By Koh Poo Leng
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photos by Sam Pin Fook
I’d rather starve myself than let my eight children starve. And no matter how poorly I’m doing financially, I’ll always support their education.—Sivakumar A/L Raman
Sivakumar A/L Raman (right) poses with his wife (left) and children outside their shabby but warm home.
“Look, here are three bags of rice. I chose the cheapest to buy. Now I don’t have to worry about my children going hungry,” Sivakumar A/L Raman said to the Tzu Chi volunteers who were visiting his family. The 44-year-old father smacked the bags of rice with a big smile. Tzu Chi’s aid had allowed him to breathe easier.
The volunteers’ visit to Sivakumar took place on March 1, 2022. When they arrived at his home in Klang, Selangor, they were greeted by his children, dressed nicely for the occasion, standing outside to welcome them. Sivakumar and his wife lit some incense and devoutly worshiped at their home altar. Then the master of the house began eagerly sharing with the volunteers how he had bought three bags of rice as soon as he had received Tzu Chi’s cash aid for February.
“I immediately phoned Mr. Lee when I received the 950 ringgits [US$217] of aid,” said Sivakumar. (“Mr. Lee” is how Sivakumar refers to volunteer Lee Eng Foo [李勇甫].) “He told me part of the money was to help my three children start a new school term.” Sivakumar expressed his heartfelt thankfulness for Tzu Chi before continuing: “After withdrawing the money from the bank, I bought rice and other food, as well as uniforms and school supplies for my children. The remaining money I put away for unexpected expenses.”
The faces of Sivakumar’s children were lit with delight as they looked at the new uniforms, book bags, and exercise books their father had bought, arrayed neatly on a long table. Seeing their smiles, the visiting volunteers asked them why they were so happy. Sivakumar’s second daughter shyly replied, “Because I haven’t worn a new uniform to school in a long time.”
Looking at the youngsters thumbing through their new exercise books, the volunteers were thrilled to see how Tzu Chi’s aid had led them to look forward to school. They were also happy to have helped lighten Sivakumar’s burden.
Sivakumar is from a large family with 11 children. He never received any formal education, having had to help support his family growing up. He did all sorts of odd jobs to help his family make do: felling trees, tending cattle, and cleaning ditches, among other types of work. He started working for Lee Chooi Kiat Garden at age 24, erecting canopies and tents. For 20 years, he earned daily wages, leading a regular and peaceful life. Never in his wildest dream did he expect a pandemic to upset his predictable life.
Volunteers made their first visit to Sivakumar last December, after a school referred him to Tzu Chi for help. Sivakumar and his family lived in a house converted from a shipping container. The peeling paint on the structure told a story 20 years old; the wooden walls, bearing signs of wear and tear, strained to shelter the family. The volunteers saw two dining tables of different sizes when they stepped into the living room. On one stood the only luxury in the home: an old television set. In a corner of the living room was a metal stand supporting a wooden plank. An altar had been set up there. Sivakumar and his wife prayed sincerely at the altar every morning. A coin bank on the altar had been brought home eight years before by Sivakumar’s second son. It was from a Tzu Chi scholarship award ceremony.
Sivakumar fished out his work log for December from a fanny pack he was wearing and showed it to the volunteers. He said, “I’ve worked less than ten days this December, earning less than 500 ringgits [US$114]!” He had been making 2,000 ringgits (US$457) a month before the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was easy to imagine his misery, especially having to support eight children. “My boss had his worst year in 2020,” he added. “I didn’t receive any pay for several months. Fortunately, this place is a dormitory provided by my employer, so I don’t have to worry about rent and utility bills.”
He continued: “I always encourage my kids to apply themselves in school. I tell them if they are better educated, they can at least get a job in a supermarket and have a steady income. I don’t want them to end up like me, working outside in all kinds of weather, braving the hot sun and rain.” He said he’d do everything he could to support their studies as long as they are willing to stay in school.
With a family of ten to support, Sivakumar bent over backward to make a living. If he had no tents or canopies to set up, he asked around for other work opportunities, earning a daily wage of 30 to 50 ringgits (US$9-11) doing odd jobs. He never received any help from his siblings, but he never complained. He said that everyone had their challenges to tackle, especially during the pandemic. He looked upon what he was facing as a test from heaven. He vowed that he’d rather starve himself than let his wife or children starve.
“I eat when there is enough food to go around,” said the father. “When there isn’t, I don’t mind going hungry.” He added that when he was doing better financially, he bought roti canai (an Indian flatbread) for his children to eat as breakfast. When he was doing even better, he bought Chinese chow mien, fried vermicelli, and fried rice to serve as dinner for his kids. “That’s what they look forward to the most. Even though they get to experience that kind of happiness only once a month or two, it doesn’t matter—what matters is that I live up to my promise of treating them to ‘fancy meals,’” he said with a smile.
Though strapped for cash, Sivakumar was grateful that all his children were in good health. His eldest son was 18 and worked as a lorry attendant, receiving daily wages. He told his son, “I don’t ask for much from you. I just want you to make the right friends and keep good company. Your future is bright when you walk on the right path, and dim when you go astray.”
When Sivakumar’s work of setting up canopies and tents could not provide him with a steady income, he actively looked for odd jobs to make extra money so that he could keep his family fed and clothed.
Doing odd jobs wherever he can
Earlier this year, Sivakumar had been working especially hard to find odd jobs. The motor scooter he had used to get around for over ten years was broken, and it would cost several hundred ringgits to repair. He was trying to find extra work to defray that cost.
It happened that Tzu Chi volunteer Koh Chuan Gea (高泉藝) needed help assembling some metal framework at that time. Though it wasn’t something Sivakumar was good at, he quickly learned the ropes and pitched in. “It’s good to learn new skills,” Sivakumar said. “The tents I set up are sometimes higher than these metal structures, so I shouldn’t have any problems with this assembling work.” He worked intently on-site with his temporary boss and other workers, happy that he’d have some extra money to bring home that day.
Sivakumar’s friends knew he didn’t have a steady income, so whenever there was any work opportunity, they’d tell him about it. “If I just sit at home, no one is going to give me money,” he said. “My kids are still young. What if they fall ill? If things at home break, we need money to fix them too.”
Volunteer Lee Eng Foo is a husband and father too, like Sivakumar. “The house Sivakumar and his family live in would be considered normal—if we were living in the 80s,” Lee said. “But it’s quite primitive by current standards.”
Lee was even more stunned when he saw the family’s simple dinner. Fried greens, curry sauce, and curry chicken were each contained in different metal bowls, from which Sivakumar’s wife dished out the foods onto plates for her eldest daughter to distribute to the other children sitting on the floor. There was no furniture for them to sit on to eat. They had been eating on the floor since they were little.
“I am a father myself,” Lee said. “I know that raising four kids is difficult, let alone eight. But I’ve learned from my interactions with Sivakumar that he doesn’t mind how hard he has to work, as long as he can make sure his children are fed and clothed. He also puts such a premium on their education. I really admire him.”
On March 18, when volunteers visited the family again, they brought with them a surprise present—a framed picture of the family taken during the volunteers’ previous visit. The entire family, adults and children alike, broke into smiles when they saw the portrait. The youngest son couldn’t take his eyes off the picture, his face radiant with delight. The scene moved volunteer Koh Poo Leng (許音苞玲) to no end. She was the one who decided to have the picture developed and given to the family as a gift. She was really happy she made the decision.
When Sivakumar was helpless, Tzu Chi volunteers extended a helping hand and were able to witness a father’s solid love for his family. Their interactions revealed a heartwarming story of love and care.
Sivakumar’s daughters smile cheerfully, clad in new school uniforms their father purchased with money provided by Tzu Chi.
Tzu Chi Malaysia’s “Kita1Keluarga” COVID Relief Program
The Malaysian government implemented a Movement Control Order in March 2020 to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Its impact on the nation was significant and wide-ranging. To help families struggling through this difficult time, the Tzu Chi Kuala Lumpur and Selangor branch launched a COVID-19 relief program in July 2020.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country. The program’s name, “Kita1Keluarga,” came from Malay, meaning “we are one family.” Tzu Chi helped 2,178 families in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, and Putrajaya under the program, from September to November 2020, providing them with short-term cash aid. Tzu Chi later launched other aid projects in response to changing COVID circumstances, including providing electronic devices for remote learning and distributing food to needy families.
In the second half of 2021, 580,000 middle-income families in Malaysia were plunged into low-income status. Tzu Chi responded by initiating “Kita1Keluarga 2.0.” In addition to calling on applicants’ homes, volunteers took the initiative to visit over 260 schools and, with the help of teachers, located more families in need of help. The distribution of aid was completed this February, benefiting 2,012 households.