Healthcare for Veterans

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

I was elated to hear that plans were afoot to build a specialist hospital for armed forces veterans in Ipoh. The news was leaked to me by my former student who is now a senior staff officer at the Ministry of Defence in Kuala Lumpur. This was sometime in October last year.

“A dedicated hospital for veterans? Wow! That’s something,” I told myself. It was not only appropriate but timely considering the hassle many of us, former servicemen who had served King and Country, had to undergo to get quality medical treatment. The nearest military hospital in Ipoh is the one at the Royal Malaysian Navy Base in Lumut. It is over 50 miles away and the journey can be a little tedious, as traffic is rather heavy most of the time.

And when your hearing is a bit difficult and eyesight a little blurry due to cataracts, negotiating the many bends and turns along the Ipoh-Lumut highway can be a little tricky unless you are accompanied by someone younger, a son or perhaps a daughter. But such luxury is not available and far between for many in my position.

The Ipoh General Hospital is not on my radar screen, as it is packed to the brim and breathing space is sorely restricted. The service is bearable says a friend but depending on one’s ailment the waiting time can be as long as eight hours. The inconvenience will deter you however gung-ho you maybe. I am not prepared to wait in a room filled with gloomy-looking people whose patience is near breaking point.

What about the many private clinics and hospitals in the city then? Well, if you do not mind paying an arm and a leg and is blessed with deep pockets, than by all means make a beeline to one near you. How you are being treated is dependent upon what you are willing to part with. If you are insured you are very welcome.

I have seen this many a time. The moment I flash my medical card, the receptionist at the front desk smiles and is extra polite. But there again, how many of us are so blessed and are adequately protected by a trustworthy insurance coverage? There will always be a clause in the policy which will place you on the receiving end. Enough on insurance and its accompanying woes. Back to the veteran hospital.

On Friday, February 2 former Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein visited the proposed site at Camp Syed Putra in Tambun and proudly proclaimed, amidst much fanfare, that the hospital would be a reality in five years’ time. He estimated the cost to be between RM500 and RM600 million. The project would be a public-private partnership with the army providing the land and the private entity, the finance.

It looks pretty suspicious to me. Such dubious undertaking has been the norm in the past. Large tract of army land has been “sold” to private entities and they have been transformed into high-end housing projects and shopping malls. The former air force base in Sungai Besi, Kuala Lumpur is a fine example. The land, where the Penang-based Headquarters 2nd Infantry Division was once, is another.

The scenario is almost identical. Land is sold to the highest bidder at a profit to both seller and buyer. How much money exchanged hands under the table will never be known, as such deals are never transparent and above board.

Fortunately, the corrupt Barisan Nasional government was booted out during the historic 14th General Elections on May 9 otherwise the fate of Camp Syed Putra will never be known. The camp, where a Malay and a Ranger battalion are now bivouac, was part of a larger camp that once housed a Gurkha battalion and some ancillary units during the Malayan Emergency period (1948-1960).

In September 1963 the camp, then known as Sulva Lines, was handed over to the Malaysian Army. It was renamed Camp Syed Putra in honour of the then Raja of Perlis, Raja Syed Harun Putra ibni Almarhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail, who was the Colonel-in-Chief of the Ranger Corps. Two pioneering Ranger battalions traced their origins to the camp. Presently, the facility is home to the 2nd Battalion Royal Ranger Regiment.

As mentioned, in an earlier episode, I was in command of a Ranger battalion (1988-1990) and was based there once. Even then rumours were abound that the 65-acre campsite would be sold to a privateer and we would be relocated to a site somewhere along the Simpang Pulai-Cameron Highlands road, away from the madding crowd, so to speak. The North-South Expressway was realigned to avoid damaging the rifle range at the southern tip of the camp.

Camp Syed Putra, like the Sungai Besi Air Force Base, has plenty to contribute to our local history. Over a hundred Gurkha soldiers and their family members are interred in a purpose-built cemetery in the camp. The cemetery is being maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Billets, quarters and buildings are one of a kind no longer seen in modern army bases today. Any developments will affect these old structures and will invariably impact the camp’s originality. And being an old soldier, I do not cherish such a thought. I am, therefore, prepared to forego the veteran hospital however enticing it may be.

There are five military hospitals in the country and we, ex-servicemen, are at liberty to use any of them. The Tuanku Mizan Military Hospital in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur is my choice. My wife and I are being treated here. The facilities available are superb and serve our needs. The most patronised outpatient ward is the orthopaedic ward. I guess the kind of training we had undergone explains why this ward is oversubscribed. I get to meet many of my old friends here, some of whom I have not met for years. Most are afflicted with arthritis.

On an average about a hundred patients are attended to daily by three orthopaedic surgeons on duty. Veterans are allocated two days in a week for consultation – Tuesday and Thursday. My next appointment is on Thursday, November 1.

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