Winner's joy tempered by news of man's severe illness

Madam Noriza with Mr Tan at his home, in a photo taken last year. Since her selfless act in 2014, she has spent nearly all her days off visiting him and his wife in their flat and later in hospitals and nursing homes.
Madam Noriza with Mr Tan at his home, in a photo taken last year. Since her selfless act in 2014, she has spent nearly all her days off visiting him and his wife in their flat and later in hospitals and nursing homes.ST FILE PHOTO

She had rushed from ceremony to visit elderly couple, only to find one of them was hospitalised

Madam Noriza A. Mansor was speechless with joy on hearing she had been named the first Straits Times Singaporean of the Year - but it turned out to be a bittersweet occasion.

The saleswoman, 50, won the inaugural award for her good deed in helping an elderly stranger, Mr Tan Soy Yong, when he soiled himself in public.

But the thought that Mr Tan - who is seriously ill in hospital - could not be there with her brought tears to her eyes.

"I am very happy but also a bit sad because uncle (Mr Tan) could not be here today," she said. "But when I went on stage to take the award, I could feel like he was here with me, somehow."

Madam Noriza met Mr Tan in October 2014 in a Toa Payoh supermarket, where he had soiled himself while buying groceries with his wife, Madam Lee Bee Yian, who uses a wheelchair. Both are 76.

After helping to clean him up, she befriended the couple and has since spent nearly all of her days off visiting them - initially at their three-room flat in Potong Pasir, and later in the various hospitals and nursing homes they have been moved to.

The couple are now staying at a Serangoon nursing home.

After yesterday's ceremony, Madam Noriza rushed to see them, stopping only to buy fried rice and coffee for them at a nearby hawker centre.

To her dismay, she discovered Mr Tan had been taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital with a high fever.

When she visited him there, she found him lying in bed with a tube in his nose. He did not respond to her attempts to speak to him.

"He has lost so much weight," said a distressed Madam Noriza. "Seeing him like this makes me want to cry."

Having lost her parents when she was 21, she now treats the elderly couple as her "father and mother".

"I think God sent them into my life," she told The Straits Times on an earlier visit to Mr Tan last year.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who presented her with the award, later congratulated her in a Facebook post. "Glad her selfless act was acknowledged," he wrote.

ST editor Warren Fernandez, one of the award's 15 judges, said they had been moved by her readiness to cross the barriers of age, language and race to help a complete stranger. "None of these mattered to her. She saw someone in need of help and stepped up to do so.

"All the nominees were worthy finalists, but there was something quite special and inspiring about Noriza. I think all of us have something to learn from her."

Madam Noriza, a bedsheet promoter, often works 12-hour days and usually gets one day off a week.

Asked what she will do with the $20,000 cash prize, she said she would use some of the money to renovate her four-room HDB flat in Tampines, especially the kitchen, which she has not upgraded in 20 years. She plans to save the rest for her five children, aged 12 to 27, whom she has raised single-handedly. Three of her children, along with her son's fiancee, attended yesterday's ceremony.

Her eldest son, airport relations officer Muhammad Nazri Zul, 27, said: "My mother really sacrificed a lot for our family.She was the only one with us throughout all the hardship.

"There is no 'me-time' for her. That's why when she is free, she will visit uncle and auntie. She doesn't understand having her own time to spend on herself.

"You know what they say, that good things happen to good people? I guess winning this is her reward for all the good things she's done in her life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2016, with the headline 'Winner's joy tempered by news of man's severe illness'. Print Edition | Subscribe