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A Home Or A Coffin? The Need For Better Housing Policies In Malaysia

Recently, the Local Government Development Ministry, in collaboration with the Fire and Rescue Department, uncovered a horrific situation during a surprise inspection of a building in Jalan Maluri.

What they discovered in that two-story shop house were 50 residents forced to live in 38 cramped and poorly ventilated rooms, each furnished with only one mattress, a charging plug, and a single light bulb[1]. Besides rooms so narrow that you have to crawl into them, the tenants on each floor had to share a single toilet and bathroom, both of which were poorly maintained. Not to mention a foul odour that was pervading the premises[2].

Worse still, the building lacked proper fire safety measures and emergency lighting, posing a significant risk to the occupants[1].

And to add insult to injury, each tenant paid about RM300 monthly for these shoebox rooms.[2]

Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming was shocked by these inhumane living conditions, commenting: “These are not rooms, but more like cages or coffins.”[2]

The rooms were cramped and smelled bad, with no air circulation or human dignity. The landlords are risking the lives of their tenants for profit. – Nga Kor Ming, Local Government Development Minister[1]

Sadly, these “Grave-Like Rooms” or “Coffin-Houses” are a bleak reality for many citizens who cannot afford the expensive rates in the big cities. And many unscrupulous landlords will take advantage of their misfortunes to shove as many occupants as possible into increasingly smaller spaces.

A grave issue: Members of the Fire and Rescue Department checking and measuring the size of a shoebox room which is not a lot bigger than the size of a cage or coffin. Source: The Star

The Horrors Of ‘Coffin’ Living

The problem of coffin-like accommodations in the Klang Valley and KL went viral a year earlier when Malaysians renting out rooms were horrified by what they were paying for and promptly posted photos of the horrifically cramped conditions on their social media.

On Sunday, July 31st, 2022, Twitter (X) user @flwrsxB posted photos of a room she was renting out in Maluri. The photo showed a room that was only big enough to only fit a single-size mattress and a wall fan. And to add to the wound, she had paid RM300 to rent out this room!

The tweet has since garnered over 19,000 retweets and almost 1,000 replies, with netizens appalled that such a small space was being rented out for someone to live in. 

“This really follows the size of a grave, doesn’t it?” asked a Twitter user.

“Even if you gave this to me for free, I don’t want it… It’s like a hole for a grave,” said another[3].

Others shared their own sad experiences with renting these coffin-rooms.

“I, too, rented a room in Manjung, Perak, RM300, and it was exactly like this. It was a shophouse. One floor had 10 rooms!” said a netizen.

Another netizen said, “It’s like this in Johor Bahru too, where one room is RM450. Before renting, they even ask if you work in Johor Bahru or Singapore. If you work in Singapore, the rent becomes RM550.”[3]

Later in October of that year, yet another photo of terribly cramped living conditions circulated on the internet, this time located in Seri Kembangan, Selangor, with a rent of RM350. The photo showed a tiny and narrow room, only big enough for a single mattress, with no ventilation and windows. Although there was a ceiling fan, its blades were dangerously close to the wall.

The room in question. Source: The Rakyat Post

And that was STILL better than what some netizens experienced, who’d claimed that they’d rented out rooms WITHOUT any sort of cooling device. Even more outrageous, some netizens claimed that an apartment unit in Cyberjaya had been subdivided into 30 rooms to rent to more people and make more money[4].

Worse still, this problem isn’t just limited to Selangor and the Klang Valley. In a recent incident in Ipoh, a surprising and unconventional transformation occurred.

A kitchen, typically known as the heart of a home, underwent a remarkable change and was converted into a room available for rent. No, really[1].

To no one’s surprise, comparisons to Hong Kong’s notorious ‘cage homes’ have been made. And just like some HK city dwellers, the occupants of these coffin-rooms are forced to live in these excessively cramped conditions because of limited budgets and being close to where they work. Not that it justifies the extreme cost-cutting measures undertaken by the premise owners.

“People in KL will soon be the same as the people in Hong Kong,” commented a user[4].

Suraaj Ravi had the misfortune of living in such horrid rooms, as he told The Rakyat Post in an interview.

The 26-year-old man from Alor Setar who is currently working in Kuala Lumpur as a Digital Head in a consulting company experienced these inhuman conditions when he rented a room in the middle of Bangsar two years ago.

And despite its rent being listed as RM500 on an online platform, Suraaj paid over RM700 a month.

After checking out the place, it was hiked up to RM600 for an attached bathroom and also another RM100 for my bike parking. The thing is that the listing platform had none of these mentioned. Anyway, being desperate for a place to stay, I agreed and continued for 7 months as it was just after the Covid-19 pandemic. – Suraaj Ravi, Digital Head[5]

Needless to say, it was not worth the price. There was little ventilation, little room to move about, and not even enough room for another person to sit comfortably.

And then there was the time the room flooded after some heavy rain.

Once when it rained heavily and continuously for two days on my fifth month there, the whole basement got flooded because the drainage system was not cleaned nor maintained. – Suraaj Ravi, Digital Head[5]

Unsurprisingly, Suraaj decided to move after that incident and after another two months of living in what he described as “hell”, he finally found a better room that he is currently staying in[5].

Not everyone is as lucky as Suraaj, however. For some, it’s the best they can get.

Harian Premium, in an investigation on these grave-like rental rooms, interviewed one such tenant who would like to be known only as Alif.

The East Coast in his 20s revealed that the cheap rent compared to a regular house besides the commute distance to work being less than two kilometres had made him care less about the challenges of living there.

I have been living here for five months. It’s hard to find a room to rent for as cheap as this in the city especially since I only have an ordinary job, so this is the only option available.

However, I do have a plan to find a better room if I earned more. – Alif[6]

Elsewhere in Shah Alam, Sinar’s reporters managed to find an apartment converted into seven units of narrow rental rooms that allowed couples of different sexes to live together, but with more expensive rent.

The original price of a rented room that could only accommodate a single bed was RM300 per person.

However, if there were tenants who wanted to live with a mix of men and women, married or not, the landlord would charge a higher fee of up to RM400. Unsurprisingly, couples could not expect comfort when renting out rooms that don’t even allow for two people to move around freely.

One Muslim tenant shared that since the room was so small and narrow, he had to pray on the bed.

The narrow room means that when I want to pray, I have to lift the mattress and pray on the bed. If you want to pray on the floor, it will not fit as you will bump into the cupboard. You can only fit a bed and a table in the small room. – Unnamed tenant[6]

He also said that the residents there were made up of various nationalities, including foreigners, and some brought in alcohol into the premises.

If you want to stay in the room for a month or two, it should not be a problem but it is not suitable for long-term rental. However, I understand that most people want houses that can be rented and are close to work or study. Therefore, they had to put aside comfort. – Unnamed tenant[6]

What Are Malaysia’s Current Housing Policies?

Surely this subdivision of housing is against the law?

Nga says it is, noting that several actions could be taken against the irresponsible premises owners including demolishing the structure and fines.

There are relevant acts that we can take for example the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 (Act 133) Section 79, where local authority or agencies may remove any partitions, compartments, ceiling and other structures.

The owner shall pay the local authority the cost of expenses of demolishing the structure and more.

Under the same section, any party can be fined not more than RM500 if convicted and shall also be liable to a further fine not exceeding RM100 every day during which the offence is continued after conviction. –  Nga Kor Ming, Local Government Development Minister[7]

He added that premise owners must also comply with the guidelines and specifications set by the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department as well as the relevant local authorities to avoid the risks of fire hazards, and action can be taken towards those who fail to take these precautions.

Among the actions to be imposed are issuing the fire hazard removal notices under Section 8 of Act 341 (Fire Services Act 1988), providing an appropriate period for premise owners to comply. Failure to comply will lead to an investigation for prosecution purposes. –  Nga Kor Ming, Local Government Development Minister[8]

Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming said checks found that some residential unit owners carried out renovations on their property without seeking approval from the authorities. Source: Malay Mail

Such coffin-houses are clearly against the goals of the National Housing Policy, particularly in its statements on Enhancing the Level of Social Amenities, Basic Services and Liveable Environment[9]:

  • NHP 6.1: Providing housing and sustainable development complete with basic amenities and facilities based on standards and current needs as well as other social needs to create a conducive and liveable environment;
  • NHP 6.2: Strengthening the management mechanism and maintenance of stratified buildings and common properties; and 
  • NHP 6.3: Implementing the concept of a Safe City in housing areas.

History Repeated

Sadly, this was far from the first time shop-lots and apartments have been illegally converted into subdivided housing. In November of 1996, four young people perished in a fire at a double-storey house in Section 17, Petaling Jaya. They were occupants of a four-room house that had been converted into a nine-room hostel.

Following this tragedy, The Star ran a series of investigative articles into the practice of converting houses and shoplots into “hostels”.

The then Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (now City Council) president revealed that in Section 17 alone where the fire occurred, 68 houses were found to have been illegally converted. And just a few days after the tragedy, council officers made another shocking discovery at a double-storey detached house in Sungai Way which had been converted into a 24-room hostel, housing more than 100 factory workers[10].

Can you imagine that? Shoving 100 people into a house that’s only big enough for a small family. And to think it went unnoticed for so long.

Unfortunately, history is repeating itself with the demand for “cheap” accommodation among students, factory workers and foreign workers fuelling the rise of these human bird’s nest facilities.

Following the incident at Jalan Maluri, many authorities have called for changes to the current housing policies and stricter enforcement of housing regulations to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

Laws are already in place to punish landlords guilty of converting houses into “cheap” multi-room hostels with little regard for the safety or comfort of the tenants.

But the authorities can’t be everywhere at once.

We, as the public, ought to do our part to notify the authorities about these illegal hostels. If you wouldn’t want to live in a room barely big enough for a mattress, then why should anyone ELSE suffer the same?

Explore our sources:

  1. F. Fong. (2023). [Watch] Up To 50 People Crammed Into Tiny Rooms Resembling Graves In KL. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  2. A. Lai. (2023). Shoplot in KL with 78 shoebox rooms raided. The Star. Link.
  3. M. Vin Ang. (2022). M’sians Are Horrified By RM300 Rental Rooms In KL That Can Only Fit A Single-Size Mattress. Says. Link.
  4. F. Fong. (2022). The Horror Of Malaysia’s ‘Coffin’ Living, Tiny Room In Seri Kembangan Costs RM350. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  5. K. Raj. (2023). Landlords Renting “Grave-Like Rooms” Given Stern Warning By KPKT. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  6. M.S. Abd Ghani, L. Mokhtar & N.N. Ahmad Halimy. (2023). Ever wonder what it feels like living in a room the size of a grave? Sinar Daily. Link.
  7. I. Aqilah. (2023). Landlords face fines for renting out ‘grave-like’ rooms, says ministry. The Star. Link.
  8. Bernama. (2023). Local Government Development Ministry to continue crackdown on premises with ‘bird’s nests’ rooms for rent, says Kor Ming. Malay Mail. Link.
  9. National Housing Policy. Link.
  10. B. Martin. (2023). Cheap rentals but at what cost. The Star. Link.

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