Helping people from womb to tomb

Helping people from womb to tomb
Mr K.V. Veloo, 80, devoted nearly half a century to helping the less fortunate in Singapore, shaping policies in areas ranging from prison welfare to drug rehabilitation and eldercare.

As a young man working as a Cleansing Inspector in the City Council in the 1950s, Mr K.V. Veloo witnessed a monthly phenomenon which weighed heavily on his heart.

Come pay day, hordes of moneylenders would descend on the council office, rapaciously eyeing the labourers collecting their monthly pay packets.

As soon as the men collected their wages, the moneylenders would pounce and snatch the money. The labourers would often just slump defeated on the floor, hands over their heads.

It was a vicious circle because the men had no choice but to borrow once again to feed their families.

"I brought this up to my boss but he told me not to get involved because I would get my head cracked by the moneylenders," he says.

The misery he witnessed, however, gnawed at his social conscience and is one of the main reasons he decided to become a social worker.

Now 80, Mr Veloo devoted nearly half a century to helping the less fortunate in Singapore, shaping policies in areas ranging from prison welfare to drug rehabilitation and eldercare.

Unlike many of his peers who went into banking or business, his choice of career did not make him rich.

"Every now and then, I feel a little sad that I'm living in an HDB flat while others are living in bungalows and driving big cars," says the tall strapping man in his modest but comfortable home in Bedok North.

"But I'm just envious, not jealous. My conscience tells me that I've done the right thing. There's a lot of satisfaction in knowing I've served a great cause."

He wrote a book, Life And Times Of A Social Worker, which was launched on his birthday in January.

He was born in Penang, the youngest of eight children of a legal clerk and his homemaker wife. He was seven when his father died, and he moved to Singapore with his mother to live with one of his sisters and her husband.

The Japanese occupied Singapore shortly after and he remembers vividly the air raids, the lootings, the corpses of British soldiers on Orchard Road and the prisoners-of-war being corralled and herded off to work on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway.

After the war, he enrolled in Telok Kurau English School and did well enough to gain admission to Raffles Institution (RI), where he excelled in both sports and studies.

But going on to university after RI was not an option. His brother-in-law fell on hard times after his provision shop business failed. "And in those days, there were not that many scholarship options," he says.

His social conscience got an early prod soon after he left school and joined the Katong Boys' Club.

Now defunct, the Joo Chiat club was set up in 1946 by a group of volunteers and public-spirited professionals to help youth deprived of a normal family life after the war.

"I'd say 10 per cent of the members were real delinquents, and another 60 per cent on the verge of delinquency," recalls Mr Veloo, adding that the club had about 600 members.

The young Veloo and some of his friends dropped by the club when the late Tan Thoon Lip, the first Asian registrar of the Supreme Court, got hold of them. "He said, 'Why don't you join and bring in some new ideas?'"

Mr Veloo became chairman of the Boys Committee, a stint which exposed him to many disadvantaged youth and would-be delinquents and showed him that with guidance and the right activities, many could be kept off the streets and changed.

"One or two of the pai kia became engineers," he says, using the Hokkien phrase for ruffian. "It showed me that it's not always a case of one or two rotten apples spoiling the rest. It could be the other way around."

A brief stint as an English teacher in a dodgy family-run school followed before he joined the City Council on the urging of one of his brothers-in-law.

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