It is one thing to have gone through the struggles of poverty, and fully understand the severity of the situation. It is another thing to dedicate the rest of your life to helping the poor and needy based on these experiences. Malaysia’s very own philanthropist, Kuan Chee Heng, more fondly known as Uncle Kentang, has been doing just that.
This 57-year-old is the founder of Community Policing Malaysia (CPM) an NGO that is dedicated to helping vulnerable members of society and keeping the community safe by mobilizing regular citizens to work hand-in-hand with local police.
Same Struggles As The Poor
Kuan was born in Kampung Bukit Cermai, Batu Pahat, Johor and was one of ten siblings. Coming from a family of rubber tappers, Kuan was no stranger to the hardships of poverty.
Growing up in shared housing in Batu Pahat, Johor, there was no electricity and running water. The entire family has never experienced the comfort of sleeping on a mattress, and have only slept on the floor, with the wind as their ‘air-con’ The family had no means of transport other than one bicycle that the entire family shared.
We were bullied … no food, nothing. Many times, my mother was bullied, because she had to buy provisions on credit, and she’d always come back with tears.
There were times Kuan and his family had to pick up leftover vegetables thrown away by hawkers because they could not afford to buy any. He remembers the feeling of hopelessness when his late father was diagnosed with cancer and he was not able to afford the medical treatment or even transport to send his father to the hospital.
We only had one old bicycle, and when he [Kuan’s father] passed away, we had to borrow money to pay for the funeral.
Every bitter experience Kuan had to go through fueled his ambition to help the poor and ensure that those from the same background received the help they need.
Evolving From Crime Prevention To Social Justice
After committing six years to the police force, Kuan started Community Policing Malaysia (CPM) in 2007 as a crime prevention NGO. After running it for a while, Uncle Kentang realised that the main driver for crime in communities was poverty.
Since then, CPM extended their initiatives to include poverty reduction measures in hope that crime would reduce at the same time.
The first initiative was the ‘10 Sen Pasar’ (10 cents market). Kuan organised a pre-loved donation drive where members of the public can give away their pre-loved goods and the poor can buy any of the items for RM0.10 each.
Kuan said that by putting a price tag on the items, it puts a value on the item and those who buy it will hopefully treasure it more. This initiative helped 10,000 families in Klang Valley and other parts of Malaysia.
The Inception of Uncle Kentang
During a food distribution campaign, Kuan received the name Uncle Kentang when he started giving out potatoes in place of rice. He had received advice from a doctor on the health benefits of different food types.
Potatoes can be mashed, made into soup … I didn’t tell them my name, so people called out ‘kentang sudah mari, kentang sudah mari (the potatoes have arrived)’ when they saw me.
Practical Help To The Poor
Kuan spinned off a number of programs to help the poor in practical ways. He started the RM0.10 taxi service for the urban poor families who needed help getting to the hospital for medical appointments.
Kuan also started the RM0.10 library as a daycare centre where parents can drop their children off when they need to go for medical appointments. There is also a RM1 hearse service and an ambulance service for those in desperate situations.
For those travelling from afar to receive medical treatment, Kuan set up a hostel in 2016 to provide very affordable accommodation at RM1 only. Currently, there are five hostels in the Klang Valley, three in Puchong, one in Shah Alam and another in Kuala Lumpur.
For the past 14 years, Kuan has become well-known for his community work. Other notable initiatives include 10 Cents Ambulance, Free shuttle from KLIA to the hospital, free public kitchen and free tuition.
Experiencing Depression Despite Doing Good
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Kuan was diagnosed with diabetes and became anxious over how he can continue to help the needy without compromising his own health and well being.
The new norm bothered him so much he fell into depression as a result of fear and anxiety and was afraid to go out to buy groceries. The 57 year old said,
I couldn’t get up for five days.
He shared in this video how he overcame depression and refocused on his mission to help the poor:
The Pandemic Ain’t Stopping Uncle Kentang
He continued on his mission collaborating with several hawkers at Ramai Food Centre in Puchong where RM5 meal vouchers were given to those who can afford to buy food.
Those in need obtained a meal voucher for lunch or dinner and tucked into a hearty bowl of pan mee, or a plate of nasi kukus, char kway teow and other hawker fares. They were also served a glass of water or tea with their meal. No questions asked.
The Ramai Food Centre supervisor, Khoon Joon You mentioned that about 60 meal vouchers were given out to the needy daily. To sustain this ‘Pay It Forward’ initiative, customers were encouraged to donate as much or as little as they can. Those who make a donation will be presented with a special ‘Uncle Kentang certificate’ as a token of appreciation.
Digitalising Donations And Aid
It was reported that Uncle Kentang is in the midst of creating an app to enable e-vouchers and e-donations to be made. This two-prong strategy will help hawkers stay afloat with sales from pre-paid e-vouchers and it will also help feed the hungry.
By using e-vouchers, and providing them to the poor, they are able to pay for necessary groceries and food supplies, whereas the hawkers are provided with a customer base that will help to keep their business afloat.
The use of e-vouchers also allowed data collection, as the user’s spending budget and locations were recorded. This information can be easily shared with other NGOs and government agencies such as Zakat and also the Social Welfare Department (JKM) to formulate a better design of aids.
How You Can Help
Uncle Kentang believes that there are a lot of people that want to help, but are unsure of how to.
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Explore Our Sources:
- V. Tan. (2021). Malaysia’s ‘Uncle Potato’ helps the needy for as little as RM0.10. Channel News Asia. Link.
- N. F. A. Manan. (2020). Uncle Kentang pernah makan sisa sayur terbuang. Sinar Harian. Link.
- Kuan Chee Heng. (2020). Biografi Uncle Kentang. Facebook. Link.
- A. M. Meketar. (2020). COVID-19: Battling depression to be there for the needy. Bernama. Link.
- R. Sakaran. (2020). Uncle Kentang introduces RM5 meal vouchers for the needy. Free Malaysia Today. Link.
- Renushara. (2020). Uncle Kentang Is Developing An App To Help Hawkers & The Underprivileged. World of Buzz. Link.
- Kentang Fund. Link.