Connexion: Right way for Ipoh to regain its ‘cleanest city’ title

By Joachim Ng

Three years have passed since Mayor Datuk Rumaizi Baharin visualised Ipoh to be the cleanest city in Southeast Asia, a title now held by Singapore. As a first step, the goal included gaining recognition for Ipoh as the cleanest city in Malaysia by 2023, last year.

Have we gained, or should we say, have we regained this coveted position? Retirees will remember that Ipoh was by popular acclaim Malaysia’s cleanest city throughout the 1960s. Although it lost the shine for many decades, in 2016 Ipoh was once again declared the nation’s cleanest city.

But the victory was short-lived. Within two years, litter regained its conquest of the city and garbage piles could be seen at roadsides, traffic junctions, open spaces, and drains. Besides the usual trash, bulk items like disused mattresses were spotted by writers on the move. And most ironical of all, discarded wastes stood next to big signs proclaiming “Ipoh Bersih, Hijau dan Maju.”

Last month — January 2024 — Ipoh Echo reported that representatives of the newspaper and Peraktastic conducted a site survey of Pasar Besar and found numerous uncollected garbage piles. “The trash was notably situated in front of the market entrance, undoubtedly visible to many who encounter the same situation daily.”

Ipoh Echo also reported complaints of scattered and strewn waste, often caused by scavenging dogs or cats, in Taman Leow Yan Sip and Taman Panglima Gunung Rapat.

The paper quoted one resident who wished to remain anonymous: “Numerous complaints have been made by the public, and while there have been cleanup efforts, there is no long-term action taken by the relevant authorities. I want this issue to be highlighted to create awareness among the public not to dispose of waste on the roadside and to become more responsible.”

Two weeks ago, Ipoh Echo reported that a parking lot in the bustling Taman SPPK morning market area had become an illegal dumping ground, including for bulk trash, posing an unpleasant daily sight. After three days of news coverage, the parking lot still remained piled up with garbage.

Why has Ipoh failed to regain its 1960s glory, and why will it keep failing? The reason is that cleanliness can never be a do-it-alone endeavour; it must involve all other cities and the entire nation. No such do-it-together spirit exists.

We fail because Malaysian culture revolves around characteristics that are quite removed from the vision of Mayor Datuk Rumaizi Baharin. What is the chief characteristic of Malaysian culture? What is topmost in our minds and is always hotly pursued? It’s food. Restaurants and roadside stalls have popped up everywhere to ensure that food is available at all hours of the day and night.

With food being the most vital ingredient of the Ipoh lifestyle, a tourist would assume that our restaurants shine with clean pots and floors. But no, the city council issued 429 compound notices worth RM78,300 to food shop operators in 2022. Last year up to June, some 288 compound notices worth RM67,500 were issued under the Food Operators Bylaw 1981 for various offences including the cleanliness of public toilets.

Even at clean dining spots such as the Family Food Court in Canning Garden, rubbish bins are misused by non-traders who come in motorcycles and cars to throw bags of rubbish from their vehicles, often spilling trash on the ground all around.

How about cleanliness at the popular wet markets which the city council hopes can be transformed into tourist attractions as is the case in Australia and Europe? Last July, Kinta Perak Community Welfare Association president Roslan Ali said wet markets in Malaysia, especially those in Ipoh, were not even at a satisfactory level. They are usually smelly, with floors that are often slippery and dirty.

To be clean and to stay clean, Ipoh — and every other city — must weave two additional values into Malaysian culture. The first value is clean living; the second value is a concern for maintenance.

Famous son of Ipoh Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye has for years written about and spoken about the need for concrete steps to be taken to foster a good maintenance culture in Malaysia. “For example, the roads,” he told the New Straits Times in a January 1 article. “The potholes must be immediately repaired and the same goes with public facilities such as toilets and parks, they must be well maintained.”

Just two weeks ago, a motorcyclist hit a pothole in front of a restaurant near the Lotus’s supermarket at Station 18 along Medan Stesen 19/9. Fortunately he was able to prevent his motorcycle spiralling out of control. A salesman, Muzammil Arif, told Ipoh Echo he had hit the pothole before. “I used to go to the supermarket there but didn’t notice there was a hole before I hit it.”

Ipoh City Watch president Dr Richard Ng lamented last April that potholes could be seen in every corner of the city, in addition to the constant traffic congestion.

Some politically minded vocal groups in Kuala Lumpur two months ago voiced strong demands for local government elections to be organised. That’s understandable, as the federal capital and adjacent towns are in such a dirty mess that a suggestion has eventually been made to recruit homeless people for cleanup squads to tidy up specific areas allocated to them.

That’s on the ground. What about high up? One year ago, the Star newspaper reported that upper floor residents at a 22-storey apartment complex in Bangsar were throwing bags of general waste, used diapers, and bottles of urine to the ground. Human faeces and urine were also a common sight at lifts and along the corridors.

The Star further reported that, despite the 2018 death of a boy who was killed by a piece of furniture thrown from an upper floor of a people’s housing project in Pantai Dalam, littering is still occurring with diapers, liquor bottles, and plastics thrown to the ground.

But having elected mayors and city councillors for Kuala Lumpur or any other city will not solve the problem of dirty living and maintenance neglect, as local government elections will merely provide another channel for political parties to cross swords and damage the nation further with their poisonous racial debates.

Think realistically. How would it make a difference if city councillors were elected politicians rather than political party appointees, as is the current practice?

Would an elected councillor go down to your neighbourhood to pick up trash, clear the drains, or tar up the potholes? As long as they don’t live along the same street as you, they would rather spend their time at the debating forums catching headlines the way members of parliament do.

No. Concerned residents motivated to take action do the job better than any politician. In Johor Baru, the Pinang 3 Flats early last year became a picture of squeaky-clean living after years of squalid appearance. The residents association had two years ago decided to keep a close eye on litterbugs, with the installation of closed-circuit cameras in all strategic spots. Whenever there was evidence pointing to a litterbug, the culprit would be sternly admonished.

Years ago, the Desa Wawasan low-cost flats in Bukit Mertajam were considered slums. Then the community asociation made a crucial decision that turned things around. It awarded the cleaning services contract to a group of flat residents who were mothers. These mothers treated the flats as an extension of their own homes, and promptly spruced up every nook and corner with cooperation from all households.

As for potholes, a social activist in Klang hired some workers to tar up 10 potholes in Taman Sentosa last month at his personal expense, as he was concerned that a motorcycle might spin out of control if its tyre went into a pothole.

Clearly, the way to inculcate clean living habits and a maintenance culture is through public participation in governance, on the premise that representation must go hand in hand with taxation.

But representation must no longer go the old road of having political parties monopolise governance. Instead, representation must be in the form of election of ratepayers to neighbourhood committees that should replace residents associations. RAs have no legal power, whereas neighbourhood committees should be written into the law as an integral grassroots layer of governance, with the power and funding drawn from assessment taxes to hire service providers.

The Desa Wawasan mothers are a clear pointer to the right direction: you have to get the people who are living in the neighbourhood to manage the neighbourhood. They have a vested interest to do a good job.

So what should Mayor Rumaizi do to make his vision for Ipoh come true? Group the metro area population of 872,000 into 150-250 neighbourhoods, and stipulate that neighbourhood committee elections be held every two years amongst ratepayers who are not in default of payment.

Empower the committees to hold tenders to engage local residents as trash collectors and pothole patchers. Neighbourhoods can be grouped into zones to share the same trash collectors and pothole patchers for economies of scale.

Make the committees responsible for supervising these service providers and for reporting litterbugs to the council for the issuance of stiff penalties that should include mandatory community service work.

Payment for service providers should be dispensed from the assessment tax collection, with the auditing performed by council officers deployed to the sites.

Neighbourhood committees for grassroots governance are by no means a radical idea. They existed in the form of village councils in many parts of the world long before the era of party politics. The village council was a traditional structure for governing the locality. It is high time to restore this basic or first level of effective governance.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo

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