The lift was cramped and dirty. Nothing like the posh facilities that our wealthy nation so proudly boasts to the outside world.
As the lift doors opened at level 10, a long, narrow corridor stretched endlessly into the distance. We walked in. Rough, sparsely-painted walls rose from both sides, surrounding us, caving in on us. Everything turned dark, as if the sun never rose.
The air was musky as our footsteps scratched the cement floor. An incense burner, an occasional floor mat, cheap rubber slippers. Every ten steps, a steel gate appeared on either side, like prison cells. Behind the gates, an old couple sat quietly in an empty hall, a half-naked man laid on a thin mattress, a white-haired lady stared at a TV screen, motionless. A nauseating stench wisped through our noses from a half-opened door. Most doors, however, were shut.
Yet, just a few feet away, light shone through an open door. Behind the grilled, metal gate, a scrawny old man stood by the window, arms stretched towards the ceiling as he hung his clothes to dry. Sunlight burst through the flat’s only two windows, flooding the tiny space with brightness and warmth. As we called out to the man, a gentle breeze kissed our faces.
Mr Chan promptly opened the gate. He didn’t smile very much, but he was warm and welcoming. He also talked like a bullet train, but he didn’t want to talk about his past.
“What’s there to talk about? I’m happy now. Satisfied. I’m alone. No wife, no children, no family. No one to bother me or quarrel with me. I’m free.”
“I’ll live. And then I’ll go.”
Mr Chan wasn’t depressed. Neither was he happy. Nor sad, or excited. Just… flat. Mr Chan could be the most boring bullet train in the world. But the world no longer mattered to him.
Within these 4 empty walls, Mr Chan is isolated and free. His family is no more – he never married, and spent his whole life caring for his parents till they passed away. Now 76, he has few possessions: 4 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, a few bath towels, and a handkerchief. He cooks his own meals – rice noodles with a tiny slice of fish – and sleeps on a piece of wooden board to avoid bed bugs. His sofa is a used office chair, and he has a TV that never turns on. He lives on government grant, and walks around with a urine bag permanently tubed to his body.
“My body is broken but no choice, so it doesn’t matter”, he deadpanned. “It’s just troublesome. Maybe I should die, so I can stop such things.”
Maybe the time hasn’t come, for there is more to Mr Chan’s life than these four empty walls. Mr Loh, a kindly man who lives just a block away, visits Mr Chan almost everyday. For 10 years, they talked, discussed, and argued with each other about everything. On this occasion, the bullet train went wild as Mr Loh chided his stubborn friend for refusing the mobile phone:
“You only need to learn 2 big buttons! Green to answer, red to hang up.”
“But there are no red or green buttons! I only see white tiny buttons all over the place.”
“Forget about buttons, get the new phones, the flat ones. All you need to do is iron the screen with your fingers…”
“Why must I iron the screen when I can press buttons??”
Behind the friendly, amusing banter is Mr Chan’s only window to the outside world.
Oblivious to our presence, the banter continued, as friendship filled the tiny flat with warmth. For Mr Chan, there is one more reason to be alive.
Mr Teh walked towards us, one slow step at a time. He had been waiting quietly for us. But there was no hurry. Not any more.
His days of youth are long gone.
As he slowly unlocked the gate, he apologised. “I’m sorry, my friend cannot be here today”, he smiled wryly. “He just jumped down from the building.”
There was no tear in his eyes, nor sadness in his voice. Death seems so normal to him. Even as we tried talking about brighter things, his expression was largely deadpan.
Yet, when we asked about his younger days, his eyes beamed, and his voice sprung to life. He spoke proudly about being the pioneer batch of policemen, and how proud he was to serve under a young Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He recalled death-defying feats battling gangsters and raiding opium hordes. The young Mr Teh was fast, strong, handsome, and a very proud citizen of his country.
Even a hobbled, aging Mr Teh has something he cherishes about himself. So does everyone patient who opened the door for us. An old lady smiled the sweetest smile when reminded of how beautiful she once was – and still is. A meek gentleman, carrying grave, emotional scars from an abusive marriage, stood tall and mighty on his ethics and hope for redemption. A paralysed man would rather live independently than ask for help – that was how he survived the toughest tests in life. Even in poverty and rejection, there is strength and humility not seen in many of us ordinary, pampered hearts.
As we age, when everything we hold on to fades away one by one, we return to ourselves. This is the only place left, but this is who we are, our identity, our pride. This is what keeps our hearts beating.
Among the poorest people in super-rich Singapore are the aging and the dying, too old or too incapacitated to care for themselves, and too poor to afford basic medical care, let alone a nursing home. These citizens lived every moment of the country’s 50 glorious years, yet remain holed in their small, concrete cubicles, alone.
I visited one of these cubicles last week. Even from outside, the stench of the place was nauseating.
Inside, a man sat alone on an old sofa, slumped, walking stick by his side, his ankle heavily bandaged. Flies hovered around him. His sleeping mattress was stained black, and the floor was layered thick with dust and dirt. He hasn’t cleaned himself for several days. Even his bandage was covered in black filth.
The stench was so unbearable that some of us couldn’t remain inside without throwing up. How can anyone live in such filthy conditions?
Yet, the man greeted us with a huge smile – a smile so bright and warm, I forgot about the stench and the garbage around us.
Was it happiness that I saw?
Maybe. He certainly looked happy to see us.
Or, maybe it’s a case of dementia.
“Have you had your lunch?”, I asked.
“No! I want to drink Coke.”, he screamed back, smiling like a kid.
“You drink Coke? Do you have diabetes?”
“Never mind. 100-Plus also can.”
“100-Plus got lots of sugar!”
“Buy 100-Plus ZERO. $1.20. No sugar.”
His replies were sharp, snippy, and always comes with a childish grin. Just as quickly, however, his smile would disappear. He would stare at nothing, his face blank, his eyes falling into a deep, distant darkness.
Again and again, we break the silence with banter. He beamed at his “Pioneer” cash reward.
We know it won’t last him a month, but still, the smiles returned, the stench lifted, and the place warm and cosy once more.
Rounds and rounds of laughter and chatter disguising an uncomfortable silence.
One final round. A glowing sight of the man at his door, saying goodbye with his warm, childish grin. We never saw him return to his old sofa, slumped, walking stick by his side.
How does it feel to be lonely?
Marippan first met Vasaant 40 years ago. Soon after, they were married.
There was no courtship, no dating, no holding hands. It also wasn’t love at first sight. They didn’t marry because they loved each other. They married each other because they were supposed to.
Even though Vasaant was poor, Marippan’s parents decided that his religious background would make him a good husband. Marippan didn’t want the marriage, but simply obeyed. In her time, children do not question their parents.
In Vasaant’s eyes, Marippan was beautiful like an angel. To Marippan, Vasaant was, quite simply, the man she had to serve for the rest of her life. Was there no love?
Meeting us for the first time, Vasaant relaxed on his living room sofa, and quietly spoke about his faith. Pictures and symbols of religious deities filled an entire wall behind him. Marippan sat a comfortable distance away, silent. But not for long.
As she warmed up to our company, Marippan started chirping. In fact, once she started talking, she would go on, and on, and on. She never interrupted her husband, but she would chip in at every available gap. Marippan is an angel who loves to talk.
“Sometimes, I feel lonely”, Marippan said. “So I’ll listen to the radio and make my own coffee. If he’s still in his books, I don’t disturb him.”
Mr Vasaant loves his spiritual books. He can last an entire day without speaking a word. Deeply contemplative, he wakes up every morning to indulge in peaceful meditation, way before dawn, way before an angel starts chirping.
“She’s like a baby, acts like a baby, talks like a baby”, Mr Vasaant quipped. “But I love her like a baby, too”.
“Baby, baby lah!”, Marippan smiled. “But when I’m sad, he talks to me. When he’s sad, I talk to him. Give and take.”
She continued. “He’s a good man. No bad habits. No drinking, no smoking, no fooling around. A very good man.”
Marippan quickly got up, and skipped to her husband’s side. Mr Vasaant wrapped a meaty arm around the shoulders of his faithful wife.
“40 years already. We’re still very happy. She’s a lovely wife.”
I took a picture. Their laughter made even the deities fade into distance.