Amidst the affluent homes in the tree-lined suburb of Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) is a community that until lately has been forgotten and left behind by the development in its vicinity.
Not many, including residents in TTDI, are aware of its existence and how the community came into being.
Hidden from view from the main road and sheltered under the shady canopy of trees in Taman Rimba Kiara, this community – the longhouse residents – has a special place in the history of TTDI.
Most of the residents are descendants of rubber tappers of what was Bukit Kiara Estate more than 36 years ago before it was acquired for development.
Today, isolated clumps of old rubber trees in Taman Rimba Kiara and its vicinity attest to its origins and the odd latex-filled polystyrene bags tied to the trunks of the trees are evidence that rubber tappers still dwell in our midst.
When Bukit Kiara Estate was sold 36 years ago, the 100-odd families were relocated to longhouses until permanent housing was found.
Some of the rubber tappers have passed away, while the rubber trees have long since been replaced by houses and the needs of new masters.
However, for the rubber tappers and their descendants, time has stood still as their living conditions in the dilapidated longhouses have remained unchanged.
In mid-2016, winds of change finally came a-calling. The longhouse residents were informed that Kuala Lumpur City Hall had approved a 29-storey block consisting of 350 units of affordable housing to replace the longhouses occupying the 4.4-acre site which is part of the 25-acre Taman Rimba Kiara.
The news was received with much joy by the residents who believed their prayers had finally been answered. However, this long awaited and much deserved compensation turned out to be a double-edged sword that would sadly tear this close-knit community apart.
It was conveyed to the longhouse residents that not only would each family receive a unit as compensation, they would also be given the opportunity to buy an additional unit in a much sought-after suburb at a reduced cost.
Given the euphoria on receiving such unexpected news, many agreed to sign documents giving their support to the developer to proceed with the project.
What the residents were not told, however, was that the developer would also be building eight blocks of 42-52 storey high-end service apartments to subsidise the cost of developing the units for the longhouse residents. In other words, by giving their support to the developer, the longhouse residents had unknowingly given their seal of approval for the development of a mega housing project.
The proposal for this project alarmed the residents of TTDI and subsequently various activities were organised such as town hall meetings and campaigns to protect and preserve Taman Rimba Kiara.
Legal action was also initiated. It then dawned upon the longhouse residents that their approval for the development of permanent housing for themselves would come with the price of sacrificing a substantial part of Taman Rimba Kiara – a fact that many were not aware of when they were initially approached.
Meanwhile, TTDI residents, through the residents’ association, reassured the longhouse residents that they supported the proposal to replace the longhouses on its premises and would provide a more sustainable alternative.
However, by then the damage had been done and amidst the efforts to save Taman Rimba Kiara, two splinter groups among the longhouse residents emerged – one which was keen to see the delivery of the promised housing as soon as possible and the other which was more cautious and preferred to look at alternative proposals.
Saving Taman Rimba Kiara is not just about saving a much loved green space in TTDI and protecting it from greedy and unscrupulous developers. It is also about giving back dignity to a community that has generational and historical links to Taman Rimba Kiara and helping them to acquire the long overdue housing they deserve.
Understandably, Pertubuhan Penduduk Perumahan Awam Bukit Kiara, whose members are from the older generation, supported the development plan of the previous City Hall administration because they were anxious to see their lifelong dream of owning a permanent home materialise as soon as possible.
However, the younger members of Bukit Kiara Long House residents’ association, being more aware of the impact of the development on Taman Rimba Kiara, were more supportive of the alternative design proposed by architects from the Save Taman Rimba Working Group.
Thus, the surreptitious withholding of vital information by the developers has transformed what was once a close-knit community united in a common goal into one which is now sadly divided.
The longhouse community has been made a pawn by those who have power and authority, and sadly, it will take more than permanent housing to restore a community that has been torn apart ironically by the same issue which has kept them united for over three decades.
This article first appeared in Masyarakat TTDI, the official newsletter for Taman Tun Dr Ismail.