Thrifty mother of 77th Street's Elim Chew

SINGAPORE - She is the mother of one of Singapore's most famous businesswomen, but retiree Ooi Kooi Tin (above), 70, is one thrifty Singaporean.

The mother of fashion chain 77th Street founder Elim Chew prefers to take the bus instead of taxi, and would rather not eat at a restaurant even on special occasions.

For Mother's Day this year, she asked her daughter to take her to her favourite hawker centre in Bedok for a dinner which cost all of $14.

Trips overseas are not for holidays but in aid of the less fortunate - a cause which has kept her busy since she retired as a hairstylist in 1989.

She said: "I volunteer because this way, my life becomes meaningful."

Madam Ooi also volunteers at Changi Prison and at her church, counselling inmates and foreign workers. She began volunteering in 1996, when her church started to reach out to Chinese workers living in the Tanjong Rhu area.

Speaking to The New Paper at the family's rented Bedok bungalow, she spoke of the people she has helped over the years. For example, she makes a monthly trip to Tanjung Pinang in Indonesia, where she helps the poor.

She spoke of a single-parent family, where the father had died leaving behind young children. Not knowing what to do, the children left the body on a bed. She stepped in to help organise a funeral, renting a shop space for the wake.

Following her experience, she now hopes to set up a casket charity.

Madam Ooi was born in Penang, where her China-born father was working as a missionary. Because of the nature of his work, she would stay in a country for five years at a time before moving to another. And due to the frequent moves, she had no formal education.

She said: "Helping others has always been a part of my family. My husband was a social worker as well, and he did grassroots work in Tanjong Pagar. I am just following their example."

Moved to Singapore

At the age of 17, she was match-made and moved to Singapore in 1960 to get married.

Together, they shared a shop space in Cantonment Road where she ran a hair salon and her husband a dispensary. She set up Elim Emmanuel Hair Beauty Salon in Far East Plaza with her daughter in 1986.

While she is proud of her daughter's success, she prefers not to overplay her achievements, saying: "It's no big deal that she is famous, after all, there are plenty of famous people in Singapore."

Madam Ooi is glad that her example has rubbed off on both her daughters, Elim and Sulim, who are both involved in charity work as well.

She hopes to see a greater sense of volunteerism among Singaporeans. "We are very fortunate here and I think those who are able should try to help others in need."

What qualities do you have that make you Singaporean?

I am flexible, and open to change, which is important since things change so quickly in Singapore.

How would you describe Singapore to a stranger?

I would tell them that it's a safe and peaceful place, but also quite stressful to live in.

What are the little quirks you see in Singapore every day?

I think we can be more courteous. For example, when the bus driver greets passengers, very few respond.

What food do you miss most when you're overseas?

I like eating chicken rice. When my daughters want to bring food home, I would always ask for it.

What are your favourite Singlish phrases or words?

I don't have any, as I mostly speak Mandarin.

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