According to charity worker Timothy Ratnam Subramaniam, this is a still common problem among the scores of Indian Malaysian families living deep in the oil palm plantations of Kuala Selangor.
Evangelical catch-phrases like “People First, Performance Now” and “Ketuanan Rakyat” feel empty when you come face-to-face with cases like Letchmy and Selvi.
And theirs is not uncommon even in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest, most-industrialised state. A state taken over by Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in 2008 and which Barisan Nasional (BN) is fighting tooth and claw to regain.
The people in Petaling Jaya, Klang, Subang Jaya and Shah Alam may have felt change in their lives. But in places like Kuala Selangor, things have stood still despite it “changing hands”.
Shackled by poverty Letchmy has tried to bring her case to a local politician. She claimed to have gone to see one not too long ago to highlight her plight.
“But he told me that my area fell under Tanjung Karang so I had to go apply there,” said the 41-year-old in Tamil to Timothy Ratnam, of the Light of Life Association.
“Problem is, how is she going to get transport to Tanjung Karang?” asked Timothy Ratnam.
The only person who has gone to the ramshackle hut which is their home, is a Welfare Department officer who took down the family’s details. That was over a year ago.
Letchmy’s children — Grace, 19, Sarah, 17, Daniel, 5 and Esther, 2 — have never gone to school.
No one has visited Selvimari, 25. She and her five-year-old son Eswaran do not have ICs. Only her nine-year-old daughter, Ling Soong Peng (from a previous marriage) and Gayathri, 3, do.
Timothy Ratnam explained that when Selvi had Eswaran, her husband, Murugan Thagavel, did not yet have an IC. So they could not register their son’s birth.
The two women told The Malaysian Insider that their families’ future lies in them getting this crucial document.
“Kalau esok saya dapat IC saya mesti kerja. Tak kisah kerja kecil ka, keras ka, (If I get my IC tomorrow, I will definitely work. Doesn’t matter if the job is small or hard)” said Letchmy.
An officer with Bukit Malawati State Assemblyman M. Mutthiah Pillay’s service centre has promised to look into their cases.
A familiar tale of lost opportunity Kuala Selangor’s urban centre is the state constituency of Bukit Melawati. The area gets its name from the historic hill which is the old administrative seat of the Selangor royal house.
The hill is a treasure trove of storied landmarks. Together, they tell of the beginnings of the Selangor Royal house, as well as the rise and fall of the Dutch, the English and the Japanese colonial powers who occupied the hill.
Yet most of the tourists to Bukit Malawati will not know that tale, said Zulkifli Kassim, who sells ice cream and snacks on the hill.
“There are no official tour guides to lead travellers around the sights. So tourists come up to the museum and lighthouse, and they wander around aimlessly,” said Zulkifli, who has been in business for the past 12 years.
It is a common problem of ancient areas all over the country, from Johor Lama to Lembah Bujang to Bukit Malawati — no one with the over-arching vision of how to stitch together separate but related sites into one compelling package.
A building contractor feels that this missed opportunity to capitalise on the potential of Bukit Malawati and Kuala Selangor as a whole, is what differentiates the BN administration from PR’s.
“The transition from BN to PR disrupted Kuala Selangor’s development. There’s not as much business from tourism even though it’s strategic.
“We have Bukit Malawati, the kelip-kelip (fireflies) and Pulau Angsa. All close by. But no one is taking advantage of them,” said the 44-year-old, who declined to be named.
The most common complaint from residents was the lack of well-paying jobs in Kuala Selangor. A sign perhaps of the yearning for the type of environment-changing, physical development projects that BN governments usually bring.
A fondness for a factory You can see this yearning when residents speak fondly of the “Sankyo” electronics factory which used to be sited not far from Kuala Selangor’s new Tesco hypermarket.
“They used to have at least 2,000 workers, operating three shifts a day. It was here for almost 10 years. People bought new houses and cars with the money they were making there,” said one stationery shop owner.
Another shop keeper in the old town talked of the factory as if it was the lifeline for businesses like his, “The workers bought everything from TVs to mattresses.”
When the factory and some other smaller ones in Kuala Selangor closed down about nine years ago, business suffered and never went back up.
“Thank God Tesco opened up. It might not be all that good for my shop but at least the people here can find jobs,” said the 52-year-old.
But even with the slew of new shops sprouting up in the commercial lots facing Tesco, the jobs on offer have not been all that good.
“The salaries in Kuala Selangor are low,” said a snack and drinks seller in his 20s who set up shop near the hypermarket. “If you work in one of factories here, you’ll probably only earn about RM800 even after five years.”
His wife, who mans the stall with him, knows many people from their village in Kampung Kuantan who commute every day from their villages to factories in Petaling Jaya and Klang.
“You have to go out of Kuala Selangor to find work which pays decently.” she said.
Mutthiah admits that Kuala Selangor needs to boost its economy to raise living standards and lift its people out of poverty.
“We’re working with the district office to spur small and medium enterprises (SMEs). We’re building stalls near a fisherman’s wharf in Sungai Selangor to sell seafood products and giving out more small trading licences.
“We’re also lowering the rent in commercial lots that the state government owns to encourage more people to open business and we’re launching a micro-credit scheme next year.
“But it’s difficult. The last big industry left years ago and others are reluctant to open up because of the economy,” Mutthiah said when contacted.
Staying in a place that stands still Yet it is not all doom and gloom. Ever since the Kuala Selangor district office took over management of the famous firefly sanctuary in Kampung Kuantan, the increase in tourists has helped create side incomes for many village youth.
The small jetty swarms with visitors on weekends and school holidays and youths like from Kampung Kuantan and surrounding villages will find part time work as boatmen, said Kampung Tanjung Siam headman Yusof Mohamad.
Though the Selangor government has not brought in any grand projects, the state-wide free water scheme is a great help for low-income families, Yusof continued.
“For people living in the village the few ringgit saved from not paying for water each month is very much noticed,” he said.
But Yusof admits that the desire for growth is strong among residents. “Our standard of living has improved a bit.
“There’s still poverty but at least there isn’t too much suffering. We can still put our kids to school but we need to grow.”
The couple who sells snacks near Tesco are ambivalent about their prospects in Kuala Selangor’s current economy.
After all, they had gone into business themselves because they felt it was better than slaving in a job that paid peanuts.
“At the end of the day, this place is still a kampung”, said the wife in that unique way many villagers think of their homes — as a changeless place that they return to someday but which they need to leave in order to better themselves.