Learning > Inspiration

The Lives They Live: 100-year-old Justice of Peace devotes her life to social work

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.

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Rahimah Rashith on 22 Aug 2018

The Straits Times

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Not many people live to 100 and even fewer spend that lifetime helping others. Mrs Gnanasundram Thevathasan is one of them.

 

She was born in 1918, the same year that Nelson Mandela came into the world. Like the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she too tried to make the world a better place.

 

Mrs Thevathasan grew up and lived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, until her marriage at the age of 21, two days before the outbreak of World War II on Sept 3, 1939.

 

As a result, Mrs Thevathasan's Sri Lankan husband, who lived and worked as a doctor in Singapore, was hastily called back here after the wedding as part of the British war effort.

 

"I believe my purpose and destiny were here," she said. "He was here and I was there. Our marriage brought us together."

 

The couple boarded a ship and sailed to Singapore. Eventually, they were caught up in the Japanese Occupation.

 

"The British provided us ships to go back home during the Japanese Occupation, but I decided not to," said Mrs Thevathasan. "My husband decided to help the underprivileged here. So I went along with him."

 

During the war, her husband - Dr Arthur Wesley Sugunaratnam Thevathasan - ran a medical clinic providing vital medical services, including vaccinations, for the community.

 

Having witnessed the suffering and hardships of the people during the war, Mrs Thevathasan and her husband developed a heightened sense of compassion.

 

Without proper education or nourishment, children in Singapore suffered a lot, she said. "Children from poorer families were neglected and often loitered in the streets, as their parents had to work for a living," she added. "They had no food to eat, they often stole and got into fights."

 

Mrs Thevathasan's husband became increasingly involved in medical and social services, joining organisations such as the YMCA in an effort to help the community rebuild. He encouraged her to become as involved as he was.

 

Along with some church members, Mrs Thevathasan would gather poor children to teach them maths at the wet market and prepare them a free meal.

 

"These kids were in the streets doing all sorts of crimes," said the mother of four.

 

"Sometimes they were neglected, they were digging into garbage bags for food.

 

"We collected them in the wet market, put desks and chairs and taught them there, while at the other half of the market, people were selling chicken and vegetables.

 

"I did all this with the encouragement of my husband. Without his involvement, I would not have done this. I had my own children, my own commitments at home as a wife and mother, but he encouraged me."

 

In 1948, Mrs Thevathasan was among the first group of women to be appointed as a Justice of Peace in Singapore. A Justice of Peace serves as a visiting justice of Singapore's prisons, volunteer court mediator in the State Courts, and marriage solemniser appointed through the Registry of Marriages.

 

In the role, she visited the women's prisons in Pearl's Hill and Changi, where she looked into welfare matters, such as arranging care for prisoners' children if both husband and wife are behind bars.

 

"After the war, there was a lot of unrest, a lot of communist activities. A lot of men and women went to prison," she said.

 

"At the prison, I advised them and tried to help them. People threw things at us, they cursed at us before they realised we are a neutral party. We try to help where we can."

 

Mrs Thevathasan was often called to solemnise marriages. While some were grand affairs, others were small, often without families around them. She took great interest in gently counselling the couples, who were from various cultural backgrounds.

 

She officiated marriages for over 60 years, the most recent being the wedding of her grandson in 2014, when she was 96.

 

Though born in Sri Lanka, Mrs Thevathasan dedicated most of her life to helping the underprivileged in Singapore.

 

These days, she is no longer as mobile as in her youth, and tires easily, but she still wants to help where she can. Just last week, in her role of Justice of Peace, she certified an application for an Australia visa.

 

Her husband died of a heart attack in 1967 at a Rotary Club dinner, where the guest of honour was Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak. She never remarried.

 

"My late husband made the person I am today," she said. "Without his support, I would not have been able to do the work I did and help others. I am what I am because of him."

 

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