TODAY we celebrate National Day. As with previous years, I have taken the opportunity to look back and ponder over the meaning of this day. How far have we progressed from that momentous day when the British lowered the Union Jack to mark the end of colonial rule for Malaya?
I was born nine years after the Federation of Malaya gained her independence. Indeed, the country has moved on to greater heights. We formed Malaysia together with Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore in 1963, although Singapore left two years after that to become a country on its own.
As a kid, this day meant it was a school holiday and I got to watch the parade live on television. The appearance of the Agong with cabinet ministers on the stage, the sea of people parading in their colourful costumes, the elaborate floats and the show of military hardware always fascinated me. I had also participated in march-pasts at state-level celebrations when I was in the secondary school.
The country has grown by leaps and bounds, especially in the 1970s due to the rapid industrialisation of the economy. We now make our own cars and host some of the most modern high-tech electronic manufacturing facilities. We boast of a world class airport and a comprehensive expressway network.
Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, stand proudly in Kuala Lumpur. They are visible from many kilometres away, even in places where accessible facilities are non-existent, making it difficult for disabled persons to move around freely.
A Malaysian has gone to the International Space Station that orbits the Earth at an altitude of 350km and stayed there for 11 days. On Earth, disabled persons have to grapple with a public transport system that is full of barriers and have poor connectivity.
A friend who is also a wheelchair user noted, “We can send a man to space but we cannot make the environment convenient for people like us.”
I could not agree with him more.
I recently took some time off to visit the suburb where I grew up. It was as if time had stood still there. Much of the infrastructure that has been in existence for decades has not been upgraded for better accessibility. Such is the irony of our country as we race headlong to become a developed nation by 2020.
In spite of the technological advances the country has achieved, disabled persons still cannot realise full participation in society. Basic amenities are still sorely lacking. The technical skills applied in building the twin towers, airport and the many other mega projects have not been put to good use in making the built environment friendlier.
‘Merdeka’ means independence but it is a freedom that disabled persons can only yearn for. After all this time, we are still being ‘colonised’. Our lives are restricted in so many ways by physical obstacles, prejudiced mindsets and discrimination.
We have to resort to street protests to get our plights looked into. We have to make repeated complaints to have our issues resolved. Many times the complaints are ignored and disregarded.
This form of problem-solving has been going on for as long as I have been a disabled person. If this is the way to get things done, disabled persons will still be holding street protests when the country celebrates her 100th National Day.
Legislation such as the Uniform Building By-Law 34A and the Persons with Disabilities Act have done little to make society better for disabled persons. Without proper enforcement and implementation, these laws are not worth the paper they are printed on. The very fact that I am ranting here is proof that both laws have not been effective.
I dare say that the government is neither serious nor doing enough to resolve disability issues. The head does not know what the tail is doing. The problems are solved on a piecemeal basis and not in a holistic manner.
For example, accessible public transport is an issue that involves several ministries and local governments. The parties have not been working together as a team. In the end, accessible buses cannot be used because the bus stops are not properly constructed.
The government needs to be proactive in looking at the big picture of the various disability issues. Disabled persons should not need to hold attention-grabbing events to get the government to listen to us. It is the government’s job to ensure the well-being of all citizens without the need for such radical promptings.
My wish for today is for Malaysia to become an inclusive and accessible society by 2020. The developed nation status will only be more meaningful if the rights of disabled citizens are respected and upheld. A lot can be achieved in six years if we start now. We can do it. Let’s do it. Happy National Day!
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