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How politicians fail to see the people’s silent suffering

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It is not the expensive mega-projects that will impress the people, says Anil Netto. Often, it is the little things that burden and aggravate the people.

Politicians mistakenly believe that ordinary people are impressed with the big things – mega-projects and big-ticket announcements. But often it is the little things that matter.

Take, for instance, these four different episodes that show what ordinary people have to go through.

1) Lift breakdown at new Butterworth railway station

There is only one lift at the entrance to this station – and the alternative is walking up several flights of stairs. 

What happens when one of the lifts is not working – as happened a couple of days ago?

Expectant mothers, senior citizens, some of whom walk with the help of a cane (see photo above), parents with children and tourists with lots of baggage have to walk gingerly up and down these steps.

There was no signboard on the upper floor to indicate that the lift was out of order. So people upstairs waited for a lift that never came.

At the ground floor, a small bin was placed at the open lift doors to indicate that the lift had broken down.

How much would it have cost to put in an additional lift? Surely our best architectural and engineering minds can easily install a bigger additional lift – even if those who designed the new station building didn’t have the foresight to plan for that. But who cares?

Surely, the authorities could have installed escalators from the upper floor inside the building down to the train platforms as is the case at KL Sentral? As it is, when a train arrives at the station, a crowd of passengers, including senior citizens and people with disabilities, have to wait several minutes for another small single lift to the upper floor. The alternative is to trudge with heavy baggage up a long staircase – so tiring after a long journey.

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I’m left wondering – if they can’t manage to keep the lift running at all times or have additional lifts, how are they going to manage and operate the controversial RM10bn elevated light rail train system, with stations high above the ground, which they are planning for Penang Island?

This episode at the KTM station shows vividly why public transport for Penang should be at street level: to make it easier for everyone to use.

KTM has a couple of popular products – the ETS and Komuter train services. But the supporting infrastructure – the overwhelmed ticketing system, the lack of lifts and escalators, crowded stations with poor access – is letting these services down. How much will it cost to make all these improvements? Certainly not billions of ringgit.

2) Infrequent ferry service

The ferry service to the mainland runs only once per hour after 9.40pm and usually ends by 1am.

On the weekend of 23-24 November, three major events were being held in Penang Island: events associated with the George Town Literary Festival (21-24 November), the Penang Street Food Festival (23-24 November) and the Penang Bridge International Marathon (24 November). The latter meant the first Penang Bridge would be closed at midnight on Saturday, 23 November.  Plus it was also the first day of the school holidays (23/24 November).

These are crowd-pulling events, so not surprisingly, a large throng had converged on the island that weekend. Not surprisingly too, late at night on Saturday, 23 November, many people in George Town were trying to catch a ferry to return to Butterworth. But thanks to the poor skeleton service, the queue was long – apparently right up to the clock tower near Fort Cornwallis. Although I hear the service was running all-night-long that particular night (many commuters were probably unaware), the frequency was only once per hour.

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The alternative was using the second bridge along unfamiliar roads – requiring a major detour at that late hour of the night just to get to Butterworth – so close across the channel from George Town and yet so far along the circuitous route. I know of someone who just gave up and spent the night on the island.

Someone else asked, “Why don’t they just have the bridge marathon along the (underutilised) second bridge.” Why plan so many events on one weekend when you know this is going to create congestion and bottlenecks.

More importantly, why is it so difficult to quickly increase the number of ferries in operation so that it can run more frequently and all through the night, every day? We once had a dozen ferries in operation. Now we have fewer than a handful in operation. It won’t cost billions of ringgit to increase the number of ferries in operation and their frequency.

3) Toilet for persons with disabilities LOCKED in Penang Botanic Garden

Take a look at this video and you can see how difficult life is for wheelchair users.

Even the access ramp looks poorly designed.

Such a lack of consideration for people with disabilities!

4) Long wait at X-ray department in government hospital

Politicians, many of whom turn to private hospitals if they need medical attention, have no idea how long people have to wait at general hospitals. 

In one government hospital on the mainland, the wait at the X-ray department is so long. Imagine those with aches and pains, in bandages and plaster casts with fractures and broken bones, have to wait and wait and wait….

A notice says that one X-ray machine is out of service and that it will take several months to be replaced. Why can’t the hospital have more X-ray machines or a quicker replacement?

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Insufficient car parks also mean people have to park a long distance away, given the lack of alternative means of getting to the hospital for those who are ill.

Let’s not even talk about how more beds are crammed into cubicles meant for fewer patients. This photo was taken at the Penang General Hospital some time ago.

These four episodes are just examples of some of the difficult experiences that ordinary and often poor people have to endure when they require basic services.

A lack of planning, foresight and maintenance is what separates Malaysia from the ranks of developed nations. Chances are, you won’t see these things happening in places like Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

Perhaps all MPs and their families should be required to use government hospitals, government schools and public transport.

A long queue waiting at the crowded Penang General Hospital

And perhaps they should try moving around on a wheelchair too and looking for toilets designed for people with disabilities. Maybe then we can see some easing of the people’s everyday suffering.

But then many political leaders seem more interested in Big Money mega projects and high-end property development. I wonder why. Take a guess.

Why not focus on improving and maintaining what we have now – which won’t cost billions of ringgit.

If the Pakatan Harapan government really wants to win back lost support, it should start looking at the difficulties faced by many ordinary people in their everyday lives and come up quickly with solutions to ease their suffering.

Often, it is the little things that matter most.

Note: This piece was corrected to indicate that the ferry was running all night on 23 November, but still only at an hourly frequency. The ferry service usually ends by 1am on other days.

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