At Penang’s oldest high-rise flats, tales of falling bottles, soiled diapers… and corpses

By Opalyn Mok

GEORGE TOWN, Jan 22 — Thump! A piece of rubbish fell onto the zinc roof of an awning covering the entrance of the Jalan Sungai public flat here.

This was followed by a few more thumping sounds as trash such as plastic bottles, food debris and packets of leftover rice rained down from units above the People’s Housing Project (PPR) flat.

“This is normal and this is considered mild compared to seven years ago,” a long-time resident, Zainol Abidin Shariff, told Malay Mail.

Wake-up call

In 2010, a man waiting at the entrance to the flat was killed when a fist-sized stone fell on his head.

“It was 11am at that time, he was a sapu teksi driver so he usually waited in his car but that day, he got out from his car and was standing there when someone threw the stone out the window and it hit him. He died immediately,” Zainol said.

The incident was a wake-up call for the residents and the PPR committee. Immediately after that, CCTVs were installed facing the windows of the two blocks of 21-storey building.

“The moment anyone threw anything, it is recorded on the CCTV and we will identify them and report them to the local council for further action,” PPR committee member, Muhammad Nayim Othuman Mydin said.

Zainol Abidin Shariff showing a vehicle with its windscreen shattered from a falling item at Jalan Sungai PPR.

He said the local council will issue warning notices to the resident and it is after the third notice that the resident will be evicted.

“I feel that issuing notices is not enough. Harsh actions should be taken immediately, the moment anyone is recording throwing something out their windows, they must be evicted immediately,” Zainol said.

He said he would often tell off those whom he saw throwing rubbish out their windows and reminded them that their own parents, children or relatives could be on the ground floor.

“It was so common to have packets of leftover rice, curry, empty bottles and soiled diapers being thrown out that even once, the former committee chairman here was walking around the grounds when a soiled diaper fell on his head,” he said.

A few days ago, the windscreen of a vehicle was shattered from an object thrown from one of the units above.

Though the CCTVs captured most of those responsible for such acts, Muhammad Nayim said sometimes the CCTV footage was blurred especially when it was raining or at night.

“This is the old CCTV analogue system so it’s blurry and sometimes, it can’t record clearly so we hope the state will consider changing the system to a newer and clearer one,” he said.

CCTVs were installed at the Jalan Sungai PPR flats in 2010.

There are 12 CCTVs installed at the premises of the PPR and coupled with enforcement action, incidence of things being thrown out of windows and corridors have reduced drastically.

The CCTVs were also linked to the police and the Penang Island City Council.

“It was really bad between 2001 and 2010 but after that, it slowly improved and now we can say the incidences have reduced by 80 per cent compared to previously,” Zainol said.

They also believed that the involvement of the community helped reduced such incidences as those who saw others throwing rubbish out the windows would immediately report it to the PPR committee’s office or guard.

“It is a good thing that the community here wants to help each other to stop such incidences and we hoped to reduce such incidences by 95 per cent,” Muhammad Nayim said.

Litter strewn all over the awning below the low cost flats in Rifle Range.

Beware of falling bodies

The Rifle Range low-cost flats in Penang are well-known for being the oldest high-rise residential building in the state as it was built in 1969.

Since it was the first high-rise building, it also became a popular spot for suicidal people to jump off the top floors of the flats.

“From the 1970s up to the 1990s, we regularly have people jumping to their deaths here, to the point that people avoided walking across the centre court area because that’s where their bodies usually fall,” said Loh Eng Kim, who has lived in Rifle Range since 1971.

There are nine blocks of flats in Rifle Range, two of which are now PPR units while the remaining are privately owned low cost units. There are about 3,700 flat units in the whole project.

“Nowadays, we have fewer suicide cases since there are so many high rise buildings everywhere but we still have the same rubbish-throwing mentality here. If you look at the awnings at the entrances, you can see the amount of rubbish that gets thrown out,” Loh said.

Loh Eng Kim has been living at the Rifle Range flats since 1971.

Things such as food waste, soiled diapers, boxes, flower pots, cans, glass bottles and even a small television were often thrown out the balconies of the flat units.

“If you think that’s bad, we have had people dumping faeces out but usually we can’t find out who did it,” he said.

He said the only solution to this is to get everyone involved and be responsible for the shared spaces as a community.

“The problem now is that if someone saw a neighbour throwing things outside, they’d rather turn a blind eye and ignore it instead of reporting them. We need to help each other to stop such behaviour but sadly, it is very hard to get people here to cooperate,” he said.

Loh said tenants in the PPR blocks can be evicted if they were found to have done dangerous things such as throwing heavy items out the windows, but nothing can be done to those living in their own privately-owned units.

“The problem with these people is that they won’t admit to doing it even if someone saw them doing it. So I think we must install CCTVs to catch them in the act,” he said.

Loh Eng Kim said the Rifle Range flats used to be a popular spot for suicides.

Can you smell the dead?

However, when it comes to detecting rotting corpses, the residents are very helpful in immediately contacting Loh to track the source of the odour.

Loh, who is the Rifle Range JKKK chairman, said some residents would call him and tell him there was a strange smell next door and he would go up to check.

“Since this is a very old project, we have a lot of elderly people and many of them lived alone, so they died alone and it would go undetected until their bodies started rotting,” he said.

He said he had been called to check on so many cases that he immediately knew the smell of rotting flesh.

“These are old people who died of natural causes, except that they lived alone so often, their deaths were undetected until many days later,” he said.

Taman Manggis PPR.

A close call

A security guard in Taman Manggis PPR had a close call just two days ago when a drawer fell just inches away from him as he was heading back home.

Abdul Wahab Hussain, 56, who lived in Taman Manggis since 2006, said he could have been killed if it fell on him.

“It was thrown from a high floor, possibly level 13 and above, so I could imagine the impact of the drawer if it fell on me,” he said.

He said it was also very common to see items such as empty tins and bottles being thrown from above and each time, it was near impossible to detect those responsible for it.

The PPR project had CCTVs installed but it was facing the motorcycle park as motorcycle theft was also very prevalent at the flats.

“Even with CCTVS, because it was installed so low, the wires were cut so it’s now out of service, so they should install it at an unreachable place and facing the flats so it can record those doing this,” he said.

Another resident, Rashid Roslan, said he has seen rocks and large water pipe metres being thrown down but fortunately, no one was hurt.

“Usually, cars parked nearby gets damaged and most residents know not to walk near or to walk inside so as not to get hit by falling items,” he said.

Other issues in high-rise living

Drug addicts’ dens, non-payment of maintenance fees, lack of cleanliness and illegal homestays were some of the other issues that those living in high rise buildings faced.

While indiscriminate littering is not as prevalent in higher end apartments, there are also other issues such as the collection of maintenance fees or ensuring units are not used as illegal homestays.

According to Taman Kristal Joint Management Body chairman Gerald Mak, there are still those who throw rubbish such as bottles and plastic bags from their balconies, but it is very few and far in between.

“We used to have illegal homestay issues, but we have resolved that and now it is the usual issue with collecting maintenance fees from unit owners as some tend not to pay,” he said.

Over in PPR flats and low cost flats, one of the most worrying issues was drug addicts using vacant units as their dens. Some loitered around stairwells.

According to Loh, drug addicts would usually hide at the rubbish disposal area or if they noticed vacant units, they would break in and live in there.

“We tried everything — reporting them, turning them out, but somehow they keep coming back and they are so good at escaping that each time we make our rounds to find them, they have disappeared,” he said.

Over in Jalan Sungai, it was also the same issue except that these drug addicts also dealt drugs to the youths living there.

Zainol said these were outsiders who would hang around the hidden stairwells to “get high” on drugs.

“Sometimes they would even deal drugs here, we have reported this but they still keep coming back,” he said.

These issues faced in high rise residential buildings are no different from villages or any housing estates except that people who are living closer together don’t have the sense of community like villages, he added.

He said it was fortunate that the community in Jalan Sungai were getting together better and helping each other better, which improved the way the people there behaved.

Mak said there was still a need for more awareness among high rise dwellers to be more responsible as a community.

“They have to learn to be more responsible not only for their own units, but also for the common areas especially when it comes to cleanliness and safety,” he said.