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'Why must we be afraid of being old?'

In the spotlight: Centenarians, show of respect between cultures and Gen X's social media use


If someone asks for Madam Bulkis Yahya's age, she will tell them she is more than 200 years old.

"My answer is a prayer. If I give a higher number, Allah will bless me with longevity. Why lie about being younger? Why must we be afraid of being old?

"Do not fear!" said the woman who was in fact born in 1915.

The 101-year-old's story is told along with those of five other centenarians whose portraits were taken last year by independent photographer Zakaria Zainal.

Centenarians Tan Swan Eng (above) and Bulkis Yahya are not held back by age even as Singapore’s ageing society sparks worries. PHOTO: ZAKARIA ZAINAL

He worked with Ms Normala Manap and Ms Adlina Maolod from the Centre for Ageing Research and Education, a Duke-NUS initiative.

The photos were used at a recent conference titled "Are centenarians the realisation of successful ageing: Insights from a global study".

The photos, and accompanying profiles by Ms Adlina, were put up by Mr Zakaria last week, to rave reviews.

From his Facebook page, we learn that Madam Bulkis grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood around Wilkie Road.

She was taught recipes for baking and cooking by her best friend, and married at age 21.

He lifelong passion is sewing and the last item she made, at age 95, was a knitted hat.

We also learn of Madam Tan Swan Eng who was born in Hainan in China in 1914.

She joined her husband - a chicken rice seller here - in the 1950s. She came with their son but left the elder daughter behind owing to financial constraints.

Madam Tan worked for the British as a nanny, made buttons and sold food from door to door.

She unwinds to the tunes of Hainanese opera via a cassette radio she bought several years ago.

Centenarians Tan Swan Eng and Bulkis Yahya (above) are not held back by age even as Singapore’s ageing society sparks worries. PHOTO: ZAKARIA ZAINAL

"You live better when you work for yourself. Work from home, you earn a little bit but it is your own hard-earned money," she said.

"My grandchildren sayang (care for) me. They take care of me so I don't suffer, but I prefer to work, earn my own money, so I don't have to depend on my family."

Mr Zakaria told The Sunday Times that it has been a humbling and rewarding experience to "put a face to centenarians and share it with other Singaporeans".

Elders, he added, should be a priority, and their role in society should be re-examined as Singapore comes face to face with a silver tsunami.

He mentioned one memorable interview, where one centenarian said it was no point living for so long, especially as all her friends and siblings had died.

"At the same time, it made me think of our elderly who are working menial jobs well into their 70s and 80s to survive," he said. 

"With these portraits, these are good questions to think about as a society."


It's a scene not commonly witnessed in many countries.

A Chinese funeral procession slowly went by Block 256 in Pasir Ris. In the void deck, some guests for a Malay wedding were preparing for the festivities. But that did not stop them from paying their respects.

Some wedding guests stood by the side of the void deck in silence as the procession went by.

Former politician Maidin Packer, who was having lunch at the void deck, quickly whipped out his phone and snapped several photos.

However, he lowered his phone when the van carrying the dead person passed by.


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"A few of them noticed and nodded and I nodded back," he said last Saturday in a Facebook post that has attracted more than 1,000 likes, comments and shares.

"This is so Singapore. Clearly, we have grown to respect each other," he added.

Mr Maidin's story drew similar accounts from other Facebook users.

Mr Mohamad Azni, who attended a wedding at a void deck, also spoke of a Chinese funeral procession. 

"Music was being played by the DJ on duty (who) made an announcement that the music will stop for a while to show respect for the procession," he said. 

Mr Maidin was formerly an MP for Aljunied and Marine Parade GRCs, and a former editor of Berita Harian.


Surprise, surprise. The heaviest social media users are not millennials.

Instead, the users come from Generation X, meaning those who fall between ages 35 and 49.

The latest Nielsen Social Media Report shows that this particular group spends almost seven hours a week on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In contrast, millennials, between ages 18 and 34, clock in about six hours a week.

Women also spend more time on their feeds than men.

On average, women spend six hours and 33 minutes per week on their feeds, compared with the four hours and 23 minutes men stay glued to their screens.

Female users are likely to be checking their feeds on Sundays via a smartphone, while watching prime-time television, the survey concludes.

So what are people looking for?

Two out of five heavy users are on the hunt for new products and services while 30 per cent seek discounts and deals.


#BestCarcass, a morbid hashtag, has been trending this past week on Twitter.

Users share photos of animal carcasses they have discovered with an accompanying story about where the remains were seen, and what they think could have happened to the animals.

The trend began on Jan 10 after Dr Julien Fattebert, an ecologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute, posted photos of a dead leopard cub with the hashtag.

"Here's a F leopard cub killed by lions (because lions just kill stuff). I heard it happen," he said.

In a follow-up post, he tweeted: "It's not all glitters and rainbows. Animals die. Get killed. Get eaten. Rot. Liquefy. #BestCarcass"

Other biologists followed and the hashtag soon spread to the rest of the Twittersphere.

Here are other examples: fossilised fish, a fly caught in a spider's web, a decapitated tortoise and a fox frozen in a lake.

"Everyone started sharing pictures of dead animals, more or less decomposed," Dr Fattebert wrote in an e-mail to The New York Times. 

"Death is inherent to life, and we have to deal with it more often than not. And it's sometimes disgusting, yes," he said.

"I think this hashtag has opened a window on this side of life science."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline ''Why must we be afraid of being old?''. Print Edition | Subscribe