“Sad ? Go and buy her tissue lah. She doesn't need your sympathy.” My friend Rizal quips when I told him I felt sad upon learning that the former national swimmer Koh Lee Peng is currently selling tissue packets at Bandar Perda, Bukit Mertajam.
“I think the social narrative about the para-athlete and differently-abled communities in general needs to change. She isn't asking for sympathy. She is asking for support so that she can be independent. If she decides to earn money by selling tissue packets, then we should cheer her on by understanding the reality in which she is currently living in, and that she is doing something, instead of blaming society for abandoning her. I think it's very commendable what she is doing,” says Rizal.
Dr. Mohd Sharizal Abdul Aziz in action.
Of course, he knows better. Rizal or Dr. Mohd Sharizal Abdul Aziz is a state para-athlete and a recipient of the prestigious Anugerah Sukan Untuk Semua Negeri Pulau Pinang 2015 – he made it into The Malaysia Book of Records 2019 for the longest swimming relay at 24 hours! The 37-year-old father of two is also a lecturer in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and is now preparing for the Malaysian Games (SUKMA), which is to be held in Johor this coming July.
His accomplishments, Rizal admits, would not have come to pass if it wasn't for a work-related accident in 2007. At 23, Rizal accidentally fell 28m after a sand-mixer he was repairing exploded. The mishap left him paralysed from the waist down, the result of spinal cord injuries. Though broken, he was anything but defeated. Rizal soon returned to work and went on to obtain a doctoral degree. “I think I would have just been so complacent with life, I wouldn't have felt the need to challenge myself constantly.”
Adapting to life as a disabled person was difficult at first, but once he had adjusted, the engineering lecturer threw himself into his next challenge: sports. Rizal started swimming as part of his physical therapy, but began his swimming career proper in 2010 after joining the Penang State Recreational and Sports Association For The People With Disabilities (PESRON).
"I think the social narrative about the paraathlete and differently-abled communities in general needs to change."
Another para-athlete William Tang Song Huat’s story is nothing short of inspiring, too. Tang took up swimming in 2016 and bagged a gold, a silver and a bronze medal at the National Sports Council Para Swimming Competition in 2018. But swimming is not the only sport he excels in – he is also a Macau Trail Hiker 2015 Finisher, Tokyo Marathon 2017 Finisher, and Hong Kong SC Marathon 2018 and 2019 Finisher. “I was a gymnast while still at school, but after the accident, I had to stop.” The 47-year-old accounts officer had suffered permanent clavicle (collarbone) and humerus (upper arm bone) fracture from a car accident in 1991, and hasn't been able to move his right arm since. “I was sad at first but later on, I realised that I must persevere and have resilience, and not be limited by my disability,” he says. To maintain his active lifestyle, Tang started hiking and dabbled in triathlon. “Together with a group of friends with similar interests, we started a group called Run Addict.”
Front: Zul Fadhli Abd Aziz (left) and Ilias Yahaya with Department of Youth and Sports Penang staff members Nur’aini Ahmad (left) and Rashidah Mat Saad, who is also the secretary of PESRON.
When asked about the challenges he currently faces as a para-athlete, Tang says that although he practises four times a week, he is unable to prioritise training due to work commitments. “One of the reasons why most para-athletes aim to represent the country and train under the National Sports Council is because as a national para-athlete, you sign a contract; and in a way, it's a full-time job. As a state para-athlete, there’s little given in terms of allowance or support. We still have to work full-time to fund our sporting careers,” he explains.
According to the director of Jabatan Belia dan Sukan Negeri Pulau Pinang Zul Fadhli Abd Aziz, the National Sports Council offers various schemes and incentives to full-time athletes who are currently training with the sports council. “Those who are selected to represent the country in the Paralympics receive a monthly allowance of RM2,000, while athletes who manage to bring home medals will receive life-long monthly allowances of RM 5,000 for gold; RM 3,000 for silver; and RM 2,000 for bronze,” he says.
Getting to Know PESRON
William Tang Song Huat.
Just like Rizal, Tang also started his career as a state para-swimmer after being introduced to the sport by PESRON. Established in 2007, PESRON works very closely with the Department of Youth and Sports Penang to develop sports for the differently-abled community. Serving as deputy president for the organisation is Ilias Yahaya, 70, a retired para-athlete. In 1967 he represented Malaysia as a javelin thrower and won the bronze medal at Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the Paralympics. “Before it was known as the Paralympics, it was called the Stoke Mandeville Games or the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) World Games. So, in a way, I have been active since the birth of the games,” says Ilias. The former sportsman has also competed in other sports, like swimming and discus throw, but nowadays, he is committed to developing the sports through PESRON.
During the last SUKMA outing in Perak, the People with Disabilities (PwDs) contingent bagged 13 gold, 14 silver and 15 bronze medals. But there is room for improvement still; out of the 15 teams competing in SUKMA 2018, Penang placed 11th. “Most of the talents are factory workers in Penang, but they dare not participate in our games because they aren’t able to apply for extended leave to join our sporting circuits, which can take up to two weeks. It’s a big problem because sometimes we manage to find incredibly talented athletes, but they are reluctant to join us. We’ve lost a lot of opportunities because of this.
“Many years ago, some factories used to give out incentives to their employees who were selected to represent the state for PwD sports, but this is not being implemented anymore. For the sports to grow, support is needed, not only from the employers but from the media, too. Most of our programmes and games get little coverage; the general public is unaware of us. Our athletes rarely get the recognition they deserve,” laments Ilias.
The writer would like to thank PESRON Secretary Rashidah Mat Saad for her invaluable help with the research for this story.
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.