SINGAPORE: Malaysian student Koh Ji Sen is in a hurry for school to start on Tuesday.
For more than two months, this 14-year-old has been living on his own in Singapore, isolated from his family in Tebrau, a suburb of Johor Bahru.
More than anything, he misses the social interaction with others.
“I feel lonely sometimes because of a lack of support and human contact,” said Ji Sen, who studies at a school in Yishun. “I’m just happy for school to start; it’ll be easier to pass the time.”
When Malaysia declared a nationwide movement control order on Mar 16 — during the school holidays — his parents decided that he would have to move to Singapore as soon as possible.
His father, Koh Choon Meng had reservations about leaving his son without adult supervision, but he did not want Ji Sen to miss out on school.
“We were a bit nervous … We didn’t know if he could do it (live alone),” Koh said. “He’s been dependent on my wife all along. If he can’t cope, we’d have to bring him back.”
The 51-year-old scrambled to sort out accommodation for the boy, making calls to relatives and friends in Singapore before his uncle offered the use of his place.
Koh’s uncle had temporarily moved in with his daughter to help take care of his grandchild, so his flat was vacant.
“I initially said no … I’d be alone. I’d be separated from them (my family),” said Ji Sen. “(But) I was also worried that if I didn’t go to Singapore, I’d miss my lessons.”
CNA Insider has changed his name and that of his father in this story, for his safety as a minor living alone.
On Mar 17, the Secondary Two student packed a small bag of clothes, his school backpack and came to Singapore.
HE HAD TO GROW UP FAST
When his parents dropped him off at his great-uncle’s place, after having dinner together at a nearby shopping centre, Ji Sen’s mother was teary-eyed and his father gave him a long hug.
“(My mother) was scared that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of this year,” said the teenager.
He, on the other hand, began to feel “excited”. “I thought I could be independent — no one to control me, to tell me what time to sleep.”
With his newfound freedom, he frequently stayed up till past midnight and watched documentaries on YouTube.
But while on his own, this boy realised he had to grow up quickly — and learn to do housework such as mopping the floor and balance his S$400 monthly allowance. Previously his mother did all the chores.
“Suddenly, I had to be an adult. I have to manage money and household chores … buy groceries by myself and choose the vegetables,” said Ji Sen, who has an elder sister studying in Malaysia. “I appreciate my mother more now.”
For the first time in his life, he also had to learn how to cook.
His first few attempts did not go too well; for example, he overcooked some frozen dumplings, causing the skin to break. He also burned the scallion pancakes he was pan-frying on another occasion.
But these days, his cooking is getting better, he reckoned. He can make spaghetti with tomato sauce or heat up frozen Chinese glutinous rice balls on days when he is sick of his usual takeaway food.
Initially, however, he was reluctant to spend money on groceries. He called home frequently to complain that everything in the supermarket was three times more expensive than in Malaysia because of the exchange rate.
“I told him to stop comparing the prices and just buy what he needed,” said Koh, who owns a factory in Johor Bahru.
Thrifty by nature, Ji Sen budgets S$12 daily for his meals, which usually would be cai png (economy rice) from a nearby coffee shop. And he keeps a ledger listing his daily expenditure, he said.
He does grocery shopping once a month, he added, and tries not to spend more than S$20 each time on frozen food, milk and snacks.
He also had to buy more clothes as the weeks became months with Malaysia’s movement control order being extended four times, now until June 9. When he left home in March, he had packed only a week’s worth of clothes.
Because of the “circuit breaker”, Ji Sen spends most of his day at home revising his schoolwork, watching YouTube videos and napping. Fearful of contracting COVID-19, he leaves the house only to buy his meals and groceries.
Without fail, he calls his family every night, and his father also makes frequent video calls to him to ensure that he is safe.
But with every passing week, he has grown homesick and has struggled with feelings of loneliness, especially during the school holidays this month. Previously he had been attending school with a handful of students and was kept busy.
It does not help that he can see the Johor Bahru skyline from his bedroom window.
(The view) makes me miss my parents … Sometimes I’d just look (at Johor Bahru) because I have nobody to talk to and engage (with).
He misses playing basketball with his friends, he added, as well as going to the water and adventure park near his home in Tebrau.
His father said that when Ji Sen initially called home, he complained that he was homesick and lonely.
“I encouraged him … and I saw that he was slowly adjusting … He could even cook his own breakfast,” said Koh. “He took this opportunity to grow and has become more independent.”
To stave off loneliness, Ji Sen made friends with a neighbour who, upon finding out that he was living alone, offered to help if he needed anything — and also passed him a bowl of home-made green bean soup once.
His great-uncle also visits him regularly to check on his well-being.
“When (the movement control order) was extended, I felt quite sad. I didn’t expect it to be so long,” said the boy. “But school is opening on Tuesday. I feel very good. (There’s) more time to spend in school.”
Since Primary One, he had been commuting by bus to Singapore, waking up at 4am every weekday to reach school on time, like some other students he knows from Johor — until now.
MONEY FOR ONLY ONE SON
Ji Sen’s childhood friend and fellow Malaysian, Kenan Chan, wants to continue his studies in Singapore too, but it may be too expensive for him.
Kenan and his elder brother were attending schools here, but they returned home for the March holidays. Both of them were doing home-based learning last month.
“Going to school is better than doing home-based learning. I can interact with my friends and ask (them) questions in class,” said the 14-year-old.
The brothers are unable to commute to school for the new term because of the current travel restrictions. Moving to Singapore temporarily would mean incurring rental costs, said their mother Wong Kaye.
She calculated that renting a room for one child would cost about S$300, plus an allowance of S$400, or about RM$2,150 a month.
“For two boys, (the financial cost) would be too much,” said Wong, who is planning to send only her eldest son to Singapore, as he is taking his N Levels this year.
She is in the midst of applying for approvals from both governments so that he can travel out of Malaysia. She is still sorting out his accommodation, as they have no relatives in Singapore.
“It’s a major decision. Once he goes to Singapore, I won’t know when I can see him. This lockdown could drag till next year. As a mother, I’ll miss him like crazy,” she said.