A few years back, I met a pair of makciks who devoted themselves to caring for the residents in their Ang Mo Kio rental block.
Apart from going away feeling inspired by their selflessness, the encounter left me with a revelation: Sometimes, those with the least are the ones with the biggest hearts.
One such person is Gilbert Lim who, just like the makciks in Ang Mo Kio, has a big heart for his neighbours in his Lengkok Bahru rental estate.
Lim, who is known affectionately in his neighbourhood as Uncle JB, has been a Lengkok Bahru resident for close to a decade.
He also owns his own pest control business, and frequently offers his neighbours free or discounted pest-exterminating services. And as we found out, this act of kindness has a pretty touching story behind it.
Losing his wife to leukaemia
The year was 2005.
Lim had it all, a thriving pest-busting business of his own which was enough to support his family of five. But all that crumbled when his wife passed away from leukaemia.
The diagnosis came out of the blue.
She had went to a friend's place to get gua sha (a method used in traditional Chinese medicine to stimulate blood flow) but was shocked to discover dark black marks which appeared all over her body after the treatment.
Horrified, she went to see a specialist at a hospital who diagnosed and admitted her.
That was the last time she ever saw the outside of the hospital; she never came back out, said Lim who, 16 years on, still struggled to articulate his feelings about his wife's death.
"Who can accept something like this? A normal person can't possibly accept it. When she passed away, I couldn't accept it. I couldn't face reality... I kept crying. It felt like my entire world collapsed."
阴影 was the word that Lim used to describe the sorrow he held. It means "shadow" and it's an apt descriptor for the agony and desolation brought about by the loss of his life partner.
It engulfed Lim completely, to the point that he neglected everything else.
He would go for days without food and refused to work, resulting in him losing his business and being declared a bankrupt.
He eventually lost his house and had to rent a unit from HDB, even though he was frequently in arrears.
With no house, no work, no money, and supporting three children, the emotionally broken Lim was, in every sense of the word, ruined.
"Falling into financial hardship, I felt like I had hit rock bottom, " he recalled, shaking his head.
There were times when he even felt like taking his own life.
"I'm not trying to help you. I want to help your 8-year-old girl."
In 2013, Lim's HDB rental arrears caught the eye of a social worker from the South Central Community Family Service Centre who tried to reach out to him.
But her efforts were rebuffed, Lim chuckled, recalling how he used to be "so stubborn".
It was a matter of "face". He's the type of person who doesn't like to admit that he needs help, he said.
Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), she was much too persistent to give up on him. She called Lim often to ask to meet up for a chat. And each time, Lim would lash out at her:
"Why are you so kay poh? There are so many others who are worse off than me in Singapore. Can't you go and help them? Why are you pestering me?"
But after three long months of "pestering" Lim, the exhausted social worker finally pitched a final request:
"Give me a chance to meet you face to face, let me ask you one question — just one question. If you can give me an answer, I'll leave you alone."
He relented, meeting her one afternoon where she learned all about his situation.
And then she asked, "Mr Lim, you said before that if you have money, the kids will have something to eat. If you don't have money, then your kids don't need to eat?"
Yes, he said.
"If you don't want our help, then we can't help you. No one can help you. But listen to me," said the social worker.
"I'm not trying to help you. I want to help your 8-year-old girl."
At this point during our chat, Lim breaks down in tears, furiously choking back his sobs as he tried to explain how he was so blinded by his own pride that he neglected his own flesh and blood.
That meeting with the social worker was the turning point where Lim decided to pick himself up again for himself and his children.
With the help of a social service office, Lim received the aid he needed for rental, school pocket money for his kids, food rations, and even the resources to find some part time jobs.
Occasionally, the staff at the South Central Community Family Service Centre paid him for small, ad-hoc jobs as well so that he could earn a bit of money.
The centre was also relentless in getting Lim to join its activities because of one thing — to take his mind off the loss of his wife.
"They're always asking me to come do this and do that, wah, I didn't have time to think about other stuff."
Restarting his life was an uphill climb, but he persevered and in 2017, Lim was finally released from bankruptcy.
He went on to start his own pest control company, Universe Pest Management, drawing on his close-to 40 years of experience in pest-busting.
Picking up and paying forward
Picking up the pieces of his life is indeed impressive, but what is more inspiring is how Lim is paying it forward.
His life wouldn't be what is is today if not for the unwavering social worker and the staff at the South Central Community Family Service Centre, who are constantly looking out for residents who are often overlooked.
Lim credits them for believing in him and building up his confidence. This is why he joins the centre's outreach activities in his free time, contributing in whatever small ways he can, be it creating props for an event, building a community garden, or even clearing pests.
Lim also makes use of his pest control skills to clear pests for his neighbours as well as the centre.
Pest controlling is quite expensive business, he said, costing anywhere from S$500 to S$700 per visit from a pest controller. If you're staying in a rental unit, living from pay cheque to pay cheque, this is not an amount that you might be able to easily afford.
The most common pests that plague his neighbours are bedbugs.
"They can be found in the mattresses. And they come out at night to bite you and suck your blood. If there's a lot, they can climb up to the walls of the unit."
It doesn't take Lim long to clear bedbugs — half an hour at most — and he charges only S$250 to S$300 for his services. Sometimes, he even does it for free for really needy households or elderly residents.
He doesn't earn a lot and it's fine, he said.
"If I charge the typical rates (for pest control), I'll be living in a bungalow now!"
No, his motivation is not monetary in nature: "I want to give back to my community."
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 images courtesy of JB Lim.