On Empathy | Kelvin Lim’s speech at NCSS 32nd Integrated Network Event

I had the privilege to speak at the National Council of Social Services’ (NCSS) 32nd Integrated Eldercare Network on 1st July 2016. I told the stories of the less privileged, and shared the lessons I learned from these wonderful folks.

Listen to the speech here:

Full transcript:

This is the true story of a young couple, Shabbeer and Meharun. They lived with their five little children in a small HDB flat. This happened more than 40 years ago.

Shabbeer and Meharun were very poor. The husband worked 2 jobs. In the day, he worked as a cleaner, sweeping the roads and clearing rubbish bins. At night, he worked in the petrol station as a pump attendant.

Meharun worked 3 jobs. At 6am, she would clean the stairs and corridors HDB flats, from the top floor to the bottom. She would also clear the trash at the ground floor rubbish chutes. Cockroaches would rush out and crawl all over her arms and body. Nothing could get rid of the smell.

In the afternoon, she would return home to cook and to care for her old mother-in-law. She would teach her 5-year-old daughter how to cook nasi lemak, do housework, and care for her little brothers. Meharun herself barely had time to eat.

Then, she would continue working, cleaning the homes of other families – up to 8 homes every day, until late into the evening. At night, when everyone was asleep, she would start her overnight shift as a factory worker.

The couple worked very very hard. But they earned so little, they couldn’t afford their children’s text books and school fees. They don’t have enough to eat, and never had enough sleep.

But they were very, very kind. When their own siblings needed help, they offered food and shelter. At one time, more than 30 people were living in the same little flat.

Despite their kindness, life was cruel. Shabbeer’s mother was against their marriage, because she wanted him to marry another woman. Whenever Shabbeer was away at work, she would vent her anger on Meharun and her little children.

It was horrible.Read More


You can always find a smile along these corridors, no matter how long, dark and lonely.
No matter how hard the mattress, how bare the homes, how empty the lives.

You can always find a smile.
Even if their children don’t visit anymore.
Even if their meals are simple.

They’ve seen so much.
We are but young and reckless, ambitious and proud.
We have nothing to lose.
Just like them, a long time ago.

They’ve gone from rich, to poor.
From famous, to homeless.
From loved, to abandoned.

Life was never fair. Still, they find happiness.

They don’t have much, but they have a home.
They’re not rich, but they love their friends.
The children don’t come, but why hold them back? Let them fly!

They smile, because they’ve been given a chance to live.
Even if they’re old.
Even if they’ve lost their limbs.
Even if their bodies survive on tubes, machines, and drugs.

Life’s not perfect, but it’s their life. No one else’s.


I was looking forward so much to meeting him again.

Holding the picture of the laughing man, I walked briskly along the bare cemented corridors towards his home. There he was! But things didn’t look right.

He was sitting all alone, back turned towards the opened door, shoulders drooped, head bowed. We called to him, but he didn’t move. We called again, and again… many times. Finally, he turned his head, ever so slightly.

“Come in, the gate’s not locked”, he said in a voice so soft, it’s almost a whisper.

He didn’t look at us when we greeted him. He didn’t look at his happy, laughing portrait when we showed it to him. He didn’t look. He couldn’t. In two months, he had become almost blind.

How could things turn so wrong, so quickly? It seemed only yesterday when this shy, quiet gentleman broke his silence, laughed with us, joked with us, shared his life. Now, his house was empty, the walls stripped bare, the mood sombre. Would a beautiful portrait make any difference?

When I visited these folks, I didn’t just want to take a few nice shots. I wanted to know them and make the portraits meaningful. I wanted a happy ending. I wanted them to feel beautiful, I wanted them to remember happy moments. In fact, there were many happy faces when we delivered these “portraits of love”. But this was never about what I wanted.

A patient had passed on just a few days earlier. Another had been warded in critical condition. Some looked even happier than before, while others were burdened by problems we have no right to intrude.

We photographers say we’re story-tellers, but a photograph can never tell the whole story. We like to think we’re helping these folks, but are we? We are but tiny footprints who once walked briefly beside them, long after they’ve walked a million more painful steps before us. We all want the best in life, but these folks showed me that sometimes, there are things we cannot want. Life can turn against us without warning. Until this happens, we may never know if we can cope as well as the beautiful people you see in these photographs.

One of the last patients to receive her portrait was an old lady. When we arrived at her home, she welcomed us like relatives. Then, for the first time in decades, she told the painful story of her life.

I could have taken more photographs, but I didn’t. No photograph could ever describe her feelings, or mine.

As we left, I reached out and touched her hands. She wrapped her old, wrinkled fingers around mine. There were tears in her eyes.

“I’ll be happy as long as you remember me.”


One early morning at Sun Plaza, a young woman asked Mr Seah: “Why are you here everyday?”
Mr Seah chuckled. “Then why are you here everyday?”
“I’m here for work!”, the woman replied, somewhat incredulously.
The man raised his brows. “So what do you think I’m doing here?”

For 13 years, no one took his place. Four days every week, Mr Seah arrives at his usual spot outside Sembawang MRT Station. There, on his wheelchair, he waits for the morning rush.

A rush, indeed. Hoards and hoards of able-bodied people, fit, fast, and ready for the future. Many pass him by without a second look. Some slow down, others stare. Few people stop to buy his goods – 3 packets of tissue for a dollar.

The man won’t be selling tissue now if the accident didn’t happen, more than 20 years ago.

Mr Seah was only 39 when a huge, 1.5-ton machine crushed his body. The machine would have fallen on his head and killed him instantly, if not for friends who shouted out nearby.

Illiterate and paralysed, Mr Seah nearly died from an overdose of thirty sleeping pills. He recovered with a fierce determination to survive on his own.

“Why do pigs die? Because humans feed them! Humans do everything for them. They’ve lost their ability to survive.”

Mr Seah earns a meagre income from his sales. On good days, he may get twenty to thirty dollars. On lousy days, he’ll be lucky to have a dollar in his pocket. People stare at him wondering if he’s a fake, and one even through the tissue packets onto his face. But there are also kind people who greet him every morning, and stuff a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars into his hands without taking anything in return.

“There are lots of bad people, but lots of good people, too.”

Mr Seah never blamed anyone, or asked for help from others. He learned to clean himself, cook for himself, and do his own housework. Despite being handicapped, he frequently helps his elderly neighbours to repair their wheelchairs.

“I’m still young”, Mr Seah beamed. “I’m only 62!”

He refused to think too far ahead. Strolling among the lush pots of pomegranate he planted himself, Mr Seah understands exactly how unpredictable life can be.

“I can’t read, and I can’t write. But I can talk to you today. Maybe tomorrow, my heart stops beating, but why think so far? No joy! Take it easy. One day at a time.”

He leaned back on his wheelchair and smiled.

“I’m very happy now. I am independent, and I am alive. This is enough for me.”



Only a few years ago, Lemuel was sleeping on the streets. Stricken by diabetes and a rotting foot, rejected by employers and colleagues, he was too poor to rent even a tiny room in the world’s most expensive country. The streets became his home, the sky his ceiling, and torn cardboard boxes his bed and blanket. When it rained, he ran for shelter. When hungry, he scrapped for food. When alone, nobody could hear him cry. For years and years, he blamed a heartless man for his cursed life.

Lemuel’s father gave him away for adoption when he was only seven. He never knew his mother, who died soon after he was born. Lemuel never understood why father gave him away. Why him? What did he do wrong? If it was for a better life, it never happened.

Lemuel’s adopted father loves gambling. On bad days, he would curse Lemuel, cane him with a belt, and lock him in a dark room. Even his foster mother and siblings live in fear.

Eventually, Lemuel ran away, working odd jobs to survive, and ended up on the streets. A kind pastor named Chin Nam accepted him, gave him warmth, and nursed his heart.

“He is like a father to me”, Lemuel said, recalling his darkest days. “When I almost gave up, he gave me direction.”

From nowhere and for no apparent reason, a light shone from the heavens.

Lemuel now lives in a humble flat on government assistance, his wounds dressed by kindness from the Home Nursing Foundation. He found love in church, and pastor Chin Nam continued to support him like a long lost friend. Now, Lemuel’s lifelong wish is to bring happiness to the elderly and the very young children – through his favourite pastime.

“I love to sing, and I love to make people happy! Life is not fair, but this is enough for me.”

The past seemed like history now.

This October morning, Lemuel opened his eyes to a bare, concrete celing. A roof, and a home. The rain could torment him no more.

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