Residents of Woodlands may have chanced upon Nur Syakirah Syazwana, a 25-year-old foodpanda delivery rider with a rare quality: she was born with no hands.
Despite her apparent disability, this has not stopped Syakirah from living a full life. Apart from freelancing with foodpanda, Syakirah also works as a full-time dance instructor at Anytime Fitness.
Her secret? Always being positive, and never giving up — a mindset that has brought her through multiple rejections to where she is today.
Growing up without hands
As one might expect, growing up without hands was not a walk in the park for Syakirah.
Without hands, basic tasks such as picking up a pen or opening doors took far longer for her to master, as compared to her peers.
When she first started going to school, she was very self-conscious about her condition, believing that she would be bullied by her peers.
Her condition invited many questions, naturally:
"What happened to your arms?"
"Was it an accident?"
"How do you deal with it?"
Used to fold her arms to hide her condition
As a result of this unwanted attention, she would often default to folding her arms when speaking to others, so as to hide her condition from them.
In fact, she spent a lot of time feeling frustrated that she could not do the same things that others could.
"I keep asking my parents: why am I like this? Why am I born with no fingers? Why am I not like normal people?"
However, when Syakirah turned 15, she decided that she did not want to let her condition define her for the rest of her life — a pivotal moment for her.
She began to stop hiding her arms, and started to be more open to the myriad of questions posed by others about her lack of limbs.
She admitted that she did not know what gave her this new perspective, although it appears that she was simply tired of hiding her true self.
"Somehow, they will eventually know that you are disabled. So no point hiding behind a wall," she said.
She had no problem writing in school
Newfound confidence aside, how did Syakirah manage to keep up in school, given that she was born without hands?
Syakirah said that she faced no real problems, as she'd had extensive practice in things like writing since she was young.
Although she was always given extra time to complete her exams, she said that she didn't really need it.
And while videos of Syakirah doing her exams are naturally unavailable, writing without hands is in fact, very possible.
And if you're curious what Syakirah's "technique" for holding pens and other objects, here's how she does her makeup:
Interestingly, the biggest problems that Syakirah faces due to her condition are at home. For example, she's largely unable to use scissors or knives, making it difficult for her to cut ingredients to prepare food.
She is also unable to hang clothes out to dry, as she is unable to grasp a laundry-drying pole.
But aside from these household chores, it appears that there are very few things that hinder Syakirah's everyday life.
In fact, she beamed with pride as she declared that "there's no issue at all" for her in school, or at work.
Being rejected by prospective employers
While Syakirah may be comfortable in her own skin and confident about her abilities, the reality is that others do not view her condition the same way.
This was made painfully clear to her when she was searching for a full-time job.
In January 2018, Syakirah began job hunting.
Having previously worked in an administrative position, she was keen to try out retail jobs, in order to broaden her experience.
This was not an easy task, said Syakirah, because prospective employers would appear hesitant to hire her, often giving her looks during the interview, as if they doubted her ability to do the job.
"Whenever I go for a job interview, they will have this...'I'm not trying to be judgemental (look)', but they are actually judgemental," she said.
She did not give up, and tried to apply for many different retail jobs, although her efforts were eventually in vain, as she was rejected time and again.
Eventually, she began widening her job search, applying for office jobs as well.
She eventually chanced upon a job ad for a receptionist at Anytime Fitness, and applied — almost as a last resort, with no expectation of getting hired.
After all, being a receptionist meant that she would be in a client-facing role, something that made many other employers hesitant to give her a chance.
However, she aced her interview, and was hired soon after, a full six months after the start of her job search.
Syakirah was oozing with excitement as she recalled how the job offer made her feel.
"I was so, so happy. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of telling myself not to give up. 'Keep trying! And if there is a will, there is a way.' Am I right?"
An opportunity to lead her very own class
Syakirah's first few days of work were nerve-wracking, as she was relatively shy and had little experience facing customers on a regular basis.
In particular, she was afraid that customers would judge her for her condition, making work more difficult.
The fear and nervousness that Syakirah said she felt then stood in sharp contrast to the bubbly and carefree personality she showed during our chat.
However, it was clear that her shyness is a thing of the past, as she quickly overcame it in her first month of work, with a lot of help from her managers and colleagues.
In fact, she ended up having her probation shortened by three months, and earned herself a promotion to become an ambassador for the Anytime Fitness brand.
After her manager encouraged her to try out the various classes they had to offer, she had her first experience with Salsation, which she described as "a mixture of salsa and sensation dance".
She particularly enjoyed Salsation because it was a more relaxing form of dance, compared to a higher-intensity activity like Zumba.
Her passion for Salsation grew, and it was not long before her superiors discovered it.
One day, the management in her gym approached her with a shocking proposal: Be a dance instructor for their Salsation classes.
Syakirah was initially hesitant, having no prior experience in personal training, but soon convinced herself that she should not be afraid of trying new things.
She was sent to Jakarta to take a professional course, and became a certified Salsation dance instructor.
Being the centre of attention was a new experience
While Syakirah may have stopped being shy in front of customers entering the gym, being the centre of attention as a dance instructor was a whole new experience.
Having spent much of her childhood trying to avoid unnecessary attention, becoming a dance instructor seemed counter-intuitive, as it meant that she would have to spend entire lessons with all eyes on her.
"I started being nervous. The nervousness, I can tell you, is 100 per cent nervous," she recounts with a laugh.
With around five to six people in her first class, she told herself to simply focus on her dance, and less on her students watching her, in order to alleviate some of that stress. Still, she recalls having difficulties speaking, making it difficult for her to lead the class well — something her supervisors noticed.
Luckily for her, Syakirah's supervisors and students were understanding, with her bosses telling her that it was completely normal to feel this way for her first class.
She took feedback in her stride, and continued to act upon the comments and improve herself.
In the course of the interview, Syakirah repeated the phrase "go with the flow" several times while talking about her response to setbacks. After all, she said, there was not much point in dwelling on the difficulties.
And while she continues to experience some stage fright prior to her lessons, she is now able to flip a switch in her mind, and be natural once the lessons start.
"Right now, I might tell you I'm nervous, but when it comes to the actual day itself, in front of everyone, I'll just be like: 'Hi everyone!'" she said excitedly, the pitch of her voice rising to match her enthusiasm.
For Syakirah, who grew up loving dance, being able to work as a dance instructor was an opportunity that she never thought she would get.
Started doing foodpanda delivery during circuit breaker
Unfortunately, when Covid-19 struck last year, Syakirah, like many other Singaporeans, was affected by Circuit Breaker restrictions from April 2020.
As part of circuit breaker measures, all gyms in Singapore were closed, meaning Syakirah was suddenly unable to go to work.
For the feisty Syakirah, this was daunting for two reasons.
Firstly, she would need to find an alternative source of income. Secondly, she felt confined at home, and desperately wanted to find a way to move about outside while complying with restrictions.
And so, she decided to try being a delivery rider for foodpanda, which let her earn some extra cash, and the freedom to stretch her legs.
This decision worried her family at first, as they were worried that her condition would make it difficult for her to conduct deliveries.
However, Syakirah soon found that delivering food, just like many other tasks in her life, was not that difficult, once she got used to it.
For example, while she initially had difficulties holding the order properly, especially if it was a substantial one, I could see that she's rather adept at it now, as she is able to carry a large McDonald's bag with no issue whatsoever, by balancing the food on her arms instead.
Being an avid cyclist, she initially delivered food in Woodlands while riding a bicycle.
And in case you're wondering how Syakirah can cycle without hands, she actually grips the bicycle handles with her arms. Without fingers, she is unable to brake, and uses her feet to manually slow the bicycle down.
This is an extremely impressive feat, especially to someone like me, who has both hands and can barely cycle without wobbling.
Just as she was getting used to being a delivery rider, a small hiccup happened: Her bicycle broke down.
Undeterred, she continued making deliveries either on foot, or by taking the bus for longer distances.
Taking the bus to make deliveries might not make sense to the average person, given that the bus fare would cut heavily into her earnings. However, Syakirah revealed that she has a concession card, which is subsidised by SG Enable, an agency dedicated to enabling persons with disabilities.
This allows her to take unlimited rides for a fixed fee.
As a delivery rider with no hands, Syakirah has definitely met her share of curious customers whom she said are generally very nice.
Many are surprised that she can deliver food to them despite her disability.
The first tip she received from a customer remains a fond memory.
She didn't actually expect to get any tips at all, and turned down the tip at first, but the customer was extremely insistent on rewarding her for her hard work.
For Syakirah, being acknowledged for her customer service is reward enough.
"When the customer feel happy...I also kind of feel happy."
She doesn't consider herself "disabled"
While the Circuit Breaker may have ended almost 10 months ago, Syakirah continues to make deliveries for foodpanda in her free time, as it is a good opportunity to earn a little extra money.
As for her future in Anytime Fitness, she made it clear that she doesn't intend to leave any time soon, given that she gets along extremely well with her colleagues, and enjoys her work immensely.
In fact, she loves being a dance instructor so much that she recently turned down an offer to be promoted to an assistant manager, a role which would involve more time in the office.
The once-shy Syakirah is now extremely comfortable engaging with others, and even has a 200,000 following on TikTok.
And despite her less-than-easy childhood, Syakirah has clearly come a long way.
She has mastered many tasks that would appear to be difficult for someone with no hands, and is far more upbeat than many people without disabilities.
To Syakirah, she is not "disabled", and she does not expect to be treated as such. "I don't have any struggles," she said simply.
And what's the key to her remarkable resilience?
"All I can say is, just be yourself, keep positive. And don't give up in whatever situation you're facing... I just keep myself happy, and enjoy myself. When I dance, I dance. That's all!"
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image via Lim Jun Tong & Zenn Tan, Nur Syakirah Syazwana/TikTok.