SINGAPORE - The 82-year-old Singaporean was found on the streets of Johor Baru - dirty, hungry, weak.
He was picked up by the Malaysian police, repatriated and sent to a home for the destitute here two months ago.
The man is one of a number of elderly Singaporeans who have been abandoned overseas.
Social workers say his case is not unique, as Singaporeans have also been allegedly abandoned in Indonesia and China.
A source familiar with the case said the man claimed he was abandoned by a family member and had a son in Singapore. While he could walk, he was very weak and in a wheelchair.
We are not naming him to avoid embarrassing him.
He was taken to Angsana Home under the Destitute Person's Act. His family was subsequently contacted and he is no longer with the home.
"He was totally undernourished. I've never seen a Singaporean in this condition. He was like a person from a state with famine," our source said.
He also looked like he had not showered in a while. His clothes were dirty.
"You could smell him from 10 feet away," said the source.
He appeared slightly deaf, but spoke good English.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesman said the Consulate-General in Johor Baru provided consular assistance to the Singaporean and, with the support of the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), arranged for his return to the Republic.
MSF said they could not comment on matters concerning the family due to confidentiality.
Two social workers said overseas abandonment is a cause for concern.
Fei Yue Family Service Centres' assistant director Rachel Lee said it can be especially frightening for the elderly when they're not familiar with the surroundings.
"It's also not easy to prevent or detect abandonment once the parent is taken out of the country."
Said centre manager Frances Lee of Care Corner Family Service Centre (Toa Payoh): "If (abandonment) is happening in Singapore and we're hearing about it all the time, what makes us think they are not being abandoned elsewhere?"
Ms Lee said she has heard of cases of abandonment in Indonesia.
About three years ago, a man convinced his mother to sell her HDB flat and "relocate" to Indonesia, telling her that medical care was cheaper there. The woman, who was in her 70s, suffered from health and mobility issues.
He left his mother with a distant relative in a remote village and disappeared with the proceeds from the sale of the flat.
He visited her a few times initially, but later became uncontactable, she said.
The woman was eventually taken to the Singapore embassy in Jakarta and repatriated.
Dumped in Johor
About a year ago, Comfort Ville Home nursing care centre in Taman Johor Jaya, launched a search for Singaporean Joseph Tay, who had checked his mother, who was suffering from dementia, into the home for three months and was never seen again.
Said staff in charge, Ms Goh Ker Min: "He didn't pay the initial deposit, saying his relative would come and pay for the first two months.
"He left his phone number but we couldn't call through. He also left his Singapore address. We asked our resident's relatives to take a look. The first time he wasn't at home, the second time he told them he would visit the home, and shooed them away."
A few days after the matter was publicised in June last year, the Singapore Consulate-General there brought Mr Tay's mother back to Singapore, Ms Goh said.
She said this was the only instance of a Singaporean defaulting on payment at her home, which has four Singaporean residents and has been housing Singaporeans for the last 10 years.
Two other Johor homes said they had not encountered cases like Mr Tay's, but did have Singaporeans owing up to seven months' payment.
"Relatives will give cock-and-bull stories about why they cannot pay. At some point, you have to threaten to send the resident back," said Mr Frankie Ker, director of Spring Valley Homecare in JB, where 40 per cent of its 130 residents are Singaporeans.
Added Mr Jeremy Yeo, owner of City Heart Care nursing home, at which 30 of the 150 residents are Singaporeans: "It's less of a problem if Singaporeans come here. If their relatives don't want to take care of them, at least we can tell the Singapore Embassy and have them repatriated."
Behind many cases of abandonment and abuse is caregiver burn-out, where the caregiver faces multiple demands and is overwhelmed caring for the elderly, said Ms Melissa Chew, a senior medical social worker at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
Other reasons include relationship issues between the elderly and their relatives.
"There could have been divorce, or the children are angry as there was another woman. There could have been strained relationships with the family," said a director at a Singapore home for the destitute.
Her home handled at least two cases of Singaporean residents abandoned in other countries in the last five years: One in China, the other at Jakarta's International Airport.
"Under the Destitute Person's Act, one has to be penniless and homeless. If we investigate and find that they have a home, we will counsel the family members to take them in."
And if family members refuse?
"Ultimately it's his own home, the children have to accept it. But every case has its own conditions. We don't want the person to end up with family problems."
It may not be just a matter of children rejecting responsibility for their parents, she said.
Most cases of abandonment and abuse are carried out by the victim's children, though it can also occur at the hands of siblings and spouses and other caregivers like domestic helpers or even a neighbour, said social worker Ms Odelia Chan of Trans Safe Centre.
Ms Rachel Lee said that, while she has been seeing an increasing number of homeless elderly in the last three years, they are very seldom single and tend to have families, some even two wives.
"They may have quite a number of children but no one wants to take care of them," she said, adding the majority of them are male, about one woman for every ten men.
Annually, she sees 20 or slightly less cases of homeless elderly, one of them even sleeping in his former workplace.
"It could be due to trust issues, some had extra marital affairs or didn't support their family well. When they are old, the children don't want them to take care of them and it's not cheap to put them in an old folk's home," she said.
Director of the centre, Mr Alvin Chua, added that abandonment usually involves the elderly person's child getting his parent to sell the house, after which they would take away all assets and check him or her into a nursing home or hospital before disappearing.
She lodges cases with the police, the Commissioner for the Maintenance of Parents, and the Immigration Checkpoints Authority, and checks for leads.
Mr Chua said abandonment is a deliberate attempt to desert.
Sembawang MP Ellen Lee, member of the workgroup which proposed changes to the Maintenance of Parents Act in 2010, said it can be considered clear-cut when there is absolutely no contact between parent and child for a sufficiently long time, and in cases such as Mr Tay's in Johor Baru.
More can be done to promote closer and stronger family ties, especially three-generational ties, she added.
Former Tampines MP Sin Boon Ann, who was also a member of the workgroup, said the abandonment of parents overseas was not something they considered.
He said it is a despicable act and should be criminalised, but the authorities would need to have clear rules as to what constitutes abandonment.
"At the end of the day, society needs to go back to the roots of what the family and filial piety is."
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