May 31, 2009
Courage of an unknown heroine
The widow has never been to school, had cancer - yet is happy and has raised 2 kids
By Lee Wei Ling
The housekeeper who cleans my room at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) is a 46-year-old Kadazan woman from Sabah. She works every day, and is unfailingly courteous, cheerful and meticulous in her work. I struck up a conversation with her. Her name is Moiri, and life has dealt her a bad hand of cards.
Her husband died in a traffic accident more than 10 years ago when he was in his 30s. She has never been to school but has managed to single-handedly bring up her two children.
Initially, she farmed her land. But whatever padi, vegetables and chicken the farm yielded was barely enough to feed her family and she never grew enough to sell. Working as a cleaner in Sabah earned her RM300 a month.
She came to Singapore five years ago and works now for a cleaning company, ISS Facility Services Private Limited.
She works every day, including weekends and public holidays, so that she can earn overtime pay. She alternates between working from 7.30am to 11.30pm one day and from 7.30am to 3.30pm the next. She then supplements these normal working hours with overtime. As a result, she earns about $1,370 a month. She works on average about 67.4 hours a week.
She pays $100 a month for a room in an HDB flat at Spottiswood Park which she shares with four other women. She walks to and from SGH to her flat, thus saving on bus and train fares. After deducting the cost of her food, she has $900 to send back to Sabah each month.
She had breast cancer last year and had mastectomy and radiation therapy in SGH. I came to know about her illness because a close friend of mine was also admitted for mastectomy. When Moiri saw her doing her arm exercises, she encouraged my friend, saying she too had been through it and is now well.
ISS Facility Services' company health policy does not cover medical illnesses that are not work-related. In Moiri's case, her total medical expenses came up to about $4,600. The company paid her hospital bill because she had been a consistently good performer - did her job well, always turned up for work and had received numerous compliments from patients and customers. In addition, ISS also granted her two months' paid leave to recuperate.
SGH and ISS staff members voluntarily contributed about $2,000 to Moiri, which they gave to her as a hongbao, which she used for her follow-up treatments. The gift was a clear reflection of the fact that many who knew her, liked and trusted her. Moiri is very grateful to ISS as well as to the many friends she has made in Singapore.
Obviously, many people other than I have taken a liking to this cheerful Kadazan woman who accepts the bad hand of cards that fate has handed her, but chooses to play life's game as best as she can, with good spirit and with no self-pity or bitterness.
Moiri's 24-year-old daughter will be graduating from university this year and will proceed to a teacher's training college. Moiri intends to eventually put her 14-year-old son through university as well.
My friend and I have struck up a friendship with Moiri. She tells us she is happy to be among patients who smile at her and invited both of us to her 'humble' home in Sabah. She said she has peace of mind, happiness in her heart, and many friends in Singapore. What more could she ask for?
I was very touched by her remarks and the matter-of-fact manner in which she related her life story.
How many of us, who may have more than Moiri has, are as satisfied or contented as she? How many of us clamour for more, at the expense of happiness and friendship? How many true friends does each of us really have - friends who are not afflicted with the green-eyed monster? How many of us can do as much as Moiri has with so little, and yet not complain?
Moiri has never been to school, but she is wise. She approaches life with the Stoic philosophy, though she doesn't know about it. However adverse external circumstances are, our happiness is within our control. I may be crippled, but I can choose to hobble around cheerfully or allow myself to sink into deep depression.
I myself have been crippled by fractures five times between 2001 and 2005. Like Moiri, I had not heard of or read Stoic philosophy then. But I hobbled around on crutches at a pace that was faster than that of a normal young adult walking. One friend complimented me: 'You are getting very agile on crutches.' I replied: 'I have had a lot of opportunity to practise.'
Recently, I did read about Stoic philosophy. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived in the first century, put it very eloquently thus: 'I must die. But must I die groaning? I must be imprisoned. But must I whine as well? I must suffer exile. Can any one hinder me from going with a smile, and a good courage, and at peace?'
In short, it's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. People are not disturbed by particular events as such, but by the view they take of them. Moiri does not have formal education, but she knows how to live her life. She is a much happier person than many who are richer and more educated than she.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.