The Fire in His Heart

For those who have no one to turn to in their final moments in life, Tommy Yu takes on the role of the son or friend they never had.

BY ALYWIN CHEW
PHOTOS THE STRAITS TIMES/SPH
 

D

uring his adolescent years, Tommy Yu found the idea of dashing into a burning building to save lives exciting and meaningful. But his ambition to become a firefighter never materialised because of a serious hand injury – he was even exempted from National Service because of it.

But today, some 40 years later, Yu is exuding bravado in a different way. Like the fire department, the 54-year-old is the first point of contact in the event of an emergency. In his case, however, this emergency usually does not involve saving lives. Rather, it is about honouring them.

Over the past three decades, he has held more than 200 pro bono funerals for people who have no next of kin. The money that is required for these funerals and the subsequent cremations and sea burials come from his own pocket. He estimates that they would have cost him about $300,000.

“We usually host events to commemorate important moments such as a baby’s first month or a person’s birthday. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a ceremony for someone’s death,” says Yu, who is the owner and funeral director of Seng Xiang Services. “It doesn’t matter how rich or poor someone is. Everyone deserves a proper send-off.”

Tommy Yu, founder of non-profit LUVE, helps to organise pro bono funerals with proper customary rites for the elderly who have no next of kin.

COMMUNITY HERO
Although Yu has helped to arrange free funerals for people of all races around Singapore, he is most fondly remembered in the Bukit Merah community in central Singapore where he grew up. Almost every week for the past 40 years, he has spent hours interacting with the old folks in the area, which was once home to a large population of samsui women – Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore to become construction labourers and servants.

As most samsui women took vows never to marry, their twilight years were defined by loneliness. For them, he has become the son or relative they never had. In fact, he is even affectionately called “the filial son of Bukit Merah”.

“As a youngster, I was a hooligan who often created trouble in the area. I got nuisance,” he quips. “Later, I became a community volunteer to help the elderly because there was free food and drinks, but I also became close to the residents.”

“ IT’S INCONCEIVABLE THAT A PERSON’S CHILDREN WILL ABANDON HIM JUST BECAUSE HE’S BROKE, BUT THAT’S REALITY. I’VE LEARNT THAT NO MATTER HOW RICH OR FAMOUS YOU ARE, EVENTUALLY YOU’LL BE REDUCED TO ASHES. ”

He recalls how he once checked up on an elderly woman after noticing that she looked unusually weary. He then found out that she had not been sleeping well because a bunch of delinquents were harassing the residents of the block, banging on their doors and making a ruckus along the corridors. That same night, the burly boy brazenly confronted the group – alone. The troublemakers never returned.

Even today, many of the residents in Bukit Merah are living alone in governmentsubsidised one-bedroom flats. According

to Singapore’s Department of Statistics, the number of elderly people living alone will hit into fights and became a 83,000 by 2030, up from 58,800 in 2017. The reasons are varied: Some are widowed, some have never married, and others are estranged from their families. There are also those who just like the freedom.

This issue is compounded by the fact that Singapore has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world. To address this,

the government has rolled out a slew of initiatives over the years to bolster welfare for the elderly. Project Silver Screen, for example, has since 2014 been providing low cost or free health checks for the elderly. There is also the Community Networks for Seniors initiative in which volunteers visit homes of the elderly for care-giving. 

The do-gooder also organises community social gatherings for the elderly samsui women living in his neighbourhood.

A DIGNIFIED SEND-OFF 

Yu was in his 20s when he arranged a funeral for a Bukit Merah resident whom he knew had no next of kin. He thought that it was unacceptable for a person to depart without having his last rites. He soon helped to sponsor another funeral, leading to many more. Before long, he became the first person that social workers would call when such incidents occurred.

Driven by his passion for giving back to the community, he set up Love & Unity Volunteers Establishment (LUVE) in 1986.

Every year, the group gathers volunteers to help out at orphanages and old folks’ homes across the country.

To specialise in the very thing he had been so acquainted with – arranging last rites – he established Seng Xiang Services.

But due to his commitment to providing pro bono funerals, his business started to suffer. At one point, he found himself $7,000 in the red. This was when he decided to stop offering such services.

The next morning, however, a phone call left his hair standing on end. “A social worker called to tell me that one of the elderly persons whose last rites I handled had left behind $15,000 – in my name. Taking it as a sign from heaven, I used the money to settle my debts and gave the remainder to LUVE,” he says. “I guess you can call this karma – no one knows when I do a free funeral, but I believe God is always watching.”

Yu gives the departed souls a proper send-off with a customary sea burial.

LEARNING NEW LIFE LESSONS
One of the greatest lessons he has learnt from his experience is the imperfection of human nature. “It’s inconceivable that a person’s children will abandon him just because he’s broke, but that’s reality,” he sighs. “Once, an elderly person who had no kin died and left behind about $1 million in assets and cash. After the news of her death was published, people started coming forward to claim that they were her relatives. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with the fiasco. I just wanted to give her a proper send-off,” he adds. “I’ve learnt that no matter how rich or famous you are, eventually, you’ll be reduced to ashes.”

One of Yu’s volunteers, Natalie Teng, shares the same sentiment. A teacher at Nanyang Girls’ High School, she first got to know Yu when she helped a former student with a documentary about him. After accompanying him on several sea burials, she joined LUVE as a volunteer.

“Prior to meeting Tommy, I didn’t think that last rites were all that important because the person is, after all, dead. But his dedication to the cause and the respect he gives to the dead really made me rethink my perspective. Now, I’m often left wondering about what they were thinking and feeling during those final moments, and whether they were afraid,” says Teng.

“It has also taught me to treat people with more respect and not be too hard on myself. I used to think that life was all about striving hard for success, but now I’ve slowed down a few notches. After all, when you’ve left this world, it is not how much you have achieved that people remember you by. They remember you for how much you have touched their lives.”

These days, Yu handles between 10 and 20 pro bono funerals a year. While LUVE accepts donations from people who want to contribute to his pro bono funerals, he also foots the bill whenever the funds are depleted.

“ Prior to meeting Tommy, I didn’t think that last rites were all that important. But his dedication to the cause and the respect he gives to the dead really made me rethink my perspective. ”


Natalie Teng, volunteer, LUVE

Just how appreciative the community is of his work is reflected in the response to the coverage of what he does on Our Better World, the Singapore International Foundation’s digital story-telling platform. Since the release of the video last year, members of the public have pledged $7,300 towards the non-profit initiative.

He hasn’t given up on his role as a protector of the elderly either. Whenever he learns from residents or social workers that an elderly person has collapsed in his flat, he drops everything he is doing and rushes over to the scene. 

“Sometimes the police will get there first, but they might hesitate to enter because they have protocols to follow. Me? I just kick the doors open. I have always wanted to be the one to chiong [a Hokkien term for rushing] in front and save people. As it turned out, I now save old people. But unlike firefighters and policemen, I have no licence!” he laughs.


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