Malaysia’s ‘Uncle Potato’ helps the needy for as little as RM0.10

KUALA LUMPUR : Daily necessities at RM0.10 (US$0.03), a taxi ride at RM0.10 and a transit hostel that costs RM1 a day. 

These are some of the philanthropic initiatives by Kuan Chee Heng, 57, who founded non-governmental organisation (NGO) Community Policing Malaysia to assist the less fortunate.

For events dubbed “10 sen pasar (market)”, he receives pre-loved items from the public, ranging from clothes to appliances and even a car one time, and then “sells” them to residents at RM0.10 each in less well-off communities. 

“Actually, we started by giving food, then we found out people in these communities needed other things,” Kuan told CNA. 

“The nominal 10 sen is so that we don’t give the items out for free, otherwise some would not treasure them,” he said. 

Kuan Chee Heng shares a light moment with an aid recipient. (Photo: Community Policing Malaysia) 

The main aim, he explained, was to help prevent crime by bringing necessities and other items to the community, and to have people from the community mingle.

Usually, it is the local community leaders, such as surau heads, neighbourhood security or resident association leaders, who contact the organisation about holding such a market in their areas. 

So far, the initiative has helped 10,000 families by his reckoning, both in the Klang Valley and other parts of Malaysia.

Kuan Chee Heng distributing free breakfasts at a petrol station. (Photo: Community Policing Malaysia) 

From there, other initiatives grew, such as the RM0.10 taxi service for the urban poor, especially those who needed to go for hospital appointments. 

Upon realising that the patients cannot care for their children when they go to the hospitals, Kuan then started a “10 sen library” as a daycare centre for the kids. This also helps to prevent the kids from falling victims to problems like molestation when left unattended. 

There is also a RM1 hearse service and an ambulance service.  

Community Policing Malaysia was initially started in 2007 as a crime prevention NGO. It later branched out to offer these initiatives when Kuan realised the importance of sowing the seeds of love and compassion as an effective measure to prevent crime. 

“So we changed our strategy to showing love and giving care to the community. By putting people on the right side of the law and having them work together with the authorities, it will give them a chance to show their abilities to be leaders and be good citizens,” he said. 

And along the way, Kuan earned the moniker of “Uncle Potato”. 

“I got the name ‘Uncle Potato’ because I used to send potatoes to people. I asked a doctor how else we could get children to eat because the poor families I visited usually only had rice.”

“Potatoes can be mashed, made into soup … I didn’t tell them my name, so people called out ‘kentang sudah mari, kentang sudah mari (the potatoes have arrived)’ when they saw me,” he chuckled. 

GROWING UP POOR 

When Kuan talked about how people just need a little help to get through and walk on their own again, he was speaking from his own experience.

His poor family background was one of the factors that prompted his foray into charity. As he talked about his family’s poverty, he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

“I came from a very poor family of rubber tappers, my father had a failed business,” he recalled.

Growing up in a shared housing in Batu Pahat, Johor, there was no electricity and running water.

“We were bullied … no food, nothing. Many times, my mother was bullied, because she had to buy provisions on credit, and she’d always come back with tears,” he added.

Kuan Chee Heng, who grew up in poverty, considers being able to do charity a blessing. (Photo: Vincent Tan) 

Even when his late father was discovered to be suffering from cancer, they could not afford to transport him to hospital or pay for his treatment.

“We only had one old bicycle, and when he passed away, we had to borrow money to pay for the funeral,” Kuan said. 

Later in life, Kuan worked as a clerk, and then as an odd-job man after he realised he did not like office life. 

“Then I served for six years with the Malaysian police, after which I left to start my florist business,” he said.

Experiences like these played a part in Kuan and Community Policing Malaysia setting up the different initiatives.

“To me, that hardship gave us a really good lesson in shaping our lives. In life when you’re old enough, you want to give people something. You don’t want them to go through the same difficulties as you,” he said.

RM1 TRANSIT HOSTEL AND MORE

While Kuan was speaking to CNA, the interview was occasionally interrupted by phone calls and messages and he had to pause to arrange for a ferry service or assign a Community Policing Malaysia employee to attend to the problems.

In one instance, a doctor was on the other end of the line, alerting Kuan that her patient and his wife were due to arrive from Sabah for treatment in Kuala Lumpur the next day, and needed help with transport.

Kuan Chee Heng started the ambulance service as he discovered some of the poor people who request for taxi service to hospitals were bedridden or immobile. (Photo: Community Policing Malaysia) 

For those coming from the interior parts of Malaysia – both in the peninsular and East Malaysia – to the Klang Valley for medical treatment, accommodation can be a problem as well. 

The RM1 hostel or transit house started in 2016 when Community Policing Malaysia received feedback on the patients’ plights. 

“They might have their treatment paid for by welfare, but they still need a place to stay.

“I had one old man referred to us. His chemotherapy fees were already settled, but he still needed to stay for the course of his treatment.

“When we picked him up, he only had a few dollars in his pocket, and this is how something like the RM1 hostel comes in to help these poor,” Kuan said.

There are five of these RM1 hostels in the Klang Valley, with three in Puchong, one near the National Institutes of Health facility in Shah Alam and another in Kuala Lumpur. Those in need merely pay RM1 a day to stay in these houses.

Kuan Chee Heng talking to a mother who requested aid after she and her children were forced to vacate their rental home and spend the night in her car. (Photo: Community Policing Malaysia) 

On Facebook, Kuan often shares stories of people coming to him to seek help. The organisation has also become a matchmaker for jobseekers and potential employers. 

Now, in the wake of Malaysia’s third wave of COVID-19 and the economic downturn, more people have requested to use the services provided by Community Policing Malaysia.

Both locals and foreigners have approached them for help, Kuan said. 

PUBLIC DONATIONS SUSTAIN CHARITABLE INITIATIVES

Kuan is supported by volunteers and about 30 employees, including those who drive the ambulances and taxis as these services often necessitate odd hours. How does he fund these initiatives?

“Actually, there are a lot of well-off people who want to do good. They want to do charity, so we get a lot of public donations,” he said, recalling an instance where he managed to raise the funding for a kitted-out ambulance in one day.

In addition, he collaborated with corporate sponsors, such as oil company Petron. Kuan also does security consulting for high-end residences, which brings in income for Community Policing Malaysia’s charitable activities.

Kuan Chee Heng handing over a new hearse to the Sungai Lui low-cost public housing’s surau management committee in Raub, Pahang. (Photo: Community Policing Malaysia) 

“People do ask how am I able to sustain these different initiatives. The thing is, you need to start off on the right foot, otherwise you’ll lose people’s trust, and it becomes difficult to regain that trust and funding again,” he noted.

Next, Kuan intends to start an active intervention service, with a call centre to take calls from those in need of aid or facing problems, as well as an online app for the poor to state their needs and location more quickly. 

Kuan takes pride in seeing the people he has helped standing on their feet again. One such example was the recipient of the donated car. The vehicle inspection, insurance and road tax were paid for by Community Policing Malaysia before it was sold at RM0.10 to the family. 

“The family has since graduated from being urban poor,” he said. 

By : Vincent Tan – CNA

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