Let’s get serious about ending discrimination
The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people, because of their skin colour, religion, sex, etc.”
The ‘etcetera’ part refers to disability for persons with handicaps. One of our nation’s greatest human rights fighter, Karpal Singh, died and left us a fortnight ago. For the last part of the legend’s struggle for the people, he ended up in a wheelchair through an accident.
It only made the highly-respected MP stronger, rather than weaker, as he continued to effectively carry out his service for his fellow men and women. However, even a giant of a man like Karpal couldn’t help becoming vulnerable to attacks of discrimination as a wheelchair user for nearly 10 years.
In early 2008, a couple of parliamentarians poked fun at his disability when he was addressing serious issues on governance in the House. One of them said, “as a disabled (Karpal Singh) should act like one, but his mouth is not like a disabled”
Karpal was not only quick to reprimand the offensive remark but also pointed out that it further condemned and insulted all disabled people.
“Such a statement coming from him (MP) not only demeans his status as an MP, but also brings into disrepute the august house of Parliament,” Karpal added. He went on to say he was “deeply moved by wheelchair-bound citizens who demanded (the MP who made the insensitive remark) to apologise.”
Karpal was referring to about 30 disabled people who turned up to show their solidarity with the parliamentarian. I was most privileged to be appointed leader of the group. Our intention was also to nip in the bud each and every form of discrimination against disabled persons in our society.
Later the legend made it a point to meet us all. He came by and greeted us, one by one, with a warm smile and a big “Thank you” for what we had done.
“What you all did not only touched my heart deeply but it was a very important statement to make and a lesson to learn for anyone who discriminates against disabled people in Malaysia!” he beamed.
In early 2010, however, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to do it again. This time, we packed our wheelchairs and our walking sticks and crutches and headed straight over to Federal House.
We were at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in Kuala Lumpur. Karpal was made a victim of that dirty word again, this time by the commission’s legal representative in the late Teoh Beng Hock (TBH) inquest.
The Karpal was holding a watching brief for TBH’s family. During a verbal exchange on an application to cite a MACC officer for contempt at the inquest, the MACC’s lawyer retorted: “I can sit down but Karpal cannot stand up. Although the lawyer later apologised and withdrew his remark, we felt the act of insulting disabled Malaysians was too serious a matter for a professional like him to simply say “sorry” and then get away with it.
The insult on Karpal’s disability wasn’t just to Karpal, but to every disabled person in our country. If people in authority such as the MACC and others do not know how to respect the disabled, then what example are we setting for the rest of the country?
And so, we decided to demand a public apology for all disabled Malaysians from the MACC prosecution chief then, Abu Kassim Mohamed. Nothing quite surprised us as to the response we got from the MACC after we handed over our memorandum to them.
The MACC apologised! (I guess not everyone is as stone-hearted as some of our parliamentarians who refuse to admit their wrongs). The MACC issued a press statement the very next day, apologising to Karpal for insulting him.It also admitted that it was insensitive with its remarks and pointed out that it had no intention to offend any party. In response, Karpal said, “I accept the apology by the MACC in good grace.”
He also said he hoped that “such an incident will not occur again, not only to him but to any disabled person in the country.” But the sad truth about discrimination and prejudice against disabled people is that it continues to rear its ugly head every now and again. Sometimes it appears subtly. Other times it is glaring.
To those who have been following the story on Free Malaysia Today and other media, the Sivan temple in Bukit Gasing in Petaling Jaya is currently under fire for barring wheelchair using devotees into its premises citing ‘dirt’ and ‘lack of space’.
The temple’s latest argument now is the spot the disabled want to go to, near the altar, is too dangerous for them. To exacerbate things, a permanent signboard at the temple says, “Wheelchairs are not permitted within (the) temple’s premises as with the general rules of shoes and slippers.”
Last Saturday more than 50 persons, many of them in their wheelchairs and walking sticks, held a protest outside the temple demanding to be treated just like any other Hindu devotee. I take my hat off to these guys. Some of them were from other faiths. They came because they didn’t want to see such rules in other places of worship too.
Some had weak bones and limbs. Any mishap, such as falling off their wheelchairs or slipping whilst transferring in and out of their cars could result in even severe and permanent injuries. But they braved it all in order to confront discrimination and double standard.
They wanted to show everyone that they were not going to tolerate prejudice against them anymore. According to those involved in the demonstration, the temple has agreed to their demands to remove the offending words and allow wheelchairs in. However, it is still left to be seen if the temple will keep to its promise. For now what is saddening, and I might add, disgraceful, is that their elected representative, Rajiv Rishyakaran, failed to turn up at the event even though he was invited.
Had the Bukit Gasing state assemblyman been there, he could have, at least, helped them. If not to physically assist them out of their cars and into their wheelchairs, at least he could have received their memorandum and stood by them in their hour of need.
Neither was their Petaling Jaya City Councillor for the area Cynthia Gabriel ( right) nor Pastor Sia Siew Chin who was appointed to look after disability issues in the city present. The latter also uses a wheelchair. I wonder what the late Mr Karpal Singh would have to say about all this?
Anthony SB Thanasayan is a wheelchair and animal activist. He is also a former city councillor.