Man dubbed 'Superman' for taking care of low-IQ brother-in-law

A fellow stallholder calls him "Superman".

Another says she could never do what he does.

On a typical day, Mr Mah Ah Wah, 67, wakes up at 3am and spends the day delivering and selling noodles, preparing three meals, as well as caring for his wheelchair-bound wife and his low-IQ brother-in-law, before hitting the sack at 9pm.

The praise means nothing to Mr Mah who takes care of his brother-in-law, Mr Lee Guan, tirelessly.

For him, it's all about love - a love so poignant that it's best described in his own words.

He told The New Paper yesterday: "When Ah Guan kisses me on the face, it's all worth it."

For the past 10 years, Mr Mah has been the primary caregiver for Mr Lee, whom he affectionately calls Ah Guan.

Mr Lee is 61, but he has the IQ of a six-year-old.

When Mr Mah sells noodles at his wet market stall at Jurong East, Mr Lee waits patiently for him in his van at a nearby multi-storey carpark.

From 5am to 11am, all he has for company is a bunch of magazines and newspapers, which he tears to shreds to pass the time.

The situation is not ideal, Mr Mah admitted, but he is at his wits' end.

"If I don't put him here, where else can I put him?"

Mr Lee, who is Malaysian, moved to Singapore after the deaths of his parents and siblings 10 years ago to live with his sister, Mr Mah's wife.

"He has another sister in Kuala Lumpur, but she's uncontactable," Mr Mah said.

"My wife is the only relative he has left so, of course, I must help my own family."

Mr Mah renews Mr Lee's visa every six months so he can remain in Singapore.

Although he was Mr Lee's primary carer, he could initially rely on his 64-year-old wife to look after her brother in their three-room flat in Boon Lay when he went to work.

But that changed five years ago when she became wheelchair-bound. Her right leg had to be amputated below the knee because of diabetes.

Mr Mah suddenly found himself responsible for the care of both siblings.

"I have to feed three mouths with my earnings. It was difficult at first, but now I'm used to it."

He used to take Mr Lee to his stall, but Mr Lee would grow restless and would wander off without warning.


Said Mr Mah: "At the market, I'm very busy. He'll run away while I'm tending to my business and I don't have time to keep an eye on him."

He found daycare centres too costly.

Mr Mah, who earns $1,000 in a good month, said: "It costs $700 a month to put him there. How can I afford it? Ah Guan is Malaysian so he can't get any subsidies."

As a final resort, Mr Mah reluctantly turned his van into a makeshift daycare shelter for Ah Guan.

The arrangement has become the routine for the past five years.

"In the van, Ah Guan can sleep and he won't disturb anyone. He likes magazines and newspapers so I make sure there's plenty for him."

He leaves a note with his mobile number on the van's dashboard so he can be contacted in case of any problems.

Thankfully, Mr Mah does not receive many calls about Mr Lee's behaviour, although Mr Lee sometimes gets frustrated and shouts or bangs against the van panels.

"A few times, people have called me to say that they're concerned (about Mr Lee's welfare), but there's nothing to worry about.

"I'm never far away. I can run over if anything happens," Mr Mah said.

When TNP visited the carpark yesterday morning, Mr Mah's white van was parked in an inconspicuous corner on the second level.

Just a stone's throw away is his noodle stall at Yuhua Market & Hawker Centre.

Mr Lee was sitting alone in the back of the van on a black sofa, which provided him with some comfort among the clutter of clothes and newspapers.

All the windows were rolled down, but the doors remained locked. At least 10 people walked past the vehicle, oblivious to his presence.

Perhaps the only thing giving him away was the stench of urine. It was a sweltering day, but Ah Guan did not seem bothered by the heat.

He sat motionless, gazing out of the window in the direction of Mr Mah's stall.

When this reporter called out to him, he did not respond.

Mr Mah later told TNP that Mr Lee is mute so they cannot speak to each other. But such is the extent of their bond that they do not need to.

When Mr Mah went back to his van after closing his stall, Mr Lee broke into a toothless smile. They exchanged a knowing glance when Mr Mah opened the door.

Seeing that Mr Lee had soiled himself, he told TNP: "Wait, let me settle him first."

Mr Mah spent the next 10 minutes cleaning Mr Lee and changing his clothes. He playfully chided his brother-in-law, but not once did he seem angry.

"I don't mind doing it," he said. "Ah Guan may have low IQ, but he knows who I am and can recognise me.

"Sometimes, he thanks me by kissing me or trying to feed me. That's enough."

Mr Mah wakes up at 3am to make his deliveries, then returns home to make breakfast for his wife and Mr Lee before driving to the market with Mr Lee.

At 11am, he returns home to cook lunch. He then bathes Mr Lee and takes him for walks around the neighbourhood before starting on household chores.

He calls it a day only after he has prepared dinner and he barely gets any rest before his day finally ends at 9pm.

He told TNP: "Chinese New Year is the only time of the year I get to rest."

When asked about a dent on the front of his van, he said: "Once, I was so tired that I fell asleep at the wheel and got into an accident."

Madam Zhou Jin Zhi, 75, who sells fruits at the same market, told TNP: "Honestly, I don't think I can be like him. I always see him leaving his stall to give Ah Guan water or check on him."

Mr Tan Meng Huat, 55, who owns a vegetable stall, said: "I've never heard Mr Mah complain once. He's very noble, like Superman."

But Mr Mah, who is childless, played down the praise.

"I just treat Ah Guan as my own son."

Why it's hard for him to get help

 It is difficult for Mr Mah Ah Wah to get help for Mr Lee Guan because Mr Lee is not a Singaporean or a permanent resident, said Miss Ivy Low, the founder of WhiteAngel Caregivers Consultancy.

Miss Low, a former nurse, told The New Paper: "Mr Lee's case is tricky because he is neither a Singaporean nor a permanent resident. Otherwise, he would be eligible for subsidies and assistance. In light of (the) financial (issues), one option is to approach seniors activity centres at the void decks of HDB blocks."

However, a check with Thye Hua Kwan Seniors Activity Centre @ Boon Lay revealed that such centres do not provide the type of daycare service that Mr Lee needs.

A staff member said the centres require residents who use their services to be independent, which Mr Lee is not.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said it is looking at ways to help Mr Mah. A spokesman for MSF told TNP: "Officers from MSF's Social Service Office at Jurong East had earlier visited the elderly man. The visit was jointly held with social workers from the Lakeside Family Service Centre.

"MSF will work with help agencies to render the necessary assistances to the elderly man."


This article was first published on April 23, 2015.
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