ST Singaporean of the Year: 'I don't think I'm special'

Recipient of the first The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award Noriza Mansor has sparked soul-searching with her act of uncommon kindness

The first thing that strangers say to Madam Noriza Mansor when they recognise her is: "Are you the woman who washed the man who soiled himself?"

The second thing they say is: "I could never do what you did."

Each day, someone will approach her, shyly. Often, to say they could never be as good as her.

Madam Noriza, named the first The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year, never asked to be the spark that triggered national soul-searching, with people asking themselves online and in real life if they could ever do what she did.

"Today, two people recognised me and talked to me," she tells The Sunday Times.

I've had struggles in my life. I'm a normal person. I have a house, my five children are good people. I am better off than other people.

MADAM NORIZA MANSOR on receiving the inaugural The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year award

At 1.5m tall, she is petite, and sitting on a playground bench outside her four-room HDB flat in Tampines, her feet just about touch the ground.

It is 10pm. She is tired after a 12-hour workday. The 50-year-old has worked in stores, selling everything from pots and pans to, now, bedlinen, since she was 15.

She works on commission and chooses to stick around for the peak shopping hours till closing time at 9.30pm.

Talking to strangers and befriending them is the best part of her job, she says brightly. She thinks of herself as naturally social.

"They tell me, you look like a happy person. You must have a happy family," she says. That is when she tells them that she has five children who make her happy and that she is a twice-divorced single mother of five children aged 12 to 27.

What she does not mention is that both ex-husbands were drug addicts. Her second husband was jailed for wielding a knife and threatening to kill her and harm her children.

Once, when he was high on methamphetamine, an illegal drug, he beat her with a broom, but later apologised. She forgave him, but the knife incident was the limit and she divorced him 12 years ago.

"I wanted to find someone to be with, but in the end, they made use of me," she says softly of her ex-husbands.

I ask why she gives so much, even to people who do not deserve it.

"A bad person can change. I never look down on others. Everyone has problems. Maybe they come from families where they didn't get any love. They missed that. I give everyone a chance," she says.

That simple equation - if I have enough, I share it - has been part of her life since she was born. She is the fifth of eight children, born to parents who ran a Malay chicken rice stall. The family lived in a three-room HDB flat in Redhill Estate.

She dropped out of school after Secondary 2 to work at the Isetan department store and has been in sales since.

Both her parents died within months of each other - her father of a heart problem and her mother, in a traffic accident - when she was 18. Their deaths have cast a long shadow on her life, she says.

She does not describe herself as particularly religious and she is not superhuman, she says.

Like everyone else around her on that day in October 2014, she was repelled by the stench from Mr Tan Soy Yong, 77, who was buying groceries at a Toa Payoh supermarket with his disabled wife when he soiled himself.

Madam Noriza was working in the supermarket.

"It was horrible. It was like I was going to vomit," she says.

She thinks about why she was moved to clean Mr Tan, a stranger, and buy him a pair of shorts.

Her answer is practical: "Because his wife is in a wheelchair and no taxi driver was going to allow him to board the taxi in his condition.

"The two of them would be stuck on the street, unable to get home or anywhere else," she adds. She thought of her parents and what she would have wanted others to do for them if they were in need.

So she took him to a lift landing and cleaned his legs. A passer-by, currency trader Goh Rong Ren, then 32, chipped in money for Mr Tan's taxi fare and later tipped off The New Paper about Madam Noriza's act of kindness and how it restored his faith in humanity.

It is a feeling that she has stirred in many people, especially after she won the inaugural Singaporean of the Year award, sponsored by the bank UBS Singapore, earlier this month. She took home a $20,000 cash prize and a trophy.

At the ceremony, when she received the award from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, she was close to tears.

"Why me? Who voted for me? I don't think I'm special. I've had struggles in my life. I'm a normal person," she says.

She thinks for a moment, then adds: "I have a house, my five children are good people. I am better off than other people. "

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline ''I don't think I'm special''. Print Edition | Subscribe