SQUINTING hard, I allow my eyes to travel lazily skyward. The towers, looming high against the azure blue canvas, seem to encircle me in their imposing folds. Despite the searing heat of the midday sun, the leaves on the trees around me ripple gaily from a gentle breeze.
“How on earth am I going to find Ruang KITA? Everything looks the same?” I lament to myself, starting to feel my head spinning trying to find my way around the densely populated Perumahan Awam Seri Perak in Bandar Baru Sentul, Kuala Lumpur.
Seeking shelter from the canopy of a large, wizened tree, I stand rooted, brows furrowed surveying my alien surrounds. My eyes continue to scan and I note a playground to one side and a modest futsal court on another.
A tudung-clad lady, her hand placed protectively on a young boy’s head, her slight shoulder lugging a school rucksack, passes by and throws me a tentative smile. “Cari apa, dik (What are you looking for)?” she quizzes, before stopping in her tracks just a few paces away.
“Kak, Ruang KITA kat mana (Sister, where’s Ruang KITA)? I ask her, relief etched all over my face. “Situ, depan tu (Just over there)” she exclaims, with a smile, her finger pointing to a building with some colourful bricks not too far from where we’re both standing.
“Itu bahagian belakang. Jalan jer sampai depan (That’s the back. Just walk on until you reach the front),” she adds, before throwing me another smile and ushering her little charge to walk on. So close also cannot see, I admonish myself silently before making a hasty beeline for Ruang KITA.
This newly refurbished and renovated multi-purpose hall built especially for the residents living in the low cost flats here is the venue of my appointment with Datin Kathleen Chew, programme director of the YTL Foundation, one of the parties involved, together with Sentul Raya Sdn Bhd, Federal Territories Ministry, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and Polis DiRaja Malaysia (PDRM) in a CSR project called Kempen KITA, a campaign aimed at improving the quality of life of the public housing community in Sentul.
“I’m sorry, Datin is on her way. She’s running a little late,” a kindly, bespectacled lady says apologetically the moment I reach the entrance of the colourful building that is Ruang KITA. Looking slightly flustered, she introduces herself before motioning me to enter to escape the stifling humidity outside.
Parking my ample derriere on one of the plastic chairs in the room, I scan my surrounds enthusiastically as Juli (the bespectacled lady) excuses herself to attend to a call outside. It’s a modest space but playfully furnished with curving tables set in a “communal” arrangement.
The chairs are modern in design and come in striking orange, yellow and black. Colourful shelves line the wall nearest to the windows and I can see board games stacked up in them. Painted brightly on the wall in front of me is the word “KITA”.
A sudden bustle by the entrance makes me swivel and I note the arrival of a classy-looking lady, clad in an elegant printed blouse over a pleated, Marilyn Monroe-esque skirt, classic pearls adorning her neck. “I’m so sorry to keep you all waiting. The traffic was pretty bad. Hi, I’m Kathleen!” she exclaims, her words tumbling out in an apologetic rush, before offering her hand in a gentle handshake.
Once the formalities are completed, Juli ushers us to a smaller room so we can proceed with our chat. I quickly recall that as Group Legal Counsel, Kathleen heads a team of lawyers in the corporate headquarters of the YTL Group and is part of the senior management team.
She’s also Programme Director of the YTL Foundation, which was established in 1997 by the YTL Group to provide scholarships to deserving students and generally contribute towards improving education in the country.
“When Sentul Raya, the developer for this area, suggested for us to do something with low cost communities, we thought why not? Why don’t we partner,” begins Kathleen, when quizzed about how the whole CSR initiative, Kempen KITA, started.
Adding, she shares: “We continued working on the education programme that we have in CLiC and reinforced that, but also started this Centre to bring mainly mothers together so we could start educating them on nutrition.”
(CLiC or Creative Learning and IT Centre in Sentul Raya was designed to enrich the learning experiences for the Sentul community. Located in the Urban Transformation Centre (UTC) in Sentul, it’s a community development initiative by Sentul Raya Sdn Bhd (SRSB) in partnership with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and the Education Ministry.)
Through Kempen KITA, some 7,000 residents of the Perumahan Awam Seri Perak get to enjoy programmes such as a toy library for children, health and nutrition programmes as well as safety and security programmes.
The idea behind the campaign is to reduce the socio-economic gap of urban poverty among residents in low cost flats in addition to creating a more conducive environment for the community to live, work and play.
One of the anchor programmes here, elaborates Kathleen, is the toy library, brought by Toy Libraries Malaysia (TLM), an NGO established in 2017 to provide a platform for toy libraries and individuals in Malaysia to promote play and the values of building safe, healthy and happy communities.
“Our aim is to bring the mothers together; to create a sense of community where they can share the burden of childcare,” continues Kathleen. “One of the other things that TLM is very passionate about is development using play. The kids need to play and have toys.”
Many of the mothers here are busy, says Kathleen, with some working two jobs. What tends to happen is that the children are left in the flats to fend for themselves. To go out would be too dangerous.
So the question arose: How could they create a centre that families could come to with their kids and feel safe? “And maybe, eventually, get one or two of the mothers to volunteer and take care of that group to give the other mothers a break,” adds Kathleen, an avid art collector.
A community centre was the answer. And someone or a group that could give some kind of direction. “So we brought in TLM because they’ve done this kind of work with other communities, including the Orang Asli community,” continues Kathleen.
Adding, she shares that TLM provides the toys and equipment, YTL funds it, and the former also run the programmes where the mothers are taught what to do, how to use the toys and their values. “They also run nutrition and healthcare programmes for the mothers.”
Meetings had been held with the community here in order to ascertain their needs, and a committee set up.
Says Kathleen: “I’ve spoken to people who work in a similar fashion in the Philippines, and they told me that for anything to work, it’s important to build a community that has a common set of values, whether it be their kids’ nutrition or education. When it’s something they really believe in, you can be sure that they’d come together and the community would change.”
Voice low, Kathleen continues: “We can’t physically do so much just by ourselves. I mean, how many thousands of people are here? How can we go to every home? If we can be the catalyst… bring in a few people who believe in the cause, and then hopefully, things will spread. Personally, I feel that what’s important in any community is a safe space, nutrition and education. And this is what we’re trying to achieve.”
The reason why Perumahan Awam Seri Perak, established back in 1987 and comprising 1400 units, was chosen for their pilot undertaking is simple: a relationship with the community had already been established thanks to CLiC. Furthermore, the enthusiasm and efficiency displayed by the Seri Perak Kelab Belia (Youth Club) made it all the more ideal.
The Club comprises 19 committee members and 127 registered members. Excitedly, Kathleen, who aspired to be a nuclear physicist at one time, shares: “They’re very active. We call them up and they get things done. For example, we asked them to survey how many mothers there are and within a week they reverted. With some communities, it’s hard to obtain the information and get people to be on the ground.”
Elaborates the soft-spoken Cancerian: “We have the Kelab Belia to help anchor the programme on the ground; an existing programme nearby at CLiC, and of course, this is part of the Sentul Raya community. It made sense to start here. If we could prove that it works, then this model can hopefully be taken to other low cost communities in the city.”
QUESTION OF SUSTAINABILITY
Before all this, Kathleen shares that the Kelab Belia had been given the run of the premises for almost two years. They’d planned to run silat and tuition classes but unfortunately, due to lack of funding, were unable to realise much. Shares Kathleen: “The premises were run down and in the end, everything was just locked up. Nothing happened after that.”
Now that help has arrived, the premises have been revitalised. The members can come here to hold their meetings at night and they finally have a conducive space to run the classes that they’d initially planned to run.
Asked how sustainable this programme is, Kathleen replies: “It all comes down to whether that community spirit and values can be fostered. We start with the lowest hanging fruit first — the mothers. And then move on to the young adults. At least if some in the community see the value in what we’re doing, they’ll go on to impart that same value to their neighbours. And when people can see the benefits, then they might hopefully take ownership.”
Expression thoughtful, the PJ-born lawyer adds: “Sustainability in the long term can only come from within. External intervention can only go so far. I mean, how long can you keep throwing money in from outside?”
The biggest challenge is essentially changing people’s mindsets, she concedes. People have become quite individualistic and forgotten the value of doing things as a community. “A mindset change is crucial. Perhaps if everyone buys into the same concept/idea, then that’ll be the beginning of change.”
In the immediate pipelines is the setting up of a kitchen on the premises where cooking classes can be held. Pointing to another room just ahead of us, Kathleen shares that works are being undertaken to complete the kitchen space.
“The mothers will like this,” says the mother of seven, smiling. “We’ve worked with another NGO — Women of Will (WOW) — in another low cost housing area were the women are educated on entrepreneurship.
WOW started a kitchen there and the women are taught how to bake and then market their products in order to increase their livelihood. And definitely, most people can buy into this. It’s cooking; you can feed your family in addition to starting a little business.”
With the kitchen programme, the collective group, of YTL Foundation and Sentul Raya, will be the initial funders and coordinators. They’ve also spoken to other social enterprises to come onboard, perhaps with the training. “Hopefully once the women are trained, they can start training others.”
Is community building close to your heart? I ask. And Kathleen, the second of three siblings, smiles her motherly smile. “I’m passionate about showing people that there are those who care enough for you to create a space that you can feel comfortable in. I want to provide people with spaces that will inspire them to do more.”
Your idea of happiness?
The wellbeing of everyone around me.
Your biggest fear?
Not having a growth mindset… especially for myself.
Trait that you most deplore?
Who or what inspires you?
Generosity. And self-sacrifice.
What can’t you say “no” to?
Another piece of cake! I’m strawberry cream person.
The most over-rated virtue?
Exercise! Although I do exercise sometimes.
Talent you’d most like to have?
I wish I could sing!
Last movie that made you cry?
I’m a crier! Last movie I watched was Parasite but I laughed a lot. I don’t watch a lot of movies but a lot of movies make me cry!