His peers may prefer to play video games or lounge at cafés in their spare time, but 20-year-old Mawin Khoo professes to enjoy nothing better than having a cup of teh with his elderly neighbours.
Cheerfully, he tells The Pride: “I lived with my grandparents when I was young, so I have a soft spot for the elderly.”
Despite moving to his current home in Clementi just three years ago, Khoo has already struck up a firm friendship with several of the elderly folk who live in his estate, going so far as to organise void deck gatherings and chit-chat sessions at the nearby hawker centre.
All this, he does of his own accord, as he explains: “Some of them are often alone at home as their children are working. So when I have some spare time, I will jio (Hokkien for invite) some of them to meet up. It’s nice to interact with them so they don’t feel lonely.”
Currently working as a part-time guide at the Singapore Discovery Centre, Khoo, who is waiting to enter polytechnic next year, is also fluent in Hokkien.
So even though he’s not even half their age, he finds it easy to break the ice and connect with the elderly folk.
“We treat each other like friends. We can talk about anything under the sun. They will tell me about their daily experiences, how their children or grandchildren are doing, and even their past. There’s a lot that I learn from them, and their stories are fascinating to me.”
From first exchanging tentative hellos in the common corridors, Khoo has served as quite the catalyst to draw some of his elderly neighbours out of their cloistered shells.
“Some of them are quite private and less open to sharing their thoughts and feelings with others, but at least now, they can enjoy the company of other neighbours, instead of just being cooped up at home.”
For example, a small group of them have gone on outings around Singapore together, such as to a goat farm. As time went by, it comes as no surprise that neighbours have since turned into fast friends.
Khoo offers an example: “An uncle who lives just above my flat has become a really good friend to me. On some occasions when I’m busy working and don’t have time to run errands for myself, he’ll readily help me with my groceries.”
On the weekday morning when The Pride meets Khoo at Havelock Road Cooked Food Centre, his genial personality is on full display as he easily trades greetings with the some of the elderly hawkers who work there.
Spritely Madam Kor, who sells char siew rice at the hawker centre, comes to join us at our table.
When we tell her that Khoo recently received HDB’s Good Neighbour Award for his neighbourly efforts, she is unsurprised and offers affectionately: “That’s how he is. I’ve known him since he was a young age. Whether it’s the taxi drivers or elderly folk who come here to eat, he’ll join them at their table and it’s not long before they are chit-chatting like old friends.”
Smiling, she says: “It’s the same with us. When it’s less crowded and the hawkers are not as busy, he’ll sit here with us and we’ll talk about everything, from current affairs to what’s happening in our lives.”
As it turns out, Khoo is a familiar face to those at the hawker centre, as his grandparents have operated a drinks stall there for more than a decade.
In between serving piping hot cups of kopi to customers, his grandmother, Madam Yeo, tells The Pride: “I remember when he was just 7 years old, he would sit with a group of elderly taxi drivers, and converse with them in Hokkien. Even now, many of our regular customers know him well. And when he helps out at our stall, he has no qualms approaching unfamiliar faces as well.”
It’s easy to chalk up Khoo’s friendly demeanor to a matter of personality, but in fact, it was his grandfather who had inspired him. As a child, Khoo spent lots of time with his grandfather, and observed how the latter could make friends with anyone he crossed paths with.
“It didn’t matter who it was, how they looked, and what they did for a living. My grandfather was friendly and approachable to everyone he encountered, and I wanted to be like him.”
Khoo’s grandfather has since passed on, but his influence has clearly rubbed off his grandson.
Nominated by a neighbour for the Good Neighbour Award, Mawin was cited for his simple gestures of kindness, like offering to look after a neighbour’s plants when the family went on holiday, caring for the community cats, and of course, being a trusty companion to the elderly folks in the neighbourhood.
It is on a poignant note then, that he reflects: “It was my grandfather who taught me that being open and friendly allows you to interact with other people, and it’s these exchanges that matter most as they enable you to lead a more fruitful and meaningful life.
“I no longer have the same opportunity to spend time with him and learn from him, but in many ways, that motivates me to share the same love with other elderly folk who live in my neighbourhood, and people whom I encounter outside.”