S’porean civil servant digs through stuff in abandoned homes to track down next-of-kin of those who died alone

Working at the Public Trustee’s Office, she deals with unnominated CPF monies and assets of a deceased not amounting to more than S$50,000.

| Tanya Ong | Sponsored | April 20, 2021, 06:30 PM

It all happened six years ago.

Ng Wai Mun still remembers pushing open the doors to enter the abandoned shophouse, which had been left vacant after the owner died alone in it some years back.

Her team had received a letter of administration from the court (this court order formally appoints them as the administrator) to enter the property to look for documents -- anything that might suggest if the woman had any surviving next-of-kin (NOK).

“Usually it starts from issues like mosquito breeding, or if there is a risk of the building collapsing,” Ng told us. “That’s how we usually come to know that this property is abandoned [because] some agency will inform us about it.”

Ng’s mission? To trawl through any documents in the property to establish if there is any NOK -- or at least, any that they can find.

If a NOK can be found, all the assets would be handed over for administration. If not, the proceeds from the sale of the estate and valuables would accrue to the state until a NOK shows up.

The task sounded straightforward enough.

But when Ng opened the door to the shophouse unit, she and her colleague realised that they were in for a tough time: The unit was piled high with bags and bags of items.

Photo courtesy of Ministry of Law.

Dressed in comfortable (“must be covered”, she emphasised) shoes and clothing, Ng and her colleague spent the next two to three days in that unit trawling through everything that was left behind, one plastic bag at a time, in hopes to find evidence of a potential NOK.

It could be anything: Birth certificates, letters, photos. A clue of any kind that might lead them to a family member.

This peculiar and extremely laborious task is all in a day’s work for civil servant, Ng Wai Mun, who works with the Public Trustee’s Office (PTO).

Photo by Tanya Ong.

Sitting down with Mothership at their office, which is located at the URA Centre East Wing, Ng shares more about her intriguing role and what happens to the assets of people who die alone.

But first things first: We ask her to tell us more about her experience in these abandoned properties and how she felt going inside.

Interesting coincidences & a (possibly) supernatural tale

“I wouldn’t say it’s creepy,” she said. “But sometimes we experienced coincidental incidents.”

Continuing the tale about how she stepped into the shophouse filled with bags of personal effects, Ng asked her colleague to look out for photos of the deceased. To her surprise, despite the sheer mess inside the unit, the photos emerged almost immediately out of nowhere:

“The next moment, after I lifted up one box, all her photos dropped out from below because the box was decomposed. From there, we discovered photos of her younger days and we found out about her life. We felt like it’s a coincidence, like she’s there listening to us.”

Following the photos, they wanted to look for the passport to search for clues from her travel history.

“Next thing we know? We found her passport too.”

Ng stressed that given the state of the property, it was “so special” for them to actually find something they were looking for. “You don’t expect to find anything, [and yet] it appeared on its own.”

But that wasn’t all. After the cleaners had cleared the place out, and the property was about to be handed over, Ng went over in the morning to inspect the place for the last time.

And that was when there was yet another strange coincidence:

“I was murmuring, ‘...This property is going to be sold soon.’ As soon as I said that, her bedroom door just slammed shut on its own. There was no wind! My colleague went to try and open the door, it couldn’t be opened. We felt that she’s lingering around, [so I told her], ‘It’s time to go already. No point staying on here.’”

Ng confessed that when she first saw the photos of the deceased’s “colourful life” (she had been a dance hostess in her younger days, we were told), Ng felt a little sorry for her. After all, the woman appeared to be good looking, relatively wealthy, and seemed to have lived such an interesting existence.

And yet, despite everything, she had died in her property alone with her body only being discovered days later.

“She was very lonely when she died. I asked my colleague, ‘Why don’t we make arrangements for some prayers to be offered to her?’ I had a feeling she might still be here, not resting in peace.”

Determining if someone has a NOK, and how many?

Apart from getting requests to inspect ownerless properties, the bulk of Ng’s work is actually trying to track down the NOK of a deceased so their unnominated CPF monies, and also assets (like bank monies and shares) not amounting to more than S$50,000 can be distributed to them.

Ng said, “It is important to make your will. Also, the next time you happen to read your CPF statement, why not check your CPF nomination and make one if you haven’t?”

“It’s your last wish after all,” she added.

Photo by Tanya Ong.

Ng methodically takes us through the process of what typically happens when they are often informed of a death. The first thing to ask: Does this person have a NOK?

If there are none, the assets accrue to the state. The state then holds on to the assets and the money will always be there until someone comes forward to claim it. (“We’ve had one case where the NOK showed up after 22 years,” she told us.)

If a NOK exists but is categorised as ‘untraced’, then Ng’s role is to track them down and inform them of the monies to be collected.

First, they need to determine how many NOK the deceased has (the Intestate Succession Act determines how the money will be distributed to each NOK) before they can even reach out to assist in the claims process. For Muslims, the distribution of assets is determined by the Administration of Muslim Law Act.

A good starting point to look, Ng shared, is to check with the informant who reported the death of the person (it could be a social worker, nursing home staff, or a neighbour), or to check with other government agencies for relevant information.

But how do they reach out or get more information? A surprisingly helpful tool to track someone down, Ng revealed, is Facebook.

Social media as a surprisingly important tool

Sometimes, when all they have is the name of a person, Ng pursues that lead by finding out everything she can about the person through the internet.

“I will find them on Facebook, and Facebook message them… Sometimes I even write on their wall! I started another account for this PTO role.”

You must be a very good stalker, I told her.

“Not really lah. Actually, we will always try to find them on Facebook or Google. Sometimes they will have blogs, or the [search results] might link you to another lead. When you have the determination to find the NOK, you will try all ways and means.”

But sometimes, luck is just as important as well.

She related a “super satisfying” tale about how she had traced a NOK all the way in Jamaica through a series of coincidences involving a defunct university and a person on Facebook who had publicly shared childhood photos of himself.

“I went to message him and he responded! It turned out that the deceased was his eldest brother and he didn’t know that his brother had passed away. They were estranged.”

Apart from virtual means, they will also try to get in touch with the NOK by sending letters to any registered addresses they can find.

But if the family members still don’t respond? PTO officers are left with no choice but to knock on their doors to explain all of this in person.

Photo by Mothership.

Seeing the ugly side of family disputes, but also bringing people together

By visiting people’s homes, Ng and her colleagues potentially get entangled in messy and often ugly family disputes.

“[For] some (NOK), they’re aware that they’re eligible to make the claim,” Ng said.

Referring to certain cases where family disputes make it very difficult for them to assist with the claims process, she explained: “They just don’t want to take the money because the family has some issues, or are in a dispute they’re unable to settle [among themselves].”

In some instances, the family might also be uncooperative in sharing documents, resulting in the PTO not being able to proceed any further:

“The managing part is very tedious. Especially if the family doesn’t cooperate… They don't understand why we ask for so many documents. They think we’re trying to make their life difficult, or that the government is trying to prevent them from getting [their] money. Some even ask, ‘Why can’t you just pay me ah?’”

Some documents, however, are necessary to ascertain familial ties and to ensure that the deceased’s assets are appropriately distributed by law.

Given the deeply personal nature of what Ng’s team has to deal with, it is inevitable that things can sometimes get heated with the family members. Some have cursed or hurled personal insults at them — an occurrence that officers have fortunately, or unfortunately, gotten used to.

But as Ng came to learn, staying calm and being firm is crucial to doing the job well.

“Initially I see some newer officers get affected by it, or they might feel uncomfortable. But over time, they become more seasoned.”

The extent of their work also involves no small amount of monies —in the past few years, about S$905 million of CPF savings belonging to deceased persons were passed to the PTO for distribution due to the absence of a nomination.

Out of which, PTO managed to distribute 89 per cent of the unnominated CPF savings it received from CPF Board.

Photo by Tanya Ong.

Even though Ng approaches her tasks with a laser-sharp focus and purposeful goal-orientedness, it doesn’t mean that she feels nothing towards the cases she works on.

In fact, she shared that she actually feels quite “emotional” when she sees estranged family members reconcile.

Seeing family members break down or reconcile when they reconnect for the first time in decades is something that moves her deeply.

But if there’s a key takeaway she has learnt from her job, it has nothing to do with complex laws or processes, but something a lot simpler:

“Whatever that it is, just cherish what we have. Life is so unpredictable right?”

Photo by Tanya Ong.

Top photo by Tanya Ong, courtesy of Ministry of Law.

This sponsored article by the Ministry of Law is a gentle reminder to make your CPF nomination. You can also make use of the My Legacy portal for resources on end of life planning.