SINGAPORE: To build an inclusive society for those with disabilities, Workers’ Party (WP) candidate Muhammad Azhar Abdul Latip believes that change can begin with the “little things” in everyday life.
For example, making sure that walkways, lifts and supermarket aisles are wide enough for people in wheelchairs to traverse with ease.
The 34-year-old speaks from personal experience. An amputee who lost his left leg in a road traffic accident nearly six years ago, he had to use a wheelchair before he was eventually fitted with a prosthetic limb.
“For me, it was an issue when you go on walkways, (and) when you go into supermarkets, you notice there’s insufficient space," he said, adding that one could not manoeuvre a wheelchair between tables at the hawker centres either.
Lift doors in many places can also be too narrow. “For someone like me who’s big sized and using a wheelchair, it can be a challenge to make sure that you don't hit the side of the doors."
“So it is those little things that you need to be looking out for,” he said. “Of course, you need to have major policy changes as well, but it starts off with something very small and very simple.”
Mr Azhar, a political science graduate from the National University of Singapore, is part of the five-man opposition team contesting Marine Parade GRC. He is a first-time candidate.
At the party’s candidate introduction session on Jun 25, Mr Azhar said that since having a disability, he has come to realise that Singapore is still far from being an inclusive society, and that discussions tend to be “lip service”.
His experience – and not just with everyday inconveniences, but also with his career in the marine insurance industry coming to a halt after the accident – told him that more needs to be done.
If elected to Parliament, Mr Azhar said he wants to make sure that people with disabilities receive the assistance they need and equal opportunities for employment.
THE ACCIDENT THAT CHANGED HIS LIFE
It was 7.35pm on Nov 3, 2014, when Mr Azhar met with the accident that would change his life.
He had just ended work and was waiting to cross the junction of Upper Cross Street and Cecil Street when he heard someone shouting. He turned towards the sound and saw a “bright light” hurtling towards him.
“The next thing I knew, I was on the floor.”
He recalled trying to get back up, but felt numbness in his left leg. He looked down and saw his ankle “dangling” with “a lot of blood”. Passers-by had started to rush towards him, with one urging him to lie down.
“After a few minutes, the pain started coming in. I was in terrible pain. I remember shouting at the top of my lungs,” he said.
He later learned that he had been hit by a motorcyclist who had lost control of his bike after colliding with a taxi.
Mr Azhar spent the next month in the hospital as doctors tried to save his damaged limb. The bad news came when he developed a high fever, and doctors suspected that sepsis - a potentially life-threatening condition due to the body’s immune system going into overdrive to fight an infection - was the reason.
“The doctor said: ‘I give you two options, either you die from an infected leg, or you undergo an amputation’ ... It was a difficult decision to make definitely, but I told myself if I don't pick up that option, I could lose my life."
He had surgery for the amputation on Dec 12 that year. “Since then, I have been living life as a disabled person," he said.
A FRUSTRATING FIGHT TO GET BACK ON TRACK
Mr Azhar was discharged a month later. He started his rehabilitation therapy at a community hospital and was told that he would probably need six months to get back on his feet.
But he surprised everyone, including himself, when he managed to walk unassisted with his prosthesis in just two weeks.
He credited the nurses at the community hospital for their care, “in particular the nurse who was assigned to care for me," he said. "She was very helpful and played a crucial part in my recovery."
Another push factor was his desire to get his life back on track. “I told myself, I want to recover as fast as I can because I want to go back to work. That gave me the motivation (and) determination to just push on and do as much as I can.”
But re-starting his career was less smooth sailing.
He had lost his job while he was in hospital, as his then-employer felt that the projected six-month recovery period was “too long” for his role to be left vacant. Mr Azhar had been a marine insurance broker and was the only one overseeing his company’s regional work.
When he made a faster-than-expected recovery, the company - which Mr Azhar would only describe as a multinational firm - said they would consider re-employing him. But that offer came belatedly after six months, and with caveats in his contract, he noted.
“They wanted to include some clause in my employment contract that specifically addresses my disability, things like if I sustain any injury during the course of work and that is due to my disability, then the company wouldn't be held responsible.
“When you read through the employment contract, you feel a bit like, 'Why are they doing this? Why are they being so calculative in a sense?' But I said it’s all right, at least they are nice enough to take me in despite my disability.”
But one and a half months later, the company let him go again.
“I asked what happened ... and they said because ‘you are not the same person as you were before’.”
He found a one-year contract position with another insurer after that, but his frustration hit a peak in 2017 when he was terminated about three months into another job.
“There was just too much change,” he said. “I just wanted normalcy. I just wanted continuity.”
He eventually found this normalcy in the form of work as a private-hire car driver in 2017.
“Life has not always been easy for me. Like you, I have faced setbacks and tough times,” Mr Azhar wrote in a Jun 29 Facebook post that included a short video about himself.
“But with perseverance, I am still pulling through,” he said, adding that he is now ready to serve the community and wants to be a Member of Parliament “who understands what it feels like to be a true heartlander”.
WHY THE WORKERS’ PARTY
It would come as no surprise that Mr Azhar wants to speak out for the disabled community on issues like jobs, and he feels that being a part of the WP would be the way to do so.
He started volunteering with the party a year ago, helping with food distribution and community outreach programmes in Aljunied GRC.
Asked why he joined the WP, he said part of the reason was his “soft spot for the underdogs”. “I see the Workers' Party as the underdog political party in Singapore,” he said.
He also believes in the importance of having another political party to provide a degree of check-and-balance on the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), and the WP has over the years proven itself to be a “very credible opposition”, he said.
“I also feel that over the years, the Workers' Party has been a very strong advocate of being the alternative voice in Parliament. They are speaking up for groups of people you don’t normally find the PAP voicing out for.
“After all the experiences that I've gone through, when I know that this is how the WP is like, it resonates with me,” he said.
Party chief Pritam Singh has said several times on the campaign trail this year that the WP wants to field not just strong candidates, but also a diverse slate of individuals that can represent the multiple facets of the Singapore society in Parliament.
Even though he is likely the party’s first representative for the disabled community, Mr Azhar said he does not want to see his candidacy “as something extra special”.
“It’s just the little things that I try to do to challenge myself on a daily basis,” he said.
“And I hope that other disabled people can also come forward, despite their challenges, and try to achieve whatever they want to achieve in life.”
Aside from Mr Azhar, the WP team contesting Marine Parade GRC includes Mr Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Ron Tan, Mr Fadli Fawzi and Mr Nathaniel Koh. They are going up against a PAP team led by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin.
As a first-time candidate, Mr Azhar said there are many things he wants to learn.
And he is doing so by eagerly walking the ground – starting as early as 7am to visit wet markets and hawker centres, followed by house visits and more outreach programmes that could end as late as 10pm.
Being constantly on his feet for such long hours has been “very tiring”, he told CNA, although it is impossible to tell from his steady strides during walkabouts.
“I am pleasantly surprised that my leg is able to withstand the amount of walking and the amount of ground work that I’ve been doing for the past couple of days,” he said, adding that he also began working out to build up his fitness several months ago.
The "overwhelming support" from residents is another reason spurring him on.
“When I walk around Marine Parade in this uniform and the badge, people recognise which party I’m from ... People come up to you and shake hands with you.
“Right now for me, the focus is just to make sure that I do my very best in this campaign – to campaign as hard as I can, to walk the ground as much as I can, and leave it to (the) voters come Friday," he said.