Upon first meeting Mr Oh Go Seng, one of the first things that you may notice is a glint in the eye.
The 79-year-old looks in better shape than many people half his age, despite his advancing years. In Singapore, the story about Mr Oh living in a forest went viral earlier in February – with many in shock at the news of this elderly man’s exitence.
A highly urbanized country, Singapore has no shortage of skyscrapers and luxury apartments. However, for Mr. Oh, this lifestyle uldn’t be further from the place he called home – a makeshift shelter he built in one of the country’s forests.
Some people questioned how he survived unnoticed for 30 years, and why more help hadn’t been given to him.
Having trouble at Christmas
Mr Oh was stopped on Christmas Day by officials and found to be trading without a license.
He was selling leafy vegetables and chillies he had grown – after the pandemic caused him to lose his job selling flowers at markets.
After an argument about the small charge of SG$1 (£0.55) for his item of produce, Mr Oh believes he was reported by an angry shopper.
A charity worker happened to be passing by at the time and noticed he was being questioned by officials who had taken his vegetables.
“I didn’t want him to go home empty-handed that day,” Vivian Pan claimed, adding that she was “mad” on his behalf.
“However, I understand that they are not allowed to sell on the street under the law,” she continued.
She recorded the incident and shared it on Facebook, where it immediately went viral, drawing the attention of a local member of parliament to Mr Oh’s dilemma.
Media Interest and the local MP
Liang Eng Hwa, the MP, soon discovered that there was much more to Mr Oh’s story than met the eye. He had somehow been living unnoticed in the woods surrounding his village for 30 years.
Mr Oh grew up in the forest with his family in Sungei Tengah, a local kampong or village.
However, in the 1980s, these kampongs were demolished to make room for the new skyscrapers.
The government provided new homes to the majority of kampong residents, but Mr Oh was unable to find a place of his own.
His brother, on the other hand, received a government flat and Mr Oh was invited to live there, but he eventually left because he did not want to impose on the family.
As a result, he returned to a forest near his old home and began to spend nights in a makeshift shelter made of scraps of wood, bamboo, and tarpaulin.
Living in His Tent, The Garden and the Forest
As you approach the shelter, you notice ashes in the entryway from Mr Oh’s open fire cooking.
His things are stacked in the middle of the shelter, and he sleeps in the back of the tent.
He would cultivate his own food in the garden near his tent. Clothes lines zigzag between the trees, while a barrier keeps intruders out of the vegetable plot.
Despite Singapore’s scorching tropical heat and humidity, he claims that the huge jackfruit tree over his tent provided adequate shade and he never felt uncomfortable.
He claims that loneliness was never an issue for him. He kept himself occupied by caring to his garden, which he says was made easier by the favourable growth circumstances.
The mice, he claims, were the worst part about living in the woods, they’d find their way into his hiding place and chew holes in his clothing. When he could, he also worked at other part-time jobs.
Oh Go Sung’s Family
Mr Oh would occasionally use the money he earned to travel a ferry to Batam, a small Indonesian island. He had become fond of Madam Tacih, his partner with whom he had a daughter. Mr Oh would still return to his forest home in Singapore after his regular weekend visits to Batam.
Mr Oh’s wife and daughter, who is now 17, say they had no idea how he lived, just like his family in Singapore. According to a relative, he would always respond to questions about where he lived by saying he “lived in a garden.”
Mr. Oh’s trips to Batam came to an end once the pandemic hit, with Singapore effectively closing its borders and allowing only those willing to pay for quarantine and Covid-19 tests to travel. He did, however, continue to assist his family financially by sending them between S$500 and S$600 per month.
In Singapore, homelessness is uncommon. On average, the country has one of the wealthiest populations on the planet. According to the World Bank’s most recent figures, the city state’s GDP per capita is nearly $60,000 (£44,300).
Singapore also has a robust public housing system, with the Housing Development Board subsidising, building, and managing nearly 80% of the city-housing state’s stock (HDB).