Penang flood hero still being passed over for citizenship and housing

Sapno Tukijo calling for the late-afternoon asar prayers at the Kapitan Keling Mosque in George Town, Penang. After 30 years of being married to a local and raising six children, he is still unable to get Malaysian citizenship.

GEORGE TOWN: An unlikely hero waded out of the worst floods ever to hit Penang.

Sapno Tukijo made headlines when he rescued and sheltered non-Muslim flood victims on the top floor of his surau at Taman Free School during the deadly torrents that slammed Penang in 2017.

There was an outpouring of praise nationwide, hailing the surau muezzin as a unity icon and hero after he struggled through raging waters to save close to 70 neighbours from drowning.

Up until then, Indonesia-born Sapno had been waiting decades for permanent residency in Malaysia.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster and his heroism, his permanent residency (PR) application was fast-tracked.

He revealed that his repeated attempts to obtain citizenship had always failed, despite being married to a Malaysian for close to 30 years, and raising six Malaysian children now aged nine to 24, four of whom won scholarships to university.

After receiving his PR, he was assured that his citizenship would follow. That was two years ago.

Sapno Tukijo and his wife Norlia Mohamed Noor at their one-bedroom hostel in the Acheen Street Mosque compound.

Now 53, he works as a security guard from 7pm to 7am every day at the Kapitan Keling Mosque in Georgetown, earning a salary of RM1,200 with which he feeds his family of six.

During the day, he collects fitrah tithes outside the mosque. From time to time, when needed, he moonlights as a muezzin for the mosque.

“I like my job. I want to work for Allah,” he told FMT. “This mosque is like my home.”

He is happy not returning to his own hostel home at the Acheen Street Mosque at night as it’s crowded to overflowing with his children’s beds.

“Me staying at the mosque gives the kids more room at home.”

When he was young, the Indonesian government encouraged their citizens to work in Malaysia so he left his hometown of Riau in Sumatra and headed to Kuala Lumpur in 1987.

Sapno Tukijo receiving a special award from Christians for Peace and Harmony in Malaysia in December 2017 for his help during the floods a month earlier.

He met his Penangite wife, Norlia Mohamed Noor, now 55, in Kuala Lumpur. In the mid-1990s, they relocated to Pulau Tikus, Penang to be closer to her family.

They moved to a house at Taman Free School some years later. There, the surau chairman asked him to become a muezzin, and he has held that position ever since.

But his home there was in Penang’s worst flash flood spot.

“After the floods we decided we’d had enough. We moved out to the small unit we are in now. We are still nervous when it rains but we have nowhere else to go as we can’t afford rent,” he said.

“We have applied for cheap government rental flats since 2017, but we are always told there are more deserving people than us.”

Sapno Tukijo shows photos of his children at university, and pictures of him with VIPs after he rose to fame during the 2017 floods.

More than anything, Sapno longs to become a Malaysian citizen.

One of the advantages citizenship would bring is that he could become a registered muezzin with the Penang Islamic Religious Affairs Council.

Nobody could blame him for wondering if that day will ever come, but he’s a patient man.

When asked if he has given up, he replied, “It’s okay, I can wait. Who knows, Allah may fulfil my wish to be a Malaysian citizen this Raya.”

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