THE deaths of two elderly women caught in a mad scramble for free food coupons on Monday have shocked the nation, but the incident should also serve as a wake-up call on the plight of seniors struggling to survive in the capital city.
The victims, Cheong Poh, 85, and Law Ion Nang, 78, died after collapsing in the crush of senior citizens trying to register for a charity buffet on Feb 11 in conjunction with Chinese New Year. Two others were also injured in the melee.
More than 1,000 persons aged above 60 thronged the hawker centre at the Pudu Integrated Commercial Complex (ICC Pudu) for the 200 free food coupons on offer and to grab some door gifts.
They lined up from as early as 5am in and outside the market complex, even though security personnel told them to come back only at 11am when registration would start. They refused to leave.
When the queue reached around 200 people, security personnel again urged the rest to leave, but they stood their ground despite physical discomfort for a slim chance of getting the coupons.
Word of mouth, and a small announcement in the newspaper apparently, sparked such frenzy that elderly persons from not just Pudu, but also Cheras, Sentul, Kepong and even one from Kuantan who happened to be in town, flocked to the venue.
ICC Pudu manager Chin Huey Yee, who was one of several people giving the above account, noted that homeless elderly were also spotted in the crowd.
She said the management verbally agreed to be the venue sponsor for the free-meal event as a continuation of a similar programme held last year.
Fruit seller Lew Ah Sze said many traders were shocked and saddened by the incident but added that most of them were not present when it happened because it was a day off at the market.
He said he could understand why such a huge crowd turned up because he could see that a lot of senior citizens in the area struggled to make ends meet.
“Being a senior citizen myself, I feel for them, it can be helpless at this age. There’s certainly a lack of care for senior citizens in our society,” he said.
However, he stressed that the tragedy could have been prevented if more safety measures had been put in place.
StarMetro managed to speak to Jack Tan Hock Jin, 84, who has been living on the streets of Pudu for five years.
The widower left Bukit Mertajam, Penang, where he had no means to live, and settled in Pudu where he survives on daily free meals given out by religious bodies.
Every night, he finds an alley to sleep in, sharing the space with at least five other homeless elderly people.
“We cannot be out in the open, enforcement officers would chase us away if they see us.
“There are many of us who are not sure if we can have our next meal. These free meals are important to us,” he said, adding that he finally managed to register with the Welfare Department two months ago but is still waiting for a spot at an old folks’ home.
When asked how large the area’s homeless community is, he said they number about 200 people.
Trader Khor Ah Seng, 75, also gave a similar figure but claimed that most of them were drug addicts and foreigners loitering at the adjacent Pudu Sentral.
However, he said, there were about 30 homeless senior folk who have become “permanent fixtures” around ICC Pudu.
“They have no money, no job, no family to rely on either because they are single or have done bad in the past.
“Whenever there are food giveaways, they dash for the food and sometimes even fight among themselves, making it very difficult for charities and volunteers.
“In fact, some people call this Beggar Street because of the large number of old folk waiting for free food.
“If given a choice, I believe the old people will not want to queue for hours to get free food. I think they are truly needy people,” he added.
Having heard the situation facing the community in Pudu, and upon requests from some of the homeless persons interviewed, we decided to buy some food for them.
We were pre-warned that there would be a mad rush for the food. True enough, despite there being no announcement, senior citizens emerged from behind walls for the packets of chicken rice we had bought, and tensions soon ran high as they jostled to secure some for themselves.
Social activist Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, while highlighting that the ICC Pudu tragedy should not have happened if all parties adhered to the basic safety requirements when dealing with a large crowd, said he was saddened by the seniors’ plight.
“It is certainly a reflection of the state of affairs our seniors are in. As a senior citizen myself, the news pains me.
“I really hope this is an eye-opener to the welfare institutions in our country so that they will better understand the situation and the needs of seniors.
“It also shows the lack of filial piety, which in the Chinese community refers to the important virtue and primary duty of respect, obedience and care for one’s parents and elderly family members,” he said when contacted.
There are those who think that poverty was not the sole reason the elderly rushed for free food in Monday’s incident.
A number of traders and customers at ICC Pudu, who are themselves, senior citizens, said they personally knew of some who were always eager to get free things, making a beeline for them with their friends despite having to queue for hours.
“Maybe they are bored and lonely, they get excited with these events,” one of them said.
Several traders also clarified that the free-meal programme was organised by only 10 traders, while the other 90-plus traders did not take part.
They felt that while the crowd could have surged beyond expectation, the organisers had failed to put sufficient precautionary measures, such as having Rela personnel or ambulance in place for such activities to prevent mishaps.
Cheras MP Tan Kok Wai, when contacted, commented that the manner the free-meal programme was conducted was improper, irresponsible and showed a lack of experience.
He said he had attended larger-scale events catering to elderly persons but they were well organised, with Rela and medical personnel at hand.
He said the programme’s banner put up at ICC Pudu, which did not state the number of pax it would cater to but only “until stock last”, attracted a large group of seniors.
Meanwhile, he highlighted that urban poverty, especially among old folks, was getting worse.
“Malaysia is expected to be an aged country by 2030, where 15% of its population will comprise senior citizens. Our society is ageing fast, there’s a lot of grievances.
“The Government must plan holistically now by looking at various issues, among them housing, medical, salary versus inflation and cost of living,” he said.
He added that the mySalam scheme could help address the ageing issue and urged the private hospitals to offer discounts to the elderly as the government hospitals were crowded “like refugee camps”.
He noted that poverty was not the only cause, citing that the family of one of the victims had the means to bring her on overseas vacations and weekend outings.
“Persons at this age feel lonely, their grandchildren may not talk to them so they enjoy going out with their friends and are eager for such activities,” he added.