PETALING JAYA: In 1999, a young boy named Albert Wong captured the nation’s attention through the pages of this newspaper.
Albert suffered from the muscular dystrophy condition known as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). The disease is due to a genetic defect which prevents or slows down the formation of dystrophin in the muscle cells, without which the cells will degenerate.
At that time, there was a pioneering treatment option in the United States, and through the support of The Star’s readers, more than RM500,000 was raised to give Albert a chance in life.
People from all walks of life, especially students, rose to the occasion and did their own fund-raising activities for this good cause.
Although the treatment did not work, Albert persevered, and readers were kept posted on his developments through the years.
Over the years, Albert showed what a disabled person could achieve with true grit and determination.
He had, by circumstances more than by choice, become a public celebrity of sorts.
Albert passed away peacefully at his home in Taman Megah, Petaling Jaya, yesterday morning. He would have turned 26 on July 21 this year.
The day before, he had just completed his final 500-word abstract for his masters thesis under the supervision of Azmi Sharom (one of our columnists) at Universiti Malaya.
I have followed the progress of this young boy who grew to become a fine young man.
He was an A student in his own right and scored the maximum As in the UPSR, PMR and SPM. For the SPM which he took in 2005, he emerged as the top disabled student in the country (12A1s).
In March the following year, when the results were announced, there was some uncertainty over whether Albert would be awarded the JPA scholarship to further his studies.
Due to some bureaucratic misunderstanding, his application had been rejected. Albert decided to take the battle head-on, even when there were private companies willing to sponsor his tertiary education.
He prevailed and got the scholarship to do law at a private college. At that time, Albert said it was more important to get the system right than to try and pull strings to get things done.
The JPA officer who handled the case was touched to see that an OKU could be so capable and determined to pursue further education and promised that he would handle such cases with more sensitivity in future.
Albert never let his condition affect his commitment to do well. Neither did he ask to be treated differently from anyone else. Both in primary and secondary school, Albert swept most of the school prizes.
Each time his turn came, the prize-giver always had to come down from the stage. It was a scene that moved his teachers and the parents who turned up. And we always clapped the loudest for our Albert.
After he was awarded the JPA scholarship, I wrote that “it was always difficult to observe Albert’s progress up close and personal. Intellectually, he was growing up to be a fine young man. Yet physically, he was heading in another direction. But his spirit never wavered.”
But Albert’s story needed to be told because in tracking the progress of such an outstanding disabled student like Albert, we are also trying to give encouragement to others who may be in a similar situation.
Soon after he received his “second class, lower” for his LLB, he cheekily told me, “Yes, I know I am capable of doing better!”
But he was determined to go for his masters, and although his qualifications did not give him immediate access, through the help of various individuals who believed in him, he was allowed to do his masters.
His thesis was on the death penalty, a subject that he plunged into with much passion.
Albert was especially pleased that the UM campus is disabled-friendly and that he was treated just like any other graduate student.
“Azmi gives his students a lot of leeway. He seems to trust that his students know what they’re doing. He also believes that his students are mature enough to complete their tasks,” Albert told me.
His father, Paul Wong, the principal at the Methodist Boys School in Kuala Lumpur, said those who know about Albert’s disability would be truly amazed at his achievements. When he was doing his A-levels and law studies, he had already lost the ability to write on his own. But the University of London allowed Albert to use a scribe to assist him. Under the arrangement, he would dictate his answers and the scribe would write it down.
As Azmi put it, “Albert was a very good student; full stop. He was smart and intellectually forceful. His disability, for me was not an issue. I never felt the need to demand any less from him as far as academic rigour was concerned because I knew he could do it.
“Sure, there were physical limitations (I was his scribe for his Research Methods exam!) but that did not affect how I viewed him and more importantly how he viewed himself. I enjoyed working with Albert. I wanted very badly to see him wheel his way across the stage to collect his degree. But for now I will have to comfort myself with the thought that his work was completed and we will submit it for examination as he wanted. I will miss that young man.”
Albert will be fondly remembered by all of us for his grit and determination to battle the odds and emerge smiling and his usual jovial self.