Emotions ran high when netizens heard the news of a former national athlete eking out a living on the streets of Bukit Bintang. Netizen Fayadh Wahab took to Twitter to document his encounter with Koh Lee Peng as she was selling tissue covers in a wheelchair on the streets.
Koh Lee Peng, 48, was a former para-athlete with 7 gold medals and 3 silver medals under her belt. Koh brought glory to Malaysia when she participated in the ASEAN Para Games between 2001 and 2005 where she topped the swimming category.
A decade later, Koh was named Penang’s Best Paralympic Sportswoman in 2015, then followed by another award in 2017 where she was crowned Female Paralympian of The Year 2016 by Penang State Sports Council.
Once on the podium to receive cheers while sporting a ‘Harimau Malaya’ polo t-shirt, ironically, the same polo t-shirt was what Fayadh Wahab recognised on the street, alongside a laminated newspaper clipping titled “Former OKU Paralympic Swimmer Scorned”.
You can search me on YouTube. Now, this is my job. I’m not ashamed. – Koh, when conversing with Fayadh Wahab
Koh is wheelchair-bound due to cerebral palsy that rendered both her legs paralysed. While she held an office job previously, the workplace is located in a building with no lift access, making it extremely difficult for her. Left with no choice, Koh turned to the streets.
Malaysia’s infrastructure is still far from friendly for persons with disabilities (PwD). The Person with Disabilities Act (Act 685) (PWDA) guarantees PwD the right to enjoy existing facilities just as other legal citizens. There are regulations and statutory guidelines in place, like Uniform Building By-Laws, that mandate the developer to provide barrier-free access to PwD.
However, there is still a notable lack of compliance from the building owners. Bad design, poor planning, and lack of budget are commonly cited reasons for inaccessibility found in commercial complexes. The lack of consistent enforcement of policies and guidelines further dissuade accountability towards building owners that slip away.
OKU car parks, handrails, and wheelchair ramps can mean a world of difference for those differently-abled. In Koh’s case, the lack of access to a lift diverted her path from the office aisle to the street.
This is not the first time Koh’s circumstance made national news. The newspaper clipping in her clutch is indicative of another encounter. Her plight was heard as early as 2019 when Koh was selling tissues on the streets of Bukit Mertajam.
In an interview in October 2019, Koh recounted her experience being accused of “being part of syndicates” to collect easy money through donations. Others even ridiculed her by saying she was either Vietnamese, Thai, or Filipino and demanded that she show her MyKad to prove otherwise. She grew wary of the demand as someone once snatched her MyKad and ran away.
I am disappointed by the people’s perception. I am only trying to sell tissue to earn a living and not to ask for free money. A lot of people despise what I do but as they don’t know I was once a national para-swimmer. – Koh, when attending an event hosted by YAKEB
Yayasan Kebajikan Atlet Kebangsaan (YAKEB) or National Athlete Welfare Foundation was established to manage the welfare affairs of athletes in various aspects, to achieve goals, benefit the country’s former athletes including athletes with disabilities (OKU).
YAKEB manages a special assistance scheme for Malaysian athletes, where financial support can be provided for past national athletes. Under the scheme, deserving applicants can receive up to RM20,000 a year subsidy for inpatient treatment of critical illness. There are also provisions for athletes requiring medical aid like wheelchairs and prostheses .
Former national football player V Krishasamy, 71, was a recipient of a prosthesis worth RM10,000 after undergoing surgery to amputate his left leg due to diabetes. Under the same scheme, Koh receives a monthly stipend of RM300. However, adding up with her profit of around RM800 from tissue sales, it is barely enough to get by. Despite her pledge, YAKEB’s hands are tied as they are faced with funding issues.
There are around 11 past athletes who applied for monetary assistance and stipend as a result of the hardship from COVID-19 pandemic. For now, we will try to help them however we can. – Datuk Noorul Ariffin Abdul Majeed, chairman of YAKEB
There ought to be more consideration to safeguard the welfare of national athletes transitioning from active years to retirement, especially for those differently-abled. Monetary stipends are just temporary relief for this long overlooked issue of structural failure. Malaysian para-athletes form a formidable stand on the global stage, seeing them being left to fend for themselves is a disheartening scene nobody deserves.
Employment opportunities that meet their unique ability offer retired para-athletes a possible way to escape the abyss. More incentives should be provided for both private and public sectors to recruit and train PwD so that they too can learn to earn a sustainable living. Here are 7 exemplary organizations doing just that.
I, too, wish to live independently. Slowly, I am accumulating experience in doing business even though sometimes I still have to face the humiliation of others because of my condition. – Koh
But perhaps the most immediate aid we can offer is to treat them with dignity and kindness.
Explore Our Sources:
- Dorall, A. (2022). Former Paralympic Athlete Now Selling Tissue Covers In Bukit Bintang, Netizens Heartbroken. The Rakyat Post. Link.
- Ram, S. (2022). She Won 7 Gold & 3 Silver Medals For M’sia. Now She Sells Tissues In Bukit Bintang. Says.com. Link.
- Bernama. (2019). Koh Lee Peng Mohon Rakyat Malaysia Menghormatinya Mencari Rezeki [Video]. YouTube. Link.
- Kamarudin, H. et al. (2014). Malaysian Scenario on Access and Facilities for Persons with Disabilities: A literature review. MATEC Web of Conferences. Link.
- Hadzlihady Hassan. (2019). Bekas atlet renang OKU dicemuh. Berita Harian. Link.
- YAKEB. Info Korporat. Link.
- Sukhairi Thani. (2021). YAKEB minta tolong pusat zakat bantu bekas atlet. Berita Harian. Link.