Bedok Reservoir deaths, did we fail them?

~by: Tommy Tong~

How difficult must life have been for this family that 4 or 5 of them lived together in a 1 room rented flat? What sort of society do we live in where such poverty exists in a country that can now boast 2 world class casinos amongst countless high-end entertainment venues?

And just how inhuman and disconnected are we from each other that some comments around the Bedok Reservoir tragedy (see HERE) berate the dead mother and child for contaminating Singapore’s drinking water?

The sinking sadness of this suicide has not left me, and I am sure there are many who feel the same way too, especially those who are mothers with young children.

Mothers have the job of protecting their young. You don’t have to go to the wilds of Africa to see this, zoo keepers will tell you to steer clear of even a safe-in-captivity lioness and her young cubs: animals naturally display aggression to guard and defend their offspring.  Label it post-natal depression or whatever other term, the simple fact is, if anyone tries to take a baby off its mother, she will attack, it’s instinct.

In the case of this mother, she attacked by killing herself and her son, she had no other means. Little money, insignificant education, probably not that well connected to access information concerning laws and rights, no friends, and very little help. Life must have been so hard and frightening, particularly when she got caught up in a fine through the custody courts.

I have no clear idea what point I want to make as I write this, it seems so huge and unfathomable that there could be such a lonely and desperate existence in the midst of Singapore’s success on an international scale.  Against the backdrop of a world class night race, the grief of this family is unfolding into the same night air within this city.

Many organisations, government agencies, religious groups, humanity societies and charities will no doubt be feeling sad they were not able to help this family. Some would perhaps be quietly defensive about not being able to take responsibility for an individual’s actions.  I wonder…

I wonder about a collective responsibility because this dead woman and her child are someone’s loved ones, they are someone’s neighbour or neighbours, they must have come into contact with doctors or nurses, for the child at least; there must have been teachers somewhere back in her life, friends, colleagues, bosses. Perhaps, like a butterfly effect, one extra act of kindness may have altered history for her.

Or maybe it really would be easier not to think too much and get on with life, such tragedies being other people’s business, happening “out there” But what is the use of life if, when it is within your ability, you do not choose to make life better for your fellow planet dwellers?

As I reflect on this, I wonder if it is my own lack of kindness that has kept me chewing over this painful misery of two lost lives.

Modern Singapore seldom does kind these days. In the main, we are too busy, because… time is money (?), and somehow in our majority of affluence we have become… shy? …embarrassed? …selfish?

Oh, we like to give to charity, palming off excess clothes, shoes, food, furniture, preferably if it does not involve too much of our own time. We are good at giving things, but how often do we look someone in the eye and give them our kindness? A greeting, a sincere word, and not because we are trying to sell them something, convert them or win their vote.

How many more of these tragic deaths are we going to see before political parties show us they are actively formulating plans for allowing a kinder gentler society? I am sure I do not need to spell this out but here goes anyway, politics is as much about individuals as it is about GDP, isn’t it? If every vote counts then so must the individual casting that vote.

What I really want to understand are these questions: did our education system fail them? Were they the unmemorable 1 of 40 who slipped through every safety net? Should they have been married in the first place if their lives were so separate and unready? Did their schooling and society at large teach them about being prepared to build a home together or did it (and does it continue to) actively encourage speedy marriages with the attractive prospect of a dangly HDB-shaped carrot? Did our economy then in turn fail them? Why were they married and living apart for most of the marriage? High price of home ownership? Long waiting list? And where was AWARE? Where was SAWL? Are their outreach programmes perhaps not far-reaching enough? What about grassroots leaders who keep their ears to the ground?

Thinking back to the reports of this woman’s fierce love, dying with her arms cradled round her child, totally floors me. The detail of her painting their nails red for the purpose of vengeance makes it all the more visceral; what kind of torture must she have gone through to kill her own precious child?

I just hope the end was a quick and painless one for them.

In a way, her quest for vengeance is upon us all; every time we turn on the tap, a little bit of her tragedy filters through. I would like to think that their lives have not been entirely wasted, that this bitter drama will wake us up to the less charming aspects of our society.

And as I go about trying to be kinder to those around me, I hope anyone who reads this will try to do the same. Kindness seems like a bland term, but it’s the only concrete and immediate action I can choose to do at any given moment in order to make some good out of such a sad, bad situation. So, please let this kindness multiplier be contagious, let it filter through our society, let kindness make a difference to all around us, including our policy makers.

R.I.P. Ms Tan and child.


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