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Saturday, May 17, 2008

A house is still a home

IF you were to chart the path your life has taken, how would you do it? Would it be by the friends you’ve made, the jobs you’ve held, the countries you’ve visited or maybe even the people you’ve loved? For me, it’s always been bricks and mortar. Flats, bungalows, houses, condos – all have, at some point, functioned as the backdrop of my life.

Because my father was a police officer, we spent most of our childhood in Government housing. There were the little police flat in Jalan Riong, Bangsar, where I was born, or the huge PWD bungalows that we moved to in Jalan Guillemard in Damansara – perched high on a hill where monkeys came to visit, but alas now long gone to make way for the multi-level highway.

Then, when dad was transferred to Kota Bharu, we lived in a house in Jalan Telipot that sat in the middle of a garden large enough to house 26 coconut trees planted in intervals in our front yard. (Suffice to say playtime had the added element of the unexpected danger of being thumped on the head by a falling nut if we weren’t swift enough!)

However, this was adequately made up for over the weekend, when the local pakcik, singing cheerfully in his musical Kelantanese dialect, would wheel his bicycle into our front garden with a cheeky monkey perched delicately on the handlebars. He’d then proceed to whisper in the creature’s ears, and within minutes the little chap would go scurrying up the trees to pluck coconuts for us.

No matter how we begged, Pakcik would never tell us what he said to the monkey – though he’d gamely split open the tops of the young green nuts with his parang and we’d squat on the ground next to him drinking coconut water as it ran down our arms, and scraping the tender flesh out with our fingers.

When we moved back to KL a few years later, home was the novelty of a wooden house in Jalan Kia Peng, that, believe it or not, stood on stilts like a kampong house – only right smack in the middle of the city! Every day brought its own excitement of newly discovered leaks and rotting planks – and the vast back garden played host to a family of slow-moving iguana lizards who would crawl out in the noon-day sun and stare at us malevolently with flicking tongues as we hung the washing out to dry.

For the most part, these government houses were graceless, bog-standard, scruffy, box-shaped utilitarian edifices, with no thought for the exquisitely lined, shining glass fronted, architecturally excessive houses of today.

However, they were fabulous homes to grow up in and boasted huge rooms, high ceilings and gardens filled with ancient trees of scarlet flame and fragrant chempaka flowers, with a series of scraggly bushes the only barrier between you and your next door neighbour (rather than the barb-wired brick-walled partitions of today). And it was only when dad retired that we moved to the family home in Ampang, which my parents still live in now, that we finally had a roof that we owned, over our heads.

It’s funny how in those days houses were very much for the business of living. They were not about fashionable furniture or “just the right shade of celadon green” drapes. They were real homes where people shared food with loved ones, and where we lived and celebrated life, births, wedding and funerals within their four walls.

These days, houses seem to be regarded as status symbols, emblematic of wealth, ego and possessions. And as a result, the talk at dinner tables in Britain revolves around the dismal housing market and words like “negative equity” and “financial liability” get bandied about as frequently as “pass the salt”.

The finger of blame gets habitually pointed as well – at Gordon Brown and his dismal reign; at those American banks who lent unwisely and started the credit crunch; at greedy home owners who spoilt the market?and on and on.

It seems the great home-owning public out there has an insatiable desire to know what its assets are worth but when exactly did we stop thinking of our houses as homes, and start thinking of them only as figures on a balance sheet?

The pundits are quite clear – negative equity only hurts if you are looking to sell. If you sit tight and ride the lows, you’ll emerge eventually with your equity, and your dignity, intact. And aspiring buyers need to wait until the situation eases, keep their credit record clean and save as hard as possible.

IKEA’s great typographical ad campaign ( /ikea/) recently put things in perspective when it urged house owners to print out NOT FOR SALE signs and stick it in their front garden.

“Home is the most important place in the world”, the soft Scandinavian voiceover says. “What do you put into it? Your money or your life and soul? What will you get out of it, a profit or everlasting memories?” “Home”, she says soothingly, “has a soul and a soul is not for sale”.

OK, admittedly it works in their favour considering the business they’re in, but don’t you think maybe they have a point? Perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a long hard look at our houses today, and remind ourselves that whatever it’s worth, it’s still our home.

Joanna Abishegam-David is a Malaysian born journalist and writer who lives and works in London. She can be reached at

By The Star (by Joanna Abishegam)

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