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The Lives They Live: Octogenarian goes knock, knock, knock - for a good cause

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Toh Yong Chuan on 13 Jun 2018

The Straits Times

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While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series The Lives They Live.

 

Every Monday, Madam Kok Yoon Hin goes knocking on doors in the Geylang Bahru estate, a routine she has kept to for the past three years.

 

She is not a door-to-door saleswoman. Instead, Madam Kok checks on other seniors who live alone in the estate.

 

Madam Kok volunteers at voluntary welfare organisation Touch Community Services' senior activity centre in Geylang Bahru.

 

"I try to spend time talking to them. Some of them are so lonely," said the grandmother of three who started volunteering three years ago.

 

"I started when I realised how fortunate I was to be healthy and still able to help other people," she said.

 

Madam Kok said she was born in Foshan, China, in 1934, but her birth year is stated as 1932 on her identity card. "My IC says I was born in 1932 and 86 years old, but I was actually born in 1934 and I am 84 years old this year," she said.

 

Be she 84 or 86, Madam Kok is the oldest active volunteer at the Geylang Bahru centre.

 

Madam Kok said her family left China in the late 1930s to seek a better life.

 

She is the second youngest of the eight children. Her family spent a few months in Singapore and left for Ipoh to join relatives there.

 

The Second World War caught up with the Koks in Ipoh during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945.

 

Madam Kok recalled attending primary school and having to learn basic Japanese. The family survived the war, but it had an impact on Madam Kok in an unexpected way.

 

She was about eight years old when Japan started occupying Malaya but her father declared her to be 10, to get more food rations.

 

Madam Kok dropped out of school at Primary 5 and did various odd jobs. "I worked in rubber plantations and a factory that bottled soft drinks," she recalled.

 

In her early 20s, in the late 1950s when Singapore was under self-rule, she moved to Singapore with a friend to look for a better-paying job after hearing that Singapore had better opportunities.

 

Her first job was working as an apprentice in a hairdressing salon, where she washed customers' hair.

 

"My hands were wet all the time and, after a while, it felt like my fingers were going to be rotten from prolonged exposure to water. The pay was only $10 a month, I quit after a few months," she said.

 

Her next job was at a factory, sewing shoes, which earned her about $100 a month.

 

She rented a room in a shophouse near what is now Balestier Road for $10 a month. "At that time, 30 cents could buy lunch comprising rice and vegetables," she recalled.

 

She also tried working as a seamstress and selling clothes, but those jobs did not pay well.

 

Her big break came when she was 27 and a friend found her work in the Rothman of Pall Mall cigarette factory in Bukit Timah that paid $400 a month.

 

"My job was to pack cigarettes. I hated the smell. But I did it because the job was stable and the pay was good," she said,

 

That year, she married Mr Kong Kwan Thong, a shipyard worker two years older than her whom she had met a few years earlier through mutual friends. They moved into a rental flat in Geylang Bahru.

 

Madam Kok continued to work in the cigarette factory after her son and daughter were born.

 

The family saved enough to buy a one-bedroom Housing Board flat in MacPherson in the late 1960s. "We paid $7,800," she recalled.

 

About 10 years later, they upgraded to a three-room HDB flat in Geylang Bahru, paying $17,500.

 

Then in her 40s, she stopped working full-time to look after her children. To supplement the family income, she took on odd jobs like cleaning offices in Toa Payoh and as a waitress during banquets.

 

She continued to do odd jobs and had planned to retire in her early 60s. But it was not to be.

 

Her husband, who was a heavy smoker and had high blood pressure, was diagnosed with diabetes.

 

He had to stop working and use a walking stick after all his toes were amputated.

 

Both the children were grown up and married, so the task of caring for her husband fell on Madam Kok.

 

"I had to cook for him, give him medicine and make sure he was in good spirits," said Madam Kok, who cared for him for about 10 years until he died in 2006, aged 75.

 

Before he died, he spent seven weeks in hospital, running up a bill of $80,000. "It wiped out our savings," said Madam Kok.

 

Her daughter, a teacher, took care of most of the medical bill with her savings and Medisave. Her son, a casual labourer, chipped in too.

 

"I am glad that my children are filial," she said.

 

After her husband died, she lived alone in the Geylang Bahru flat and spent her time at the Touch senior activity centre. She decided to volunteer instead of just participating in activities organised by the centre as she felt she was still healthy and could contribute to the work.

 

Once a week, Madam Kok visits seniors who live near her. "Many of those whom I visit live alone," she said. "Some of them are younger than me, but they are weak or have health problems.

 

"I feel sad when they have no one to talk to. That's why I visit them, so that they don't feel lonely.

 

She said:"At my age, every day is a gift and I feel happy using my gift to make other seniors feel happy.

 

"I hope that my story will encourage other seniors to volunteer."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.