The Jinjang Dilemma

Malaysian town planning has not found a way of integrating its rivers with its cities, unlike famous rivers like the Thames in London, or the Seine in Paris. As a result, Malaysians are not in the habit of taking a romantic walk or boat ride along our rivers. In fact, many Malaysians have grown accustomed to walking or driving past a river every day without ever knowing its name; unsure of the difference between a river and a monsoon drain. This is especially the case when a river is so polluted that it is seen as no more than a stinky nuisance, incapable of serving any useful purpose.

One way of changing this is to clean the rivers up and develop the surrounding area to be liveable. This is exactly what the River of Life Project aims to do. Apart from cleaning up our rivers, the Project wants to improve the behaviour and attitudes of Malaysians so that we can keep our rivers clean for years to come. However, in the case of Sungai Jinjang, the authorities may have their work cut out for them.

A brief history of Jinjang

A prayer procession moves through Jinjang New Village in 1967
Photo credit: Persatuan Penganut Tokong Leong Sun Keong KL

The Malayan Emergency saw the Commonwealth armed forces battle the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), from 1948 until 1960. To defeat the Malayan communists, the British enacted the Briggs Plan.

The communists were operating out of rural areas as a guerrilla army, and the plan worked by cutting them off from their sources of support amongst the population. Under a massive program of forced resettlement, about 500,000 people (roughly ten percent of Malaya's population) were removed from their land and interned in guarded camps called "New Villages".One of the largest of these “New Villages” was Jinjang, with ethnic Chinese from Sungai Tua, Batu Caves, Selayang, Ulu Klang and Cheras.

The end of the Emergency gave rise to a new chapter in Jinjang’s history. Between the 1970s to the late 1980s, the town became notorious for gangsterism.

Mr Yee Poh Ping, a native of Jinjang recalls the feared Botak Chin being active in the area, and many gang fights taking place while he was growing up. In spite of this, he maintains that it was not a frightening place. He says Jinjang earned the bad name because most residents were labourers who toiled in small home-based industries such as welding, baking and agricultural activities, hence were not very cultured.

The first school in Jinjang New Village, established in 1948, was Jinjang South School. It was later renamed Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan (Cina) Jinjang Selatan.
Photo credit: SJK (C) Jinjang Selatan

Another Jinjang native is award-winning filmmaker, Liew Seng Tat. Seng Tat is known for finding humour even in the bleakest of situations, but even he did not have anything nice to say about the river.

“The river is called ‘Sei Kai Ho’ by the locals. In Cantonese, it literally means ‘Dead Chicken River’ ” referring to the old days when people used to rear chickens at the back of their houses, and throw the sick or dead ones into the river. Eventually, they just began throwing all of their unwanted things into the river, which is why it’s in this unfortunate state today.

Many locals did not know the name “Sungai Jinjang”. But they knew ‘Sei Kai Ho’ and laughed at the name. Most were unaware of (and indifferent to) what lay upstream. They simply accepted the fact that it was a dirty river and wanted no further involvement with the issue.

Jinjang Today

A hair salon maintains part of its old facade.
Photo credit: Gustave Oon

Today, most of the original wooden houses have been replaced with concrete double-storey bungalows. Media outlets regularly feature must-try food stalls on the high street, and some highlight Jinjang as a sort of heritage site due to its rich history. With its proximity to town, the new village now sits on prime land.

Mr Teh Hooi Loong, caretaker at Persatuan Penganut Tokong Leong Sun Keong Kuala Lumpur

Just a few streets away from the high street is Persatuan Penganut Tokong Leong Sun Keong. Mr Teh Hooi Loong is the caretaker here. The temple was built by his late father in 1967 and, apart from a fresh coat of paint, has not changed much over the years. Proudly displayed in the temple’s administrative office are precious photographs, newspaper clippings, documents, and yellowed historical parchments.

As we chat, Mr Teh pulls out a stack of photographs from a drawer.

“My father made it a point to keep things and photographs. When he passed away, we didn’t have the heart to throw them away, so we just hung on to them and kept things as they were.”

However, Mr Teh feels that although they have tried hard to preserve their temple, Jinjang as a whole is not the way it used to be.

“Folks are not as friendly as they were before. They used to always say hello to each other or visit one another. I think people nowadays just want progress and money, they are not proud of their town, that’s why they don’t take care of it. You see rubbish and rats everywhere.”

As I continued walking through the town, many locals responded to my requests for old photographs of Jinjang with a mixture of disbelief and ridicule. One man sitting outside a motorcycle store even said “Why would anyone keep old photographs of this place?”

Jinjang wet market vendors discuss the day’s trading at noon. The market resumes activity from 8pm.
Photo credit: Gustave Oon

It seemed as if the Jinjang folk were resigned to their fate. The overall vibe about the town reminded me of an episode of Hoarders - a reality tv show about the lives of people suffering from compulsive hoarding disorder.

Like the people featured on the show, Jinjang residents may have hoarded a lot of disdain for their town over the years due to its history and reputation. The River Of Life Project’s aim of changing these deeply-ingrained attitudes in order to keep the river clean will be a monumental task. As with hoarding, it will take a conscious effort and active intervention to change things for the better.

It’s worth noting that the people featured on Hoarders only tend to start making an effort once they're convinced that there is real hope for change. That said, one has to wonder if there’s even a way to convince Jinjang residents that the disaster that is Sei Kai Ho could someday return to its former glory.

Jinjang Roots: Tracing the river

Children playing in the river in Bukit Lagong where Sungai Jinjang begins.
Photo credit: KL Cheah

When you see a polluted river, you assume that naturally, you will find the source of the pollution upstream. Tracing the river, I discovered that Sungai Jinjang begins in Bukit Lagong and flows through Kampung Orang Asli Bukit Lagong to meet the residential areas in Northern Selayang and Hospital Selayang. From there, it passes through the Selayang Indah Industrial Area, commercial areas in Prima Selayang (notably Pasar Borong Selayang Lama and a large NSK Supermarket) and Kampung Pandang Selayang. In Jinjang, it goes through the Jinjang Flood Detention Ponds, before finally joining with Sungai Batu just past the Kepong Roundabout. The river is only 6.2 kilometres long, and the drive up to Bukit Lagong from the point where it meets Sungai Batu takes just under thirty minutes.

All the way upstream in Kampung Orang Asli Bukit Lagong, expecting to see something worse, I was surprised to see crystal clear waters and children having fun swimming in the river.

Uncle Ravi, local resident of Kampung Orang Asli Bukit Lagong.
Photo credit: Vignes Balasingam

Uncle Ravi has been a resident of the kampung for ten years. In his younger days, he built roads for the Public Works Department but always dreamt of someday living by a river.

“The river is so clean here is because it is a big part of the Orang Asli’s lives. When something is important to you, and you depend on it for many things, you will take care of it.”

In his younger years, Uncle Ravi and his family lived in the city. He said he found it very hard to fall asleep when he first moved here because the silence was deafening. A fast internet connection was also hard to come by, but he laughed as he told me he was eventually able to read the news online if he stood very still in one particular spot inside his house.

A lovely clearing near Uncle Ravi’s home.
Photo credit: Vignes Balasingam

“It’s great living out here, I feel calmer and younger too. There’s just something about this place, it draws you in. People come to visit me, they think they’ll just have a coffee and leave, and then they realise they’ve been sitting here for 2 hours.”

Kampung Selayang Pandang

River pollution in Kampung Selayang Pandang.
Photo credit: June Low

Kampung Selayang Pandang is not the sort of perfectly preserved, idyllic traditional Malay village one might hope to stumble upon while exploring a river. Situated off Jalan Kuching, it’s a small village filled with largely forgettable concrete housing, food stalls, and Sungai Jinjang running through it.

Sapura was one of the first inhabitants here. Her family were squatters in Keramat, and they were relocated to Selayang when the government decided to develop Keramat. Sapura’s father, a retired soldier opened the first grocery shop in the Kampung. She recalls how the river was a big part of her childhood.

“This was all jungle when we moved here. My father built this house by the river and we used to have barbeques and picnics by the river bank all the time. It was a really fun place to grow up in.”

Trapped under a bridge in Kampung Selayang Pandang is a lot of rubbish and memories of a river that once was.
Photo credit: Vignes Balasingam

Sapura remembers things changing in the 1980s. That was when people began dumping waste into the river. She had just begun secondary school, and recalls that it was around that time that the local kids stopped playing in the river. Then began a drug problem among the youths, which she thinks might have had something to do with the kids being bored.

“You see that multipurpose hall across the street? That used to be a field. I once rode my bicycle across the field straight into the river because I didn’t manage to brake in time! Now the river is gone, the field is gone, and the kids really have nothing left to do.”

Walking around the village, it was easy to see what a difference the river would have made to the lives of the villagers if only it were clean. In one instance, I spotted some children hanging around outside their house looking bored. One of them found a couple of car tyres and invited the rest to roll the tyres around aimlessly. There didn’t seem to be any point to this game, and when I asked why, they didn’t know either.

Local kids playing a game of “Roll The Tyres” - purpose unknown.
Photo credit: Vignes Balasingam

This was a sad reality to observe because clean rivers can provide ample opportunities for recreation as part of daily life, allowing for stress relief and enjoyment through activities such as fishing, cycling and watching wildlife.

That said, studies have also shown that learning about wildlife and natural habitats as part of river restoration projects can make children more protective of their environment. Thus, it is encouraging to note that, along with efforts to clean up the river, the River of Life Project will be providing our children with great opportunities for learning.

It is currently engaging with 25 schools by conducting visits to the rivers as well as organising exhibitions and workshops. Through these activities, students will learn about monitoring water quality, the different kinds of waste we produce, and proper waste management. In time, they may once again experience the river as their elders did; with a deeper appreciation for its value, and a commitment to keeping it clean for generations to come.

Jinjang Flood Detention Ponds

South of Selayang, Sungai Jinjang meets the Jinjang Flood Detention Ponds.These ponds were built to divert the Sungai Keroh floodwaters away from KL via the Keroh Diversion Channel. This is done via a sequence of gate operations that are triggered when an impending flood is detected. The Jinjang ponds have a combined storage capacity of 2.5 million cubic meters. When the rain subsides and the river flow has come under control, the water is then gradually released back into Sungai Jinjang and Sungai Batu.

A glimpse inside the Jinjang Detention Ponds from a nearby building. There is no public access to this part of the river.
Photo credit: KL Cheah

Aside from the parts of town where the river is visible, urban development has meant that rivers are culverted and channelised, to such an extent that “following the river” is not as easy as it sounds.

The Jinjang Detention Ponds are a good example of how a lack of access to rivers can breed indifference and ignorance. From the border of North Jinjang onwards, a substantial stretch of Sungai Jinjang flows through flood detention ponds which are inaccessible to the public. This of course is a direct result of town planning. One can hardly blame Malaysians for having no affinity to something they cannot access. But neither complaining nor assigning blame is useful when we consider the wider goals at hand. To that end, perhaps the important function of these detention ponds needs to be highlighted, if only to inspire some degree of appreciation for them.

What Goes Around Comes Around

This fisherman was not wearing protective clothing, nor did he have fancy fishing gear. When asked, he confessed he was not overly concerned about the effects of the dirty water on his skin. To him, it’s just a way to survive in the city.
Photo credit: June Low

Past the Kepong Roundabout in Taman Kok Lian, lies the confluence of Sungai Jinjang and Sungai Batu. At this point it feels as if the river has given up. The stench is stronger, and there are little islands of garbage on the water. A man stands waist-deep in the river. After a few minutes of wading through the brackish water, he climbs out with the day’s catch, a net full of tilapia.

Fish caught from Sungai Jinjang. Do we do enough to check where our food comes from?
Photo credit: June Low

“I think I can get about RM20 for that. Usually I can get about RM80 - RM100 but the current is very strong today. They must have opened the gates upstream.”

I couldn’t contain my disbelief and blurted out, “But who in their right mind would eat those fish??”

The man smiled and replied that he actually gets many orders for the fish. They are sold for RM5 a kilo, usually to food stalls selling tom yam or roast fish. Some are even sold at the wet markets. How do food operators get away with serving fish sourced from a river with waters that are unsuitable for human contact? It’s simple. Malaysians simply do not spend enough time thinking about where their food comes from, or what goes into their rivers. Perhaps if they did, they would think twice about contributing to river pollution.

Reaching out for change

The Drainage and Irrigation Department has reported that urban centres in Kuala Lumpur are major contributors to river pollution. In the case of Sungai Jinjang, the Selayang Municipal Council has found that the main sources of pollution include restaurants, mini markets, car workshops, car wash operators, launderettes, food courts, construction sites and industries involved in iron, chemical and fertilisers. These spots tend to have dirty drains overflowing with rubbish and clogged with gunk from oil and grease. Eventually, everything in the drain gets washed out into the rivers.

Those responsible for polluting the river need to be taken to task or educated on proper methods of waste disposal. To do that, there needs to be greater involvement by the local community. That’s where the River of Life’s Outreach Programmes play an important role.

Two examples of these outreach programmes include the SMART Ranger Programme and the RIVER Ranger Programme. The former trains members of the local community how to properly manage solid waste, while the latter equips them with skills and knowledge to monitor pollution levels and water quality.

Volunteers participating in a river cleaning and monitoring exercise, part of the Public Outreach Programme of the River of Life project.
Photo: Vignes Balasingam

Along with the collaboration with schools, these targeted programmes are an excellent start. However, if we want to ensure that these efforts are sustained, there needs to be an overall shift in attitudes towards different facets of daily life. The apathy and mediocrity Malaysians have grown accustomed to must come to an end. It is only when Malaysians are able to see the bigger picture and appreciate the consequences of their actions, no matter how big or small, that our rivers stand a chance of surviving another generation.