Hot on the heels of the controversies surrounding the acquisition of part of Bukit Brown Cemetery and Old School at Mount Sophia, Lee Ah Mooi, together with Rochor Centre, have also been thrown into the discussion on the conservation of Singapore's heritage.
The construction of the North-South Expressway, which is estimated for completion by 2020, has resulted in the acquisition of 38 plots of land, and much grievance from residents whose lives will be disrupted. The occupants of the old age home are no exception.
Who and what are the people and legacies that will be affected by these relentless construction plans?
"We don't make profit, we can't compete," said Mr Then Mun Wah, the Managing Director of the home. Lee Ah Mooi is considered one of, if not the, cheapest homes for the elderly in Singapore. It currently houses close to 120 patients, most of whom are bedridden, in 3 main buildings. Faced with growing costs, including an increase in the nurses' levy, the prospect of losing the current premises and having to bid against corporate competitors with more money to spare is proving to be an additional burden that can break the proverbial camel's back.
Back in the 1960s, Mr Then's mother, Madam Lee Ah Mooi, took it upon herself to care for the destitute in her neighbourhood. Most of them were Samsui women and ah mas, labourers and/or celibate women who found themselves alone with nary a cent to their name in their old age. Not content with sending them to relevant authorities for aid, she began housing them in her own home and later rented a house in Jalan Kayu which for 13 years was the place where many spent their last remaining days, sheltered and well-cared for.
Unlike the last time they were told to move however, Lee Ah Mooi Home is not allocated a new space by the authorities this time round. In 1984, when their Jalan Kayu rental house was acquired for, also, the building of an expressway, the then abandoned Lee Kuo Chuan School premise was leased out to them by the Singapore Land Authority under the Temporary Occupation License. With the help of private donors and grateful families of past and present patients, the previously run-down building was quickly transformed into a conducive home for the patients.
Lee Ah Mooi Home today is a quaint abode with serene environment. It is clean, the wards are well-lit and well-ventilated. Set among lush greenery are facilities for the patients to exercise and relax in. The oldest patient there is 106 years old and the average patient has spent about 7 to 8 years there.
Some of the patients' families have had difficulties footing the bill and the home has been flexible toward these cases. This is because Mr Then firmly upholds the spirit of his mother's 47-year old legacy, which is to help the poor with "patience, passion for the work and love." It is not always easy, but essential for Mr Then and the staff to "treat everyone as human beings."
It is this continuation of Madam Lee's tenacity and compassion that does not allow Mr Then to increase the current fees or be more profit driven in the running of the home. Given the choice, Mr Then would like to stay on in the current site which has carried the Lee Ah Mooi name for 27 years. He doubts the home can be sustainable in any commercial location given the present market rental rates.
The construction as stipulated by the plans will only affect a small section of the land the home occupies, namely half the kitchen and the laundry area. These areas can easily be set up in the other parts of the home, Mr Then explained, and does not require them to vacate the premises in its entirety. The patients and families also hope to stay in the current location as it is accessible and familiar. "We can make do with any inconvenience that the construction may bring, we are flexible," says Mr Then.
Ideals will continue to be his priority in the grand scheme of things. If he is unable to secure an affordable new location that allows the home to continue providing care at a lower fee, or to help families who find it hard to make ends meet, he would rather close the home down and continue his mother's legacy in other ways. "But," he asked, “where will the current patients go? Where can they afford to go?"
A portrait of Madam Lee hangs prominently in Mr Then's office, legacy of her influence flows between every line he utters. Mr Then's son and nephew have also been helping out at the home, ensuring what Mr Then believes to be another generation which will carry on his mother's beliefs.
While the national discussion rages on, revealing a wide spectrum of opinions and concerns, hopefully Lee Ah Mooi's fight to secure its space will not be lost in the cacophony. It is a living, breathing testament to an amazing story of Madam Lee and her family's dedication to a cause and the place of rest and solace for those treading the final lap of their lives.
A house is not a home without heart.
What are we really tearing down for corporeal convenience?
All pictures by Biddy Low.
Special thanks to Quek Ser Ming who brought the story to our attention.
You can find out more about Lee Ah Mooi Home for the Aged on its Facebook page.