She Won 7 Gold & 3 Silver Medals For M'sia. Now She Sells Tissues In Bukit Bintang

Koh Lee Peng is one of the finest Paralympic athletes the country has seen, yet the former para swimmer from Penang has been left to fend for herself on the streets.

Cover image via Astro Awani , Penang State Sports Council (Facebook) , MyKMU

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Meet Koh Lee Peng

The former Paralympic swimmer represented Malaysia at the ASEAN Para Games from 2001 to 2005.

One of the finest Paralympic athletes the country has seen, Koh brought home seven gold and three silver medals in those five years

A decade later, she was crowned with the award of Penang's Best Paralympic Sportswoman in 2015.

It was followed by another award two years later, where Penang State Sports Council named Koh the 2016 Female Paralympian of the Year at the Penang State Sports Awards in 2017.

Despite the glory and the recognition she brought, the former Paralympic swimmer has been left to fend for herself on the streets

Koh, wearing the 'Harimau Malaya' polo T-shirt that our national athletes wear, was recently spotted selling tissue cover in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, to support herself. She was in her wheelchair.

According to Fayadh Wahab, who spotted the 48-year-old on Friday, 14 January, she was holding a torn up laminated newspaper that carried a headline, "Bekas Atlet Renang OKU Dicemuh".

Fayadh, who consented to his tweets quoted in this SAYS story, shared that Koh first introduced herself, and when she noticed his partner trying to subtly look her up online, the resilient woman told them to go ahead and search her name on YouTube if they did not believe who she was.

You can search me on YouTube. Now, this is my job. I'm not ashamed.
Koh Lee Peng

You see, there's a reason behind why she told them so

Koh, who has been selling tissues and covers since 2019, is used to people not believing her.

Back when she was selling tissues around Bandar Perda in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, to eke out a living, locals there often hurled abuses and insults at her and even accused Koh of being a foreigner.

In an interview with Berita Harian in October 2019, Koh had stated that people accused her of "being used by syndicates" to collect easy money through donations, while others ridiculed her by saying she was either Vietnamese, Thai, or Filipino and demanded that she show her MyKad to prove otherwise.

She, however, no longer entertain such people who demand that she show them her MyKad as she has developed a deep fear after one such person snatched her MyKad and ran away with it.

"Of course, I'm disappointed with people's perception of me. I'm trying to earn an honest living by selling tissue paper. I'm not asking for donations. Many people look down on what I do. They don't know that I was a former para-athlete," the seven-time gold medalist was quoted as saying.

A 2020 photo of Koh in her wheelchair, selling tissues and covers.

Image via MyKMU

Prior to turning to the street to earn a living, Koh held a job in Penang

She had to quit due to the difficulty she faced while trying to access the building. It had no lift.

Koh began selling tissue papers and other supplies after an encounter with an old acquaintance, who helped set up her little business in her wheelchair.

According to a Bernama report, she earns about RM800 a month from selling tissues and receives RM300 in monthly assistance from the National Athlete Welfare Foundation (YAKEB).

I've always wanted to be independent, even though sometimes, I've had to face public humiliation because of my condition.
Koh Lee Peng

While there have been ad hoc assistance in the form of one-time cash payments, structural failures that see elite athletes with disabilities quickly forgotten after their glory days need more than just that

Following the virality of Fayadh's tweets about Koh, Bukit Mertajam member of parliament (MP) Steven Sim shared that when he was the former deputy youth and sports (KBS) minister, YAKEB channelled a one-time cheque of RM5,000 towards Koh along with the RM300 monthly assistance.

"Last year, even though I was no longer at KBS, I worked with an NGO to donate RM5k to her," he tweeted, adding that he will check if KBS's monthly assistance is still running for Koh.

However, as is evident, such one-off assistance does little to uplift the lives of para-athletes like Koh, who have brought the bigger chunk of medals and records at every Paralympic for the country.

File photo of Koh (right) during one of her ASIAN Para Games outings.

Image via Astro Awani

Fayadh, who highlighted the issue, echoes similar views

He shared that any politicians who want to help after resurfacing of this issue should table a public white paper to make a significant change policy-wise to address these athletes.

According to him, our leaders need to address the root cause, not just the symptom.

"Koh Lee Peng's issue is a symptom of several problems which are (one) underemployment, and (two) mismatch unemployment. Giving Ms Koh employment is merely removing one symptom," he tweeted.

Fayadh said that the ideal solution is to have the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Higher Education, and the Ministry of Human Resources work together to bridge unemployment due to mismatch and to equip the next generation to be able to migrate their career if they are not able to migrate their physical self.

He argued that giving Koh a job that's linked to her skill set is great, but if nothing is done policy-wise to address the root cause, we're just sweeping one problem at a time under the rug.

Koh is not the only one.

Last year, 39-year-old former national sprinter Raduan Emeari was found to be working at a petrol station in Kuala Selangor:

There have been a number of other para-athletes who now live a life of neglect despite having brought glory and gold for Malaysia:

More recently, the National Sports Council kicked off 144 national athletes, including those who have made history for the country:

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