On the street where you live: destitute urban families scraping by

Fatimah Tasirul and Amir Khan Akhbar Khan have been married for 18 years. Fatimah earns up to RM600 a month selling pisang goreng, way below Malaysia’s official poverty line.

PETALING JAYA: Amir Khan Akhbar Khan gazes out his window at glittering Oasis Square.

According to its designers, the bustling Ara Damansara development is “a flourishing fusion of living, leisure, retail and business”.

Just a stone’s throw away, unseen families are living — but definitely not flourishing.

FMT is visiting Amir in his dilapidated low-rent apartment at Rumah Pangsa Seri Jati, or Teak Apartments.

The only furniture in his dimly-lit hallway are three ancient dining chairs and a small round coffee table.

The Seri Jati flats, just a stone’s throw from the glittering Oasis Square in Ara Damansara, described as a ‘flourishing fusion of living, leisure, retail and business’.

Eggshells and carrot peelings litter the grey cement floor, and a cardboard box containing a few cabbages suggests the hall doubles as a kitchen.

He gestures to the paint-spattered chairs and we sit.

He switches the fan on for us. This is now a novelty for him as he and his wife, Fatimah Tasirul, have been existing without electricity and water until very recently. Both utilities were disconnected for non-payment of bills.

Amir, 33, who has severe learning disabilities, tells us his wife of 18 years is his carer and the sole breadwinner.

“She normally sells pisang goreng or popiah at Dataran Ara Damansara,” he says.

Fatimah, from Surabaya, Indonesia, can earn up to RM600 selling banana fritters and spring rolls. That’s way below the national poverty line of RM980 per household.

It’s never enough as their rent is RM550. Which means they often have no money left after paying the landlord.

But today she’s not selling her snacks, he explains. Two days ago, freak winds wrecked her stall, so she is working at the Indonesian embassy. As a cleaner, he thinks.

“Sometimes, she also gives massages for food, usually an omelette and plain rice,” he says. “Sometimes, neighbours give us food.” He gestures to a bun on the table.

As he describes it, they live from day to day.

But sometimes they can’t even manage that.

In desperation, the couple visited the service centre of their Petaling Jaya MP, Maria Chin Abdullah, back in June.

The MP had long admitted that poverty was present in prosperous constituencies like hers.

This was in response to a United Nations human rights report claiming the government uses a low poverty line that fails to reflect the actual conditions of the country and essentially disguises true poverty levels.

The place Amir Khan and his wife call their bedroom.

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said after an 11-day visit in August: “While Malaysia has achieved undeniable, impressive growth in reducing poverty in the last 50 years, the official claim that poverty has been eradicated or exists merely in small pockets in rural areas is incorrect.”

Maria’s office helped Amir and Fatimah settle their water and electricity arrears. They also helped settle the three months’ rent they owed.

Amir is grateful. “I can now shower and sleep better,” he beams.

A week later, FMT returns to chat with Fatimah.

Their home looks different now. Gone are the broken eggshells and carrot peelings.

The cooking stove and wok, in the hall before, are now in the tiny kitchen. The box of cabbages has disappeared.

In the fridge sits a small piece of roasted chicken.

“Yes, life is difficult,” says Fatimah.

The hall doubles as a kitchen, with food leftovers littering the grey cement floor.

Most days, she wakes at 4am to prepare curry puffs and popiah, which she later takes to her stall.

She can make around RM80 if she sells everything, but that’s rare. Everything unsold is donated to the mosque.

When she gets home, she tends to Amir. “If I don’t wash him and brush his teeth, he won’t do it,” she says, a tear trickling down her cheek.

She accepts any food that people give them. Amir complains that she sometimes brings home fruit that is rotting. She scowls at him. He looks at the floor.

With no water or electricity, life became even more difficult.

“I had to walk a kilometre to the petrol station to use the toilet, which could get very uncomfortable,” she says.

So when the utilities were restored, Fatimah’s response was, “Alhamdulillah”.

Amir Khan is grateful to their local MP, Maria Chin Abdullah, for helping them restore water and electricity supply.

Alston said about Malaysia: “Many people living above the official poverty line are in fact in poverty.

“The Malaysians I met, who were struggling to get by, deserve better than to be told by policymakers that poverty does not exist, in direct contradiction of their own experiences.”

Maybe now even Putrajaya would concede that Amir and Fatimah are living in poverty.

For as the old song nearly asks, “Is there poverty in the heart of town?”

The answer is a resounding yes.