Ah Heng in the Pekeliling Flats. Photo courtesy of Present Tense Media.

One of the city’s earliest high rise housing projects, the Pekeliling Flats, are being demolished as of this week. The Pekeliling Flats, also known as the Tunku Abdul Rahman Flats, were first constructed in the mid-60s.

The flats were initially built to provide low-cost housing. Over the years, new developments were mooted, but the flats were gradually left to ruin and abandonment, becoming an “eyesore” in the city skyline.

The process of demolishing the Pekeliling Flats is expected to take until November 2015. A redevelopment project is under way to build a mixed commercial and residential area, as well as a hospital, in their place.

Documentary photographer Mahen Bala visited the flats in the late nineties, where he met one of the residents: a man known as Ah Heng, who was squatting in one of the vacant lots. In a vivid encounter, Bala notes the man’s life and self-sufficient routine:

“He gives me a guided tour around the block, examining each room and its abandoned contents. He slaps his hand on the walls as he assures me that the building is still very strong. He asks me for the time. It was half past 4 in the evening. I asked him what time does he normally leave for home. He throws a hollow stare and quickens his pace with excitement as he gestures me to follow him.”

Bala goes onto note that the public perception of homeless people is usually pitying or disdainful. However, in a city where many cannot afford to live according to their own aspirations of wealth, he asks what these standards of living really mean.

“In today’s social context, we are instinctively overwhelmed with feelings of pity and the need for empathy when we come across stories of people such as Ah Heng. But is it really justified? This urgency to impose standards on the lives of others?”

See the full story and photo essay by Bala here. You can also see Bala’s photography works on display at the current CONTEXT exhibition at FineArt 69.

Ling Low