Sleepless in suburbia

THE first sign that your tranquil life in suburban Malaysia is about to go downhill for the next foreseeable future is usually a builder’s skip parked in front of your neighbour’s house. 

You casually walk over and ask your neighbour, who’s supervising in his garden, what’s up. 

Except it’s not your neighbour, it’s a contractor. He’s Bangladeshi, most probably a hardworking graduate from Dhaka who came over to tend bars and has upgraded his life to entrepreneur builder. 

“Aahh dia mahu renovate lah boss. Jangan takut, kita tak kacau punya,” he says with the slick persuasiveness of an election TikTok advertisement. That’s when you know he’s lying and doesn’t care that you know. 

How is he going to not intrude on my daily zen meditation hour in the water closet when I contemplate the world’s problems and try to solve them in my head while deciding on breakfast? 

Are the workers going to walk around in fluffy shoes? Is he going to put soundproofing on our shared walls? 

Because a month into the renovation, I am hearing every bucket being dragged across the floor, every blow of the sledgehammer and every tile being pulled out from the bathroom. I am not even going to mention the hydraulic drills, the sounds of which I am permanently traumatised to this day. 

I could have raised a big row over the intrusion, especially when I found myself looking into the eyes, yes face to face, of a grinning worker, while I was brushing my teeth in the morning one time. 

But I didn’t. I used to live in Bangsar, at the working class end of it anyway near Mahbub mamak restaurant, and I kind of miss the hustle and bustle. Also this is Malaysia, the most tolerant country in the world, where we suppress our anger very well as long as our neighbours are not killing us. 

And most Malaysian homeowners cannot complain anyway, because deep down we know that one day we’re going to look at the backyard, which is just laying there going to waste, or that space above the car porch that would nicely carry the weight of a balcony even though it will overlook the neighbours bedroom, and think: “We’ve got EPF money coming, why not?” 

I would just write a nice note apologising for the noise my balcony installation will make, which will make them feel much better when they cannot hear every word of the K-drama dialogue on television. 

I won’t even have to put the furniture away. The Bangladeshi doctor will just have his people move everything back and forth between rooms. They would move the heavy dining table from spot to spot as and when needed, and they’d be as quiet as mice doing it. 

I am just guessing because I would be moving into my in-laws’ for the duration. Take your time contractors. Three months? Why don’t you take a whole year, I certainly don’t mind the noise. 

So, today you opened your front door and you see one of those dreaded builders skip outside, and your headache started early. “Please god. Let the neighbour be building a small outside kitchen please.” 

But you don’t see a builders skip being summoned just for a wet kitchen extension, it’ll probably be your neighbour wanting to add another floor to his two-storey corner lot terrace house. 

You think to yourself, this has to be illegal right? I mean how did he get approval? Isn’t it dangerous to add a whole floor? Did he have planning permission? Does anyone else care? 

But this is Malaysia and we are the most tolerant people on the planet. The best you can do is slink back inside your house and think about those hungry children in Yemen and how lucky you are to be living among — except for those green-wrapped, holier-than-thou killjoy politicians — the most tolerant people on the planet. 

ZB Othman is the editor at The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition