Desa Mentari Block 3 is a block of low-cost flats, but it is nothing like most people’s perception of “low cost”. It is not dirty, there are no burglaries or muggings and the residents actually look out for each other!
This is, in fact, more than you can say for some of the middle-class housing estates in Petaling Jaya.
At this block of flats in PJS 5 here, where the average household income is below RM3,000 a month, residents cook together for weddings (even though they can afford a caterer), homemakers take care of neighbours’ children for a minimal fee of RM200 a month, donations are collected house-to-house for funerals, and buah tangan is even arranged for residents who fall ill and are hospitalised.
“We want to be a community,” Joint Management Body (JMB) chairman Ab Halim Che Had told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
According to Residents’ Association chairman Jalaludin Suhod, Block 3 has about one community programme a month, including gotong royong and sports events twice a year, besides Hari Raya and Deepavali celebrations.
The community is about 60 per cent Malay, 15 per cent Indian and 25 per cent foreigners (such as Indonesians and Bangladeshis). The Malay and Indian residents celebrate each other’s festivals.
“Between 70 and 80 per cent of residents join in the programmes,” Jalaludin told Malay Mail Online.
Block 3, which has an estimated 2,000 residents living in 415 units, also tries to be self-sufficient by making use of residents’ different skills and having gotong royong for things like building a roof, said Halim.
To further foster this sense of community, Block 3 residents cook for their neighbours’ weddings. The typical dishes, according to Saonah Siraj who is one of the usual chefs, are curries, dalca, fried chicken, beef and vegetables.
“We cook special dishes for the Indians,” said Saonah, referring to Hindus who don’t eat beef.
Halim, who is married to the 55-year-old Saonah, said getting the community to cook at each other’s weddings wasn’t a matter of saving money: “If we do catering, people will just come and eat and go home.” This way, they work and interact with each other.
JMB committee member S. Balan and representative of the Indian residents, who was at the same interview with Halim, Jalaludin and Saonah, said the interests of the Indian minority are taken care of.
“It’s a mixed group here — the association prioritises the spirit of community,” said Balan, adding that Block 3 is in the process of having all notices written in two languages: Bahasa Malaysia and Tamil.
As a result, despite the high-density of Block 3 with residents living in small 650 sq ft units, both Balan and Halim said there are no racial problems between the Malays and the Indians, or with the foreigners.
“It’s all about community, one ‘kampung’,” said Balan, while Halim said: “We want everyone to be together.”
Block 3 residents look out for each other so there is no serious crime, according to the community leaders who said there are only minor offences like theft and vandalism.
“There are no break-ins because if there’s any noise, everyone will come out,” Balan said.
The Block 3 community also appear to be empowered, with Halim saying that they raised their own funds to build a small hall that cost about RM12,000. Residents were asked to contribute RM3 a month. The fund collection, which 80 per cent of residents participated in, took about two years and the hall was set up in 2006.
“We want people to feel responsible for their own community,” Halim said.
There is also a sense of pride among the residents; Block 3 has won numerous community competitions in Desa Mentari, such as making the best bubur lambukas well as awards at events organised by the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ).
“We’ll win anything,” said Saonah proudly.
Block 3 is one of the 10 blocks of affordable housing by the Mentari Group of Companies here that was sold at RM35,000 back when it opened in 2003. There is a high ownership rate at Block 3, which has 14 floors, at about 80 per cent while 20 per cent of units are rented out, said Jalaludin.
A botanical garden and units with decorated walls
There is a small “botanical garden” in Block 3 beside a river, with plants like ubi kayu, serai, kunyit, limau kasturi, and belimbing buluh.
“This Saturday, we’ll clean the river,” said Jalaludin, pointing to the river that did not look particularly dirty.
Block 3 residents even collect rainwater, which is used to wash cars and to water the plants in the garden.
“We also sell recycled cooking oil,” said Balan.
Malay Mail Online visited three units at Block 3, including Jalaludin’s and Balan’s homes. They were clean, neat and had basic furniture like tables, chairs, beds and cabinets, as well as television sets.
Jalaludin, 46, and his wife Izaarbaayah Ahmed Ridzwan, 44, who have five children aged between seven and 18, even have a fruit compost as they sell cut fruits.
“We’ve been doing this for 18 years,” said Izaarbaayah. She and her husband sell cut fruits, curry mee, assam laksa, soup and drinks, which earns them about RM3,000 a month, from a truck based at the Subang Jaya KTM Komuter station.
As evidence of the close ties in the community, Izaarbaayah, who works 12 hours a day, said neighbour Saonah took care of two of her children when they were babies.
“When my kids say they’re bored and they want to go to Mama’s house, I tell them to go,” she said, referring to Saonah.
Balan’s home is also clean and neat with couches and children’s toys like a tricycle and a large ball kept in a corner. The 37-year-old, who is a manager in a company, and his wife K. Puspharani have two sons aged four and two, who were watching an educational video on colours on YouTube on a mobile phone during our visit.
They even renovated one of the three bedrooms so as to enlarge the kitchen and to create a storeroom.
“Crime is very little,” said Puspharani, who’s currently looking for a job as a clerk or administrator. “Block 3 is very, very safe. It’s very clean”.
She said there are “a lot of rules” in their block, such as not leaving one’s trash out for a long time, as well as “very good” maintenance, pointing to two working lifts.
“Block 3 is the best,” said the 34-year-old woman.
The walls on a few of the floors in Block 3 were beautifully decorated for a competition during Hari Merdeka. The seventh floor, which won the competition, was painted with hibiscus flowers, butterflies and the words “Sehati Sejiwa” on the wall outside the lifts.
“We gave them one week to beautify [their floor]. Some worked till 2 or 3am,” said JMB chairman Halim.
MP: No politics in committees
Wong Chen, who is MP of the Kelana Jaya constituency that covers the first eight Desa Mentari blocks, said he did not interfere with the election process in the JMBs, Residents’ Associations, or Rukun Tetangga.
“I’m a PKR MP, so they expected the community will be run by people in my party,” Wong told Malay Mail Online in an interview.
“We told them that we will not take a political stance on community issues. That’s how I think they managed to get their organisation based on merits, rather than based on any other form of appointment,” he added.
Wong said residents of Block 5, which has “the most peaceful environment”, told him that the secret to their success was to have racially diverse leaderships.
“They make sure that the chairman of the JMB is a Malay and deputy an Indian, but Rukun Tetangga, Indian takes over,” said Wong. “[They told me that] on each floor, you must try to have two leaders — one from the Indian and Malay community”.
The lawmaker said he gave the same advice to Block 3 and there are now Indian and Malay representatives in the JMB, Residents’ Association and Rukun Tetangga, even though the latter outnumbers the former.
Wong said there used to be “slight” racial issues in Block 3 between the Malay majority and the Indian minority, such as noise complaints during Hari Raya and Deepavali.
He admitted that it took a long time to break barriers when he was elected in 2013 due to his ethnicity. “I go to events, I’m the only Chinese there.”
Wong, who is from Kelantan, said the residents warmed up to him the second year after they observed him attending to Umno, PKR, and PAS members, and a “dramatic change” happened in the third year when residents would give him a warm handshake or even hug him.
“Block 3 is our most successful block,” said Wong.
Block 3 units selling for RM100,000
From a sale price of RM35,000 in 2003, units at Block 3, which is among the oldest in Desa Mentari, have appreciated to an average of RM100,000, according to Wong.
“Some other blocks are selling for RM50,000, RM60,000 in Desa Mentari. Block 3 is the highest. If you run your thing well, your asset improves,” he said.
Halim said one of the units is even selling for RM130,000.
According to Balan, there is only one ethnic Chinese resident at Block 3 — a woman in her 50s. The other ethnic Chinese owners rent out their units.
“They buy it at auctions because they like Block 3. It’s easy to rent out. Today it’s empty, tomorrow it’s filled,” said Balan.
Wong called them “slum landlords” and said it was a “big social problem.”
“I think going forward, Malaysia needs to relook the entire thing. If you want to supply public housing, the fair rate should be RM72,000. If it was RM35,000 13 years ago, it should be RM72,000, RM75,000 [now], the price of houses,” he said.