When I was 5, my mum would give me 10 cents every time she brings me to the market. She said, I can use my 10 cents to buy anything I want – be it a candy or a rubber ball. Knowing that 10 cents aren’t a lot of money, she wanted to teach me the virtue of saving. To get a more expensive toy or snack, I have to suppress those mini 10-cent temptations. Thus, I often accumulated more than 10 cents in my pocket.
There was this particular trip to the market when my mum needed to get a pair slippers for my dad. She spotted one at an Indian shoes-shop near our market.
A frail-looking old man ran the shop. He sported a magnanimous, fatherly smile and he was very friendly. I guessed he was in his 80s. Tagging along with my mum, I stood quietly beside her, watching her “bargaining” with the old man.
At the age of 5, I have no understanding what bargaining is all about. All I remember was seeing my mum throwing back the pair of slippers, pulled my hands and walked out of the shop briskly. I sensed a slight confrontation between the old man and mum. I turned back my head, seeing the old man shaking his head in disappointment. Trying his best to sport a smile, the old man called out softly to my mum and waved at us. Instantaneously, my mum stopped her pace and pulled me back to the shop again. This time, the man didn’t “argue” much, he started wrapping the slippers and put them in a bag. Before handing the bag over to my mum, he asked for 50 cents. My mum firmly said no, took the slippers, paid him some money and left the shop.
Strangely, I sympathized with the old man. I remember his sad, disappointing look. He patted my little head and waved bye at me. Despite his little “loss”, he remained so friendly and sincere. Somehow, that little gesture moved me. Feeling bad for him, I walked back to his store, put my 50 cents on one of the shoe-boxes and ran back to my mum. No, my mum didn’t see what I did. It remains a secret until today.
I was very soft-hearted when I was young. Without any hesitation, I will often donate my money to the needy – the handicapped beggars at old Geylang Serai, the blind peddlers selling tissue papers, the deaf youngsters selling novelties and old beggars loitering at coffee shops. I have been doing that for a couple of years, into my teens. It is not a matter of glorifying my deeds. More of sharing with those who cannot afford the basic necessity.
The Con-Beggars and Tissue Sellers
However, my perception of these “needy” people changed when I read a news article about these fake deaf and blind sellers. These talents are hired by a very powerful syndicate. Making use of human’s sympathetic nature, these conmen successfully tricked us into buying their stuffs at 50%-100% above market pricings. To us, we are doing a good deed, it doesn’t matter that extra cents.
Not for me. I felt rather cheated and disgusted by these conmen. Taking advantage of someone’s kindness in this manner is evil and most despicable. It is the most disgusting of acts, yet such con trade is still surviving today. We still see those “nuns in white” going around, begging for money in a golden vessel. And those “deaf youngsters” flashing cards stating their deafness and persuading you to buy one of their dolls.
Suddenly, I became very uncompassionate and skeptical every time I came across these beggars. Yet I often felt guilty after rejecting them. What if they are real, I often asked myself. Then again, I do not wish to be conned into another scam. To protect myself and discourage all these conmen, the best is not to give, I thought.
The Old Lady at Eunos
Just 3 years ago, there was this old lady, in her 80s, begging for money around Eunos neighbourhood. She was almost everywhere – beside ATM machines, coffee-shops and even bus-stops. For more than 10 times, she came to me begging for money – and not once I entertain her. Most times, I would oust her away rudely, in disrespect. She had that unique way of asking – she never says a word – Just moving from people to people, extending her open palm, begging for donations. I was doing my mental sum, she is a con. She could make more than $100/day and live in a big house.
One night, I was doing overtime work in my studio. I was walking home at about 3am when I spotted her sleeping at one dark corner at the stairwell. She had a bag of clothes with her and was lying on a spread of newspaper. At that moment, I realized she was indeed homeless and really poor. My heart bled for her at that very sight. Since that day, I never rejected that poor old lady. I told myself, I would pass her one of my notes (not coins) every time I see her – she needs not to beg. I have since given her some $2 to $10 notes.
Finding back that "spirit" of giving
I finally found back my childhood soul when I read an article by a Straits Times columnist. Like me, the reporter often found herself in a dilemma – to give or not to give. In that article, she had overcome her dilemma by a simple solution. Her advice: “When you wish to give yet in doubt, give as much as you can afford without feeling regret or cheated later.”
Yes, we dun like to be taken for a ride, yet we cannot face our own guilt and conscious later. I began to work out a personal “can-give-but-no-regret” amount for these people (never for the deaf doll-sellers, white-gown nuns and blind tissue-sellers). I am glad that I have heeded her advice and have taken her route. Since then, I give with an open heart; without worrying about being conned or cheated.
I am glad I have done so for that old lady at Eunos. A couple of months back, I heard from the coffee-shop auntie that the old lady has passed away. I may not have contributed much to her well-being but at least, I did my best to give whenever I can.