‘Uncle Kentang’ champions on for the impoverished
Fresh from receiving an award for his charitable work, Amazing Seniors catches up with assiduous social activist and change maker Kuan Chee Heng

By Raajeish Taalver

Kuan likens Malaysia’s diversity to the local favourite rojak. (unclekentang.com pic)

It’s 7AM when I call Kuan Chee Heng for our phone interview, and he’s already hustling transportation to Kampar for a terminally-ill patient and organising the delivery of food supplies to an elderly couple in Tanjung Malim. “It’s the man’s last wish to be back home in his kampung. He’s dying of cancer,” Kuan says about the Kampar patient. “His family can’t afford the RM2,000-plus for an ambulance with the needed medical equipment and personnel.” He adds that the senior couple could not venture out of their home for food supplies because of the lockdown. “These are some of the things we can do despite the restrictions. We’re lucky we can help because of the 30,000 members we have across the country,” Kuan says, referring to his charitable organisation Community Policing Malaysia (CPM). Affectionately known as “Uncle Kentang” (he donated potatoes in one of his earliest charity acts), Kuan enjoyed some leeway and could venture a little beyond the 10-kilometre limit to reach out to the needy earlier this year. “But like everyone else, I had to abide by all the other rules.” He says the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns made it much harder for the oppressed to survive. “You can hope for the number of cases and deaths to drop with a lockdown, but you’ll find an ever-increasing number of people in dire need of help. “The first and third MCOs hit the lower-income groups especially hard. Someone who doesn’t earn much will not have savings. These are the people most affected by the prolonged lockdowns,” he adds. The 58-year-old is particularly anxious about post-pandemic difficulties. “It will get more challenging for people without a steady income. Everyone will need to readjust and resume some balance to their lives. “It concerns me that many children have lost parents to Covid-19. But, unfortunately, we don’t know what’s in store for them. Until the government steps in to assist these families, we’ll assist as many people as possible and encourage a spirit of survival. Determination and perseverance will win the day.” Kuan likens Malaysia’s diversity to the savoury mixed fruit and vegetable salad rojak. “I’d be a hypocrite if I were to declare I’m a Malaysian first before a Chinese. I was born Chinese. Like rojak, we wouldn’t be Malaysians without the different ingredients.”

One of Kuan's initiatives for the underprivileged is a free ambulance service. (Kuan Chee Heng pic via Facebook)

This approach explains his inspired initiatives for the underprivileged, irrespective of their race or religion. The notable ones are an RM1 hearse service, a 10 sen taxi service, 10 sen pre-loved items market, and a free ambulance service. The market and several other initiatives trace their beginning to a People’s Housing Project (PPR) in Bukit Jalil. “The police sought our help to curb a drug distribution and addiction problem in the project. We realised those living within the 14 blocks of flats hardly knew each other, so we started the 10 sen market to attract people to venture out of their flats and mingle. It’s easier to eradicate crime and other social problems when you’re united. So we asked people to donate whatever they didn’t want and sold them for 10 sen each.” The taxi service started in the same community. “We found out that the ill weren’t getting treatment or going for hospital appointments because they couldn’t afford it or travel the distance,” Kuan recalls. Some patients were also missing out on treatment because they couldn’t leave their children unattended. Kuan’s solution: a 10 sen library that doubled as a daycare centre. “The library not only kept the children busy with books and food but away from falling victim to accidents or sexual abuse. “We had our librarian trained by a psychiatrist to identify troubled children.” CPM has expanded to offer a range of other low-cost services for the impoverished. It has a fleet of 11 ambulances, 11 hearses and operates a hostel in Putrajaya for out-of-towners escorting family members for cancer treatment. The social activist is not slowing down. “Next up is a resort-like ranch for senior folks, a place for them to enjoy their twilight years, not like a depressing old folks’ home.”

The social activist understands poverty came from a poor rubber tapper family in Batu Pahat. (Kuan Chee Heng pic via Facebook)

Widely regarded as a Malaysian hero, Kuan doesn’t consider himself a philanthropist. He remains modest about the Commonwealth Points of Light Award announced in June, which he received in person in September. The award recognises outstanding individuals making a change in their community. “The award is for everyone. I’m just a representative and a coordinator in helping the community.” He professes to be a crime fighter at heart but delved deeper into charity after discovering that most criminals are from broken homes. “Why a specific section of our society is susceptible to crime and violence relates to how the system has marginalised them. As a result, this group often feels pressured to become more vigorous and violent to survive. Kuan certainly understands the struggles of poverty. “I came from a poor rubber tapper family from a small estate in Batu Pahat. If you want to understand poverty, try going to sleep on an empty stomach. “When I was 17, my father passed away, and we had no money for his coffin and funeral. That memory still haunts me. Today I say: ‘If your father’s in trouble, he’s my father. If your sisters and brothers aren’t eating, they’re my brothers and sisters.’” Kuan’s fervent wish is for the financially able to help the underprivileged. “Be a true Malaysian by helping your fellow Malaysians. That’s enough to lift Malaysia to greater heights. We can’t leave anyone behind, or we’ll all be left behind.”