Today is the day when many of us wish one another a good year ahead. I have received and sent out my share of wishes for sweet surprises for 2015.
Today is also the day when we are counting down to the 50th year of Singapore’s reluctant independence from Malaysia.
Today is the day when we are on the cusp of the biggest national bash in Singapore’s post independence history. It will be SG50 with everything within a few hours.
Today is the day when I recall again — have done so on and off over the years — where I was when I heard that Singapore was no longer part of Malaysia.
I was outside Victoria train station in London one late August afternoon when I saw a newspaper poster screaming “SINGAPORE OUT”.
As a teen-aged student who followed the news only sporadically, I wondered what it was all about. Bought a copy of the evening newspaper — Evening Standard or Evening News, can’t remember which — and found that Singapore was out of Malaysia. Couldn’t understand the implications nor did I really try.
In fact I learned how upset former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was only years later — in 1968 to be precise when a colleague in the Straits Times newsroom in Kuala Lumpur waxed lyrical about Mr Lee’s tears.
This colleague was a Malaysian student in Perth and vividly retold what she saw on TV on the faterful day of the Malayisa-Singapopre separation.
“I admire your prime minister,” Yeoh Phaik Kim declared again and again.
Even that conversation and that colleague and I have been separated by more than 40 years.
Much has changed. Yet little has changed.
I returned from KL to work in Singapore. One day after work, I saw an old man sleeping on the five-foot way opposite where I was living (which incidentally like many buildings in Singapore has been demolished). I remember seeing him there when I left for work.
Asked him why. I was too young to understand that he might be hungry or had no home to go to. Or if I did, I assumed it was par for the course.
After all, when i was growing up in the same neighbourhood, I had witnessed beggars going from house to house regularly to ask for something to eat. My family always spared them a few cents which in those days could buy a bowl of noodles from the street cart vendors.
So I spared the old man some loose change. And even gave him some biscuits. And sure enough, he wasn’t there any more when I looked out my window later that night.
Wish I can say the same for the generic poor in Singapore. Today, although no one (other than scouts or other trick-or-treat rich kids) comes to my door to solicit something to fill his own stomach, the poor are very much with us.
Two weeks ago, one thundery wet afternoon, I saw a tiny waif of a woman picking up discarded cardboard outside the back door of the Fairprice outlet in Blk 280, Bukit Batok.
I had gone there for a GP-friend to give one of the family’s helpers her MOM mandated check up.
The cardboard picker was soaked even though she did wear a flimsy plastic poncho with hood. The cardboard she was collecting was soaked and disintegrating even as she tried to bundle the lot together.
I felt compelled to hand her a little something that would make her cardboard scavenging unnecessary — at least for that day.
But the pain of pervasive poverty didn’t leave me that afternoon.
I went to the OCBC ATM outside Fairprice to withdraw some spending money. Someone before me had left his/her withdrawal slip where the input keys were.
I am a kaypoh.
I picked it up and the numbers gave me yet another reality jolt.
The person before me (552XXXX203) had withdrawn $20. The available balance was just $34.49.
Fine if it was a domestic helper or a young student with employer or family to fall back on. Not so if it’s an adult, with no family support or worse, has a whole family of dependents!
So amidst all sorts of SG50 celebrations to spend money to mark the occasion, I would like to propose my favourite.
To celebrate SG50, let us adopt this habit to gift $2 (or more) to someone in need or looks in need we come across.
Of course, do respect their dignity. Make sure to smile and say “please let me buy you a coffee?”
A few may say no. Try to persuade. If they still say no, then say something like “another time? Bye”.
In my experience, persistence works in all cases.
So if they say no, try, try and try again. It’s not a waste of time to convince these aunties and uncles that someone out there actually wants to share a tiny something with them.