Sunday, July 15, 2012

Boy, 7, is his nearly blind granny's eyes

SINGAPORE - Like other seven-year-olds, he started schooling this year, but he is no ordinary Primary 1 pupil.

He not only acts as the eyes for his almost blind 63-year-old grandmother, but also helps her sell newspapers every day in Ang Mo Kio.

And Ah Boy, his granny's nickname for him, does it without complaint.

After school, he is by his grandmother's side, helping her sell newspapers.

He stays there till she sells out or closes at around 10pm, and deals with her customers, collecting money and giving change.

Unlike other kids his age, Ah Boy can't afford to go for activities like swimming lessons, but he doesn't mind.

"I'm happy as long as I'm with my grandma," said the bubbly boy, whom we are not naming because of his young age.

Madam G. H. Lim, 63, has been selling newspapers and magazines for at least 20 years.

Grandma and grandson have been together since his mother left for Malaysia around 2007. As her eyesight worsened, Ah Boy took on more of the work.

The New Paper observed the pair for more than three hours on Monday.

The boy would ask customers in Mandarin: "Which newspaper do you want? This one, that's 80 cents."

I placed a dollar coin into his small hand.

"Ah Ma, 20 cents change!" he called. Madam Lim passed him a coin to give me.

"Thank you, thank you," he said while bowing.

Their earnings are kept in a square biscuit tin.

Madam Lim told TNP in Mandarin: "Ah Ma can't see. I don't know if anyone's trying to steal from us. So Ah Boy has to look out to make sure nobody takes our money."

The boy said: "I always protect it properly. Nobody will take it."

On average, they sell about 200 copies each day. This works out to a daily profit of about $15. But should a child spend so much time at the stall?

Said Madam Lim: "I'm around, what's there to worry about?"

Their small corner is in front of UOB ATMs, a convenience store and just by a coffee shop.

Ah Boy made himself comfortable on a single mattress placed next to the stall. When there were no customers, he rolled about or took a nap.

He hugged an old bolster and covered himself with a blue and red sleeping bag, the sort used on camping trips.

Ah Boy also devised a game to pass the time by rolling empty tins and coasters on the ground as if they were wheels of a car.

He watched as the objects lost momentum and fell on their side. He picked them up and started the process all over again.

A passer-by told him: "Don't walk around barefoot. You must be careful."

The boy retorted: "It's okay, I've walked around many times already."

When he tired of the game, he blew a Bestman balloon and gave one to me.

While his friends may be watching TV at home, Ah Boy does it as well by joining the uncles sitting in the coffee shop.

This is what his day is typically like from 3pm to 10pm, after which they return to their three-room flat in Toa Payoh.

Blurred eyesight

Madam Lim's eyesight deteriorated after an accident while burning joss paper 20 years ago.

She can see only blurred images now. She also can't hear in her right ear after she was punched during a fight when she was in her 20s.

But Madam Lim said she can still cope with her customers when Ah Boy is not around, such as when he goes to the toilet.

She said: "I can feel the coins. They are of different sizes. I can also vaguely see the colour of the notes."

Despite her disability, she insists she is not a burden to her grandson. She cleans the house and washes the clothes. She also sometimes takes the bus by herself, using an umbrella to feel her way.

"I can look after myself," she said. "It's not like he's only taking care of me all the time. We take care of each other."

This is not the first time Madam Lim and her grandson are in the news. The New Paper wrote about them in 2006.

Then, they were living with Madam Lim's husband and daughter - Ah Boy's mother.

In 2007, Madam Lim's husband died from heart disease and Ah Boy's mother moved to Malaysia soon after, where she has another child.

Madam Lim wanted Ah Boy to grow up in Singapore instead of in Malaysia.

She said: "I want him to attend school here because our education system is good."

Ah Boy's mother now visits them about once a month and gives the family $10 each time, Madam Lim said. Phone calls to Ah Boy's mother went unanswered yesterday.

The principal of Ah Boy's school in Toa Payoh told TNP in an e-mail that he is an enthusiastic learner.

She said: "When he first entered Pri 1, he could not recognise the letters of the alphabet and was unable to communicate in English.

"However, through the learning support programme for English, he has made steady progress in the English language."

Madam Lim was glad to hear this, adding: "When he grows up, he can get a good job."

Ah Boy interjected: "When I grow up, I will take care of my grandma."

It will be an extension of his current responsibilities, which includes helping her to cross the road.
He also helps to feed their pets - a pigeon and a hamster.

While they live simply, they are happy.

Over the years, well-wishers have donated many items - including toys, TV sets and boxes of cookies - which now fill their flat.

People who pass by their stall also give them food. Others decline to take the change the boy gives them.

A good Samitarian offered to take Madam Lim to see a doctor on Sunday.

But she declined, saying she would not be able to make money if she was away seeing a doctor.

She told TNP: "Even if I can get my sight back, the follow-up treatment will cost a lot. I also don't want other people to spend so much money on me.

"I'm glad everyone is concerned for us. But they don't have to be. We are fine and our lives will get better."

Help for Madam Lim and Ah Boy

When Madam Lim's family had problems paying their household bills five years ago, the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) stepped in to provide financial aid.

Now the CDAC is looking at how it can help Madam Lim.

A CDAC spokesman told TNP in an e-mail: "Upon learning of their current situation, we are now gathering more information and will work with other agencies to offer the appropriate assistance to the grandmother and the boy."

Other organisations have offered help:
  • Singapore Press Holdings has made a donation;
  • The News Vendors' Association will donate $500;
  • The Care Corner Family Service Centre is looking into providing Ah Boy with school pocket money.
  • The Central Singapore Community Development Council (CDC) is giving them a one-off cash grant as well as a monthly one. It has given them vouchers for utilities and service and conservancy charges.
  • The CDC has given Madam Lim a medical fee assistance card, which makes her eligible for medical assistance under the ComCare Transitions programme. It is valid from this month till the year's end.
Said a CDC spokesman: "We have also referred them to other external agencies so as to further relieve their financial burden."

Ah Boy is not on The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF) scheme, but SPMF general manager Martina Wong said a social worker will help him to apply for it and other assistance.

He has been put under the Ministry of Education's Financial Assistance Scheme to get a full waiver of miscellaneous fees.

He is in the School Breakfast Programme and has been issued free textbooks and school attire. All learning journeys and enrichment programmes that he has to attend are fully subsidised.

Said his school's principal: "We are working with (Madam Lim) to consider placing him in our after-school care centre which will be fully subsidised, too."

And if Madam Lim is no longer selling newspapers, the CDC and a social worker from a family service centre will explore the possibility of her attending activities at a Care Corner Senior Activity Centre near her home, said a CDC spokesman.

Madam Lim, who also gets $200 a month from renting out a room in their flat, told TNP she doesn't mind her grandson being placed in the after-school care centre as he will have friends there to play with.

"But I will continue to sell newspapers. I'm sure people around my stall will help me.

"I don't want to go to an old folks' home or elderly centre. I want to be independent," she said.

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