Mum works multiple jobs, eats only instant noodles to give son best chance at success
In the five-room flat Malcolm Teo shares with his mother, Madam Seah Yu Ping, and five family members, sits a brand new iPhone 5s.
It was donated by The New Paper reader Stella Sobak and her husband, to encourage and support the teenager, who will turn 15 on Saturday.
The phone remains in its box.
Malcolm cannot bear to use it.
"My current phone, an iPhone 4, is still working," explains the teen.
He admits that the iPhone 4 is on its last legs, but steadfastly refuses to use the new one: "I treasure the new phone a lot, and will start to use it only when the old one stops working completely," says the Secondary 3 student at Naval Base Secondary School.
In May this year, TNP chronicled Malcolm's journey, beating the odds and doing well enough to move from the Normal (Academic) to Express stream.
The journey of Madam Seah, his mother, was no less amazing.
Making ends meet has been an uphill battle for the 46-year-old, who was left with her son and little else after a bitter divorce from her husband eight years ago.
She is the sole breadwinner for her family of seven, which includes her parents, brother, his wife and their sickly child.
"I'm grateful for my brother and sister-in-law, who take care of my parents and my son when I'm out and about working, on top of having a hard time with their son.
"They give me peace of mind when I'm away from home," says Madam Seah. She gets help from the Nee Soon GRC and other organisations which provide her with food rations each month.
We approached Madam Seah again last week after finding out that her son has continued his winning streak: He scored straight As for all his subjects in his latest school assessments, including chemistry, physics and additional maths.
It took some convincing, but she spoke to us because she wanted to thank more than 10 individuals who got in touch with her after our last report.
She is grateful for their concern.
"I'm very touched. I feel less alone. Some of them gave me NTUC vouchers, others donated Popular (bookstore) vouchers. These things really help to defray the costs."
Have things changed for the better?
Not a lot.
To stretch her money, meals for her still consist mainly of cup noodles and water.
She said it is fast and economical, and sustains her during long work hours.
When asked about the lack of nutrition in her diet, Madam Seah protests that she takes seafood - crayfish-flavoured cup noodles.
She has also lost one of her three jobs. The flier distribution company she worked for previously made some changes in its structure.
Madam Seah now juggles between working as a newspaper distributor and a call centre telephone operator.
The family used to survive on her income of $1,600, on top of the $1,500 her husband pays for maintenance.
Now, her income is $1,400.
Some readers previously offered her jobs. One was too far away - it would have meant she would spend too much time travelling, time she could use to work. Another offer has not materialised yet.
But she remains thankful to TNP readers who reached out. She tries to keep in touch with them.
Recently, when she updated them about Malcolm's results, a Ms Ann Tay treated mother and son to a rare meal out - dinner at a Japanese restaurant at Northpoint shopping centre.
Malcolm says shyly that he has used the laptop and printer that another TNP reader, security consultant Kamlesh Ramchand, got him, "a couple of times".
"I really appreciate it, and have used it a few times for school projects," he says.
Again, there is the feeling that these devices are simply too precious for him to use.
But he says: "I also don't switch it on too much so that I won't be tempted to play computer games."
Malcolm says that he spends most of his time after school hitting the books.
His grades, which were mediocre before, began improving when he was in Secondary 1.
That was after he found out that his mother was taking on many jobs to give him a shot at success.
"I developed a genuine interest for school subjects, especially physics. I love researching astro and quantum physics," he says.
That his mother cannot afford tuition for him does not faze Malcolm - he goes to his teachers for help whenever he needs it.
Madam Seah beams through tears as she talks about how proud she is of her son.
But soft-spoken Malcolm reveals that the results did not meet his expectations.
"Two of the A1s I got were borderline," he says, adding that he would like to achieve at least 85 marks for each subject.
He has high aspirations. Asked which junior college he hopes to enter after taking his O levels next year, he names the nation's top schools: Hwa Chong and Raffles.
While she is heartened by how motivated he is, Madam Seah also worries about not having enough to help her son fulfil his potential.
"I started to ask and read up on how much JC costs.
"I wonder how I can support his education," she says.
But her determination to forge a better life for her family is clear.
"I will think of more ways to tighten my belt. Maybe I will eat less."
His mother's struggles are not lost on Malcolm.
"When I grow up I hope that I can help out with finances at home, so that my mother can stay home. Seeing her work so much, too much, I feel a pain in my heart."
"When I grow up, I hope that I can help out with finances at home, so that my mother can stay home."
- Malcolm Teo
“Some of them gave me NTUC vouchers, others donate Popular (bookstore) vouchers. These things really help to defray the costs.”
- Madam Seah Yu Ping
Donors hope teen pays it forward
GIFT: Malcolm Teo (right) with the laptop given to him by Mr Kamlesh Ramchand (in orange). Also in the photo are Malcolm’s mother, Madam Seah Yu Ping, and Mr Ramchand’s daughter, Tanya. TNP FILE PICTURE
Security consultant Kamlesh Ramchand donated a laptop and printer to student Malcolm Teo.
He said: "I am happy to hear that he is doing well in school. I have always believed in helping people who help themselves.
"I don't think family circumstances are a barrier to his success. He is well placed to get a scholarship and I hope in the future, he will do something for the community."
Says housewife Stella Sobak, who bought an iPhone worth about $1,000 for Malcolm: "We were so happy to hear about his results. I even showed the photo Madam Seah (Yu Ping) sent me to my husband. We are proud of him and we hope he keeps up the good work.
"We approached mother and son after being touched by their story. My husband and I decided to sponsor Malcolm an iPhone.
"He initially asked for the iPhone 5c as it was cheaper than the 5s. In the end, I insisted on the latter.
"I told him that if he needs anything in the future, we will help him. We hope he will make his mother proud, and pay it forward in the future."
Said Dr Friedrich Wu, an adjunct associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University, who donated $2,000 to Madam Seah and Malcolm: "I am glad he is progressing well. I wish him well."