Meet the cabby who doesn’t just pick up passengers
Simon Ng is the founder of We Care at Woodgrove, a food distribution point for the elderly that operates every day of the year.
SINGAPORE: It is eight in the morning on Sunday and cabby Simon Ng has just ended his graveyard shift. He is not heading for Woodlands where he stays for a much needed rest. Instead, the 57-year-old is making his way to Willing Hearts' soup kitchen in Eunos.
There, packets of food numbering in their hundreds are waiting to be distributed. The fare is simple - white rice with two servings of vegetables and a serving of meat. Mr Ng admitted they are not very tasty.
But he knows many look forward to them every day. He carries them into his blue Hyundai cab and drives to Block 521, Woodlands Drive 14. The void deck serves as a distribution point for this free food for the elderly and underprivileged seven days a week from 10am to 11.30am.
“Mostly, I take care of the old people first,” he said. “The young ones must wait. If there are extras, then they can take.”
Mr Ng set up the distribution point - 'We Care at Woodgrove' - more than two years ago after he found out that there's a large number of elderly and wheelchair-bound residents living in his neighbourhood.
It started small - 20 packets of food for 10 people. But the number has grown because of posters advertising the free meals at the lift lobbies of surrounding blocks.
He now distributes more than 200 packets of food for about 70 people. They include foreign domestic workers and aging cleaners working at a nearby shopping mall. Some take more than one packet of food to have them for dinner as well. Everyone registers so that Mr Ng can keep track.
“I’m not only giving to those who stay nearby,” he said, referring to an 80-year-old man who lives 20 minutes away but makes the journey on foot to the void deck every day. “As long as you can walk and come here, I will give it to you.”
Demand continues to grow Mr Ng said, but he has had to put a cap on it.
“You cannot put so many packets of rice in one taxi,” he explained. “Sometimes, they bring fruit and bread from the kitchen also.”
Mr Ng can only guess why there is such a big demand for the free meals.
“To me, the economy is bad,” he suggested. “Sometimes, people try to save money, maybe for their children’s education or marriage. Or they want to buy a new house. You don’t know.”
Everyone is treated equally. “Everybody is the same,” he added. “We are not judges; we cannot stop them and say you are not entitled to take food.”
A WELL-OILED OPERATION
Mr Ng is there every day. But he does not need to personally oversee the food distribution at 'We Care at Woodgrove'. He has recruited about 30 volunteers to help.
They are familiar with the drill. A taxi comes to a stop at the distribution point. Its boot flings open. Volunteers flock to the vehicle to take the food packets. They are repacked into bags of twos and threes and made ready for distribution.
“They do their own thing,” Mr Ng said. “Everything is arranged; I don’t need to shout around.”
The volunteers go the extra mile too; they make door-to-door deliveries for those who cannot make their way to the distribution point for one reason or another.
Mr Ng's taxi is not the only one that is used to transport food from Willing Heart's kitchen. He has roped in some 80 taxi drivers from the CabbyCare Charity Group, where he is a member, to help. “I can combine the two and help a lot of people,” he said.
While Willing Hearts has its own van, it needs more wheels because of the sheer number of distribution points islandwide. “They don’t have enough people,” he added. “For weekdays, they only have taxi drivers and a few volunteers.”
Weekends are when Mr Ng personally handles the deliveries. He does not feel his well-oiled initiative is special. It is just something that takes two hours a day, he said humbly. “It’s nothing.”
But things were not always this smooth.
When Mr Ng started out, he could not find enough volunteers. He also did not have a permit to use the void deck space. Staff from the town council soon approached him and said he cannot carry on.
“I said this only goes on for two hours,” he recalled telling them. “After that, I will clean up. If the floor is dirty, I will clean also.” But they insisted that the rules had to be respected, he said.
Because the permit costs S$10 a day, Mr Ng said, he did not think he had enough money to sustain the daily operation. So, he approached Member of Parliament (MP) for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Ong Teng Koon for help.
“He settled it for me,” he added. “The MP knows I’m helping the elderly here. If the elderly face welfare issues, I will bring them to see the MP also.”
HIS FATHER'S DEATH WAS A JOLT
At the distribution point, elderly residents mill about, chatting with each other. A toddler waddles over to Mr Ng and looks at him with puppy eyes. “I treat the small kids like my own children,” he said. “If I wasn’t talking to you, this kid would have asked me to carry her.”
For Mr Ng, this is more than just a place to get free meals.
“I encourage all the old people to come down to meet people and exercise, and not to stay at home,” he said. “If they are alone at home or they have to cook, I ask them to come down.”
It is a one-stop centre for their needs. “If they need anything, they have my phone number and I can ask my volunteers to attend to them straight away,” he added. “No need to call your son to come all the way from work.”
Mr Ng’s love for helping the elderly was sparked by his father's death more than 20 years ago.
His mother died when he was two. Growing up, he was never at home and frequently skipped school.
"I always lived with my friends; I seldom went home to eat,” his voice breaking as he told me. “My father always had to look for me.”
When he was 30, his father died from a fall in the toilet. His father’s death came too suddenly, he lamented. “I never took care of my parents.”
Now, Mr Ng tries to make up for it by treating the elderly like his “own relatives”. He began more than a decade ago by helping out at grassroots events, before joining Willing Hearts in 2014 to help with the food deliveries. “I never chose places,” he said. “I just sent to wherever they wanted.”
He decided to set up the distribution point in Woodlands after three months of volunteering at Willing Hearts. He has never missed a day there since, staying for the entire one and a half hours each day.
By the time the father of two girls gets home at around lunch time, he is exhausted. But does not go to sleep just yet. He helps out with the housework because his wife works till late. Mr Ng washes the clothes, squeezes in an hour’s nap, then cleans the house.
Mr Ng is also an active member of several community groups. His evenings are filled with meetings. It is 10pm by the time he goes to bed. He wakes up at midnight and goes to work again.
There is a neck pillow in his taxi - a gift from his youngest daughter so he can get some sleep while waiting for his regular passengers. The punishing schedule has taken a toll on him.
“My medical report just came out,” he said. “I have high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The doctor says I don’t have enough sleep.”
Mr Ng does not know if he can carry on manning his distribution point.
“I’m only trying to see how long I can continue,” he added. “I’ll try to find someone to take over because my medical problem is quite bad.”
PERSEVERANCE AND PRAISE
Until then, Mr Ng continues to give. He sends the elderly to traditional Chinese medicine and dialysis sessions for free, raises donations to buy them adult diapers and organise get-togethers with live music and free food.
“If I can get enough support, I want to organise an eight-course dinner for them,” he said.
Mr Ong, the MP who oversees the Woodgrove division, said residents are “very appreciative” of Mr Ng’s work.
“He’s been going around corralling resources to help these poor people not only in terms of food, but also in terms of adult diapers,” Mr Ong told Channel NewsAsia. “He’s doing all this out of his heart – it’s all goodwill and he’s got nothing to gain from this.
“So, I’m very supportive of his work, and I think he’s a great example for a lot of us in the community who are trying to help people.”
It is no surprise then that everyone in the neighbourhood seems to know Mr Ng. Just after 11.30am, a garbage truck pulls in on one of its regular rounds. The driver waves at Mr Ng, who in turn signals that the food has finished. “He came too late,” Mr Ng said, laughing.
For Mr Ng, it is never too late to start contributing to society. He was in his 40s when he started, but admitted that “the more I did it, the more I got into it”. “Now, I spend most of my time doing charity work,” he said.
Indeed, Mr Ng says he does not drive a taxi to earn a salary, but to help others. He spends about S$70 a month on diesel and car park fees for his food distribution.
“My friends ask how I am going to earn money by helping people,” he added. “But I told them never mind, as long as I am happy.”