A guiding hand to go beyond a blind alley

Nicholas Yong
Senior Correspondent
Philip Chee (right) guides Koh Lai Hock to the kopitiam. Photo: Nicholas Yong

The most striking thing about Koh Lai Hock, 60, is his stoicism and his wry sense of humour.

Having lost his sight about two years ago due to glaucoma, the former odd job worker had to stop working and rarely ventures out alone. But there is not a trace of self-pity about the father of two.

“Maybe this is just my fate. It’s come, so I just have to accept it,” Koh told Yahoo Singapore in Mandarin. Asked if he has found it hard to adapt, he replied deadpan, “I would collide with pillars and walls at the start, before I started using a cane. The wall didn’t fall, I fell.”

Later, as it began to pour during our interview near his home in Clementi, Koh quipped in Hokkien, “It’s because the government is increasing the price of water.”

It is this unflappable nature that has enabled Philip Chee, also 60, to bond with Koh. “He’s very approachable, very positive and quite happy and contented,” said Chee.

On his part, Koh, who has worked a variety of jobs from cleaner to lorry driver, is also grateful for Chee’s friendship. “It feels like I have known him for a long time. He’s very friendly, he takes care of me, he encourages me.”

Philip Chee and Koh Lai Hock have developed a strong bond. Photo: Nicholas Yong

Koh and Chee met in December through the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind’s (GDAB) Befrienders Programme, which aims to pair visually-impaired beneficiaries with selected volunteers. Volunteers undergo an orientation programme on the dos and don’ts of how to interact with a blind person beforehand.

The duo is one of 10 successful match-ups, said a GDAB spokesman, who noted that social support and friendship are always valuable for the blind. The Befrienders Programme has so far seen 33 volunteers.

Koh and Chee meet once a week in Clementi, communicating in a “rojak” of English, Mandarin and Hokkien, said Chee, a Yew Tee resident. They typically chat at a nearby kopitiam and venture to the gym for exercise. They even have plans to scale Bukit Timah Hill and for Koh to teach Chee how to swim – provided the doctor allows Koh to venture into the pool.

While Koh does not plan to learn Braille, he is up for just about anything Chee proposes. Chee, who owns an engineering company, said, “I noticed that he’s quite fit and he wants to be fit. I’m inspired because he’s willing to try a lot of things, just that he needs someone to guide him.”

Koh declared, “What’s there to be afraid of? If I was afraid of everything, I might as well just stay at home and I would be finished.”

It is this positive, never-say-die outlook that has endeared him to Chee. “He’s a remarkable guy. Whatever God throws at him, he just accepts it. And I’m so glad that I got to know him.”