The Lives They Live

The Lives They Live: Hands that built a city

For more than 50 years, Mr Thio Sin Nam has been helping to build Singapore. The affable 71-year-old has toiled in construction work since his teens and works as a mason today.

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

For more than half a century, Mr Thio Sin Nam has been helping to build Singapore.

Since he became a construction worker in his late teens, he has carried loads, laid planks, poured cement and more.

And despite being 71 years old, he does not see himself stopping any time soon.

"I'll work until I cannot get up and go to work," he says in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese.

"I can't figure out what to do otherwise. This is my life."

Nut brown from long hours in the sun, Mr Thio says he has tried his hand at a variety of construction work through the years.

For the past decade or so, he has been a mason. Working on a freelance basis for a subcontractor, he lays bricks for swimming pools across the island. At this moment, he is building a pool in a Ghim Moh condominium.

Even his earliest memories are of work. He remembers, at the age of five, helping his father collect used glass bottles at the market to sell back to the drink companies.

THIS IS MY LIFE

I'll work until I cannot get up and go to work... I can't figure out what to do otherwise. This is my life.

MR THIO SIN NAM

He grew up in an area that would later become People's Park Complex, where the OG department store now stands.

His mother was a street hawker, while his father collected bottles.

By the time he was eight, he was helping out regularly with the bottle business.

When he was 12, his father died, from causes which he is still unclear about today. Mr Thio had to drop out of school to help feed his family.

Through his teenage years, he and his mother took on whatever odd jobs they could find.

For a few years, they slaughtered chickens and plucked their feathers for up to 12 hours a day. For killing and plucking around 50 to 60 chickens, he could earn about 50 cents.

At other times, he ran errands as an office boy, or moved cargo at the docks.

Once, he and his mother got a job carrying door frames at Great World. As there were no lifts back then, they carried the frames up the stairs from the ground floor to the ninth. They managed 25 frames a day and got $1 for each one.

Despite having toiled throughout his childhood, Mr Thio struggled to adjust to the back-breaking labour of the construction industry, which friends introduced him to.

"I had to bend metal in the hot sun," he recalls.

"It was challenging. I was not used to it, but I persevered."

Mr Thio Sin Nam, a construction worker for most of his life, works today as a mason. The bachelor, who lives alone in his Kim Tian Road rental flat, has worked since he was just five.
Mr Thio Sin Nam, a construction worker for most of his life, works today as a mason. The bachelor, who lives alone in his Kim Tian Road rental flat, has worked since he was just five. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

DANGEROUS WORK

Although he grew accustomed to the work in time, it has not been without its dangers. He is proud of his safety record - his worst injury was having his finger cut by falling metal rods, which required three stitches and a week's medical leave - but he has had his share of near misses.

Once, he tripped at a site and fell, his face landing next to some sharp metal rods which were sticking from the ground. "I felt like I'd just skipped death," he says.

Over the years, he has watched the local construction industry evolve. Things that were done with hand tools are now done with machines, he says, and the workers he meets come from all over the world.

Though he may not speak their language, he always has a friendly greeting for them.

"Whether they're from China or India, you have to open your mouth and crack a joke with them, or you'll never make friends."

A lifelong bachelor, Mr Thio lived with his mother in their Kim Tian rental flat for close to 50 years until her death in 2013.

Mr Thio Sin Nam, a construction worker for most of his life, works today as a mason. The bachelor, who lives alone in his Kim Tian Road rental flat, has worked since he was just five.
Identity cards for Mr Thio Sin Nam’s father Thio Kum Choon and mother Lam Ah Hup (pictured with a young Mr Thio). ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

A bad fall caused her to fracture a bone in her neck, and she went into a coma in hospital. He himself was hospitalised shortly afterwards for swelling in his knee. He was in a ward above from hers when the doctor came to tell him she had died.

"She had just turned 100 years old," he says. "We were going to throw her a 'da shou' (birthday celebration)." Sometimes, he still dreams about her.

He now lives alone, with some goldfish he got from a neighbour.

He had an older sister, but they drifted apart later in their lives. She died earlier this year, and he only found out about this when he went to the columbarium to pay his respects to his mother and saw his sister's niche there too.

 Identity cards for Mr Thio Sin Nam's father Thio Kum Choon and mother Lam Ah Hup (pictured with a young Mr Thio).
Mr Thio Sin Nam in his early teens at a Paya Lebar work camp, where he did odd jobs. ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

His mother was known for helping her neighbours, stitching quilts by hand for the community centre and cooking for the other elderly residents of their block.

Mr Thio tries, in his own way, to carry on her work. He continues to keep an eye on the 86-year-old woman who lives down the corridor - as she is no longer very mobile, he helps her pick up her groceries - and accompanied another neighbour to see the doctor.

"I treat them like my own family," he says.

He earns $50 a day, works three to four days a week, and usually takes home around $700 a month.

Once in a while, leg pains keep him at home and he does not get paid for those days. His rent and household bills are about $100 a month, but the costs of daily necessities and travel are creeping up.

"Everything is getting more and more expensive these days - MRT top-ups, rice, cigarettes," he says. "So I think I'll have to keep working."

His chief regret in life is not being able to continue his education when he was young. "But I don't blame my mother for making me give it up. We were poor, it was what I had to do."

He relishes the simple things in life: a cup of coffee in his kitchen when he rises at 3am, mahjong with friends, laying that final brick in a swimming pool before it is filled with water.

"I eat simply, I live simply," he says. "I have a job, I have the freedom of not having to worry about too much. I have enough."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2017, with the headline 'Hands that built a city'. Print Edition | Subscribe