By Joachim Ng
Northward beyond Ipoh’s city centre are the limestone areas of Tambun, Bercham, Tasek, and Meru. Look ahead and you’ll see the magnificent hills; look down and you may see potholes on the road.
Whenever these potholes make their seasonal appearance, they stay a long time. A Taman Meru schoolgirl rode her bike into a pothole one night and injured her knees when she fell.
The most famous pothole victim was a Federal Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin who crashed after hitting a pothole during a cycling trip in Selangor towards the end of December and bruised his face. On public record, he was the only victim to receive an apology.
But there have been tragic outcomes every year for decades, for instance, recently in the Klang Valley, retiree Ho Yan Fee died when his motorcycle hit a pothole on January 3. The next day, food delivery rider Hew Yoong Le hit a pothole and was killed when he fell off. Royal Malaysian Air Force corporal Mohd Husaini Mohd Nasir fell on the road after hitting a pothole on November 6. He died when a lorry ran over him.
A university study in 2017 found that 11.2% of the 7,152 road fatalities the previous year were caused by potholes, translating to 800 deaths from pothole accidents throughout Malaysia in 2016.
What do potholes signify? They indicate a malfunctioning democracy and lack of public participation in governance. This is true not just of Malaysia but of the world, for unpatched holes have become a standard road feature in many countries.
Three months ago, residents in the British town of Worthing threw a lavish party to celebrate the repair of a pothole that had damaged their vehicles for two years. Malaysians lack this kind of humour, and don’t like street parties anyway.
If you follow the standard operating procedure in Malaysia and the promises of our city mayors, a pothole less than 20cm wide will be patched within 24 hours of a complaint. If it is up to 1 metre wide, it will take several days because of the need to do a bigger job.
But Malaysians also don’t like SOPs. So don’t be surprised if the days stipulated on the repair job sheet are based on the time our solar system requires to circle round the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. It took more than one year for a badly potholed 2km road in Klang to be resurfaced.
Potholes are left unrepaired or poorly repaired because of budget conservatism and the habit of passing on cost. Every left-alone pothole carries a tag: the cost that is passed to you as a workshop bill to repair your damaged vehicle. Sometimes the cost is a life.
In Penang, hotel employee Zainal Amri Abdul Aziz spends RM250-RM400 every month for repairs to his motorcycle as the 5km ride from his house to the hotel where he works are dangerously potholed and his tyres get hit frequently.
If you have a bad cough that persists for 20 years, you know that you have lung cancer. If you have a pothole issue persisting for 20 years, it signifies a much deeper malaise: our democracy is malfunctioning and there is no public participation in governance.
If you want to stop lung cancer, change your lifestyle. If you want potholes repaired, don’t keep digging in the same hole expecting governmental authorities to do the job. Dewan Rakyat democracy isn’t the same as grassroots democracy, as MPs, ADUNs, and politically-appointed councillors are not focused on neighbourhood maintenance issues.
Pothole-fixing is a job for the Rakyat, as they are usually the ones who fall victim to them. More than 15 years ago, an odd-job worker known as Panjang used his own resources to mend potholes in Johor Bahru. Late last year a community service volunteer, Nasir, decided to personally organise pothole repairs around Chowrasta Market in Penang.
Just a few weeks ago, a group called the Ikatan Silaturahim Brotherhood went about mending roads in Petaling Jaya. The Brotherhood has some 10,000 volunteers throughout Malaysia doing their bit to stop people dying from pothole accidents.
No government official can manage a neighbourhood better than ordinary folks such as Panjang, Nasir, and the Ikatan Silaturahim Brotherhood volunteers. These folks represent the green shoots of grassroots democracy.
Grassroots democracy means empowering the Rakyat through a network of legally constituted, non-political, freely elected neighbourhood committees that handle all maintenance functions including road upkeep. Their budget should be drawn from taxes paid by the neighbourhood occupants such as assessment taxes on their homes and road taxes, as well as levies on utility companies.
You know your roads better than any politician or councillor, you are the user whose vehicle gets damaged, and you have a strong interest in seeing that the best contractor is selected who can do a good job in double quick time.
Potholes are caused by rainwater that seeps under the surface, breaking the tarmac as it expands and contracts. The repair methods used by local councils are quite backward as every road user has seen potholes that return after a week, road surfaces that stay uneven despite patching, water ponding on low stretches, and manhole covers that are below surface level.
Rubberised asphalt is the best material to use as we are a rubber producer, and contractors should stop cutting a square on the road as rainwater seeps in through the four corners. They should cut a circle around the pothole instead, to avoid corners.
In addition to mending potholes efficiently, properly supervised well-functioning neighbourhood committees will surely appoint the best contractors to pick up litter, clear the drains, repave walkways, trim the grass, enhance the playground, and grow more trees for a cooler ambience.
You can make life better only when you understand that democracy isn’t the act of voting; it is the act of taking part in governance. The time has long come for MPs and ADUNs to approve the establishment of non-political neighbourhood committees to undertake maintenance. To repair Malaysia, start by repairing the potholes. Let the Rakyat take charge of that job.