NGOs Striving to Improve Lives

By Carolyn Khor

June 2024 FEATURE
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The Deputy President of PEYATIM, Mohd Yussof Latiff.

NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOS) in Penang have long served as the backbone of the community. Most, especially those dedicated to welfare and societal well-being, operate quietly, while a select few garner attention for their outspoken advocacy on issues such as governance and policy-making. Penang Monthly spoke to three NGOs to get an insight into how they have been faring after years of assisting the less fortunate in Penang.

Children of the Penang Muslim Orphans' Welfare Federation at a football field.

Persekutuan Kebajikan Anak-Anak Yatim Islam Pulau Pinang

Persekutuan Kebajikan Anak-Anak Yatim Islam Pulau Pinang or the Penang Muslim Orphans’ Welfare Federation started its operations in the midst of the Japanese Occupation in 1942. However, the association was only officially registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS) in 1955—by then, the association was already operating out of its own building built on a piece of wakaf land in Jalan Air Itam.

In 1981, under the stewardship of Mohd Yussof Latiff, the orphanage, which receives Muslim orphans from all states in Malaysia, expanded to include female orphans, who were housed at a separate location known as Wisma Yatim Perempuan Islam Pulau Pinang. This facility, located at Scotland Road, was built on a plot of land leased from the state government. The new building was completed three years later, with new intakes in 1984.

Currently, the two orphanages house 22 boys and 30 girls aged between 8 and 19.

A yassin and tahlil recitation session attended by the orphans at the Penang Muslim Orphans’ Welfare Federation.“A typical day involves getting the children ready for school, ensuring that they finish their homework, attend tuition classes and Quran-reading classes after school, eat proper meals, and making sure they sleep early. Some of them attend extra-curricular activities organised by their schools too.

“On weekends, when the children have some free time, the boys will play football or sepak takraw, and the girls will play netball,” says Yussof, adding that a healthy body is essential to growth. “We also ensure that the children have a balanced and nutritious diet, and provide them with five meals a day.”

All the children attend government schools. “The boys go to Air Itam Primary School and Air Itam Secondary School, while the girls either attend school at the Residency Road Primary School, Padang Polo Secondary School or the Puan Habsah Secondary School.

“The orphanages are also part of a larger umbrella group known as Pertubuhan Kebajikan Anak-Anak Yatim Malaysia (PEYATIM). We stress on education and try to hold activities in universities to expose the children to higher education. Once they finish school, they can also apply to educational institutions such as Kolej Universiti Bestari, Kolej Teknologi Bestari and Institut Kemahiran Bestari, established by PEYATIM.

“We fully support them financially until they graduate,” Yusoff adds. “This includes providing them with pocket money. Each of our wards has their own bank account too. Donations go directly into their individual accounts.”

Describing his active role in the children’s welfare, Yussof emphasises the need to make the children feel included and loved.

“We try our best to provide them with an environment that is caring and loving, like a large family. We also try imparting to these children that challenges make them stronger—with patience and effort, they can achieve anything.”

Yussof, who is also the Deputy President of PEYATIM and the President of PEMENANG, another non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to promoting Malay arts and culture, hopes to continue contributing to society. “As long as Allah SWT gives me the strength, energy and health, I will continue to devote my time and effort to the welfare of these children in the hope that they grow up to become useful members of our society and country.”

Children at TRAP.

The Ramakrishna Ashrama, Penang

The Ramakrishna Ashrama, Penang (TRAP) is the oldest Hindu orphanage in Malaysia. Located at No. 37, Scotland Road, TRAP was founded on 10 November 1938 by a group of eight philanthropists, both local and from India, and was first headed by Swami Bhaswarananda, who, at the time, was also the president of the Singapore Ramakrishna Mission.

The Scotland Road premise houses a hostel for the orphanage children, a multipurpose hall, a temple, a playing field and the Ramakrishna Tamil School. In the 1960s, the Ramakrishna English Secondary School also operated for nine years.

The orphanage houses 32 male and 11 female residents, ranging from ages 7 to 25. “The eldest, who has completed his degree course at University Malaysia Kelantan, is currently employed in our orphanage as an Administrative Officer,” says K. Ramasamy, the Chairman of TRAP.

“One of the boys is also pursuing his higher education at Polytechnic Nilai in Negeri Sembilan. Meanwhile, four academically weaker students are studying at MySkills College in Selangor.”

Volunteer teachers come to teach the children tuition after school. “Other than that, some of our children attend Indian classical dance classes or pick up traditional Indian musical instruments at the Temple of Fine Arts.” Ramasamy adds that these classes are sponsored by a few doctors at Gleneagles Hospital Penang. “Those who are athletic take up free tennis lessons provided by ProAce Tennis Academy, and two of our boys undergo training with Jimkana Football Academy.”

As a religious organisation, the orphanage serves only vegetarian food and the children observe Hindu traditions. “We also hold special prayers on certain auspicious days and the children partake in these religious ceremonies,” he says.

The Bhagawan Sri Ramakrishna Hindu Temple located within the vicinity of the Ramakrishna Ashrama, Penang.

Bodhi Heart Sanctuary (Pertubuhan Bodhi Heart Pulau Pinang)

Gary Lau, one of the nine founders of Bodhi Heart Sanctuary (BHS) located at Fettes Park, woke up one day with a great desire to do something beneficial for the community.

“It was a crazy but great idea,” he says. In 2007, Gary convinced six of his friends from different backgrounds to jointly purchase a piece of 390,000sqft land at Fettes Park to build a Buddhist sanctuary. Thus, BHS, a non-sectarian centre embracing Buddhist traditions, was established.

“We envisioned creating a simple, practical and yet elegant space that aligns with nature for spiritual seekers and teachers to share their experiences with each other. At BHS, we regularly hold programmes such as inviting Buddhist monks and eminent laypersons to share the Dharma or their experiences,” says Gary, adding that “these programmes aim to align and manifest the interconnectedness of the body, heart and mind, which aids the healing process.

Bodhi Heart.

“Our journey has not been easy, but we met a lot of benefactors along the way. One day, during the construction of the place, I almost gave up—if I didn’t raise enough money by the next day, everything would have fallen apart. Right at that moment, someone I didn’t know walked up to me and asked, ‘How much do you need to pay your workers and for the materials?’ I replied, ‘60k,’ and just like that, he said he would call his office the next day to transfer that sum to us.

“I also have a banker friend I refer to as the living Bodhisatva. At one point, we were short of money for the land title stamping fees. So, I called her to ask if she could approve my application for a credit card with a RM100,000 limit. Instead, she replied that with all her credit cards combined, she could assist us with that amount.”

Today, the land on which BHS sits also accommodates several non-governmental organisations, such as the Bodhi Residence, Ruyi Children’s Home, Shan Children’s Home, Caring Society of the Mentally Challenged and the Society of the Disabled Persons Penang. There is also a holistic spa, a recycling collection centre and an ongoing donation drive for burial services for unclaimed bodies.

Today, the ownership of BHS’s land has been transferred to Amrita Charitable Trust and managed by the Pacific Trustees Group, as appointed by Amrita. Gary, speaking on behalf of the former owners, says, “We no longer own the land, but we now serve as protectors of the trust.”

Carolyn Khor

is a former ministerial press secretary, a former United Nations volunteer and an independent researcher/writer.