A Chance Encounter with Dignity

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I was walking around, surveying the construction site for the new S$1.2 billion Sports Hub in Kallang when I chanced upon Uncle Teo.

It is a cool afternoon as he sits there, apparently taking a break from sweeping the grounds. A broom and a dust pan by his side the dead giveaways. The small and narrow walkway which runs between the Stadium train station and the construction site is not exactly where one would take a rest, for there is no shelter from the elements. But today’s weather is a merciful one.

“Hello, uncle,” I smile at him. He smiles back. “Taking a break from your work, ah?” I ask in my halting Hokkien.

“Yes,” he replies. Sensing that he is open to talking more with me, I continue, “You work here, Uncle?”

“Ya, I sweep inside the train station,” he says as he points in that direction. “I sweep outside here also.”

“It’s a big place to keep clean,” I say. Uncle smiles.

“It is ok lah.”

Uncle Teo wears a uniform of blue shirt and black pants. His hands are weathered and worn, his face wrinkled from his years.

“I am 71,” he says.

“Why not retire, and take it easy, Uncle?” I ask. “Why do this job? Not an easy job to do.”

“It is ok lah. I can still do it,” he smiles as he tells me. “If I stay home, it is harder. Also, time passes slowly too if you don’t do anything.”

“That is true. How many hours do you work everyday, Uncle?” I ask.

“8 hours. From morning 7am to 3 pm.”

“Is the pay ok?”

“It is ok lah. S$5 an hour. So I get S$40 a day,” Uncle explains but adds, “It is not everyday that there is work, although there is work most days. They call you when they need you, and post you to wherever you are needed.”

Uncle Teo tells me that he lives in Ang Mo Kio and had travelled to Kallang for today’s job.

“I told them I don’t work on Sunday, though,” he says.

“How come?”

“Because I go to church on Sunday.”

“Ahh, I see. You’re Christian?”

“I’m Catholic. I go to church on Sunday, so I can’t work.”

“That’s good, Uncle. Don’t work everyday, especially weekends. Must rest lah,” I say to him.

He nods and smiles.

“I have two daughters, married already.”

“Do they help you with expenses?”

“They do give me some money every month.”

“Do you need to apply for government help?”

“No, no,” Uncle Teo says. “No need. I can manage.”

He tells me his HDB flat has already been paid up.

“I used to work in coffeeshops,” Uncle explains. “It was ok. Not so bad.” In his younger days, it was construction. But as age catches up with him, such tough physical work was no longer an option.

Uncle pauses, looks at the floor for a moment, and then lifts his head and looks at me. He wants to say something but then withdraws, that smile on his face as he looks away again.

“This Sports Hub they’re building here…”

Uncle cuts in before I could finish.

“It costs a lot of money,” he says, as we both stare at the half-finished dome which will cover a 55,000 capacity stadium with a retractable roof and comfort cooling for spectators, “which when completed will be the largest free spanning structure in the world.”

The Hub itself will hold an aquatic centre, a multi-purpose indoor arena, a water sports centre, and various other sports facilities (click on the images below for a larger preview).

 

“How do you feel about this, Uncle?”

“It is ok lah,” he says. “Singapore moves on.”

I can’t help but see a metaphor of sorts in the elderly Uncle Teo sweeping the grounds between a shiny mrt station and an upcoming costly structure symbolising S’pore’s future. “The old, always picking up after the new,” a friend commented on my Facebook page when I posted a picture of my encounter with Uncle Teo. It is quite true – we see our elderly folks cleaning up after the rest of us nowadays, at the food courts, sweeping our public areas, at coffeeshops and hawker centres.

At the same time, however, I also admire the resilience of our elderly folks, many of whom, truth be told, have gone through tougher times than many of us younger ones.

But what is the one thing which touched me from this seemingly ordinary and insignificant encounter with Uncle Teo? It is when we had said our goodbyes and we each walked away in opposite directions. I turned around to have another look at Uncle Teo. Broom in one hand and dust pan in another, he was again sweeping the grounds. It then dawned on me that Uncle Teo was the only person in that area, a space which few would walk. But he is there keeping that space clean.

I then realised that it is about responsibility. But more than that perhaps, it is also about dignity.

While we may question society’s lack of provision for our elderly folks, we should also realise that sometimes a little pat on the back is more important than any material rewards. When we recognise and appreciate the work our elderly folks do – even if they are ‘lowly’ menial jobs – we accord them the dignity which they deserve.

And all it takes is a few minutes to say a few words of appreciation to them – especially when you find them caught in the wedges of our economic progress, or picking up after the rest of us.

Our senior folks teach us more than we realise, if we take time to appreciate them.

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