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KUALA LUMPUR, March 26 ― For many Malaysians, potholes, manholes and even sinkholes are an inconvenience they have to put up with when using the country's many roads and highways.
But Azlan Sani Zawawi, 41, knows only too well how potholes and manholes can cost lives; he has lost at least four friends to accidents related to these “inconveniences.”
In 2007, Azlan, known to his friends as Lando, lost a friend in a road mishap that was caused by a pothole in Kuala Kubu Baru. He returned to the site of the accident two weeks later and realised that the pothole was still not fixed.
“It made me ask: do these people in authority have no heart? Someone died due to this pothole and yet no one was fixing it,” the film-maker, who has worked on films and TV dramas, said.
Soon after, accompanied only by his wife, Lando was marking any potholes he saw with small flowers to warn road users of their presence. When he could eventually afford it, Lando stopped waiting for local councils to do something about these potholes and sinkholes and started fixing them himself.
What started as an act of defiance grew into a citizens' call for action. Now, the group, known as Ikatan Sillaturahim Brotherhood, has its own logo, T-shirts, group insurance policy, and now, its own brand of road tar.
“We are going to call it the Brotherhood tar. I developed it with a tar company in Kajang,” Lando said.
Yes, the nocturnal road fixer who has been at it for close to nine years now has become so well-versed with the different methods of “road fixing” that he has a stake in a tar producing factory and is also helping with the firm's Research and Development.
“The cold mix tar we develop has more quality ingredients than the tar the local council contractors use. If you were to ask a local council or even City Hall, they would say a 25 kilogramme pack of tar costs RM100. But we get ours for RM35 per packet,” he said.
The Brotherhood is in seven states now and has 500 active members, who head out a couple times a week, usually after midnight when traffic is low, armed with cones, vests, T-shirts and packets of cold mix tar. They head out in vans or bikes.
One of the youngest units of the Brotherhood is the one in Puchong, which is only four months old. But the amount of road fixing this unit has done ― all marked with the Brotherhood's logo ― has made Puchong residents notice them.
“We make sure we mark all the potholes that we fix. There was once a contractor tried to claim money from the local council for work that we did so we mark all the potholes we fix,” Lando said. However, the group has no intention of claiming the cost to fix these road defects at all. In fact, they are not even looking for donations.
“We pay for it from our own pockets. I supply the tar for all the seven states where we operate. In the nine years, I would have spent about RM60,000 on this,” he said.
“We can claim but we don't want to. I see us as the challengers. We challenge the authorities; if they can't do it, we will do it. And we do. We don't want to be heroes... the local councils, the Works Department, they should be the heroes because this is their job. We just want safety for our road users,” he added.
Malay Mail Online followed them on one of their night runs in Puchong. There were six of them, one of them wearing a mask as he is a local council worker by day. Within 30 minutes, they identified and covered two potholes that had formed around a manhole.
The work is swift and tidy. Two from the group set up cones closing off one lane and help to redirect traffic while the others fix the potholes. For deeper holes, the group empties a bag of rocks and then applies the tar on top to ensure the surface is smooth. Once done, they swiftly spray the Brotherhood logo on the fixed surface and pose for a picture together.
What is even more interesting is the make-up of the group which is completely random: a salesman, a deejay, a lorry driver, a school bus driver, a painter and of course the local council worker. They did not know each other before becoming part of the group.
But what they all have in common is this: they have all had bad experiences with potholes. They know how dangerous it can be. One of the group members became a part of Brotherhood after losing one of his legs due to a pothole-related accident. He uses a prosthetic limb today.
“We don't need anything from people. Maybe they can buy us tar, vests, cones. Apart from that, just pray for our safety,” Lando said.
“For us, it doesn't matter what race you are or your background... on the road, everyone is equal. Everyone faces the same danger,” he added.
Authorities initially were hostile towards Lando and his crew, but have recently softened their stance. City Hall (DBKL) and the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ), among others, engage him on identifying and fixing potholes.
And now, Lando wants the local councils and the government to raise the fine levied on utility companies for not properly covering their manholes.
“The fine is RM500 after three warnings. What is that compared to a life lost? A Malay funeral costs at least RM4,500,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Brotherhood went on a 12-hour fixing spree: they started at Selangor at 3pm and ended in Negri Sembilan at 3am, fixing potholes across the three states.
“My personal record is covering a pothole in just two minutes. It's easy. It makes you wonder: Why do the authorities sit on it forever? What is so difficult about fixing potholes?” he added.