Saturday 13 April 2013

Busy - Living, Driving and Dying in Singapore.

Last night, eight taxi buddies and I attended Ah Kow's funeral wake at the void deck of his 3 room flat in Jurong East. Ah Kow was a poor taxi driver who died of a heart attack a day earlier. He was 62, had no siblings and his parents died many years ago. As it was 3am when we arrived after our driving work, the wake was deserted. But Ah Kow had many friends who must had attended his wake earlier in the evening.

The simple coffin was placed on two wooden stood two feet above the ground and a recent photograph of Ah Kow was placed at the head of the coffin which was not sealed during the wake. As a timid person, I didn't dare to have a last look at him inside his coffin. I'm sure Ah Kow would understand and forgive me.

Foods, fruits, two paper "servants", an alter for burning of incense and two lighted white candles were placed infront of the coffin. We lighted incense, bowed as a sign of respect to the family and made a donation of a few hundred dollars to help the family defray the costs of the funeral.The donation money was a collection from all his taxi buddies in Jurong Central coffee shop. Each gave between $20 - $30. 

"James, did you hear about Ah Ong, the taxi driver?," asked Roy, my best friend who had a lucky escape from a recent heart attack.

"Which Ah Ong?" I replied with a question.

"You know... the older guy with glasses, always smoking " Roy continued.

Roy could be describing about half the taxi drivers at the wake, including myself.

"Yeah, well, last week Ah Ong went to the doctor complaining about a back ache and chess pain. Turns out he had terminal lung cancer. He had maybe two weeks to live then" Roy said in a sad voice.

"Geez... really?" I was surprised with his revelation.

"For months he figured he was just stiff from driving long shifts. It got to the point he could barely stand up."  Roy said as he demonstrated with both hand at his hips and a hunched back.

"Wow, how sad" I softly let off a grief. 

"All they can do is give him something for the pain... He finished out the week driving, then went home to die." Roy said sternly.

"What? He decided to spend one of his last days on earth driving a cab and die?" I exclaimed loudly.

"What else was he going to do? He's been driving a cab more than thirty years. That's twelve hours a day, seven days a week, every week of the year. I've been driving nearly fifteen years and I don't remember him ever taking a vacation. No hobbies. No real friends. Just driving a cab and his family. He put his two kids through university, though!" Roy said as calmly as he could.

"How old is he, Roy?" I asked

" About 65, I guess."

"That's my age, Roy."

Now, I don't even know Ah Ong but this shook me up. Not because of the tragedy of his death, but because of the tragedy of his life. I wonder if 35 years ago, at 30 when Ong first started driving, what dreams he had for himself. At 30, he was strong, full of energy, with nothing but time and his imagination standing between him and the future.

Perhaps he wanted to go to night class, travel the world as a sailor, start his own business. Perhaps he figured cab driving was a part-time, something to tide him over. Perhaps he looked at all the other middle-aged men driving cabs and told himself, "I'll never let myself turn into that, God forbid!". But who knows the future?

Then he met a girl, got married, had one kid, then another, and suddenly all those doors closed. He had responsibilities, bills to pay, obligations to keep. All of his dreams evaporated like his breath on a cold morning. And maybe years later he looked in the mirror one morning. He saw the face staring back him with the graying temples and the thinning hair and the dark circles under his eyes and he asked himself, "OMG, where did the last thirty years went?"

But then, he may have told himself, he wasn't that old- only 65.. He could still have dreams. Maybe once the kids are grown-up on their own; maybe once the HDB mortgage is paid off; maybe once the wife and he can finally save a little money and time for themselves.

But first, he told himself, he got to go to the doctor and get his back checked out. Then came the shocking news of his lung cancer and his world shattered instantly. sigh!.

Life can take a sudden turn and we've no control over it no matter how we monitor our health and safety. We all have only one shot at life and nobody knows when it will end. So, before it's too late, let's take stock of our life now. Unfortunately, for poorer Singaporean like taxi drivers, there's no much stock to talk about, when faced with escalating costs of living, scarcity of suitable jobs, no welfare, no money. To us, life is a daily struggle to place three meals on the table, paying household & medical bills and keeping the roof above our head. Don't believe?, join the rank.

I asked Roy how he, himself got into cab driving. He explained that he started as technician in the construction of the MRT lines. After MRT completion, he went driving a cab at 35. Like the rest of us, he thought it would be a part-time thing. But, one thing led to another and fifteen years later, here he is, still driving his yellow cab and surviving two heart attacks!.

Does he ever think about doing something else? "Nah, I don't give it much thought. What can I do at my old age with only a secondary education. Be a guard, cleaner or junk collector? Money not enough. Must drive to live!" Roy answered scornfully.

That's the sad reality of living in the 6th most expensive country in the world. With a 30 years HDB mortgage, children schooling, PUB bills, expensive medicine for chronic illness, etc..etc...and no much help from the authorities, most Singaporean like taxi drivers had to work without retirement till they drop dead. period! I think the only consolation is seeing the children growing up, doing well in studies and hoping they have a good job and a brighter future than themselves.

Away from the depressing reality and morbid subject of death, we kept vigil at the wake for about an hour and tried our best to lessen the grief of Ah Kow's wife. Her two grown up children were asleep beside the coffin. As Ah Kow's family was poor, the length of the wake was a single day to allow for the offering of prayers. A few hours more, Ah Kow will be cremated at Mandai Crematorium.

I spend the rest of the morning in a kind of daze. I keep thinking about those lines: "Get busy living, or get busy driving and dying." and "while we are alive, do we know how to live?. In the end, I think "it matters not how long we live, but how well with whatever we have".

"Our Model Worker. He'll works till his last breath & leaves his CPF to his children "

Well done!!".!


Anonymous said...

It is sad and sadder if you multiply the thousands of our fellow citizens just like him. Yes, I recall Tim Robbins in my favourite film saying that as Andy Dufrende before he surprised us as Randall Stevens. Thanks, James for reminding us to get busy. Living, of course.

Gintai_昇泰 said...

May your fren rest I peace! Sigh!

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi, Gintai,

I'm so happy to hear from you again.

James Lim

Unknown said...

Hi James,

I wrote an article "Losing your job in Singapore" recently. Feel free to log in my blog, SG Web Reviews ( and give your comments.

Honestly I have been following your blogs for the past two years. I like your articles as they were written based on your own life experiences.

Would you like to exchange links?
My email is

Hope to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

After reading your post, I forgive all those taxi drivers that suddenly swerve into my path at high speed, that suddenly stopped in front of me to pick up or drop off passengers, that do not give way to pedestrians at traffic light junctions with the green man on.

My wife keep reminding me that these taxi drivers are trying their darndest to earn a little more money for their families and paying medical bills for themselves. I don't disagree with her but wished that they would consider other road users' safety as well as their own if they want to live to a ripe old age while working the road.

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...

Hi, Anon,

You're damn right!. All drivers should be careful and considerate on the road at all time, esp. taxi drivers.

Anonymous said...

One Life, live without regrets.
Timely reminder. May he rest in peace as he has given his best for his children and family.

Anonymous said...

That's why I decided not to get married or have children.

Even if I lose my job and become a taxi driver, I don't have to work so hard.

Even better, I can now get a new 2-room HDB flat come July, which I know I will be capable of paying off in slightly less than 15 years time.

I will semi-retire at the age of 50 doing some part-time work and on and off go backpacking around the world.

In Singapore, you simply just can't afford a family and at the same time enjoy your life, especially so when you are at the lower end of the income spectrum.

Anonymous said...

I m 34, may have to look for new jOb but private sector wants foreigner, public sector wants young 20s so may have gO drive taxi. :/)

Edmund Lim said...

Hi James,

You wrote in the last paragraph:

"I spend the rest of the morning in a kind of daze. I keep thinking about those lines: "Get busy living, or get busy driving and dying." and "while we are alive, do we know how to live?. In the end, I think "it matters not how long we live, but how well with whatever we have"."

I think that is rather a very thought provoking statement not only just for taxi drivers but for everyone else living in today's ultra-competitive globally inter-connected societies.

I have just written an article about change and choices in my "10-month old" blog: and you may wish to visit it in your free time before your evening driving shift.

Hopefully, it can provide additional inputs and insights into the societal matters and problems that we face in our daily work and struggles from time to time.

Also, I enjoy reading the many articles that you posted in your blog and encourage you to persist doing so during your free time.

I am sure many readers, just like myself, have gained valuable insights from the numerous interesting articles you posted.

Lastly but not least, wishing you, your family and your buddies best of health, good luck and safe driving in your daily commute.

Anonymous said...

Many taxi died of heart attack because they work everyday.
It is very hard not to work by paying rental and rest a day.
They did not exercise as it may burnt them out as everyday is working day
.It is very hard to say rest day for earning daily.
So, the result is drive until dead and all the money earn unspent.
We must balance it out by allocating two days of rest by paying our rental.
Do not worry about earning less.
Just stop smoking,buying 4D,gambling and drinking alcohol.
Spent time exercising on 2 off days per week.
I am a one man show taxi driver.
Every week, i work only 5 days from 6am to 1030PM.
My off days is on every sat /sunday and all public holidays.
Off course, I am running a deficit as I have to pay rental.
I earn much less money than any other taxi driver.
But ,i exercise on my off-days to build up my heath instead.
I believe with good health,I can save a lot of money on medical bills and early death.
You cannot buy time and health with money once it is over.
Money will leave you when you are gone!

Diary of a Singaorean Cabby said...


Edmund Lim & Annon, Thks for comments. Both well written and appreciated.

Just got back from a short holiday in Gulin -China today. The most unforgettable part of the tour was not the scenic mountains & rivers of Gulin but the simple and carefree life of the Moei Tribe in the remote villages in northern Gulin. With this statement, you should be able to rationalize the rest of my thoughts.

While in Gulin, got news of a childhood friend and ex taxi driver's death of heart attack. Will attend his wake in the next hour...sigh!!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 23 April 2013 20:40
Why you do not find a relief driver to help you to reduce your burden.?
You can find relief driver at

Rani said...

nice post,, i like your article

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Finally you are writing again since April =), you and Mr Brown blogs are the only 2 blogs that I will checkout fortnightly. It’s been my 9 mths as a night shift cabby. It’s starting to lose the initial excitement n novelty picking up passengers. It can be a mundane job zipping around 8-10 hrs on the road.

Cabby life can be an ‘evil’ cycle. With freedom and also on one hand it provide you fast cash money on daily basis (at times I see it almost like ATM machine), which is sufficient for (过日子) but at times it might not be even hardly enough to replace faulty home appliances if the bill size is in 4 digits.

Notice many take on taxi driving continuing do so for decades. Much of it is due to family commitment, while some just not able to find a fulfilling job with a decent take home income.

While Taxi drivers plague by heart disease and other chronic ailment commonly known. Late nights, supper, smoking (for some) are the basic causes of the ailment. For myself, even on the road sudden e-break by the vehicle infront or overtaken recklessly another motorist on expressway can give my heart a shock. You need a strong heart to drive in Singapore.

Starting to take up brisk walking during my off days to smell the flowers.

Cheerio James and Fellow Bloggers!

Fellow Cabby

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