Can Cosmetic Changes Improve Character?

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By Mariam Mokhtar

At one time, the Kinta Heights tower block, built in 1982 was also known as “The 20 Storeys”. When it was commissioned, it became the highest building in Ipoh surpassing the Sungai Pari flats, a low-cost housing initiative built in 1963, which was affectionately called “The 15 storeys”.

Kinta HeightsBesides being an Ipoh landmark, Kinta Heights plays an important role in housing low-income families. With 280 units accommodating around 1500 to 2000 residents, its prime location in the city-centre, close to Little India in Ipoh’s ‘Old Town’, meant that its occupants have easy access to shops, schools, banks and various public departments and amenities.

The high-rise unit which is owned by the Ipoh city council, recently underwent a major cosmetic change. This was part of a beautification project by the Housing and Local Government Ministry to spruce up the image of public housing areas and improve the living conditions of its council tenants.

From its upper floors, visitors can take in breathtaking views of Ipoh, the changing city skyline, the spread of the city, the limestone hills in the background and the river meandering through the city.

Despite its towering presence, Kinta Heights has been besieged by problems which commonly affect public housing projects. Residents often complain about the lack of maintenance of the units, vandalism, the poor general upkeep of the communal facilities, mouldy growth on the walls, litter, poor security and a failure to upgrade the facilities.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Kinta Heights, and a few other high-rise buildings in Ipoh, became a Mecca for suicides. In 1995, after public concern about the building’s increasing suicide rate, the authorities erected metal grilles on all windows from the third floor upwards.

Residents were angry that the lifts were continually breaking down, but the council pointed out that some people had been using the lifts as toilets or pressing all the buttons simultaneously to inconvenience other users.

In 2008, two lifts were upgraded and the council erected a guard house to improve security as well as monitor the movements of people entering Kinta Heights. A police beat-base in the grounds of the block and CCTV cameras in adjoining streets acted as effective deterrents to crime.

Complaints about leaks from the water tanks, situated on the roof of the block, triggered an investigation which revealed that the tank had not been replaced since the flats were built in 1982. The residents also complained that vandalism and theft had rendered the fire-fighting system in the block useless.

As a result of the residents’ complaints, it was announced that the block would receive a new fibreglass reinforced polyester water tank costing around RM66k as well as a fire-fighting system costing around RM100k including installation and maintenance.

Despite the various upgrades, the council is concerned that the attitude of some irresponsible residents towards cleanliness, vandalism and theft, has not changed.

Councillors have complained about council property being damaged and the effect this has on maintenance and replacement costs. They also criticised unscrupulous residents who would chuck plastic bags of rubbish from their flats onto the ground below, which meant that workers had to be delegated to clear the area of garbage, every day.

The authorities also urged residents to cooperate and keep their block of flats clean and treat it like their own home. Residents were told that Kinta Heights will have regular visits from enforcement officers to curb anti-social activities and that the officers have the power to issue compound fines and blacklist tenants from renting council property, if they were found guilty of vandalism or littering.

In mid-April, Perak Menteri Besar Zambry Abdul Kadir officiated at the completion ceremony of the Kinta Heights beautification project and said, “Whether the people support the government or not, the government will still implement development projects in the area for the benefit of the people.”

Zambry is right. Housing, like other developments, should not be politicised as it is the responsibility of the government to look after its citizens and provide for those from the lower-income bracket.

One observer who witnessed the ceremony said, “The brown and dirty yellow of the old Kinta Heights is thankfully gone, but the new colour scheme makes the building look like a set of child’s building blocks. It is a major improvement from the previous shabby look, but did the council have to litter the tower with those blue party flags?”

Another person said, “We were told that this was part of the ‘My Beautiful Neighbourhood’ programme of Ipoh Old Town. Is someone trying to give out a subtle message of “My BN”? Is there also an attempt to make a party political broadcast with residents wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with party logos?”

These observers are naïve to think that a politician can control his urge to politicise anything, even housing.