Madam Jayamani Overithi has a knack for defusing a touchy situation – with humour or kindness.
If someone cuts into the queue in front of her, she pipes up: “Excuse me, the queue is behind.”
And if they glare? She tells them, with a smile like a sunbeam: “It’s okay, you can take my place, I’ll go behind.”
And when the 66-year-old overhears racist or xenophobic comments being made at the local coffee shop, she might sit down at the table to ask: “Excuse me, are you a member of any community club or residents’ committee? We have many events – sports for your children, talks for the parents.”
“I feel they may not understand other races or religions,” she said. So she invites them to activities of all sorts, not just events pushing racial or religious harmony. “And sometimes, they come,” she said.
Madam Jayamani herself is involved in plenty of activities. After she was slowed down by an injury 15 years ago, the former in-flight cleaning supervisor took up light volunteering to keep busy.
A tutoring stint with the Singapore Indian Development Association turned into commitments with the Red Cross, Lions Befrienders, Salvation Army, two Hindu temples and the Inter-Racial and Inter-Religious Confidence Circle in Yew Tee – to name a few. Last night, she attended the Inter-Racial Inter-Religious Harmony Nite event.
Madam Jayamani has no children and lives with her younger sister in Bukit Panjang. The daughter of a forklift-driver father and vegetable-seller mother grew up in Kampong Bahru, and, despite being Hindu, attended the Catholic CHIJ St Theresa’s Convent near her home.
She was a teenager when, in July 1964, she went with Malay-Muslim friends to Geylang to watch a procession marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and found herself in the middle of one of Singapore’s infamous race riots.
“Suddenly we heard, ‘tolong, tolong’ (Malay for ‘help’), and screaming,” she recalled. Her father herded the children together, Indian and Malay alike, and drove them home in a lorry.
Asked if language is ever a barrier in her community work, Madam Jayamani admitted it can be.
“In some of my committees, the majority are Chinese and sometimes, they start talking in Mandarin. So I raise my hand and say, ‘Please, I don’t speak Mandarin.’”
Friendship, she said, is the foundation of racial and religious harmony. Among her longtime friends are a Chinese woman who worked with her in a factory in 1970, and a Malay former neighbour. “She still has a set of my house keys,” Madam Jayamani said.
This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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