Two words which make a difference

Andrew Loh observes some senior Singaporeans at work.

He smiled at me as he lifted the lid from the bin. Dressed in his green-coloured cleaner’s uniform, he would be in his 60s, I surmised. His head of white hair another sign of his seniority. He looks into the bin, replaces it and goes back to his workman’s trolley for a rag. He returns to clean up the cigarette ash on the tray on top of the bin.

As I watch him at that little corner of Terminal 3 (T3) at Changi Airport, I recall that he’s the same uncle who would be in the washroom each time I visited it. Perhaps today he’s been given another job to do – to clean and empty the bins around T3.

As he finishes his task at the bin and pushes his cart to the next bin, he stops to mop up a puddle of water on the floor.

When he is stationed at the washroom, his eyes would be glued to every person who entered it – until they leave. When I used the basin to wash my hands, he would be almost next to me, invariably. I do not know why he would ‘inspect’ me thus. That was what I felt and I have to admit that it made me uncomfortable at first. Later, however, I realized that perhaps he was only making sure the washroom, which undoubtedly he was in charge of, would be spick and span for everyone who uses it. Indeed, that washroom is just about the cleanest one I have visited in Singapore. Each toilet roll is in its place, the floor is dry and even shiny, and the washbasins are virtually sparkling.

The elderly gentleman should be proud of this – and we should be grateful that someone like him would take so much care of and spend so much time in that little men’s room.

He is not the only senior Singaporean working at the airport, of course. Down in Basement 2, you can find them at the foodcourt as well. I was having a meal one day and this elderly lady was doing her rounds cleaning tables and removing the used plates and utensils. I watched her silently as I ate my dinner. Slightly bent and with hands lined and wrinkled with age, she goes about carrying out her chores quietly, hardly looking up at the people around her. No one, as far as I can observe, says “thank you” to her for clearing their tables. When she came to my table, and I had already finished my meal, she took the tray with the bowl and chopsticks and stashed them away on her trolley. Out came a rag and in a moment the table was cleaned. “Thank you, auntie,” I said to her. She managed a little smile and said, in Mandarin, “Bu pi xie” (“No need to thank”).

Over at the newly revamped Tekka hawker centre at Little India, there are many of them, along with some women from China, cleaning tables.  Each time I said ‘thank you’ to them, especially the local elderly ones, their faces would light up. I guess in a long day of cleaning tables, a small sign of appreciation from patrons goes a long way in making their jobs more enjoyable, perhaps.

It is an observable fact in Singapore that more and more of our elderly folks are working low-paying, manual jobs as cleaners and washers. While we may lament this fact, maybe what we should also focus on is how we as individuals can make these folks happy, even if it’s momentary.

Two words from us are all it takes – and it doesn’t take much to utter those two words.

The next time an elderly person comes and cleans your table, or tidies up the public washroom you used, do manage a “thank you”. After all, we all enjoy a clean table or a tidy washroom.

Saying “thank you” is not only basic courtesy but it is, truly, the very least we can do.

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