20-year-old who cleaned Dakota resident's home: Some things can't be learnt on school CIP trips

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership| November 03, 09:36 AM

They told us to move, published in 2019 by Ethos Books, is centred around the Dakota residents and Cassia Resettlement Team.

The book, which you can buy a copy of here, tells the story of the relocation through interviews with the residents from the Dakota community and reflections by the volunteers. Accompanying these are essays by various academics on different issues, such as urban planning, social services, citizenship and family.

Sammy Ng, a founding team member of the Cassia Resettlement Team, contributed an essay titled "Are you a social worker?" in response to her interactions with Mano, a Dakota resident who says he is no longer in contact with family and friends.

We reproduce extracts from the interview with Mano, as well as Ng's reflection, here.


Interview with Mano

Where are the places you lived before Cassia? All the way, small until old.

Small time I stay in attap tsu [in Hokkien: “house”] Ah Seng Road. Kampong at Lorong 25.

How long did you stay in the attap house?

20 years, more than that, I think, say 20 years lah.

After the attap house, where did you move to?

Demolished. Then we move to Haig Road.

And then, how long did you stay there for?

I think got lah 20 years, then 34, I married. One month already I get out, I rented house. Near here, Jalan Satu or what, the army camp, we at Block 91.

Okay, then how long did you stay there?

Stay there... They want to demolish, then I transferred there, Dakota Close, Block 2.

So which one you like better?

I like the first one lah.

The first one in Jalan Satu? How come?

I go this side, got bus stop, this side got bus stop, overturn got bus stop, hawker centre this, all very nearby.

Wah, so life ah, needs to be near bus stop and food centre.

Ah, my this one is like that, all iron inside [points to right leg].

When did your foot become like that?

About 20 years lah. I was working in Singapore Land Foundation. As a security guard there. I must go 7 o’clock work. I have to go over bridge. One time I never go, I just go and cross, the car bang me. The glass all break. All right side one gone.

Then after the accident, did you get back to work?

No, from there, I never go back to work. They send me to work, and I go to work, then they say please carry that. Carry what? Carry heavy like that, how to carry? Make fast, make fast. I work half day I work there. I say cannot lah, I don’t want to work anymore. Doctor say I unfit to work. Now government pay for makan money, everything pay what.

How old were you then?

30… no, I think more, 40-something like that.

How was life when you were younger?

Life was happy life lah. Now what is life? Miserable life. Last time, their father buy that side, my father buy this side, all stay one kampong, very nice… you see all friend there. Now, all gone already.

Have you gone back to Haig Road?

Yah, about 10 or 5 years lah. See if got old friend lah. The most, I think about half gone already, half died already lah.

Oh, so you don’t know whether they are gone lah, do you have their phone number?

I got no phone how to call them?

So how do you keep in touch with your friends?

No, here… where to see friends?

But today, your relative come visit you ah. [There was a man who was chatting with Mano at the time when the interviewer entered the flat. Mano identified the man as his relative.]


Do you have many family in Singapore, besides him?

A lot of family I got, half, three quarter gone already. Si liao [in Hokkien: “They’re dead.”].

Ah then those who are around, you also don’t know where they are?

Some stay West don’t know where, then some stay East there… I also forgot.

Do they know where you are?

This Cassia what, Cassia Crescent. Most of the people don’t know me move here lah. He know that I’m staying here already, he knows, that’s why in a blue moon he will come here.

Oh then he can tell your family you are here?

No lah, I don’t want anybody to go and tell people, I don’t like people come here and, I got a small house here, for myself I’m ok lah. But all come where got chair for, 10, 20 chair I got ah?

Do you think, uh, say something can help you walk better, then you will walk more?

No, I no need, I don’t like to go out anymore, because why you know? I give trouble to people.

Why you say that?

Why? One day I go this dinner you know, one community centre, one dinner got there, I say I don’t want to go lah. Rogera say, “No, Mano, you must go, go nothing to pay.” Then I went la, slowly walk walk, then you know the other Chinese man, think I cannot speak, ze ko buay kia go lai jia [in Hokkien: “this one cannot walk still come here to eat.”].


How I feel ah? Then I say Roger, next time don’t tell me go. [Roger asks] “Why?” I say this man... He say, “Don’t care about him la, you go lah, next time I tell you, you go”.

Then, every day do you go out of your home?

No, no. I never go out… only hospital yah.

Do you go to hospital yourself?

I go myself lah. Nicholas will give me the taxi voucher, then he will bring me down and he call taxi, then taxi go. They give me S$10. You call you have to pay more right or not? From there raise, S$15, S$16, how I going out?

And now do you have friends here? From Dakota, Block 12, have some of them moved here or not?

Got, got, got lah. All my age what.

Do you still know who is here?

I don’t know... but I go makan sometimes I see. Sometimes got makan downstairs here, second floor. Sometimes lah, one month one time or two times like that.

Oh but you don’t know which flat? Actually, you know ah, maybe you are here, maybe he upstairs only eh. You want to go up talk to him or not?

No need, no need, talking, talking, myself cannot talk, how to go talk to them? I don’t want to talk. I never, “Why you come and disturb me?”

So now when you don’t go out, how do you sort of relax yourself?

I relax myself, what to do, I got this radio. Yah my purpose just want to pass my time lah.

Oh ok. Then besides radio, anything else you like doing or not?

TV is ok, only this radio for me very important lah. Last time TV. But now I don’t watch lah, because of my eye ah. Operation. Cataracts lah. Aiyo, thinking why my life become like that? Before my young time, how happy I can go there go here. Now my life became like that, God make me like that ah?

Can I ask, in all your life, have you thought of buying your own flat?

I no CPF how to buy? End to end I rented house. All the way.

If you had CPF, would you buy?

I where got CPF now, I no work.

Then uh this one is just dream with me lah, if you had money and you could buy a place, where would you buy?

Now I going to, I going to die I want to buy for what? I don’t want money to buy house already. What if I buy house, I give people problem, give people trouble? I don’t like.

Ah, so what you want? Let’s say if you had some money, what would you do with the money?

Money? Buy things ah, maybe I like to eat char kway teow, maybe I like…

Okay, so that means now you have money, you prefer to spend on food, or what?

Clothes ah, Christmas day lah. Maybe I buy one set, or maybe I buy two set.

Besides clothes, besides food, what else you want to buy?

I think I don’t need anything anymore. I prepared to go down already.

Aiya don’t say that… Oh, and do you like it when we come and talk to you? Is it disturb you?

No when you all come, more ok, my time go past.

Reflection by Sammie Ng

What can one expect from visiting a 66-year-old man who never leaves the house? Well, one learns to expect the unexpected.

Visiting Mano is always a surprise of sorts. My relationship and interactions with Mano have made me learn three things that guide me in my exploration of what it means to serve.

The first time I met Mano, we cleaned his house

The first time I met Mano was when a group of us cleaned his house and replaced his bed.

We were documenting the Dakota estate and had heard about this elderly man who was immobile and defecating on his bed.

Even though we expected less than sanitary conditions, we couldn’t help but be turned off by the stench emanating from the mattress drenched in defecation.

We also did not expect to see the walls marred by what seemed to be brown splatters of mee goreng sauce, with the pack of mee goreng spilled onto the floor in front of the bed. It was hard to get a clear picture of what had happened from Mano, but apparently, his friends had visited and created the mess.

Under advice, we called in the police before continuing our mission to clean up his house, and replaced his bed with a new one offered by the Mountbatten Community Club.

That was just the beginning of our attempt to provide him with a decent living environment.

We gave him a haircut and helped him with his laundry so he could feel refreshed and have a tidy space to live in. He was physically unable to participate, sitting on a chair watching us clean his house.

I wondered to myself then just what was going on in his mind, as we got busy around him. Were we just making him feel vulnerable and exposed, as a group of young strangers who entered his home and started cleaning up?

Or perhaps he was thankful that he was no longer alone, as we centred our attention on him and attended to his needs.

Thinking back, he seemed disorientated and rightly so, since we were all strangers, and perhaps, only rarely would there be so many visitors at once.

Was it "our responsibility" to help?

At that time, we thought of the house-cleaning as a one-off event. We saw a need and decided that we should meet it.

It was this very proclivity, however, that led us to start the Cassia Resettlement Team (CRT) after we found out about the needs of other residents in Block 52. After all, Mano was but one of the residents who needed help in the community.

We were more than happy to offer support, but also wondered just how the situation got so bad, when there should exist social safety nets in our society. We wondered if there were more residents out there who faced similar problems and were similarly overlooked by the system.

We also wondered about the sustainability of offering support to each and every resident we met in such a labour-intensive manner.

Was it our responsibility? But it was impossible for us to do nothing when we knew that their needs were not being met.

These were the questions that would set us on a journey as we formed the CRT, first to address the immediate needs caused by the uncertainties of relocation, and then to question the state of social service provision in Singapore.

As a ground-up initiative, we had no defined responsibilities or set roles, and were free to allocate our resources the way we wished.

We prioritised the residents’ needs. The very first lesson for me was thus to choose to serve first instead of questioning whether it was our responsibility.

Helping others is never a straightforward process

The second thing I learnt through my time with Mano is the realities and complexities of serving others.

Cleaning up his house in the state that it was in was already a vastly different experience for any young Singaporean privileged enough not to live in one-room flats or to witness such dire living conditions.

However, I did not expect to have to bring Mano to the hospital by myself. With cataracts and steel in his legs from past surgeries, he could not go out to buy his own meals nor visit the doctor independently.

Due to timing issues for the other volunteers, I was tasked with bringing him for his doctor’s appointment alone.

I remember feeling the burden of responsibility for his safety as I helped him get into the taxi and to the hospital, and being frazzled as I navigated the complicated hospital procedures while looking out for him.

I distinctly remember collecting his medicine for him, and feeling overwhelmed as the pharmacist explained to me when and how each of the six medicines and eye drops had to be used.

I personally struggled to remember the complicated instructions, and there and then realised that it is incredulous how we often assume elderly persons or anyone else to be able to adhere to these without assistance.

Situations I did not expect to handle at 20 years old

In Singapore, we celebrate independence and try to build that into our systems, for good reason. However, there is an extent to which dependence is inevitable, for various reasons, which only increase as one ages.

Either way, it is not a situation any 20-year-old would have expected to have to handle, considering that the kind of community involvement programmes we have been exposed to during our time in school often involve “safe” and feel-good tasks such as chit-chatting with elderly people at the old-age home.

While I am not dismissing the value of spending quality time with elderly people, I feel that learning to do these seemingly mundane tasks for them is equally important.

I remember thinking to myself after the hospital visit that I was lucky to have this experience first, as there would come a day when I would need to do the same for my parents.

But the most humbling and most difficult lesson which I learnt through my time with Mano would be that “help” for others cannot be easily defined.

From that very first day when we cleaned his house, we tried to do whatever we thought could “help” him.

We arranged medical escorts to bring him to his appointments, got him food on Saturdays as he was only delivered meals on weekdays. We checked his letterbox and read his letters to him.

He wasn't always forthcoming with us

It seemed as if all was well for Mano, but we started to notice that his housing conditions would deteriorate every few weeks. This was surprising considering that he lived alone and rarely moved around even within his house.

On one visit, we saw beer cans that materialised out of nowhere. His friends seemed to have started visiting him again after the mee goreng incident, but he always gave ambiguous answers about what they did at his house.

Once he complained to me that they were not his friends, and had taken his money away. Another time he told me that they are “brothers” he had known for a long time.

It felt like Mano was not forthcoming with us when we asked about this issue, and it got frustrating. But perhaps it is precisely because it is a complex issue rather than a surface need which makes it so difficult for him to share, and for us to understand.

From our point of view, we wanted him to drink less since conventional wisdom says it is bad for his health and his pocket.

Yet, we also wonder if alcohol helps relieve him of his physical pain and cope with his psychological issues, things we were not capable of resolving.

Seeing Mano in a drunken state

One year on, in perhaps what was the most “surprising” visit ever, I saw Mano in his drunken state, something I had not experienced before.

He was completely delirious and evidently high. He started to slur his speech and couldn’t stop grinning.

I was initially afraid because Mano had transformed into a completely different person, someone I could hardly recognise. And then I was heartbroken and felt guilty and responsible because we were supposed to have “helped” him.

And somewhere along the line, it felt like we had subconsciously given up.

Some people are hard to love, but we love them anyway

But what does it mean to help anyway? What if we are simply making assumptions on what constitutes a good life on his behalf? Is there such a thing as well-meaning “tyranny”?

When I met him a few days after his drinking episode, he was his usual self again. I asked him if he remembered what happened, and he gave me a cheeky smile, which I returned with a pursing of the lips to show my disapproval before breaking into a smile.

And that’s Mano for me really, the hard-to-love resident I still love anyway.

We like to rationalise outcomes and attribute blame. Perhaps nobody is at fault here, and so I’ve learnt that it is not that we have given up, but that we have accepted that we can continue our efforts in trying to get him to cut down on his drinking to a healthier amount.

Still, he is not obligated to do so because he has the right to his own life. And maybe that should be something that we try to do as a team—to provide residents with information and support, but also respect their wishes.

I don't need to be a social worker to help others

I remember vividly, when it was just the both of us heading to the hospital appointment, the taxi driver asked me if I was a social worker.

My initial response was to clarify that I wasn’t. But it was also hard to explain then why I was there if I wasn’t one.

Indeed, why do we do what we do as the CRT? We are just a bunch of people who believe that systems are fallible not because they are bad, but because sometimes, service is not just about responsibility and should also stem from love.

We simply push the boundaries of what we can and cannot do, challenging ourselves to meet new challenges and navigate new systems we encounter along the way.

And lastly, because service is not a task but a journey, a journey which continues as long as we continue to believe in what we are doing.

Top photo credit: Between Two Homes, FB/Cassia Resettlement Team