The minister distracted them, or how I learnt to push a trolley and wheelchair solo

SEPTEMBER 23 — The two of us arrived in a 13-year-old Proton Saga, which probably sealed our fate even before exiting the highway.

On Malaysia Day, to enter a national edifice.

KLIA, the international airport three decades in without a heyday, is a stark reminder of the first Mahathir Administration.

Ah Kit was going home to his family after nearly four months of being bed-bound by his second stroke. His tribulations were seemingly over with the airport in sight.

They weren’t.

My first mistake was to assume the preferred inside driving lane meant for those with disabilities was exactly that, a lane for those with disabilities. 

I read the signboard without factoring our cultural conditioning. Amateur mistake!

The distance from the barrier gate to where the protective traffic policemen stood was awkwardly far and silly me thought they did not click the remote control because they could not see us, or my Saga to be precise.

It was close to noon, on a bright day, and the airport was probably operating at three per cent of capacity. One could see the tops of palm oil trees a mile away.

The bar rose and we headed in.

Three unamused traffic policemen looked as I rolled the window down to ask where to park. The one who spoke asked why park when there’s the outside lane.

I played my trump card — like in any woke film — and told the policemen I was assisting a stroke patient to the check-in counter. To which without flinching he asked the same question, why use the inside lane, it is for VIPs only.

Then it struck me. These important personages suffer daily from persistent unsolicited approaches from the general public, these silly voters.

Their ”job” is to keep the riff raff away, those actual people with disabilities.

I said we needed to get a wheelchair.

Ah Kit with the Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, September 16, 2021. — Picture by Praba Ganesan
Ah Kit with the Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, September 16, 2021. — Picture by Praba Ganesan

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He said you can still get a wheelchair parked in the outside lane. Just cross the inside lane with the wheelchair. His face said the VIP lane was not to be messed about with. His two other colleagues did not object.

As if I was the errant boy for bringing a person with disabilities to the lane for those needing assistance. Still annoyed he reluctantly said I can park but to hurry along.

At that point I felt Malaysia had come a long way in how it treated its most powerful.

I had to leave my friend in the car first to enter the terminal and get the wheelchair. Past several security personnel of various uniforms and halfway to the middle from the inside to the information counter.

I asked the lady wearing the sash “Can I help you?” how to get a wheelchair and she called out to her colleague at the counter.

Though there was scarcely a crowd, throughout the process of me leaving my identity card at the counter, neither asked who needed the wheelchair. 

It was not their concern, which only informs me they handle far more pertinent and pressing issues like correcting the sash when an actual VIP arrives.

By the time I rolled the wheelchair back out — not before everyone became ultra-alert when I walked towards the wrong exit door, Covid-19 you see, one door in and one door out, and they only see mistakes not hapless people — a good 10 minutes had lapsed.

My friend, who can’t walk more than a 100 metres without the risk of falling on his paralysed half was standing with one hand on a cane and the other on the car door. Invisible to all personnel.

Five minutes later, I was stumped. One man in a wheelchair and a luggage trolley. I had to take turns rolling both every 50 feet till after security.

A line of Malaysian Airlines staff stood waiting, unfortunately not for us. They ignored us.

Then it came to bear why the noticeable police and airline staff presence. The minister was to arrive, and he did so just after us.

Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong had come to check on the first day of travel to Langkawi, the holiday bubble.

My friend shouted out to the minister and got a picture taken with him. At least the minister recognises voters.

Eventually a porter, in jeans and vest, helped us. Later an excellent Malaysian Airlines check-in counter staff Nur Syafika took magnificent care of Ah Kit. 

Cleared misleading information among his documents, communicated with Malaysia Airlines Bangkok Station to clear all hurdles, and waited an hour after her shift ended to ensure he was safely in the hands of airline staff, who then guided him past immigration and duly to his plane.

I hardly had a hard time, but he did.

He boarded the plane before others, was forced to plan his bathroom trips prior so he did not cause a scene during the hour and a half flight, waited for all passengers to disembark after landing before starting his Thai immigration process.

It’s Covid-19 there too, so no family, and they’d ferry him to the hotel for a 14-day quarantine. Today marks halfway through that and he saw his family through the hotel window as they waved to him from the building across. They will have to wait another seven days.

And then he continues his recuperation and work to avoid a relapse.

I’m writing this with my right hand sprained from a sports injury and it hurts.

But it cannot even compare in the minutest sense to the lives Malaysians with disabilities live.

So, two things.

While Malaysians jumped up and down for our Paralympic athletes, and they should, for every one of them there are thousands of people with disabilities in the country. 

It’s fun to join the parade but care and policies for those who need the support is way behind. It’s not enough there are allocated parking lots for the disabled, ask what is necessary to get more people with disabilities mobile. Outcomes, not symbols.

The other point, not slamming the various personnel at the airport because the dedicated got him to his flight. But the observation remains that we, not just the VIPs themselves, are fixated with the needs and wants of the powerful. 

Perhaps be aware that success seems to be about knowing who, not knowing what. And the powerful have fed the masses this as fact. It is against their interest to navigate us away from that sentiment.

But the next time we get all high and mighty to piss on the powerful for their nonchalance and contempt for us, look at ourselves first. This pecking order would not dominate if we did not play ball.

The powerful get their way because we help them.

And in the process we leave those who need the help untended. That’s the tragedy. That we see Saga people as nuisances. And those with drivers as heroes.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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