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by Mingjie Cai

Forty minutes into the evening peak hours, I was waiting at the Bukit Merah Central taxi stand.

Despite its proximity to Chinatown and the financial district, and its long history as the epicenter of one of the earliest housing estates in Singapore, Bukit Merah Central is far less glamorous than other regional centers. There are no modern attractions such as shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, or disco pubs to draw the crowds. There used to be a public swimming complex next to the bus terminal, but it had been shut for many years. The only saving grace was an NTUC Fairprice supermarket, one of the largest in town.

I noticed an Indian woman walking slowly in my direction. She lumbered along, carrying several Fairprice grocery bags, her body tilting from side to side with each heavy step.

She finally reached my taxi and motioned me to open the trunk so she could place her bags inside. Then she came in, sat in the front seat and told me to go to Telok Blangah Way, a five to eight minutes drive depending on the traffic lights.

Although the short distance of the trip was a disappointment to me, it was expected. Most people taking taxis from here were residents of the neighboring HDB estates with too many grocery bags to go home by bus. My mind was occupied by something else. I glanced at her and asked, "What do you have in your bags?"

"What do you mean?" She looked at me as if she found my question rudely intrusive.

"Oh, nothing," I quickly explained. "I just want to say that if you have seafood in there, I'd like to put some newspaper underneath your bags, since I had some troublesome experience before..."

"No seafood." She cut me off. "Only fruits and vegetables."

I apologized for asking the question. She said it was okay, she understood my concern.

From close up, I realized she was younger than I thought when I saw her from a distance. She was probably in her late forties, and wore an oversized brown dress.

She turned to me and asked, "What about durian? You mind if I have durian?"

"No. Durian is ok," I said with a smile. "The smell of durian doesn't stay long."

"Yeah," she said. "Otherwise, how am I supposed to carry it? Buses don't allow it. MRT don't allow it. If taxis also don't allow it..."

"I am sure most taxis will allow it," I said.

Looking for something to say, I asked, "You are not working today?"

She gave me an "are you making fun of me?" kind of look and said, "You find me a job and I will work."

I felt stupid. I was quiet for a moment, trying to imagine what other good-natured taxi uncles would do in this case. I then told her that if she was looking for a job she could look in the newspapers, talk to friends, or ask her MPs for help.

We were reaching her stop, which was in a carpark next to an HDB block. She took out her wallet, held it in her hand, and said slowly, "Yeah. But I have this arthritis for many years. I have never been in a working condition."

That was what caused her heavy steps, I realized.

I tried to cheer her up. "That's okay. You don't have to work then. At least you have your husband to support you."

"My husband passed away," she said under her breath. Her hands stopped opening her wallet.

I stuttered, "I…I'm sorry."

She looked at me, her eyes two ice cubes melting under the sun. "You know a month and half ago, in the news, a husband and a son jumped off a building..."

As if struck by lightning, I felt a current bolt from my scalp to my feet. "My god. That's your…" I froze in shock.

"Yes. That's my…husband and…my boy." Her tears finally overran the dam and streamed down her cheeks.

I read the news after I came back from the trip to China. This was one of the most heartbreaking family tragedies I had heard of in Singapore. I was extremely saddened by the realization that human lives were so fragile, and could be shattered at the most unexpected moments.

According to the reports, the sequence of events on June 6, 2009, were as follows:

That evening, twenty-five year old Raja was meeting with some of his friends near his residence. They had some drinks. He had been unhappy lately as he lost his job about a month ago. During the gathering, his younger brother called and asked him to go somewhere else together, but Raja said he was tired and didn't want to go.

Around 10:30pm, he was back home in his apartment on the ninth floor, but not for long. He told his mother that he was going out again. His mother was worried about him as he looked a little tipsy and asked him to stay at home. But he was in no mood to listen to her.

On his way out his father came to speak to him, saying he should listen to his mother and not go out at this hour. They got into a heated argument. His father said he should worry about finding a job rather than hanging out aimlessly. Raja was further upset by the remarks. He stepped out of the house and locked the front gate from the outside with a padlock.

He then walked to the edge of the corridor, said he was not a worthy son to his parents and jumped over the parapet in front of his family.

The family was locked inside and could do nothing to stop him. They witnessed the tragedy in horror, and immediately called their relatives and the police for help.

The police came and had to call the civil defense personnel to cut the lock to free the family, who came out to see Raja lying dead on the ground nine floors below.

The family collapsed in grief on the ground floor, accompanied by their relatives and the police. They were then led to a nearby bench to sit and calm down. After a while, the father left and before anyone became aware of his movements, he took the lift to the tenth floor. He jumped off the building crying "my son!" and landed on the ground next to his son's body.

Both father and son were pronounced dead at the scene.

"My boy," the woman wiped some tears and said, "I loved him. I loved him so much. Every time he couldn't sleep at night he asked me, mama, come here. I came to sit by him, put my hand here, where his heart was beating. He would fall asleep right away." She put her hand over her heart to demonstrate.

She slowly turned her head, and pointed to the cement ground along the side of the building. "That's where my son was, and that's where my husband was."

I stared at the ground. Cold, hard cement, only a few steps away from my car. On the surface, any trace of blood from the two people she loved most had long been washed away. But I was certain, deep in the heart of the soil, their blood was still there, and would stay there forever.

"Sometimes I tell myself," she said, her eyes staring blankly ahead, "at least they are together up there, taking care of each other."

I looked at the woman. Her face was still covered with tears. Could anybody in this world possibly know what she had gone through? Only a short while ago, I was worried about her bags contaminating my taxi... I bit my lip and struggled to contain my own tears.

"I have to go on with my life. I have two other children to take care of," she said as she opened her wallet. I pressed my hand on hers and said in a shivering voice, "I can't take money from you."

"You can. Business is business," she insisted.

"No. I really can't." That was the only thing I could say.

"Please. Even if just a little bit," she said as she took out some money from her wallet. "It will make me feel better."

Her wallet was thin and empty. I could see there were only three or four $2 notes inside. She took out two of them and put them in my hand. She looked into my eyes and said, "You understand me?"

The $4 she gave me was not "just a little bit". It was almost the full fare, but I couldn't speak. I just nodded.

She got out, took the bags, and walked slowly towards the building, shifting her weight from side to side, passing by the spots where her son and husband landed a month and a half ago.

With her heavy steps…

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Copyright ©2025 by Arnel Bañaga Salgado, PsyD, EdD, DSc
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