A void deck is home, a marble bench a bed

For nearly two years, home for Mr Lim Cheng Teck, 76, was the void deck of a block of one-room flats in Bedok South. His bed was a marble bench.

One half of the bench held his essentials: a few bottles of talcum powder bottles (the empty ones doubling up as incense-sticks holders), food, utensils, lighters and a few other knick knacks.

He sat, had his meals and slept on the other half, using the elevated middle section of the bench as a pillow.

It was not the most comfortable of beds for the tall and lanky man. He slept curled up and on more than one occasion, rolled off the bench in the dead of night.

There was little privacy or quiet at the void deck. Besides an unending stream of human traffic, he often had to contend with noise - from grasscutting machines and garbage trucks to funeral wakes.

He lived on food given by neighbours and old friends, some of whom had known him for more than 30 years.

Sometimes, strangers shared cigarettes with him in quiet companionship; others pilfered his half-eaten lunch or dinner.

Mr Lim used to be a painter and odd-job labourer. He got by on social welfare after he stopped working in his late 60s.

He never married and also lost touch with his siblings.

Mr Lim walked to the washrooms at a nearby market for his thrice-a-day quick showers, always bringing with him a tired-looking towel and a plastic comb.

Occasionally, police patrolling the estate in the wee hours of the night would escort him up to a flat on the eighth floor, his official address, to rest.

He shared the one-room flat with another elderly man, Mr Robert Goh, also in his late 70s.

Mr Lim would then get to sleep on the floor in a corner of the flat, on an area not much bigger than a mahjong table, next to thousands of empty drink cans hoarded by his co-tenant.

The duo became flat mates under the Housing Board’s Joint Singles Scheme in September 1999. The scheme caters to poor and needy singles in Singapore with no housing options and family support.

Co-rental with another single is a must and HDB provides a list of eligible candidates to help those who cannot find a flat mate.

Unfortunately, not all such pairings work, as in the case of Mr Lim and Mr Goh. While things went well in the first decade they lived together, their personalities changed as time passed. They started to clash countless times over matters from the payment of rental to personal hygiene. Mr Lim developed a habit of playing with talcum powder and Mr Goh started to hoard.

At most, Mr Lim spent a few nights a month here. When he did, he would leave a few hours before dawn because he found the stuffiness and the presence of bedbugs hard to bear.

Volunteers occasionally cleaned and sterilised the unit for the two elderly men but the bedbugs still returned, mainly because of the mountain of discarded items Mr Goh had amassed.

Mr Lim’s situation is not unique. Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Moral Charities for Bedok Radiance Senior Activities Center (SAC), which takes care of 500 needy elderly in the rental blocks in the Bedok area, says that at least eight other elderly men in Mr Tan’s block have chosen to live away from their co-tenants. Some while their nights away in corridors and others in stairwells.

“Sometimes it depends on who is more domineering. The weaker and timid one will have just one small bed and the rest of the house is filled up with the other roommate’s things,” says THK centre manager Loong Lee Lee.

The SAC tried to play mediator between Mr Goh and Mr Lim but was not successful.

“Both parties were very stubborn. We brought this case up to the Housing Board and it was looking into it,” says Ms Loong.

Mr Lim’s situation was highlighted on the Facebook page of then newly founded volunteer group, Project Awareness, in May 2013.

It caught the attention of the media, and a month later, he was moved to a shelter for the elderly in Tampines. Weeks later, a taxi driver agreed to share his flat with Mr Lim.

Mr Lim died on Nov 23, 2013, in his sleep. His brother, whom he had lost touch with, returned and arranged his funeral.