Elderly woman dies alone in Malaysia, family in Singapore struggles with funeral arrangements amid COVID-19 restrictions
SINGAPORE: A family with roots in both Singapore and Malaysia found itself at a loss, after an adopted grandaunt died alone in her Johor Bahru home over the weekend.
The family shares homes across the border, but was in Singapore when Malaysia imposed its Movement Control Order (MCO) on Mar 18, closing schools and non-essential businesses. People were also urged to stay at home.
Madam Chu Ngan was found dead, crouched over a chair in her Taman Tasek home on Sunday (Apr 12) by a family friend delivering food to her.
She was a few days shy of her 90th birthday, her relative who wanted to be known only as Mrs Cheong told CNA.
Mrs Cheong, a 67-year-old Malaysian and Singapore permanent resident, lives mostly in Singapore with her husband and two sons, all Singaporeans.
She would go to Malaysia to stay with Mdm Chu on weekends, and on weekdays, for a day or so. A part-time maid would visit Mdm Chu, who was adopted by Mrs Cheong's grandmother years ago, daily to buy food for her and tend to her needs.
However, when the MCO kicked in, Mrs Cheong cancelled the maid's services as she was afraid the Indonesian would transmit the coronavirus unwittingly to Mdm Chu.
"When the COVID-19 got pretty bad in Malaysia, I was afraid that she may bring the virus to (Mdm Chu), because (the maid) stays on her own with her husband," said Mrs Cheong, who is a retired teacher.
Instead, she enlisted the help of a family friend, Malaysian and Singapore permanent resident Pitney Chong, 66, to deliver food to Mdm Chu once a day.
And for more than three weeks, Mr Chong did just that, visiting every day with enough food for lunch and dinner - until Sunday (Apr 12).
"I opened the door and went straight to the kitchen, then I started calling for her," said Mr Chong. "I thought she's in the room, but she's not. Toilet - nothing. Then I walked to the front, she [was] collapsed on one of the old-fashioned chairs."
Mdm Chu, whom he described as usually chatty and healthy, was crouched over a chair and was not breathing.
Immediately, Mr Chong called Mrs Cheong to tell her that Mdm Chu had died.
"I was shocked, and like, at a loss. Oh, what to do," said Mrs Cheong. "Fortunately Pitney was so helpful, he called an ambulance ... there were a lot of communications, this to do, that to do."
Mr Chong had difficulty trying to get an ambulance and looking for Mdm Chu's identity card. Only Mrs Cheong knew where it was and they struggled via video-call before finally locating it.
Mr Chong went to the police station and obtained a certificate for burial, before an undertaker took Mdm Chu's body to a funeral house. He said the cause of death written on the certification was "old age".
Mrs Cheong said she wanted the head of her religious organisation, which she declined to name, to go to the crematorium to perform last rites for Mdm Chu.
"But she was worried because of the MCO, (there was a) one-person car rule, where only one person can be in the car," said Mrs Cheong. "If there's more than one person, you can be arrested."
"Although we assured her that the police said it's OK because we have the funeral certificate and so on, she was still worried because if she's caught and hauled to the police station, it won't reflect well on the organisation."
RELATIVE UPSET SHE COULD NOT SEND "SECOND MOTHER" OFF
"I'm very sad, upset I couldn't be there to do things for her that I would like to do," said Mrs Cheong, who described Mdm Chu as a second mother to her.
She said she could not perform last rites for Mdm Chu and see her off, and could not even attend the funeral as she would have to be quarantined if she returned to Malaysia from Singapore.
"I wanted to do that, but I couldn't, and it's distressing," said Mrs Cheong.
In the end, Mdm Chu was sent off in a brief ceremony on Monday, with the help of a family friend, with only five attendees, excluding the funeral workers.
"There wasn't even a funeral wake," said Mr Chong. "Because now, you can't (gather) more than 10 people."
Mrs Cheong remembers her "second mother" as a fiercely independent woman who "liked to do things her own way".
"We were very close to her. She's like a second mother to us, to me anyway," said Mrs Cheong. "She was very helpful and kind. She dedicated her life to look after my children ... My boys, they love her in their own way."
When the COVID-19 restrictions eventually taper off, Mrs Cheong hopes to return to Malaysia with her family and scatter Mdm Chu's ashes, in accordance with her wishes.
Until then, her ashes remain in an urn in their Taman Tasek home.