I have worked with and for adults and young people using drugs and substances since 1996, a far cry from my relief work which started in 1989. Switching from relief work to harm reductionist was not a problem, I had an endless source of energy and adrenaline. But I was disillusioned with international aid work, the monstrous bureaucracy and the corruption among politicians and corporate captains when came to the conclusion of greed and their own perception of humanitarian work, which obviously then and now that it does not serve the most-at-risk community. Nevertheless, after serving my tour-of-duty in Aceh which almost drove me to the brink of madness, I went to the slums of Kuala Lumpur – CHOW KIT. Urban dwellers kept apart from Chow Kit, viewing and treating it with disdain and contempt, though their addiction for Chow Kit was, I guess, part and parcel of how mankind needed an outlet for their arrogance. Chow Kit is a part of Sin City, the inevitable cesspool where poverty, homelessness, sex work, drugs and crime was confined to – or so what city-dwellers liked to think.
I was responsible for six programs in Chow Kit, consisting of marginalized communities. The programs provided much-needed services related to HIV/AIDS and in those days, rights-based approaches to sex workers, drug users, transgenders, people living with HIV, gay men and women. Work in Chow Kit is different from my past experiences in Rwanda, Lebanon, Bosnia, Somalia and other disaster-infused countries; and yet it has all the basic elements of marginalization and vulnerability – all at the courtesy of a society that embraced apathy. It is not as if Malaysians, NGOs and government agencies cannot improve the quality of life for people living in Chow Kit. It is the fact that people need an outlet like Chow Kit, to balance the norms of what Malaysians call civilized behavior. After all, what would Malaysians do without Chow Kit? Society cannot practice abstinence, nor would it be healthy to delude ourselves that society is perfect and seeks a Nirvana-like existence. Chow Kit is the heart of Kuala Lumpur, it pumps the life blood of the city’s inhabitants giving them what they need, and what they secretly desire.
There can never be a city without it’s dose of slums, similar to Chow Kit and the back lane of another district called Bukit Bintang. People, whether Malaysians, stateless, migrants and refugees, live and die in these places; the Killing Fields, as my former harm reductionist and I would call them. Chow Kit was and still is the place of Abandonment, and sometimes of Redemption. It is a place where vulnerable people are left to rot, to hide, to live in utter misery – and it is a place where society watches in amusement and embarrassment. Yet society has failed, as always, to see beyond their stigma, their prejudice and their obvious discrimination for the weak, the helpless and the outcast.
I believe there is a spark of Chow Kit in everyone. But to some, they nurture that spark, driving themselves apart from others, misunderstood by many, but possessing great compassion and empathy. Chow Kit is a neglected part of humanity, and yet it follows us around, itching to break free and consume us. There is no point in denying what we can see, what we can taste, what we can smell and what we can hear. Embrace your Chow Kit, free yourself from your prejudice.