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Brightening the Future of the Blind

World Sight Day falls on October 13 this year. Penang Monthly takes a look at Persatuan Tongkat Putih, an association that is working hard to help the visually impaired.


The white cane has long been a symbol for blind pedestrians. In fact, it wasn’t always white, but the cane as such is the trusty companion of many a visually impaired itinerant.

It was in 1921 that James Biggs, an English photographer who became blind after an accident, thought of painting his walking stick white to make it more visible to motorists.

It took a while before the white cane established its social role as a signal for blind person walking. In February 1931 a national white stick movement for blind people began in France. This led to a similar scheme in the United Kingdom, sponsored by rotary clubs. In May that year, the BBC suggested in its radio broadcasts that blind individuals be provided with a white stick as an attempt to establish it as a universally recognised symbol for the blind or the visually impaired.

Fast forward to present-day Malaysia, where dogs – not to mention lead dogs – are a controversy (for purported religious reasons) and tactile paving is a rarity. In this setting, one man who once saw and is now blind decided to embark on a personal mission to provide for his visually impaired brethren.

Swarn Singh started his altruistic journey many years ago with the intention of providing the necessary equipment to the visually impaired free of charge. He soon realised that handing out freebies alone was not a long-term solution. Just like anyone else, the blind need a sustainable future, a way to earn their own keep without being fully dependent on others.

And so in 2013, Swarn created Blind Education Services to help the blind live independently with the right tools and training. On February 22, 2014 Persatuan Tongkat Putih (White Cane Association) was officially launched with the support of the local council and the government.

Since then, Swarn has been relentlessly increasing awareness for the visually impaired all over Penang and Malaysia by hosting events. Through the Persatuan, Swarn has been providing not just white canes, but other unique tools for the visually impaired that most sighted folks (that’s what the rest of us are referred to as) wouldn’t even recognise.

One such item is called the Braille slate – a handy little portable tool that lets a blind person write and take notes. It may not be the sleekest of devices, but there is beauty in simplicity, and the Braille slate is simple and convenient to use.

Persatuan Tongkat Putih also provides reading material in Braille to those who wish to further their studies, as well as necessary provisions on a regular basis to the visually impaired and their families through their Food Bank project.

Handing out equipment is only half the battle for the Persatuan, which aims to not only enable the blind, but also empower them to take their future into their own hands. And how do they achieve this? By providing the blind with employment opportunities and career choices!

Guess what the dots at the bottom say.

The Persatuan trains and funds blind massage schools, and also seeks higher levels of education for those keen on management, so that the visually impaired will be able to operate their own businesses and contribute to society. The Persatuan also organises events to raise awareness and garner support for their worthy cause. In 2015 they dressed an entire crowd of people in lime green shirts and marched across town in a fun little walk, and in July this year they hosted Vision Weekend which comprised fun activities such as chess with a VIP (visually impaired person) and more.

Last year's White Cane Day Walk.

Step right up for your massage!

This should lead us to wonder what it would be like to lose our vision. What if you wake up one day and you discover that you can’t see? A spine-chilling thought. We don’t know how precious something is until we lose it. We don’t really appreciate how much we rely on sight.

There are over 90,000 visually impaired people in Malaysia alone. They may not want your pity, but they do need your help.

All are welcome to give Persatuan Tongkat Putih a helping hand. Contact Swarn Singh at +016 488 7811, Jas at +016 485 1745 or email

Samuel Shee is an avid cyclist and traveller, and an occasional photographer. Currently in the software industry, he enjoys helping charity and sports events around Penang.


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