Playing tourist in my own hometown – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 28 June, 2015

Playing tourist in my own hometown
June 28, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

Photo shows an art installation in Penang.
Photo shows an art installation in Penang.

MY wife and I took a quick trip to Penang early this week. Durian season there was at its peak. This is the main reason we go back to my hometown every year since I started driving again. Nothing can move us more than the thought of savouring the delicious sweetness encased within the thorny fruits.

For this year, we decided to stay in a hotel located within the inner city enclave of George Town. The city and Melaka were both jointly inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site with the distinction of being recognised as the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca for their rich histories and cultures spanning more than 500 years.

After having our fill of durians on the second day, we spent the remaining time on the island exploring the inner city. That was the reason we chose to stay around that area. It was a convenient staging ground for us to visit the various sites by foot, or in my case, in a wheelchair.

This is the first time in many years that we have gone on a walkabout in the open. Most of our weekends were spent in shopping malls which has become dreary with the artificial lighting, stale air and sights that were meant to induce us to part with our money more than anything else.

Playing tourists in my own hometown, we visited century-old temples, Chinese clan houses and buildings from the time when Penang was part of the British Straits Settlements along with Melaka and Singapore. Hunting down colourful wall murals and wrought iron sculptures depicting humorous stories and meaning of road names along the way made it even more interesting.

I spent my upper secondary years at the St Xavier’s Institution, which is within the inner city. Although I had often walked past many of these old buildings on the way to the bus terminal after school, I never knew how to appreciate their significance then.

I have almost forgotten how liberating it can be to go traipsing in the streets. To my surprise, I could actually move around on my own although it was difficult. I had to manoeuvre around broken pavements, lampposts, motorcycles and other things indiscriminately placed on walkways. There were occasions when I had to gingerly go on the street for the lack of suitable pedestrian paths.

My one major gripe is that all the buildings are not accessible. I understand these are old structures but putting up simple makeshift ramps can make a world of a difference to wheelchair users. For now, I can only enjoy the inside view of these place from the photographs my wife took.

We had to make a quick retreat back to the hotel when the afternoon sun became too uncomfortable to bear. There was no doubt we had a good time despite some of the inconveniences we faced. At the very least, it was a refreshing change from our weekly grocery jaunts in the confines of shopping malls.

On a personal level, this trip has made me realise one thing. Nowadays I do not just pack up and go any more. I do a lot of extensive reading on the Internet to make sure there is sufficient accessibility for me before I even think of booking a hotel room or buying a plane ticket.

There was a time when I would not think twice to jump at the opportunity to travel. I love the stimulation of the sights and sounds of places I have never been before, no matter whether they are near or thousands of miles away. One can learn a lot by just soaking up the different cultures and practices.

But now, I keep going back to the same familiar places, namely my wife’s and my hometowns. Familiarity does not breed contempt for me here even if they are laden with barriers, I have grown accustomed to them and learnt to adapt. In this sense, I have allowed these problems to shape the way I do things. It is bad in many ways for my work as a disability rights advocate as it is a clear sign that I have become complacent. I grieve for loss of excitement of spontaneity and my diminishing sense of adventure.

This hesitancy is born out of the bad experiences I have with hotels. I have stayed in rooms where the bathroom doors were so narrow my wheelchair could not get through or the layout was such that my movements were severely restricted. There have been instances when I could not and did not bathe for the entire duration of my stay.

Even the hotel we put up in during this time was selected after reading the reviews by guests in travel websites. To our pleasant surprise, the room had a bathroom I could use effortlessly. My wife noted that it was the best room we have ever stayed in. That I had to concur. I did not have to struggle to bathe or use the toilet. We were so happy to the extent that I wrote a long note of thanks to the hotel for making our trip so gratifying.

Our cravings for durians for this year have been satiated. I hope we will be more audacious the next time we are bitten by the travel bug again. We certainly need more excitement in our lives rather than to keep beating the well-trodden path.

Read more:

My father’s son – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 21 June, 2015

My father’s son
June 21, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

The writer and his father in 1972.
The writer and his father in 1972.
HE had anticipated the long dreary drive back home. Nevertheless, the thought of spending time with family members after being away for several weeks was enough to lift his spirits. What he did not foresee was losing control of the car. By the time he grasped what had happened, he was pinned under the mangled wreck with its weight gradually pressing him into the soft mud.

That stretch of road was dark. There was little traffic at that hour. He had veered off the road and was flung out of the car.

He knew the hope of being rescued before sunrise was dim. It was still many more hours away. He sank deeper each time he struggled to free himself. The yielding ground probably saved him from being crushed when the vehicle landed on top of him.

The only sounds he could hear were his own laboured breathing and the squishing and squashing of the muck that was clamping on to his body.

He could barely lift his head above the foul sludge to breathe. All alone in the middle of nowhere, he wondered if he would still be alive when they found him the next day.

After what seemed like the longest time, he heard the sounds of a truck approaching. It came to a stop nearby. He called out for help but his voice was feeble. The men from the truck shone their flashlights to look around. They found him and somehow managed to lift the wreck just enough to pull him out.

They were soldiers. They asked how he was. Other than being covered in mud, he only sustained some minor cuts and bruises. Considering the circumstances, he had escaped relatively unscathed. The soldiers gave him a ride to the nearest town where he got help and got in touch with his family.

That was one of the many snippets of my father’s life. He would regale me with one from a time long before I was born whenever he was in a reminiscing mood, which was not very often. From the stories he told, it was apparent he had led a life filled with interesting adventures that never failed to fascinate me when I was a kid.

The other stories he liked to tell was how he came face-to-face with a king cobra while trekking up a jungle path alone and how he escaped from being forcibly conscripted by the Imperial Japanese Army to labour at the Death Railway during World War II.

My father was a jack-of-many-trades. The family was poor when he was growing up. He had to supplement the household income by peddling kueh made by his parents around the village. Through the years, he had worked as an amusement park usher, electrical foreman, tin miner, factory manager and finally as an electrical engineer.

He was a self-made man in every sense of the word. He worked his way up. All he ever owned in his life was gained through sheer hard work. He never went to university to get a degree. He worked and studied on his own for an electrical engineering examination, failed twice and nearly gave up before he finally passed at the age of 50.

We were never close as a father and son should be. He left the tasks of bringing me up to my mother and was only involved from an arm’s length. Other than financial support, he provided little else in moral support.

He never praised me when I did well in school. When I fared badly, he would give me a long lecture. In some ways, I resented the chilly distance that separated us.

Thinking back, perhaps that was the same kind of environment he grew up in. Left to his own devices as his parents were too busy to make a living to feed his 12 other siblings, he had learnt to be independent at a very young age. He must have expected me to go through the same learning process.

He was a thrifty man, never splurging on the unnecessary but was generous when it came to feeding the family. I never had go hungry even for a day. For himself, he lived simply. When not working, he lounged around the house wearing loose cotton shorts my mother made for him and white Pagoda brand T-shirts like many Chinese men of his era.

I admired him for his dogged determination. I am thankful for seldom being in need, especially after my accident. Reserved he might have been when it came to showing his affections, he cried openly the day the doctors at the hospital told him I would never walk again. That alone was proof of his love for me which I believed he repressed at other times.

The one thing I regretted most about our relationship was the fall out between the two of us a couple of years before he passed on. The reason for the tiff does not matter any more. It pulled our already detached relationship even further apart. We spoke to each other even less after that incident.

Despite that, I cannot say I do not appreciate him. I truly do. I wished I had known him better and remember more about the stories of his life. I wished we could have reconciled before he passed on. I wished I had been a better son to him. These are wishes I can never fulfil now.

My father would have turned 99 this year if he was still around. Each time I look into the mirror, I see a likeness to him in my own reflection. That is the one link between us that can never be broken no matter what. I am after all a chip off the old block. And I am thankful for that reminder of where I came from every time I brush my teeth or comb my hair.

Read more:

The state of the disability movement in Malaysia – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 14 June, 2015

The state of the disability movement in Malaysia
June 14, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

One of the objectives of the disability rights movement is to advocate for access to public transportation.
One of the objectives of the disability rights movement is to advocate for access to public transportation.

EVERY once in a while, I get emails requesting for interviews and information on matters related to disability. The majority of them are from university students and academics seeking to have a better understanding of current issues faced by disabled people in Malaysia for their research.

No matter what the subject of their study, one question that keeps coming up is the state of the disability rights movement in the country. They are interested to know how and what we are doing in advancing our interests seeing that we are often marginalised in social development.

As a nation, we can pride ourselves on having the Persons with Disability Act 2008 and having signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Both are a reflection of the government’s commitment to upholding the rights of disabled people.

The reality of the situation is that the Act and Convention have not brought about the desired improvement we have been waiting for. Our lives have not changed for the better seven years on. We still have to grapple endlessly with barriers in the built environment, public transportation, education, employment and everything else.

The online lexicon Oxford Dictionaries defines movement as “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas”.

Ideally, an effective movement should work like well-oiled machinery, each part playing its role in achieving a desired result, in this case, betterment of the well-being of disabled people. To achieve this end, programmes are organised to empower ourselves so that we understand our rights to equality in society.

At the same time, the entire community and available resources are mobilised to carry out advocacy, awareness and educational campaigns to provide a better understanding of issues to the government, private sector and general public.

In extreme cases, picketing is necessary to publicise matters unresolved through more docile means. This application of pressure almost always garners a quick response. Somehow, publicly shaming acts of discrimination and omission works in nudging the offending party to act positively. This is proven effective time and again in the advocacy for accessible public transport in the Klang Valley.

In that sense, yes, we do have a disability movement in Malaysia but it is not always about rights.

Some of us knowingly or unknowingly muddle charity and privileges with rights. We demand for things that only profit ourselves personally without considering the wider implications that it does not benefit the community as a whole.

Nonetheless, when we do get it right, the movement is too fragmented to be a force to be reckoned with. We do not have a leader we can all agree on. Everyone thinks they can lead. This results in the movement being spearheaded by not one but by many groups and are being led by leaders who are not in communication with each other.

Normally, we would assume that the more groups there

are in pushing for a specific cause, the stronger the movement becomes. Unfortunately, these groups are neither working together nor supporting each other towards accomplishing a common goal. This becomes a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Imagine a cart being pulled in all directions. We will get nowhere. Our failure to speak a common language in advocacy makes it difficult for the government to formulate policies based on recommendations from us. Some of the points put forth by different groups are in contradiction of each other. Which group should the policymakers listen to? In the end, we cancel out each other’s efforts and attain nothing.

The peril of our inability to work together as a cohesive unit means that we are not strong enough to push for meaningful changes on the many issues we are facing. In the absence of a strong leadership to steer the movement, we are left to drift aimlessly, each doing what we think is right and none nearer to the goal we set out to achieve.

The disability rights movement is in dire need of a leader who can unite all groups. The leader also needs to possess a rights-based spirit in dealing with issues and gather everyone to move towards that single direction. So far, no one has come forward to take up the mantle for one reason or another. This is the predicament that is beleaguering the disability rights movement in Malaysia.

Having said that, all is not lost though. We can still set aside our differences and work together. The first step we need to take now, which is also the most important, is for all of us discuss amicably and trash out our differences. It is not going to be easy but is something we have to do.

And usually after listening to me speak my mind, the interviewer would give a knowing nod. All along, they must have known of the bad blood festering in the movement. What they needed was confirmation. If other people can see it, it must already be very obvious.

We must bear in mind that leadership is not about personalities but the good of the entire community. Selfishness has no place in the movement. We can choose to continue feuding where everyone will eventually lose in the end. Or we can swallow our pride and ego and break that barrier of animosity to extend an olive branch in the spirit of camaraderie. The choice is in our hands.

United we stand, divided we fall.

Read more: