“We buy the rice by the kilogramme each time. When we ran out of it, we’d just eat bread or buy some cheap mixed rice to fill our stomachs. Sometimes we would just share one packet (of mixed rice). This sack of rice is a great help to us as it can last us for several months.” That was Chai Chee resident Mrs Chen speaking to the Tzu Chi volunteers who distributed the rice to her doorstep.
The rice distribution was organized by the Kaki Bukit Ansar Residents’ Committee (RC) and co-sponsored by the Lam Yong Poh Clan Association in conjunction with the Chinese’s Dumpling Festival, or better known as Dragon Boat Festival. Besides Tzu Chi volunteers, the RC also enlisted 100 other members of GROs, VWOs, schools, religion groups, clan association and residents to join in the cause in providing 1700 needy families with a little relief.
Mrs Chen, 68, has been living in the neighbourhood with her 72-year-old husband for many years. Her husband is almost blind due to glaucoma and has to be constantly cared for all the time. The couple now depends on the S$360 Public Assistance grant to pay for their daily expenses. Mr Chen has a wound on his hip which needs to be tended to and cleaned by a professional nurse every two days and each house call costs between $15 to $45 each time.
“Luckily the government provided a one-off S$800 subsidy to my husband recently. It really took some burden off our shoulders and we’re using it sparingly now,” said Mrs Chen.
The volunteers noted the Chen family’s details and gave Mrs Chen the contact of Tzu Chi’s social welfare officer, advising her to make a call to the Foundation should she and her husband require further assistance. The gesture moved the resident so much that she shed tears while leaning on the door to bid the volunteers goodbye.
Reaching out to the dark corners
Inside the ten-storey single-roomed flat, some parts of the central common corridors still seemed dark even with lighting installed. The compact design of the accommodation hardly allows any sunlight to penetrate through.
Apart from the small groups of elderly chit-chatting at the void deck in the day, the entire neighbourhood feels quiet most of the time and more so in the night.
This laid-back feeling is reminiscent of the days before Chai Chee became a thriving community with housing estates built in the area. Previously, Chai Chee, which means Vegetable Market in the Hokkien dialect, was primarily farmland over a series of rolling hills where farmers and kampong (which means village in Malay) residents gathered to sell and buy produce.
When development began in the late 1960s, the estate was built with blocks of rental units. It was the first Housing and Development Board estate to be built on the eastern part of Singapore complete with amenities we see in HDB neighbourhoods today.
Today, Chai Chee has been redeveloped and expanded into a modern housing estate. Most of the old rental blocks have been torn down and replaced with larger, purchased dwellings. With the rise of Bedok New Town, most of the hustle and bustle of town life naturally moved to Bedok Central, and the neighbourhood seemed to have reverted back to the laid-back, rural charm of the old kampong days.
In November 2008, Tzu Chi took presence in the neighbourhood with its monthly recycling activity at the void deck of Block 27, Chai Chee Road. The Foundation is also currently extending its aid to several local needy families through its charity scheme and “Seeds of Hope” bursary programme.
Thanks to the invitation of Kaki Bukit Ansar RC chairperson Mdm Teo Cheo Tee Eileen who holds Tzu Chi Foundation in high regards, through which Tzu Chi volunteers were able to partake in the rice distribution activity.
Gratitude and respect for the recipients
After a record-breaking month of scorching weather in May, Singapore was pounded by heavy rain in the early morning of 5 Jun. The showers washed away heat that has been accumulating for days but also led to flash floods in many parts of the island.
Although the rain slowed down gradually at 3pm, the sky was still drizzling when the 80 volunteers from Tzu Chi’s East 2 Zone arrived at the assembly point at Chai Chee Open Plaza.
“Let us carry out this mission with gratitude, respect, love, and care. While we present the rice, please spend some time to chat with the residents. If you think the family needs further assistance, take down their details and we will conduct further assessment to see how we can help as this is our main objective participating in this event,” said the volunteer leader during the briefing to fellow Tzu Chi volunteers.
After the briefing, the Tzu Chi volunteers began shifting the several hundred sacks of rice together with other volunteers onto the truck and headed to their designated blocks. From floor to floor and door to door they carried out the distribution. For those with two families staying under one roof, both families would each receive one sack of the 5kg rice, while those who are not in, their neighbours were kind enough to keep the rice for them.
With a sarong wrapped around her chest, resident Fatimah happily opened the door to greet the volunteers and smilingly asked them to place the rice in her house. The 74-year-old explained to the volunteers she couldn’t carry the sack of rice because she suffered a fall the day before, hurting her forearm. A concerned Sister Wu Yu Chin caressed her swelling right wrist and asked her, “Why didn’t you go and get your arm treated? Is it because you don’t have the money?”
The senior replied with a smile, “Don’t worry. I will get it from my children.”
“You must go and see the doctor tomorrow, okay? This will get worse if you leave it like this,” advised Sister Wu.
At an old age of 86, Granny Liu is still agile and full of strength. The solitary resident who lived in the neighbourhood for 15 years keeps her house spick-and-span and was delighted to see “so many people come distribute rice to me”.
“This can last me several weeks,” the senior added.
“Do you usually buy the rice yourself?” the volunteer then asked.
“I would buy a kilo or two sometimes, and other times I’d ask my children to buy for me. I eat only a little so sometimes I just buy takeouts.”
“Granny, do you know what day we are celebrating today on the lunar calendar?”
“Beats me!” she replied with a laugh.
When the volunteers told her, she said, “Oh, it’s already the Dumpling Festival? Well, I know someone in the block will definitely send some rice dumplings to me later. The neighbours here are very nice people,” said Granny. Before bidding goodbye to the volunteers, the senior assured the volunteers she will be fine as her house is installed with a safety alarm. “If there’s any emergency, I just pull the red wire and someone will come and check on me. Don’t worry.”
Outside a unit with its door wide open, the volunteers met 77-year-old Nashiya who affably declined the rice gift saying that her relatives visit her every week and bring her daily necessities.
One of her relatives who happened to be visiting her then assured the volunteers that Mdm Nashiya has sufficient necessities. Upon learning that Tzu Chi is a Buddhist charity organization, the relative named Adam added, “Another Buddhist organization also provides food to my aunt regularly, so I’m really thankful to you Buddhists.”
“I’m happy enough seeing you all dropping by,” remarked Mdm Nashiya in her native Malay language.
Mdm Lee, a gray-haired and frail 85-year-old, lives with a relative who is similarly feeble and immobile. Their next-door neighbour is kind enough to help tend to their needs and they rarely have any visitors aside from this neighbour checking on them from time to time. Hence when she saw the Tzu Chi volunteers knocking on her door, Mdm Lee’s face lit up with happiness and surprise and she quickly let the volunteers in. Their chatter and laughter warmed the tiny apartment instantly.
Before they bid goodbye, Mdm Lee said to the volunteers, “Thank you very much. It must be tiring distributing rice door to door,” and did not forget to ask the volunteers to “come by often”.
Since her husband passed on 13 years ago, Mdm Ashma, 81, has been living alone in her apartment with her daily expenses cared for by her niece. Her legs underwent a few surgeries before and are now painfully rheumatic and distorted, making her less mobile. The resident is grateful to her Chinese neighbour who often brings her to see the doctor as well as checking on her needs.
With the volunteers surrounding her, Mdm Ashma disclosed that she is in the midst of applying to move into a Home and started tearing as she lamented on her sickness and loneliness. The volunteers cheered her up and left the contact details of Tzu Chi with her, adding that she can always ask her niece to call the Foundation if she has any difficulty.
The distribution wrapped up at around 7.30pm. Being the largest volunteer group, besides visiting the 400 units designated by the RC, the Tzu Chi volunteers also visited two other blocks together with other volunteer groups.
Kampong Spirit revived
All of the rice that was given out that day was sponsored by environmental company owner Mr Poh Seng Kah. Mr Poh is also a member of the Lam Yong Poh Clan Association which co-sponsored the distribution and has been distributing the rice personally alongside the volunteers.
The entrepreneur recounted, “I was born into a very poor family so I understand how the needy feels. My family used to pinch and scrape to keep me and my siblings fed, buying rice by the kilo like the Chen family we visited just now.”
Mr Poh grew up in Chai Chee and witnessed the development of the neighbourhood from a small village to an urban estate. Now that he has achieved success in his career, the businessman who has just passed 50 years old knows it is the right thing to do by giving back to his community.
Before they called it a day, Brig-Gen (NS) Tan Chuan Jin, the Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC who also personally participated in the distribution, thanked all the organizations and institutions which participated in the event. “Everyone has demonstrated what Kampong Spirit is about today – to care for one another. Let us pass on this spirit of neighbourliness and continue to fill this community with warmth!”