Kak Wan Visits Penang’s Poor
First published in Malaysiakini April 28, 2000
People came out in their Sunday best – octogenarian grandmothers, curious children, the lower working class and poor tenants facing evictions.
“Is the Agung’s (King) wife coming to see us?” grandma Cheah Siew Chee, 80, asked curiously.
“It is Mahathir’s wife who is coming,” quipped her eight-year-old grandson.
“Not quite,” said an older lad, “It’s the wife of the former number two man of the country.”
The office of SOS, an association of tenants fighting against unjust eviction, in Noordin Street took on an air of festivity on a recent Sunday. Its abandoned crumbling pre-war house-cum-reception hall was spruced up with a long a long table with white table cloth. Nyonya cakes and bottles of spring water lined the table.
Banners were strung across the entrance. The young and old held placards of welcome and thanks. “Selamat datang YB Ahli Parlimen Permatang Pauh Datin Wan Azizah ke pusat SOS untok memahami kesusahan Rakyat…” [Welcome the Honourable Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh Lady Wan Azizah to SOS Centre and understand the hardship of the People” a banner proclaimed].
“It must be the biggest event Noordin Street has seen in recent years”, said a mother on her way to work. It was nine o’clock in the morning. “I can’t stay to meet her as I have to work but my mother is here to see her,” she said.
The sea used to come right up to one end of Noordin Street, heartland of old George Town’s Fujian community. It was home to seafarers and women construction workers in distinctive red head-dress, unloading cargo and shouldering loads at building sites.
Right up to the 1970s the old sea dogs plied their bat-sail junks carrying charcoal from Thailand and Sumatra. Now, most of the old sea dogs are gone, and those alive are in their 80s. The women tend to out live the men. They are out in their best clothes to welcome an important guest this morning.
Like its old residents, Noordin Street today is half way to its grave. If developers get their way, the neighborhood will face demolition and the community dispersed. Many are unsure if they will get low-cost housing or be made homeless overnight.
Eighty year old Tan Choot and a dozen of her neighbours of her age were ready since nine to welcome ‘A Very Big Shot’, she said. Like many of the old women present, grandma Tan was a labourer all her life since she migrated from China, over half a century ago.
She thought the VIP visitor was the King’s wife, somebody with the power to get her a low-cost flat. She was overwhelmed with emotion when Keadilan President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail stepped into her tiny cubicles converted from a horse stable. Without bathroom and proper toilets, the mews is home to 24 households.
“Oh God! Have mercy. Find me a new house… I’ll be homeless,” she wailed and shook with despair. Wan Azizah kindly sat her down and fanned her. She calmed down.
“I remember when I was young, visiting Penang… how beautiful it was,” the MP told the crowd of residents.
“This is the soul of George Town. How can we call ourselves caring when people are evicted and made homeless? How can we called ourselves a caring society when the poor and old are forgotten?”
“We are the people, we have the power and political will. We have come here to support you,” she added to the cheers of the crowd.
Grandma Tan Choot lifted her hands skywards and thanked Heaven profusely.
Wan Azizah is the wife of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Throughout the ordeal when her husband was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for 6 years she managed to hold the family fort and even won parliamentary elections. In the general elections in 2008 her eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah just out of college, toppled the stalwart of UMNO’s women’s wing and entered Parliament. It was a ‘David and Goliath’ feat, the biggest upset of the elections!