Under our "Inspiring People" column, we highlight the incredible journey of one person who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams, too. This month, we bring you a spirited senior citizen who skips his lunch every day to bring food to the needy.
When the clock strikes for lunch, Tan Choon Kiang slips out of his office at the Land Transport Authority in central Singapore and quietly makes his way east.
But there is no time for the 62-year-old to eat. He has an important date – with the poor, elderly and disabled of the Chai Chee estate.
They are counting on Tan to bring them lunch, which he has unfailingly done every single day for over a year now.
Tan’s routine is simple enough. Food arrives – courtesy of non-profit soup kitchen Willing Hearts – and the skinny, bespectacled engineering officer fills his bicycle basket with meal packets before hand-delivering them to households with immobile residents.
Making the rounds takes only 10 to 15 minutes, according to Tan, and then he heads back to his workplace – sans lunch for himself.
The amiable father of two doesn’t think twice about it, saying, “Without us (himself and the Willing Hearts volunteers), these people will really have no food to eat.”
Tan is no stranger to volunteerism. He served the Lengkong Tiga Residents’ Committee (RC) for 22 years, of which four were spent as its chairman before he retreated to a vice-chairman post in January this year.
Much of his work for the RC involves “reaching out to residents to see what problems they have, and (channeling) feedback to government agencies”.
This desire to address issues faced by the common people, said Tan, has kept him going all these years.
So when he found out that his Adviser and Member of Parliament (MP) – Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin – needed help to distribute free meals to poor families living out of rental flats in Chai Chee, Tan signed up without hesitation.
“To be frank, to get a volunteer like me to go house-to-house, it’s a bit difficult,” said Tan, who is married to a 58-year-old housewife. “But sometimes… must do some sacrifice (sic).”
Does he ever get hungry skipping lunch?
“No problem,” smiled Tan. “I have a heavy breakfast, and a tea break around 3pm.”
He stays in Lengkong Tiga, and only started volunteering in Chai Chee since late 2011, but Tan’s exertions have already warmed him to the residents, who chimed in with compliments of his “kind” and “loving” nature, as well as how he “treats old people well”.
Tan described how some of the citizens treat him “like a brother”, openly sharing their concerns with him – whether it’s having no money to pay utility bills or demanding to see their MP.
Most of the time, he encourages them to attend meet-the-people sessions, held every Monday, to seek help from minister Tan.
There also appears to be a growing demand for Tan’s chivalry.
At the food collection point, as he prepares to pedal off into the scorching midday heat, a gray-haired Madam Tan informs him that her “legs have no strength”.
Again, it’s “no problem” for Tan, who replies, “Let me know (where you stay), I will send food to you.”
New additions to his delivery route aside, Tan also has to deal with food complaints running the gamut from uncooked rice to overly-salty vegetables.
There’s more. “Sometimes I give them rice and they want bee hoon (rice vermicelli),” he laughed. “I have to explain to them, the food is prepared by Willing Hearts, my duty is just to deliver the food to you.”
Worse still, Tan added, are cases where residents not entitled to the free meals insist on their share.
“We will explain to them, but they won’t be happy and will quarrel with the volunteers,” said Tan. “Usually we (end up telling) them to wait and if there’s balance we give it to them.”
For everything else, he’s more than glad to be of service, whether it’s painting houses or helping out with spring cleaning.
An example to follow
As a senior citizen himself, Tan’s one-man show can only go on for so long – a fact that he is well aware of.
He has organised recruitment drives to garner new volunteers, but acknowledged “it’s difficult because most say they have no time, have family commitments…”
Nonetheless, Tan is determined to soldier on until he “really cannot, and feel very tired (sic)”. He does, however, have a deputy, Michael, who fills in for him when he’s sick or tied down with work.
Tan’s greater hope is for Singaporeans to “step forward and do a little bit for these small communities”. Volunteering, he said, is “very meaningful”.
He struggled to elaborate, but after all, this is truly a field where actions speak volumes more than words.
Midway through his deliveries, Tan is stopped by an able, middle-aged cyclist who asks for a packet of food. He gives the man what he wants, after doing a quick check of his reserves.
“I usually carry an extra one or two packets… some people are not in the list but if they ask, I will give,” said Tan. “No problem.”
Tan Choon Kiang's story is brought to you in partnership with the Singaporean of the Day project. For more inspiring stories, visit their page here.
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