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#trending: Malaysia's 7-time Asean para-swimming champion selling tissues for a living; outraged netizens call for more support

An Asean Para Games champion from Malaysia, para swimmer Koh Lee Peng, was spotted selling tissue paper at Kuala Lumpur in an online video, prompting social media users to call for measures to support former para-athletes.

#trending: Malaysia's 7-time Asean para-swimming champion selling tissues for a living; outraged netizens call for more support
  • A seven-time Asean Para Games champion spotted selling tissue in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia caused outrage online 
  • Online users called for more support to be given to para-athletes
  • Para swimmer Koh Lee Peng won seven gold medals and three silver medals in the Asean Para Games from 2001 to 2005
  • She started selling tissue in 2019 after leaving her office job due to accessibility issues

MALAYSIA — A seven-time Asean Para Games champion in Malaysia was spotted selling tissue paper at Kuala Lumpur in an online video, prompting social media users to call for measures to support former para-athletes.

Video creator Nicholas Lim Pinn Yang posted a video last Wednesday (Feb 1) of his encounter with former swimming para-athlete Koh Lee Peng, who was selling tissues at Bukit Bintang, a luxury shopping district in Kuala Lumpur. 

Ms Koh was seen sitting in a wheelchair at a shelterless pavilion in the video, while wearing the 2017 Asean Para Games T-shirt. When Mr Lim approached, she asked him if he wanted a small or big packet of tissue.

While chatting with the content creator, the seven-time gold medalist revealed that her last competition was in 2017 and showed off the five medals that she had donned.

“I have no choice. I have to live. Things are getting expensive. I have to rely on myself. I have bills to pay monthly,” explained Ms Koh in Hokkien.

The former national para swimmer represented Malaysia at the Asean Para Games from 2001 to 2005. During the five years, she clinched seven gold and three silver medals. 

Hailing from the Malaysian state of Penang, Ms Koh was also subsequently named Penang's Best Paralympic Sportswoman in 2015 and Penang’s Female Paralympian of the Year for 2016. 

Prior to selling tissues on the street, Ms Koh held an office job. However, as her workplace was in a building with no lifts, she faced issues with accessibility and decided to leave, according to Malaysian news and lifestyle website Says. 

Mr Lim’s TikTok video, which racked up over 400,000 views and 37,000 likes, had many TikTok users calling for the authorities to help.

Users tagged Youth and Sports Minister and Member of Parliament for Segambut, Ms Hannah Yeoh, to bring the issue to her attention. However, she has not responded to the video at the time of writing (Feb 7). 


This is not the first time Ms Koh made the headlines for her predicament. 

A year ago, Ms Koh’s plight surfaced when a Twitter user noticed Ms Koh wearing the recognisable “Malayan tiger” polo shirt worn by Malaysian athletes while holding a newspaper cutting that read "former swimming athlete ridiculed" in Malay.

The 2019 article by Berita Harian detailed Ms Koh's struggles as a tissue seller when she first made the career switch. She described being looked down upon, facing verbal abuse and being accused of being part of a "syndicate" to earn "easy money" while selling tissue in Penang. 

Infuriated by Ms Koh’s living situation, Twitter user Fayadh Wahab called for “a significant policy change” to address para-athletes. 

The tweet led to the para-athlete’s story going viral, receiving coverage from numerous local news outlets.

Ms Koh had received offers of assistance from government agencies but rejected the offers as she wanted to be “self reliant”, according to online news outlet Free Malaysia Today (FMT). 

The National Sports Council of Malaysia had previously invited her to join an entrepreneurial programme for former athletes, but she had turned down the offer. 

Ms Koh had previously told Malaysian national news agency Bernama that she strives to live independently and that she is not “ashamed of this honest way of earning a living”.

The chairman of the National Athletes’ Welfare Foundation (YAKEB), Noorul Ariffin Abdul Majeed, has urged social media users not to sensationalise and exploit the plight of Ms Koh for their personal agenda, according to FMT.

“Don’t tarnish the good reputation and name of national athletes for personal or political gain. It will spark a negative perception that can cause public confusion and result in a lack of support for national athletes,” he said.

Ms Koh earns about RM800 (S$249) a month from selling tissues and receives RM300 (S$92) of monthly assistance from the YAKEB, according to Bernama.


Ms Koh's story is not unique.

A photo of former Malaysian Paralympian sprinter Raduan Emeari working in a petrol station went viral in 2021, prompting concern over the lack of opportunities and jobs for athletes after retirement. 

Mr Emeari has since accepted a job offer from the National Sports Council (NSC) of Malaysia as an assistant trainer, reported Says. 

The same year, Vice World News interviewed Mr Mariappan Perumal, Malaysia’s first Paralympic medalist. A former powerlifter, he struggled to survive on a small state pension after retiring from the sport. 

“I went to so many competitions that I lost my job. Once I retired, the government didn’t help me at all — they just gave me pension,” Mr Perumal told Vice World News.

“My name portrays excellence but my life doesn’t reflect it.” 

In 1988, the Malaysian government mandated that 1 per cent of public sector jobs were to be filled by persons with disabilities, in a bid to be more inclusive.

However, as of June 2019, only 3,686 persons with disabilities, or 0.2 per cent of an estimated 1.7 million workforce, were employed in the civil service.

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