A businessman who makes time to speak up for the poor

Political activist Muhsin Latheef with Sophian Mohd Zain (right).

GEORGE TOWN: “Ustaz” Sophian Mohd Zain has lost quality time at home with his wife and four children since last Wednesday, camping out together with eight families from Taman Manggis PPR flats at the lobby of Komtar, all for the sake of speaking up for the downtrodden.

Sophian, 44, a businessman, has been a key speaker at the nightly ceramah at the lobby of the state government building, with the backdrop of a tent, clothes rack and a zip-up plastic wardrobe of the evicted residents.

He and political activist Muhsin “Mamu Parpu” Latheef have been at the forefront of all the protests ever since the eviction of the Taman Manggis residents after they were disqualified from the government flats meant for the poor.

The residents were evicted after being found to have been earning more than RM1,500, having rental arrears (monthly rent of RM124) and having foreign spouses.

The state government says these made them ineligible to continue their stay in the PPR units.

“Now, the Penang government says we have been ‘menghasut’ (instigating) the residents to protest against them. That is wrong. If we do not speak up for the poor, then who will?

“No one is paying us to be here. We are here on our own free will,” he said.

Families evicted from the Taman Manggis PPR camping out at the Tek Soon Arcade in Komtar today. They have been there for the past six days.

Sophian is chief of a welfare association called “Surplus” and is from Dato Keramat, coincidentally also the constituency of state executive councillor Jagdeep Singh Deo, who is in charge of housing matters.

He said Jagdeep has disappointed him and those protesting against the eviction. “What is Jagdeep doing, really? Why is he sending other exco members to talk to us? If he doesn’t want to talk to us, he can talk to our lawyer,” Sophian said.

The group of residents has engaged a lawyer who is mulling a possible suit for illegally evicting the residents without a court order.

‘Why give them hotel stays when they are not on holiday?’

Sophian said an exco member had offered those camping out a stay at a nearby hotel, run by the Penang Islamic Religious Council, but the residents had rejected it at their own will.

“They are not on a holiday. Why do they need a hotel? And how long would they have to put up at the hotel? The government should be offering houses for them to stay instead,” he said.

Sophian said a three-day reprieve, which ended at 4pm today, for those evicted to clear their homes of belongings was “insincere”.

He said those who want to clear items from their homes must agree to the terms and conditions set by the state, but the terms had not been revealed. He said it was a “yes” or “no” verbal promise and nothing written on paper.

Sophian said a resident whose child was getting married at the end of the month took up the offer as all the preparations for the wedding were still at home.

“What kind of terms and conditions are this? An agreement that you cannot read. This is unethical.

“It comes as no surprise as nobody took up the three-day reprieve except for one person, as she was desperate,” he said.

Penang govt should give rent-to-own homes to those evicted

Sophian said he acknowledged there are nearly 500 people on the waiting list for the Taman Manggis PPR, but said that was not an excuse to evict the families.

He said PPR units are offered as transit homes for people to rent. At the end of their tenure, the state should offer a low-cost home with a rent-to-own scheme.

Commenting on the recent ruckus when the prime minister’s political secretary, Abu Bakar Yahya, paid a visit last week, Sophian said the groups protesting had no intentions of hurting him, but merely wanted answers from him.

He said all were patiently waiting for him to come to meet the residents since morning, but he had only turned up in the evening, which he said “tested the patience” of those waiting.

“From the pictures shown in the media, it all appears that we were trying to fight him (Bakar). We were merely reaching out to him, asking him why he has no answers for us.

“You don’t get to see the PM’s political secretary any day. So we expected his visit to come with some good news. But he ran away,” he said.

Sophian said eight families were still camping outside Komtar.

He and his group are now preparing for a second wave of evictions from the Taman Manggis units. Sophian expects at least 50 families to be affected this time.

“This is not something we expect from a state government. This is something an ‘along’ (loan shark) will do.”

Last night, the protesting group held a barbecue. It plans to hold a “tea party” later tonight.

In its defence, the Penang government said it had to be firm to be fair to other low-income earners waiting on the list to rent cheap homes in the PPR and would not change its mind about it.