Nathalie Kee examines the realities of the mentally-ill in Malaysian society.

I was on the Kelana Jaya LRT, southbound, neck-deep in my smartphone. Part of the immersion was because I had just purchased the RM3 (150MB) Internet package before I got onto the train and was, for the very first time, on mobile data, not WiFi (oh, the silly little things that tickle the urban soul). All around me were commuters shuffling in and out, some half groggy, others like robots on autopilot. The heavy sleepers tucked into the corners of the LRT to take a nap and everyone else occupied their time with their gadgets and thingamajigs. It was your normal, boring sort of LRT ride, the kind you expect to experience and lose all detail of afterwards. Everything seemed normal.

What is normal?

Well, except for this little old lady. She was a tiny little thing and reminded me of my frugal grandaunt who refused to eat prosperously. Her hair was very short and she donned a blue collared shirt which seemed quite worn out. She was a few feet away from me, seated with two bags at her feet stuffed with items. I took notice of her because she was mumbling to herself, and you do not mumble to yourself. It is not normal behaviour on the train. Her feet and hands were jittery. She nervously clasped and unclasped her hands, darted her eyes from left to right, right to left. You don’t do that on a train. It’s not normal. By the time the train stopped at Setiawangsa, my eyes and ears were completely alert and my smartphone was safely tucked in the pocket of my jeans. I wanted to know what was going on with the little old lady – henceforth I will call her OL (because LOL is just completely inappropriate) – because what she was just about to do was simply not normal.

{Insert Image [oldwoman] with caption [The little old lady screaming in voiceless agony.]}

The OL’s face was suddenly grief-stricken as if someone had died. She looked as if she was wailing although no voice came. More people around her began to notice the anomaly in the atmosphere, the ripple on the still surface. Their faces clearly showed what was on their minds: This is not normal! The first thing I thought was that she may be going through a really bad time. But as time passed and the train moved from Jelatek to Dato’ Keramat and eventually into the underground tunnel, her pain did not seem to subside. Her eyes glinted with pearls of tears and her fists remained clenched most of the time. Discreetly, I managed to take a quick snapshot of her agony and thought to go home and write up an essay and muse about the poignant message behind the picture of a grieving person in the midst of urban nonchalance. As my mind experienced a rush of excitement (that I believe writers get when they have a few hundred beautiful ideas coming at them simultaneously), something struck me – the OL has a mental disorder.

What is normal?

So I decided to approach her. Why did I do that? Well, partly because I wanted to establish whether my conjecture was true, and partly because I felt that I had a moral obligation to soothe a person who was so in pain that she had to display it in public.

Me: Mak cik, okay tak?
*looks at me and mumbles incoherently*
Me: Apa?
OL: Nak p’gi J’or Ba’uh

I look helplessly at the OL and a young lady sitting next to the OL says that she thinks it’s Johor Bahru.
Me: ‘Oh, Johor Bahru’
*OL nods at me, wipes her tears*Me: ‘Macam tu, naik KTM ke?’
*OL nods and says something that resembles ‘Ye’*
Me: ‘Turun dekat KL Sentral?’
*OL nods frantically*

At this point I wasn’t sure what to say, and simply smiled at the OL hoping that she would smile back, but she didn’t. A few minutes later she turned to another young girl and asks if she would help carry her things. The young girl was perplexed and I intervened, telling the OL that I would help carry her things. I was early for an appointment (my stop was at Masjid Jamek), so I did not mind the detour. We got off at KL Sentral. In one hand, I held one of her bags, in the other was her bony little hand. I felt the gaze of other commuters as I patiently led her to the gates. A few meters’ distance from the gates, I got her to stop and take out her blue token from her wallet. There was one thing that bugged me as she rummaged through her stuff, and that was her empty wallet. You know the place where you’re supposed to have your identification card? Hers was missing. She didn’t even have cash in there. I started to panic and wondered if she was one of those swindlers who would guilt trip Good Samaritans into sparing them some money ‘for a ticket’.

What is normal?

We got past the gates and headed towards the ticket counter. The feeling of fear still lingered. Meanwhile I was debating in my mind whether I was doing the right thing.  She is so trusting of me, I thought. I must be doing something good. I couldn’t have left her on the train all by herself; it would have been criminal because I knew there was something amiss.

At the same time I cursed myself for involving myself in this. A part of me knew that there was no happy ending. She’s not normal, God damn it! What can you do?

We got to the ticket counter and the lady asked the OL where she wanted to go. All the OL said was ‘Nak p’gi J’or Ba’uh’, and when asked where her kampung was located, she said “Mak Jah punya ‘umah,” in delight. But she did not say which part of JB she was aiming for, nor could she provide any form of identification to aid her. However, the OL was insistent on going to JB. The lady behind the counter was extremely patient with the OL. She turned to me and told me with a pained smile in Bahasa that I should seriously reconsider paying for the OL’s ticket because she may not end up going (the next train was at 2pm; it was 9am at the time) because she’s not normal.

God, I didn’t know what to do. Both of us (the lady behind the counter and I) knew that she was not capable to care for herself. I felt like I was playing a game of chess that would inevitably come to a stalemate. And I let myself be in that situation, because I couldn’t help but try to make things better. I couldn’t assume responsibility for the OL nor did I know whether there were any shelters which were willing to take care of people who were lost and troubled like this poor soul. In the end, the lady asked for my contact number. If the train ride did not come to fruition she would refund me, she said. So I reluctantly left the OL in her care, telling her to sit down quietly and watch for the clock on the wall to strike 1.30pm to move towards the platform.

A few hours later, I got the call.

To this date, I still wonder, what happens to people who are not right in the head by society’s standards? Was the OL once a mother? Surely she was once a daughter and had direction in her life, with an identification card too. I often hear that Malaysia does not care enough for the mentally ill well. A marked example is the recent incident at near Taman Melati station where a delivery boy ran amok and stabbed two civilians to death. Are Malaysians aware of what real schizophrenia is like, instead of casually calling indecisive individuals ‘schizo’? Do they know how to deal with depression? There are also those who attempt to cure mental illnesses with shamans/mediums too – how popular is this method?

We often take our ‘normalcy’ for granted, and are ill-equipped to handle those who are not. What happened to the OL? I don’t know. I got my money back, and was told that the lady said the OL had wandered off. I wonder how common these incidents are, of lost and confused souls wandering aimlessly among us. I’ve seen similar characters on the streets of KL, often homeless and cared for by other homeless individuals. If one gets off at Pasar Seni LRT station and walks towards Central Market, one may witness for themselves the heartwarming (or heartbreaking?) sight of a disheveled middle-aged Malay man feeding a rather large Indian lady who is clearly incapable of taking care of herself. Sometimes she loses control and yells at random passers-by. The man often takes it upon himself to calm her down.

It’s bad enough that they’re looked down upon by virtue of being homeless – they are further shunned by society for their abnormal, anti-social behaviour. One wonders whether they were ostracised by their families, and how do the lower-income classes care for family members with mental health issues? I have no regrets approaching the old lady, and I hope that society will be more accepting and patient with people with mental health issues by viewing them not as liabilities, but as human beings who also deserve to be treated with empathy. After all, it could happen to any one of us.

A liberal, feminist and humanist. An activist at Advocates of the Propagation of Science Literacy, one of the very few groups in Malaysia that advocate scepticism, critical thinking and science for the...

6 replies on “Just Not Normal”

  1. You just did it to feel good about yourself without thinking about her safety and well-being.
    If she dies, you have blood on your hands.
    What a selfish person you are.

  2. The normal thing to do would be to get her a bus ticket to Tanjung Rambutan. But, you didn't. I guess you're abnormal.

  3. No. Nononononono. How sure are you that there are even anyone on the side of JB to receive her? You might even have put her far outside the sphere of her actual carers where she would never be found.

    1. You're absolutely right. It was ill thought out. I'm glad she didn't get onto the train. I guess it was because I felt helpless that I pandered to her wishes – at first I thought maybe she *actually* knew where she was going and had a cell phone at least. But once I put 2 and 2 together – her having no IC, her inability to say where to get off – it was too late. I felt like if I simply walked away it would have been terrible, just leaving her in the hands of the woman at the counter. Of course it would have been a greater sin to put her somewhere unknown. Adoi I don't know la, sometimes I wonder if I should have approached her at all.

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