2 hours that change me
I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time visiting a one-room HDB flat. I had agreed to help bring a few students to visit a few of these homes that the school had adopted as part of the CIP (Community Involvement Programme). This should be good, I thought.
I wasn’t prepared for this. The walls were dotted with black splotches of what we were told were the droppings of bed bugs. We were warned not to remove our shoes, lean on the walls or sit on the floor. Mr Y sat on a stool and seemed nonchalant about the infestation in his home. The mattress he slept on bore testimony to the nightly battles he had to endure. The bed sheet was clouded with blood stains. Mr Y used to be a coolie who carried sacks of rice. The bachelor now lives alone in his decrepit rental flat, his emaciated body racked with sickness, the money he earned in his younger days long gone to feed his parents’ opium addiction many years ago. He gets $260 from the welfare agency every month, of which about $100 goes into paying his rent and utilities. The remainder he has to magically stretch to cover his food and medical costs.
The bugs had spread from next door to a few flats on the 5th floor where Mr Y lived. You could see them flitting about on the wall, on the floor, among his clothes, even along the corridors. Nobody there could afford a professional pestbuster, and the town council wouldn’t do such favours anyway. So living with these parasites has become a fact of life. Residents living on the other floors talked about the 5th floor as if it was Purgatory and it didn’t seem an inappropriate description.
Then there was 92-year-old Mdm C – so small and wiry she couldn’t have weighed more than 35kg. She had a hole in her neck where her voice box had been removed, so she couldn’t talk. When she saw us, she simply gestured with her hands that she wanted to die. Looking at her forlorn looking home, who could blame her for feeling that way? The food in her kitchen had all gone bad so we gathered she hadn’t eaten for days, or perhaps she had been eating all the rotten stuffs. When you are sick and have to depend on the kindness of neighbours to help you buy even the simplest food, what other choice do you have? She has 2 daughters, one who visits her occasionally. Another, we heard, comes by and steals the NTUC vouchers that volunteers give to her. Is it any wonder Mdm C would rather die?
In all, we visited 7 homes, each one with its own sad story to tell. My heart is exceedingly disturbed by the scenes I saw today. On the one hand, we live in a country that’s boasting of having island-wide free internet access soon and building world-class integrated resorts and yet, in pockets of this land which worships success and one-upmanship shamelessly, there are the forgotten lot who live in homes with rotten food and bug-infested beds.
I thought that by visiting the poor, I would be helping to cheer them up somewhat. How naïve I was. How arrogant I was to think that a simple 20 minute visit can alleviate the misery of people who have to face squalor every single moment of their lives and where sleep offers no respite either from the reality of their wretchedness. I thought I was doing community service. But no, something was done to me. Today, I felt as if the earth beneath my feet had shifted. In the days that follow, I would still go on to live my life of considerable comfort, plan my holidays, do Christmas shopping and enjoy the trappings of prosperity that I have been blessed with. But I could no longer plead ignorance of the shadowy existence of Mr Y, Mdm C and all these unfortunate people who live just a stone’s throw away from me. I find myself asking Him, “Lord, what will You have me do now?”
Tonight, as I crawl between my nice clean sheets, I think of Mr Y and how long the night will be for him. I saw real, in-your-face poverty and human misery today and I’m at a loss as to how to respond. Nothing I can do or say will ever be enough. And yet, if we don’t do anything, what kind of human beings are we?
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Juxtaposed among my anguished thoughts about Mr Y and Mdm C is the noisy ranting of an 18-year-old college kid with her “elite uncaring face”. And this is what I want to say.
There is no glory in being an elite. No honour in trumpeting one’s own success. For if not by a fortunate roll of the dice of life, any of us could end up like Mr Y or Mdm C. Any of us could be born into a family visited by sorrow upon sorrow, where circumstances work against you and fate tosses you around like sand, so that you can’t get out of the shit even if you want to. So for those of us in which life has been unbelievably kind to us, a good measure of gratitude and humility is called for. Survival of the fittest is the rule for the animal kingdom. Surely we are above the beasts? Surely we are meant to rise up higher? Instead of dashing to be the first, perhaps it is far nobler to slow down, and give a hand to the downtrodden, the unfortunate, the unskilled, the retrenched, the slower, the old, the sickly and the poor. When we can restore even a modicum of dignity to our fellow beings who have no hope, surely that makes us more human.