KUALA LUMPUR — May 22, 2019: It was three in the morning and the streets of the city appeared peaceful. It was an unusual sight, given how bustling KL is in the day. Evidently, most people were likely fast asleep.
Everyone, except for a few have-nots who ruffled the calm as they rummaged through boxes containing loads of used garments that were left at a dimly-lit corner of the KL-Selangor Hokkien Association building.
“Isn’t this pretty?” asked one of the three female clothes foragers admiringly, referring to a billowy purple kaftan dress that she had just pulled from one of the boxes. She was however reluctant to tell her name.
“Just call me Kak Ngah,” the friendly lady introduced herself as she raised the dress and checked to see if it fits her.
Kak Ngah was wearing a navy blouse littered with white polka dots. It was ill-suited with the rest of her ensemble which was a mismatch of jet-black track bottom and a pair of white sneakers with red stripes on the sides.
To the untrained eyes, her peculiar sense of fashion – or lack of – coupled with her unkempt short wavy hair seemed to suggest that she, like her two companions, belonged to the homeless community in the city.
But they weren’t
“Actually… I have a home. This is just a Ramadhan gig,” she explained. Her voice softened as tells about her shoe-box house on top of a shoplot somewhere in Bukit Bintang.
Her two friends who have finished searching their respective boxes nodded sheepishly as they clenched their selected spoils. The duo were from Gombak.
Apparently, the Ramadhan-only homelessness has been a thing among the urban poor in KL. The cause? Malaysians’ – particularly Muslims – unflinching generosity during the holy month.
Prior to Ramadhan the official tally of the homeless in KL stood at 997 but the latest headcount by City Hall on Sunday revealed that this had grown to 1,122. Officials expect the number to grow bigger as Hari Raya gets closer.
One of Kak Ngah’s companions, clad in an oversized white t-shirt, said they resorted to pretending to be homeless because they did not have a choice. Life, she muttered, was hard and the public can be quite judgmental.
“I’ve seen the dirty looks some gave me when my boys and I broke our fast at the mosque. Here, it’s different. People don’t even look at you when they give you free food. It’s sad but it’s better,” said the middle-aged woman who requested anonymity.
Meanwhile, her other friend was checking if a round-neck salmon pink kids t-shirt could fit her toddler who was sleeping on a nearby pavement.
She also joined the conversation later and her poignant input added a religious hue to it.
“I don’t know if what we’re doing is the same as lying. I just want to give my son some Raya shirts. I’m a mother too,” she said with a cracked voice before turning to fan her half-asleep toddler who was muttering about feeling hot.
Her question was met with a moment of aching silence. Neither Kak Ngah nor her other friend knew whether it is a sin for them to take advantage of Malaysians’ generosity during Ramadhan by pretending to be homeless.
About half an hour later, a black Toyota Vellfire stopped by a few metres from the corner. The driver, a large man who wore a black t-shirt and grey pants came out of the vehicle. He approached the trio after scanning the area.
Like many well-wishers, the man wanted to offer some free food for the pre-dawn meal. Kak Ngah however declined the generous offer, saying the homeless there have had more than enough food donated.
She was right. All of the sleeping homeless there had loads of plastic bags of food by their sides.
An elderly vagrant who was resting at a concrete pillar in Pudu bemoaned that a lot of the food ended up being thrown away. Free food, said the man, had apparently outnumbered the needy in KL.
To prove his point, the man pointed to a huge plastic bag for garbage several meters away. A closer look revealed that most of its contents were unopened containers of bubur lambok, rice and fried chicken.
“It’s just too much. What’s even more sad is that some of these foods were thrown away at the very mosque where it was distributed,” said the man who gestured to the four unopened polystyrene containers that were neatly stacked next to him.
“Ironic isn’t it. The month of giving has become the month of wastage,” he quipped.