Formation of the Blind Community Club (BCC):
In 1960 an American lady, the late Dr. Issabella Grant, was sent on a mission by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) of the USA to some African and asian countries to sell the idea of “Federationism” to blind people so that they would have a voice in shaping their own destiny and be a partner in contributing inputs to the services they were receiving from the Government and the service-providers. Among some of the countries visited were Pakistan and Malaysia.
In Pakistan Dr. Grant managed to get the late Dr. Fatimah Shah (a medical doctor who recently went blind and who lost complete hope in herself) to regain her confidence and who eventually set up the Pakistan Association of the Blind. Dr. Fatimah later became the third president of the International Federation of the Blind (IFB).
However, it took more time for the meaning of “Federationism” to catch on in Malaysia although her visit did generate some interest in such a movement. Then, by coincidence, a Mrs. Johnson from England (a pen-pal of two blind persons in Malaysia, the late Mary Poon and the late Elizabeth Hoe) visited Malaysia in 1963 and she managed to convince a group of blind persons to form the Blind Community Club (BCC). This was a social group with the purpose of getting blind people to meet regularly for singing sessions and to organize outings around Kuala Lumpur and even outstation. Thus, the group met quite frequently at the quarters of the late Edward Tan, former Braille instructor at the Gurney Training Centre (GTC). Although its role was limited, BCC was the fore-runner of greater things to come.
Formation of the Selangor Society of the Blind (SSB):
Following the visit of Dr. Grant, NFB sent Russell Kletzing, a blind attorney from NFB, in 1963 to enlist movements of the blind for the formation of IFB. There was already in existence an international organization comprising mostly service-providers known as the World Council for the Welfare of the Blind (WCWB) but the blind people of those days felt that they were being discriminated against and they were not being treated with respect.
By this time, things had started to move quite rapidly. Members of the BCC realized that more concrete actions needed to be taken. Thus, the seeds for the formation of the Selangor Society of the Blind (SSB) had been planted. The active members of the group included the late Lee Ah Kow (a Form Six student who lost his sight and went to the Gurney Training Centre), Susan Yew (who was working as a stenographer at the Federal House and who married Lee Ah Kow in the 1970’s), and Mary Poon, Elizabeth Hoe and Kathan Pillai (the last three persons were working as seconded employees of the Government at the Braille Publishing Unit under the Malayan Association of the Blind, as it was known at the time).
Through the contacts of these three persons, they obtained the free services of a lawyer, D. H. Mitchell, to help in drafting the constitution of SSB. Despite strong opposition from the Malayan Association for the Blind (MAB) headed by the Executive Director, H.L. Lee, who tried every means to obstruct the formation of SSB (and even from its founder, a blind person himself, the late Major D. R. Bridges), SSB was inaugurated in March 1964 and it was registered with the Registrar of Societies.
At its inauguration held at the Krishnan Dial School (where the Old Town Coffeeshop now stands), 23 blind persons signed up as members. However, because of their close association with their sighted peers who read to them for Braille transcription (some of them very prominent persons like Lady Walker, wife of the then United Kingdom Ambassador), Mary Poon, Elizabeth Hoe and Kathan Pillai were subjected to harsh treatment by MAB, such as being denied access to their sighted readers with the intent of shutting off contact and support for SSB. The chairman of MAB, the late Dato’ Albakri, at the inaugural dinner, said, “any organization not formed under the wings of MAB will not last long”. Ivan Ho (who became the second president of SSB after Lee Ah Kow) was haunted by this statement and took up the challenge posed to the blind to prove the words of Dato’ Albakri wrong.
The Activities of SSB:
All meetings of the Management Committee of SSB as well as the gatherings to which members came to socialize regularly were held at 8C Jalan Thambapillai, the flat then occupied by Susan Yew, Anne Toh and Margaret Yeoh.
Some of the activities carried out on a weekly basis were English and Mandarin classes as well as singing sessions. Almost all the refreshments were contributed by the ladies occupying the flat and occasionally by individual members. But it was always Anne Toh who provided and served tea.
Excursions were organized to Port Dickson, Genting Sempah, etc. and garden parties were held in the houses of associate members.
Some members even had the opportunity to fly in the Piper Cub, a six-seater plane of the Flying Club in Sungai Besi.
In the initial few years, everything needed to organize activities was contributed either by members themselves or associate members. To raise funds for more serious matters, “Bring and Buy” sales were held in associate members’ houses. These were actually mini-funfairs to which members brought along donation of foodstuffs and articles for sale and bought something in exchange. Members and friends contributed generously in the form of cakes and other edibles as well as paintings and plants – in fact, anything that could be sold for cash. All the proceeds from these sales went directly to the coffers of SSB.
Another means of raising funds was through the auction sales. Members would donate items and others would bid to buy them at much higher prices than what they were worth. In most instances, it was the sheer fun of out-bidding each other rather than wanting the items. For example, a piece of soap worth 30 Cents could fetch as much as RM10.
Objectives of SSB:
In the 1960’s, there were very few opportunities for blind people to socialize or to attend functions. Therefore, some of the objectives of SSB were:
Confrontation with MAB:
One of the first unpleasant issues that had to be dealt with was the discriminatory practice of MAB which disallowed the blind workers in the Kinta Valley Sheltered Workshop to buy Braille watches. MAB maintained that only blind office workers would need such expensive items. Thus, SSB had to intervene by buying several Braille watches and bringing them personally to Ipoh by taxi.
SSB also spoke out on behalf of the blind workers (who were also associate members) when they complained of unfavourable conditions or they were not paid their wages and EPF deductions on time.
SSB’s Involvement with the International Federation of the Blind (IFB):
SSB was one of the founding members of IFB when Lee Ah Kow, the then president of SSB, attended the inaugural meeting of IFB in the mid-60’s in the United States. His expenses were mainly paid from his own pocket as well as some contributions from members and assistance from NFB.
As the members of SSB had no experience in administering an organization, they had to rely heavily on reading the Braille Monitor, a publication of NFB, to get information, knowledge and inspiration for the running of SSB. Besides NFB, they also kept in close contact with IFB.
Ivan Ho was appointed to attend the first IFB Convention in Colombo in 1969. Again, his expenses were mostly contributed by members and a bit from his own pocket. His subsequent trips to Germany in 1974, Riyadh in 1977, Belgium in 1979, and Sweden and Norway in 1980 were all paid for either by IFB or by the organizations of the blind in those respective countries. In fact, his trip to Germany was entirely sponsored by the California Branch of NFB and it was through the initiative of Dr. Issabella Grant who collected contributions from its members.
Leadership Crisis in SSB:
Due to the lack of experience, leadership management know-how and funds, SSB was not making satisfactory progress. Some members wanted to expand the organization to include blind people outside Selangor. However, the Management Committee felt that it was too early to do this as they do not have the capability to handle an expanded membership and they did not have the funds for organizing activities.
This eventually became a major issue and several members began to lose interest in SSB. Kathan Pillai resigned due to friction in the leadership. And so for the next few years, SSB was very inactive and several members thought of leaving the organization.
Fortunately, a small group (including Ivan Ho, Wong Kow and Lai Kok Keong) decided to give SSB a last chance of survival by changing the top leadership at the 1972 Annual General Meeting. Their success resulted in the resignation of Lee Ah Kow and some others.
Expansion of SSB:
The new leadership quickly got into full gear to plan for the future. Some of the plans were as follows:
Expansion of SSB to cover the whole of peninsular Malaysia and to name it as the Society of the Blind in West Malaysia (SBWM). This they managed to accomplish and they began to recruit new members, particularly from Penang. Among the new members were John Kim and Peter Chin, the former of whom became the third president of SBWM while the latter became the editor of the newsletter of SBWM known as “Harapan Orang Buta” (or “Hope of the Blind”).
Strengthening the funds of SBWM and purchasing a flat to set up the office and centre for activities. They organized a walkathon at Tasek Perdana and Hikathon up Penang Hill, started the postal campaign on a limited scale, held two lottery draws (the first one being graced by the then welfare minister, the late Tun Fatimah), and several “Bring and Buy” and auction sales.
In 1975 they achieve the goal of owning their own premises with the purchase of a flat at 123A Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad at the price of RM42,000. Subsequently, the flat at 40A Jalan Padang Belia was purchased in 1980 at the price of RM100,000.
They started selling Braille equipment on a very limited scale, initiated the Temporary Employment Scheme to help members waiting for job placements, introduced the Revolving Loan Scheme for members to start their own businesses, provided grants to a few members in Pahang for poultry-rearing, vegetable planting and fruit drowing to supplement their income, continued the social activities, published the newsletter, set up the audio unit, and began employing full-time staff.
The salary of the first executive secretary, Godfrey Ooi, was paid for the first three years by the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (now known as the Sight-Savers International) before SBWM assumed the responsibility.
Then, around 1980, SBWM was expanded to cover Sarawak and its name was changed to the Society of the Blind in Malaysia (SBM). In fact, SBM was one of the first organizations to start a computer literacy class with a room constructed within the hall of 40A Jalan Padang Belia. Subsequently, 42A Jalan Padang Belia was also bought up in early 1990 at the price of RM138,000.
Public awareness activities were held such as the exhibitions at Ampang Park and Sungai Wang. The purpose was to let the public know what blind people can do and at the same time help members to sell their products (e.g. cassettes by Alfred Ho) and the products of St. Nicholas’ Home and MAB.
SBM also conducted a week-long Orientation and Mobility Training Programme with two instructors (Liew Yoon Loy from MAB and Jane hider from England who was on vacation in this country).
Members were sent to attend seminars in order to voice our grievances concerningmatters not done for the blind. One of the workshops was organized by the Malaysian Council for Rehabilitation (MCR) in 1974 when SBM joined hands with the Orthopaedically Handicapped Society of Malaysia (POCAM) in speaking out on the issue of MCR not allowing SBM and POCAM to join them as affiliates.
SBM also had representation on the council of MAB in which SBM contributed ideas for improving Taman Harapan and GTC. The representatives also spoke out against MAB raising money in the name of blind people to build the eye hospital when the late Tan Sri Lee Yan Lian had already offered to dedicate a wing of the tong Shin hospital for the advancement of ophthalmology. Worse still, the proposed eye hospital will occupy the land given to MAB for the building of a workshop for the blind.
They felt strongly that more services for the blind should be set up and improved before organizations raising money in the name of the blind can embark on other projects with little benefit to blind people. So they further intervened when the Hostel for the Blind was not properly administered.
Then SBM decided to withdraw its representation when MAB treated every move of SBM with hostility. The moves made by SBM included calling for the upgrading of the GTC, opening of MAB membership to blind people, and for the formation of the National Council for the blind, Malaysia.
In 1980 John Kim was elected as the third president of SBM and Mohd. Amin succeeded him in later years. Ivan Ho remained as the fund-raising chairman and as one of the representatives in the formation of NCBM and the Malaysian Confederation of the Disabled (MCD) in the mid-1980’s.
Ivan Ho was elected as the first vice president of NCBM and the first president of MCD after they were formed. NCBM had its office set up in SBM for a few months before it moved to rented premises in Jalan Ang Seng. When Ivan Ho finally put his full attention on NCBM as the second president after the death of the late Tun Hussein Onn in 1990, SBM had already owned three flats in Kuala Lumpur, a building in Penang, a building in Kuala Terengganu (built on a piece of land donated by the State Government), a piece of land in Pahang, and several thousand Ringgit in the Sarawak Branch Building Fund.
There was probably over RM1 million in the reserve fund of SBM. Ivan Ho harboured the secret dream in the late 1980’s that SBM would raise at least RM5 million to buy the building where the Railway Recreational club (RRC) is today.
To keep members informed and to make SBM relevant to members, membership recruitment drives were conducted, frequent viewpoint gatherings were held to exchange ideas, the newsletter was published, excursions were organized and annual dinners held.
At one of the dinners, to which the late Tan Sri H.T. Ong (one of the Chief Justices on the Federal Court and as the chairman of MAB) was invited, he showed great understanding for the formation of SBM and what it stood for.
Ivan Ho remembers that occasion very well because, when he was served a piece of roasted chicken with bones, he was in an awkward situation and wondering whether he should use his fingers in front of a distinguished guest. Seeing his predicament, Chief Justice Ong said to him, “The best way to eat a piece of chicken with bone is to pick it up with your fingers, and enjoy your dinner.” and that was exactly what Ivan did.
What they did achieve can be summed up as follows: – they built up an organization, endowed it with some funds and made it the owner of several properties, attracted a membership of around 3,000 members and convinced successful blind people to join (even the late Sen. Datuk Prof. Dr. Ismail Salleh was once a member of SBM). They felt confident enough to stand as equals and speak out on issues like the other four affiliates of NCBM, SBM was recognized as a strong affiliate of IFB and later of WBU, and SBM was respected by other disabled groups in MCD. in short, blind people now had a platform of their own to do what it means to be blind and to voice out their concerns.
The Society of the Blind in Malaysia (SBM) is a non-religious, non-political, national voluntary organization of visually impaired persons of all races and from all walks of life resident in Malaysia dedicated to the task of securing equal rights and opportunities for blind in this country by working collectively and fraternally for the socio-economic advancement of blind, with the view of enabling them to become responsible, useful and productive citizens.