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.
“Got $300!!!”

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?

Choon Bok