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Malaysia: Bringing power to the people (+video)

By Stephanie Sta Maria

PETALING JAYA, Malaysia, August 6, 2010 -- Free Malaysia Today -- Kota Damansara assemblyman and Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) chairman Nasir Hashim is a realist. But he is also fond of quoting Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara to “be realistic and do the impossible”.

And Nasir is doing the impossible: he is spearheading an ambitious project to eradicate urban poverty in a small community in the vicinity of Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya.

The project has a bold vision. It will empower the poor not only by developing their skill sets but also by encouraging a mindset shift from that of victim to victor. The project also aims to have various parties – federal and Selangor governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations and local communities – working hand-in-hand to achieve this vision. It is a radical concept and one that could be seen as remarkably idealistic.

“It is idealistic,” Nasir agrees. “But only if you remain focused on the present scenario in which the poor allow their lack of self-confidence to trap them in the cycle of poverty. Once they understand their potential and how to reach it, that's when the real change takes place.”

“I've been involved with squatter problems for three decades. I've seen what happens when people understand the root cause of their problem and how to turn things around for themselves. This is the crux of the project.”

His optimism has not blinded him, however, to the fact that much of the project's success will hinge on the recipients' willingness to embrace it.

“A project like this can't be launched with a group of people who are not already working towards improving their lives,” he said. “So we have chosen a community that possesses the right attitude and which is already integrated within itself. It's easier to build on an existing platform than create the platform from scratch.”

That handpicked community resides in the Putra Damai flats in the vicinity of Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya. The eight blocks are part of the government-initiated Housing Project for the Extremely Poor (PPRT) and are the largest concentration of low-income families in Selangor.

Ideal recipients

The project, aptly named The Putra Damai Urban Poverty Project, will however involve only the residents of Blocks G and H. According to Nasir, they represent the ideal recipients.

“The two blocks are separated from other six and for some reason the residents there have a different culture and mindset,” he told FMT. “Most of the problems faced by them are either infrastructure-related or posed by outsiders. There is a strong sense of community among them which is what we're looking for.”

Initial stages of the project have already started on a positive note with Nasir visiting the two blocks to listen to the residents so as to shape the project goals around their needs. His approach has won a solid nod of approval from the community but to him, it is an obvious starting point.

“These are people who have believed in election promises and have been disappointed,” he explained. “They stop trusting politicians. So when they are approached with an idea like this, their automatic reaction is one of suspicion. They want to know what political mileage we're getting out of them. The only way to reassure them of our sincerity is to give them what they need and not what we think they need.”

The project framework is straightforward. It will provide the residents with financial assistance, introduce them to relevant business contacts and equip them with the necessary entrepreneurial skills.

The initial funding will come from Nasir's office, various NGOs and private corporations minus the middlemen and a commission-based system.

“We'll give the residents a lump sum start-up capital and let them decide how to distribute it among themselves,” Nasir said. “This is their baby so they should make such decisions. Plus we also want them to work as a team and not individuals.”

“What is very important is that the people understand how their new skills can improve their lives. For example, there is no point in teaching a woman to bake or sew but continue relegating her to the role of housewife. That will not contribute to her family's income nor to the economy.”

Daunting challenge

Nasir is also adamant that this project belong to the community and not to him or his team.

“We want them to reach a stage where they are bringing ideas to the table and those ideas are better than ours,” he said earnestly. “Then we know that we have succeeded and can move on to help other communities. It's like raising a child to be independent and then allowing the child to freely exert that independence.”

And this is when the second part of the project will kick in. Rather than start all over again with a new community, Nasir plans to replicate the workings of the first model for the other blocks to emulate.

“People relate to others who have faced a similar struggle,” he pointed out. “There will be a stronger sense of trust and appreciation in place that way. Let the successful communities give hope to those who are still struggling.”

Despite his optimism, Nasir is also aware that his most daunting challenge will be bringing together different partners with different political agendas to work in the same space towards a common goal. But he has to start somewhere and has chosen to begin with the NGOs.

“Many NGOs have expressed interest but they don't know where or how to help,” he said. “We'll set up a meeting with the community leaders, the NGOs and councillors so everyone is on the same page. I'm also planning a dinner with all the councillors in my area to discuss this with them.”

However, he will hold off meetings with the federal and state governments until the project is in full swing. In his opinion there is no point in talking about a project that only exists on paper for now.

“If there's nothing concrete to show, then we will be merely talking on an intellectual level,” he said. “We need to see the project moving past the initial stage and in a clear direction, with people making strong decisions. Then it will be easier to get government support and promote the community's small businesses at state and federal levels.”

“It's also crucial to bridge the gap between the government and the people,” he added. “The people must understand how their lives are affected by national policies so they know how to push for their rights all the way up to Parliament. This is another form of empowerment.”

Wind of change

The project is a first for PSM but certainly not the first of its kind. The concept has been bandied about in various political circles only to fizzle out eventually. Nasir thinks the idea didn't take root because the proposals were not holistic.

“To eradicate poverty, you have to integrate all the various segments like education, culture, economics and politics. You can't have each department within the government pursue it separately because their efforts will overlap and everyone will be going around in circles.”

Nasir also gives credit where it is due and in this case it belongs to Aloysius Francis Pinto, the project creator. Pinto, who calls himself a social entrepreneur, is confident of the project's success especially since it is led by Nasir.

“The model existed two years ago but it needed the right person to breathe life into it and also know when to let go,” he said. “But the true beauty of this project is that it involves both the ruling government and the opposition.”

“The head of one of the blocks in Putra Damai is an Umno branch member, while one of the project team members is from PKR. We've also had individuals from other component parties extending a hand without worrying whether it is 'politically correct'.”

A wind of change is blowing. How far or fast it will blow remains to be seen. But for now, Nasir and the residents of Putra Damai are willing to take their best shot at what could be the beginning of an end to urban poverty in Selangor.

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