Gifts of time and money

The moment singer Elson Soh steps into a one-room flat in the Lavender Street area, he is immediately surrounded by four boys, aged two to 10, whose faces light up when they see him.

They clamber over the 25-year-old and tug at his shirt. When he sits down cross-legged on the floor, they climb onto his lap, or lean against him and play games on his gadgets.

Despite the affection, they are not his children. They belong to Miss Shakinah Jamaludin, a 28-year-old single mother of seven children, each by a different father. Her eighth child, a girl, is due next month, and she plans to get a ligation after the birth.

Miss Shakinah, who is unemployed, says: "When I was younger, I was quite 'havoc', and had quite a lot of boyfriends. But there are a lot of reasons why I never married them. Some, my father didn't like, they were too 'gangster'; even some better ones, he wouldn't accept."

When Life! visited the family last week with Soh, Miss Shakinah's fourth and fifth children, both boys, were staying with her sister in Malaysia for the holidays. Her eldest son, a 15-year-old boy, has been adopted by her uncle and no longer lives with her.

Soh first met her and her family in May this year as part of Project Awareness, a social initiative to help the needy that he founded in February. The group, which is run on donations, distributes food packages to poor families across Singapore.

He says that although the project has helped over 3,000 families so far, Miss Shakinah's situation stood out for him. "When I saw her and her children, I felt very xin suan (Mandarin for heartache)," he says. "I was also quite shocked. It's quite rare to see this kind of situation in Singapore. I really feel for her, it's not easy to bring up so many kids alone."

He visits the family about twice a month and brings them groceries such as canned food, rice and vegetables. At first, he spent about $200 a month out of his own pocket on the family, money which came from his endorsement and appearance fees. Now, other volunteers from Project Awareness have chipped in to share the load.

Soh also bought the family some of the simple furniture in the one-room flat: a table, a cupboard and two mattress. He says he spent about $600 in total on those items.

Miss Shakinah, who has Primary 6 education, shares the flat with her sister, a housewife; her sister's husband, who works at a car wash; and their four children. Rental is $75 a month and she plans to go back to work after the birth of her daughter, though she does not know what job she will do.

What Soh gives to the family is not just monetary assistance but also his time and companionship. He takes the children for ice cream, on grocery shopping trips and to the games arcade at City Square Mall. "I want them to enjoy their childhood like any other children," he says.

Miss Shakinah chips in: "They were quite excited because they had never been in an arcade before. Some of the boys even thought that the guns at the shooting game were real."

Soh also helped out when six-year-old Irfan was sick with vomiting and a runny nose. As Miss Shakinah was busy taking care of the other children, he took the boy to a nearby doctor and paid for the consultation and medication.

Miss Shakinah says she is grateful to Soh and Project Awareness not just for the monetary assitance but also for the time they spend with her and her children. She says: "Financial assistance I can get from a lot of places, but it's the outings like going to eat Popeyes chicken or going to the arcade that my kids really like."