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KUALA LUMPUR, April 22 — In her first year of office, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin believes her greatest achievement is inculcating a sense of belonging among the urban poor in their community.
In an interview with Malay Mail, the PKR “Iron Lady” said she sought to financially and mentally empower less fortunate Malaysians in the bottom 40th percentile (B40) through the National Community Policy (NCP) — particularly the urban poor who reside in low-cost homes — as they can greatly contribute to nation building.
“Under the National Community Policy, we are not talking about physical buildings or infrastructure but we also want to go into nation building, community building because giving them a nice infrastructure and building, that’s not good enough,” said Zuraida.
“It can be wasteful if they don’t know how to take care of these properties and empower themselves.
“That’s why under the National Community Policy, there’s a structured platform where we get the community to empower themselves by looking after the property, empower them to look into cleanliness, safety and financial management.
“I believe if we can improve the mentality of the B40, especially in the low-cost housing schemes and improve the quality of life in terms of their knowledge, exposure, networking and communication, the whole country will see a leap in nation building,” said Zuraida.
She explained that the NCP that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad launched was the first of its kind not only in Malaysia, but also the world.
Bringing back the spirit of ‘gotong royong’ and gaining economic advantage
In her eyes, one of the best ways to change the mindset of the urban poor residing in low-cost flats or public housing is to ensure that they feel a sense of belonging towards the community that they live in and their neighbourhood.
To achieve this goal, Zuraida has gone back to her roots — the traditional kampung (Malay village) spirit of gotong-royong (community cooperation).
The Ampang MP wants to inculcate this tradition in the housing schemes under her ministry’s purview.
“I want to train them to be empowered and to take care of their cleanliness — for instance, when they are empowered with their cleanliness, they can turn their rubbish into money (through upcycling centres to be set up near residential areas).
“This becomes an economic advantage and if they have a proper structure, committees, they can even learn how to manage the economy of their neighbourhood by getting the people within the community there to serve — plumbers, repair works, cleaning services, etc.
“It’s the spirit of perkampungan and gotong royong,” explained Zuraida.
Mindset change can be a challenge
However, she also admitted that changing the mindset of a nation that is used to receiving handouts from the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) regime could be a challenge for her to overcome.
Under Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) New Malaysia, the minister is aiming to move towards a more sustainable and productive practice, but acknowledges that the B40 group will need time to realise its potential of being financially and personally empowered.
“So, therefore, my approach to things is to phase in and phase out. Phase in slowly and phase out slowly so there won’t be any culture shock. That’s why when you look at my policy, these are friendly policies that people can accept because I try to improve their lives,” she said.
Zuraida pointed out that subsidised housing costs the government around RM190,000 per unit but it is sold to the B40 at around RM42,000 to RM45,000 each.
With the introduction of the rent-to-own scheme, B40 homeowners will not need to fork out any deposit to purchase their homes.
“They pay monthly, no deposit and at the end of a few years, if they think they are doing okay — and with the good houses that we give — they will have a sense of urgency to own the house, because the house is big and comfortable so they feel that they must learn how to plan (their finances).
“So the moment they enter the scheme to own, we will educate them. AKPK (Credit Counselling and Debt Management Agency) will come in to educate them on the sort of savings they should keep so that by the end of the fifth year, they are ready to buy the house or move out to get a better house.
“That’s what I meant by phasing in and phasing out so there’s no culture shock and they won’t feel the pinch. Malaysians also must move out of this subsidy mentality. As a progressive nation, we must be empowered,” she said.
B40 homes must be more attractive
At the same time, she noted that the government must also make these homes more desirable and instead of developing small units with a total size of 700 square feet per unit, the first-time minister said the government will be developing homes with a minimum total size of 900 square feet per unit.
Facilities and infrastructure must also be made available so the community in these residential areas will develop a stronger sense of belonging and responsibility towards the amenities provided, instead of resorting to vandalism to alleviate boredom, particularly among the young.
“So under the Affordable Housing Policy, we give them bigger houses because we want to make them feel a sense of belonging. We can ask them to be empowered but when they don’t have the comfort of a livable home, how can they feel empowered?
“That’s why the houses must be no less than 900 square feet. They must have parks and libraries and other similar facilities.
“This way the children and the family can spend time in the premises themselves, or in the living room so their family bond is tighter and can reduce problems among the children,” she explained.
A more empowered B40 community in five years
Zuraida said she was confident of achieving her goal of a stronger community within her first term.
She said her method of slowly phasing in her reforms and slowly phasing out unsustainable practices from the BN era is critical in ensuring a smooth transition and avoiding any culture shock in the community, especially when they are not ready for it.
“We have pilot projects ready, so as time goes by, we will go bigger.
“I would say (we can see the change in mindset) in five years’ time. I would say that they (will) gradually make the change. By the third year, I would say we can see the changes already. So by the fifth year, we can see a more obvious change in the mentality (of the B40),” said Zuraida.