"Nothing much lah," Tan Lai Hock immediately deflects, when asked about the unlikely friendship between him and his elderly passenger, Lim Chong Khim.
For the past three years, 52-year-old Tan has been Lim's on-call driver, ferrying him around to run errands, accompanying him to medical appointments, and even delivering his favourite foods.
Tan, who has been a taxi driver for five years after leaving full-time employment, takes time out of his regular driving schedule to meet Lim's needs, at the cost of potentially higher earnings from regular customers.
And yet, he downplays his selflessness as "nothing much", shyly laughing when we bring up the fact that he recently won an award for being a caregiver at this year's Inspirational Patient and Caregiver Awards.
This happened after Lakshmanasamudram S Mohanram — one of the specialists who attended to Lim at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) — found out about what Tan had been doing for the older man, and nominated him for the award.
"I was overwhelmed by his kindness towards a fellow human being," read the nomination.
Didn't give it much thought
Tan says that when Lim first asked him for help in 2018, he didn't give the matter much thought.
"I never go and think about it. Because this old man asked me — Mr Lim lah, I call him old man — he asked me to help, I can help then I help lah."
On that day, Lim had called for a taxi to ferry him from his flat in Outram to a polyclinic for an appointment.
At the polyclinic, Lim made an unusual request — he asked the taxi driver if he could accompany him for the appointment.
The elderly man told Tan that it would only take an hour, so the latter acquiesced.
The appointment ended up stretching for three hours. But the good-natured taxi driver brushes off what many others might arguably consider to be a waste of time (and potential earnings).
"Aiya, should be ok lah. No problem," he quips.
It was a rare occurrence after all, and at that time, Tan was unaware that Lim would subsequently ask him to do this again, and on a regular basis.
"When I was sending him back, he said 'Can do me a favour?'
I said, 'What? I can send you up, no problem.'
He said, 'No no no, in future, [if] I want to see doctor, or I want to go for appointment or whatever, can you come and pick me?'"
Tan recalls that he was "quite surprised", but agreed to Lim's request.
Lim is the only "customer" who receives this special treatment from Tan because unlike other elderly passengers who typically have relatives or domestic helpers accompanying them to medical appointments, Lim travels alone. The elderly man also has difficulty walking.
Appointments, errands, and food delivery
Tan's arrangement with Lim extends beyond providing transportation service.
He also accompanies the elderly man on his medical appointments and serves as his interpreter since Lim communicates mainly in Hokkien.
Lim also calls on Tan when he needs help with running errands, such as getting a haircut, or shopping for groceries.
In return, Lim occasionally gives Tan some money, to cover some of the time that Tan spends with him, though this is an informal arrangement and does not follow the standard meter rate.
Tan has just one condition for Lim — if he needs Tan's help on a particular day, the request must be made in advance.
This is because Tan has his own regular customers who have arrangements to be dropped off at work on weekday mornings.
But Tan tries his best to make himself (and his taxi) available to Lim if he needs urgent help, even on his rest days.
"I told him... 'Anything, you just call me. [If] I can come, I straightaway fly down.'
Try to help him, lah."
Once, Lim called Tan asking for help to replace a broken lightbulb. Afraid that the older man would injure himself while moving around in a dark house at night, Tan rushed down that afternoon to assist him.
The bulb fixture was of an old design, but Tan tracked down a compatible bulb and helped Lim install it.
He also took a further step of calling the Town Council on Lim's behalf, asking them to change the dated bulb fixture, so that it would be easier to change in future.
Mistaken for Lim's son
"A lot of people think that I am his son," says Tan, who says that he addresses that misconception by pointing out their different surnames.
"I say, 'No lah, his surname is Lim, I am Tan.'
I tell them, 'No lah, just friends only lah.'"
But does 85-year-old Lim consider 52-year-old Tan his son?
"I have no idea," says Tan with a laugh.
After all, what Tan knows about Lim is limited.
Lim does not talk much about his life — even after three years of riding in Tan's taxi, around once or twice a month.
Tan does know, however, that Lim enjoys fried Hong Kong noodles, Tiong Bahru Pau and fried carrot cake, having bought them for Lim on his request previously.
Tan has become privy to some of the reasons why Lim needs assistance, however, including the fact that a social worker who used to help him stopped visiting because they left their job.
On rare occasions, Lim also shared with the taxi driver his family situation, which shed some light on the old man's circumstances.
That said, the extra information doesn't seem to matter to Tan, who maintains an ever-gracious attitude toward helping Lim.
"I don't go and ask more lah. As long you want to tell me, I hear lah."
One thing that Lim said to Tan did stick, however:
“I’m very lucky to have met you.”
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 courtesy of Singhealth