Boy, 12, parents his four siblings as mum is sick
At just 12, he is brother, father and mother all rolled into one to his four siblings. With a sick mother and an absent father figure, the Primary 6 pupil has little choice. But he carries out his weighty duties with quiet courage
He cooks, dresses the kids up, takes them to school and stays up till 3am to finish his job.
The 12-year-old is known simply as "Abang" (or big brother in Malay) to his siblings. We are not using his real name.
He is a remarkable boy thrown into an unfortunate crisis. His biological father was allegedly abusive, his mother is unwell and his stepfather absent.
To his younger siblings, including a 30-month-old brother, Abang is father, brother and when he feeds, mother too.
His sad story begins with his parents' divorce, five years after his birth.
Abang's mother, who wants to be known only as Madam Nora, 35, remarried in 2008.
But Abang has not seen his stepfather since January after a slew of letters proclaiming outstanding credit card debts landed at Madam Nora's mother's flat in Woodlands.
The couple moved to the current rental flat last August.
Madam Nora, who has five children (three from her previous marriage and two with her current husband), says her husband owes $40,000.
To make matters worse, doctors at Tan Tock Seng Hospital have deemed Madam Nora unfit for work until the end of this year because of her health.
Before her injury, Madam Nora worked at the Woodlands Checkpoint as a Land Transport Authority customer service officer.
With his mother visiting hospitals and clinics almost three times a week for diabetes and chronic shoulder injury, Abang has no choice but to hold the fort at home.
"I need to help mama," the soft-spoken boy tells The New Paper on Sunday during a visit to their two-room rental flat in Woodlands.
He is set to take his Primary School Leaving Examination this year.
"She is already sick and if I don't help her, she will be alone," he says.
Every day after school, he prepares lunch - it is usually fried rice or instant noodles - for his four younger siblings.
While his three siblings, aged 11, nine and seven, eat their lunch, Abang sits patiently feeding his 30-month-old brother.
"I used to make lunch in the rice cooker. But now we have new pans, so it is easier to make makan (Malay for food) for my adik (Malay for younger siblings)".
The family is under the North West Home Fix Scheme, a collaborative effort between North West Community Development Council and Grassroots Organisations. The initiative aims to provide essential household items or repairs to upkeep basic living conditions.
The family recently received donations comprising cookware, slow cooker, gas stove, kitchen cabinet and a mattress.
They also get financial assistance from several agencies including the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
Madam Nora says the family receives a combined total of $1,270 from the two in cash every month.
The young boy, 12, allows himself briefly to be a boy again when he plays with his precious kendama toy. He has no digital devices, and hardly watches TV. The toy is packed neatly away and has pride of place in the bare house when he is done. He then goes and gets the younger children to do their homework. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
An MSF spokesman says Madam Nora and her children are also provided with "Comcare financial assistance and assistance for medical, rental, utilities, and service and conservancy charges for the six-month period from July to December 2015".
The family also gets $100 worth of North West Food Vouchers monthly as part of the North West Food Aid Fund.
To supplement the financial aid her family gets, Madam Nora prepares food packets for people who like her cooking.
Abang has to help her and because of that, he usually goes to sleep at 3am three times a week.
He tries his best at school and has passed all the subjects except mathematics.
"Sometimes, when I am in school, I feel tired but usually, it is okay. I can stay awake," he says. Abang and his three siblings attend a primary school that is a 15-minute walk from their home.
Abang does not ask for anything for himself. But he does have one wish - to meet his football heroes. He says: "The LionsXII footballers are good. My favourite players are Khairul Amri, Sahil Suhaimi and Faris Ramli."
When asked what he would do if he got the chance to meet them, he laughs and says: "I don't think I will get to meet them. They are big stars.
"If I ever get the chance to meet them, I won't know what to do but I think I will ask them to teach me ball tricks."
He then excuses himself and goes back to helping his siblings with their homework.
"Sometimes, when I am in school, I feel tired but usually, it is okay. I can stay awake."
- Abang, who often goes to sleep at 3am three times a week because he has to help his mother prepare food packets
Her hero amid health, money, marriage woes
BOND: Madam Nora and her five children are close. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
The young boy, 12, allows himself briefly to be a boy again when he plays with his precious kendama toy. He has no digital devices, and hardly watches TV, looking after his younger siblings, cooking, and cleaning for them. The toy is packed neatly away and has pride of place in the bare house when he is done. He then goes and gets the younger children to do their homework.
Madam Nora says she has not managed her diabetes.
She also has a chronic shoulder injury which she says was caused by an unattended dislocation years before.
According to a doctor's letter, the injury means she is deemed unfit to work until the end of this year.
Having Abang, who she calls her "commander-in-chief", has eased her burden.
"He really is my hero. He helps in any and every way that I need help, especially with the children.
"I do feel bad sometimes but he knows that I need all the help I can get and he is willing to do it," Madam Nora says.
"Abang is also the only person I can confide in. He has matured quickly because he had to understand our situation.
"He hasn't failed me once."
Madam Nora recalls an incident when the financial situation was so bad that Abang took his daily $1 allowance from his mother, kept it for 30 days and subsequently put the $30 back into her wallet telling her "use it for yourself, mama".
Her first marriage - from which she had her three children - ended when her ex-husband turned into an abusive alcoholic, says Madam Nora.
She tied the knot for the second time in 2008.
She remains married to the man, whom she says works at Certis Cisco Security.
But that relationship is troubled too. She has not seen him since January because he has been avoiding debt collectors over unpaid credit card debt amounting to $40,000.
LETTERS FROM BANKS
While the letters never reached their rental flat, Madam Nora has seen them - notices that came from two different banks - when the family lived at her mother's flat.
Her husband's absence, especially during times of trouble, has not quite put Madam Nora past the marriage.
She says he is still responsible towards the children.
He turned up at the hospital to sign the paperwork for Abang when he went for an operation in February, allowing the child's hospital expenses to be deducted from his CPF.
Madam Nora says: "Abang is not his son. Yet he came to help sign off on his medical expenses".
"He helps in any and every way that I need help, especially with the children. I do feel bad sometimes but he knows that I need all the help I can get and he is willing to do it."
- Madam Nora on her eldest son
A day in abang's life
6am: Abang wakes up and gets ready for school.
6.45am: He takes his three younger siblings with him to school. It is a 15-minute walk.
2pm: School ends.
2.15pm: Abang and his siblings go to their grandmother's flat, a 15-minute walk away to pick up their 30-month-old brother. They then walk 30 minutes to get home.
2.25pm: He prepares lunch for his siblings. He also feeds his baby brother.
3pm: They all take a shower. Abang bathes his youngest brother and puts him to bed for his afternoon nap. The rest start on their homework.
5pm: Abang takes a nap.
7pm: He helps his mother prepare dinner.
8pm: He helps his mother put the youngest boy to bed.
Midnight: He helps his mother prepare food orders for the next day. He also has to run errands including picking up groceries at the 24-hour supermarket nearby.
2.45am: Abang and his mother finish all the food preparation for the next day.
3am: He goes to bed.