited The Malaysian Insight to come again and introduce her to a “leng chai” (handsome boy). – September 24, 2017.

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