SINGAPORE - She speaks English and Tamil at home, learnt Malay in school and picked up Mandarin and Hokkien on the job so she could communicate with her customers.
Mrs Mumtaz Begum, 53, has been an employee of NTUC FairPrice for the past 37 years.
She said: "When a customer asks me something in Mandarin or Hokkien that I don't understand, I would ask a colleague what the word means, and I have picked up many words."
She has worked at four outlets so far - at Telok Blangah, Queenstown, Bukit Batok and now Jurong Point.
Mrs Begum joined as a cashier, but is now a retail assistant working in the fresh food department.
Her duties including restocking shelves, checking for expired products and packing goods.
Meet many customers
Asked what she likes best about her job, she said: "I get to meet many customers, many of whom I see regularly. I am happy when I can service them and help them if they need a certain product."
She has no qualms about going the extra mile for customers.
For example, if a product is not available in the outlet, she will contact other outlets.
And difficult customers do not faze her.
She said: "I would just try to explain to them nicely, and most of the time they would be quite understanding."
Mrs Begum related how her job has changed over the years.
"Well, the pay has increased. When I started, I was only earning $250, and I would give the entire amount to my mother.
"But the Jurong Point store I'm working at now is a lot bigger than the one at Telok Blangah, so it's more stressful."
Technology has made some things easier.
"We used to paste price tags on each product, but now the price tags are all digital. In the past, we had to use calculators when the machines broke down."
She has some long-lasting ties from work. For this interview, she wore a jade pendant which her colleagues gave her for her 18th or 19th birthday.
Mrs Begum said: "My colleagues have been very kind and I remember all of my old colleagues."
Recounting how she got the job, she said: "My mother took me along to the outlet at Telok Blangah when she shopped for groceries. The manager saw me and encouraged me to join as a cashier."
She studied for her O levels at Tanjong Rhu Girls School and lived in a nearby kampung.
Mrs Begum, who now lives in a four-room Jurong West flat, was born to a housewife mother and a businessman father, who died when she was young. Her parents moved here from India in the 1920s.
She was match-made at age 21. Her husband is now a warehouse coordinator and they have three children and a grandchild.
Her job at NTUC FairPrice is her first - and also probably her last.
"My children have asked me to stop working and take care of my grandchild, but I prefer working. I will continue working until I cannot any more."
What qualities make you Singaporean?
Every year I will ballot for the National Day Parade tickets, even though I have never got them.
How would you describe Singapore to a stranger?
Singapore is a safe and secure country. It is a place where you will get to meet many different kinds of people.
What little quirks do you see in Singapore every day?
Singaporeans are very kiasu (Hokkien for "afraid to lose"). If there is an offer, there will be a long queue for it.
What food do you miss most when you're overseas?
I would miss halal beef rendang, followed by nasi padang. I think there are some very good nasi padang places in Jurong West.
What are your favourite Singlish phrases or words?
"Lah". For example, when I'm in the store, I would ask a colleague to "come here lah".
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