“Till today, I still dream of my son reaching out to me, drowning, asking for help,” Syed Peeir Hameed, 69, says.
“Yes, me too,” his daughter, Nur Hidah Begum, 38, responds soberly. She has removed her hijab, revealing the scars on her head from the six operations she has had on her skull since a motorbike accident in 2002. Eighteen years later, she walks with a limp and is in constant pain.
We are in Hidah’s room together with Charu, a volunteer from KampungKakis.
The television is on, there is no sound. An old black-and-white photo of a young girl hangs on the wall. Later I would find out that she is Syed’s eldest daughter Norshilah – Hidah’s older sister – who passed away in 2013.
In 2015, Syed’s 28-year-old son Shafiq drowned in a fishing accident. Sandwiched between the twin tragedies is the loss of Syed’s wife Mariam, who died after a battle with cancer.
With those three deaths from 2013 to 2015, the family of five became two. But both father and daughter continue to live day by day with a little spark of hope for a happier future.
Two weeks ago, with the help of Charu, they restarted Sinar Bahru Seafood – an eatery Syed has owned for 25 years – as a home-based business from their four-room HDB flat.
A chef’s dream
Syed is an experienced chef who loves cooking. His culinary journey started in 1972 when he worked as a chef at the Marco Polo Hotel for 13 years.
In 1995, he opened his own food and catering business Sinar Bahru Seafood Restaurant in Bedok North and ran it for the next 18 years.
Syed tells The Pride: “We were a happy family. Then, we had money, my business was doing well. I did catering for Malay weddings.”
He shares proudly that with his team of workers, he used to cook and cater for 1,000 people at a time, which could earn him up to $25,000 a wedding.
His signature dishes are sweet and sour grouper, chilli crab, pepper crab and sup tulang (mutton bone soup). His mutton biryani is also a favourite among customers.
A man with a big heart, Syed says he often helped his relatives and shared his recipes with others.
However, life was not always easy. While Syed was running the restaurant, his wife was at home taking care of Norshilah, who was bedridden since she was seven after a medical procedure went awry.
And from 2002, a new series of tragedies struck the family.
Mariam was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. Three months later, Hidah got into a motorbike accident which left her with serious injuries to her skull and brain.
In 2013, Norshilah’s condition worsened and she died that same year. She was 34. Heartbroken, Syed took a break from the business.
Syed says: “When my daughter passed away, I had no heart to do business. I was very sad. My wife broke down. She didn’t want to eat, couldn’t sleep. She cried every night… she loved her daughter very much and took care of her for 34 years! So I gave up the shop to take care of my wife.”
Yet, just one year later, in 2014, Mariam’s cancer relapsed. She had beaten her previous cancer but the disease had returned with a vengeance. She succumbed to stage four brain cancer within the year.
The family – Syed, Hidah and Shafiq – was devastated.
In 2015, they were struck by yet another tragedy when Shafiq, then 28, drowned in a fishing accident.
It was right after a downpour, Syed recalls. He, Shafiq, Hidah (who was in a wheelchair) and their helper went fishing at the Sungei Api Api canal near Pasir Ris Park. Syed says that Shafiq went into the water to untangle a fishing line. His leg got tangled with a rope and could not free himself.
Syed says, emotionally: “There were so many people on the bridge. But they just watched and never helped. And my son kept on raising his hand asking for help. I saw him. With his eyes open, asking me for help. But I didn’t know how to swim and if I went down (to help him) I knew I would die.”
Syed says that Shafiq had worked as an airline steward before he started helping him at the restaurant. He was a good and hardworking cook, he adds.
Fast forward to today, Hidah relies largely on her father’s support and income as she is unable to work due to her physical condition.
She says, “My hopes are all dashed… But we just have to accept. Crying blood and tears will not bring our family members back. In three years, three of our lives were taken away. We haven’t even finished crying for my sister when my mother passed away. Then my brother. My father is my only strength now.”
Syed says: “What happened has happened. We have to take one day at a time. The social workers told us, ‘how come you two can manage like that, (if it was us in your shoes) we cannot.’ I said, ‘I must be strong. If I am not strong, who will take care of my daughter?’”
“I think about Hidah. Because her mother told me before she passed away, ‘you have to take care of her’. So I think about that.”
It has been six years since Mariam died but Syed says he has never thought about wanting to remarry as Hidah is his priority.
Looking at how the two fall into casual banter with each other, I see where their strength comes from – each other.
Charu, who sits beside me, later tells me: “I have only just got to know them but their positive mindset and their ability to laugh off their sorrows has been a truly humbling experience for me.”
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Hope of a happier future
Just a month ago, Charu connected with the family after she signed up as a volunteer with Kampung Kakis.
Charu learnt that for the past two years, Syed had been working part-time at his sister’s stall. But in February, with business being so bad due to Covid-19, he decided not to add to her financial burden so he lost his job and income.
Syed says that he had tried to find other cooking jobs, but it was very hard work and long hours for little pay.
“I always look at the newspaper (for jobs). I want to work. When they find out that I am 69… they don’t want to hire me,” Syed says.
He says he is lucky to receive some financial aid from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and ComCare every month.
They still employ a helper – at a subsidised rate – for Hidah as Syed is getting older and cannot take care of her all the time.
“During Ramadan, Malay groups will also send us groceries and sometimes give us money,” he adds.
After finding out more about their situation, Charu, who works in the financial sector, helped them with the process of starting Sinar Bahru Seafood as a home-based business, from ensuring the logistic and administrative requirements are met, to helping them set up a Facebook page to promote their business.
She also helped source a second-hand smartphone so that Hidah can help her father manage the page and orders that come in via Whatsapp.
Currently, they take orders for collection every Saturday. In its first week, Sinar Bahru Seafood received orders for 85 packets of food; in its second, about 40 packets.
Special for this Nov: Place orders by 19th Nov for pick up on 21th Nov (anytime after 12pm) from Bedok North
However, Syed says that so far the support has been from his relatives as most people don’t know he has restarted the business in his home. He hopes to get more orders from other customers in the coming weeks. He has received orders for 21 packets of food so far for this coming Saturday.
Charu says: “Having understood all that they have gone through, I am in admiration of how they continue to be such warm and caring people. It is very easy for this family to feel dejected, hurt and almost spiteful that life has dealt them a very unfair hand. But despite their untold suffering, they are very warm at heart and continue to live in hope of a brighter future.”
“In the process of helping this family and working with KampungKakis I realised that there is a thriving community in Singapore who make time and passionately devote their energy, money and resources to help those in need!”
More than an hour has passed since I sat down, and I bid goodbye to Syed and Hidah, thanking them for letting me into their home, and their lives, briefly.
I tell Hidah to stay strong, and she replies with steadfast conviction: “I have to be strong. For my dad, and for God… I believe (our family) will be reunited in the next life.”