Partially paralysed, she regains confidence as volunteer
Woman, 61, was once afraid of going out because of partially paralysed face, but volunteering helps her gain confidence
Madam Lau An Mei was only 32 when she suffered a mild stroke.
At that time, back in 1987, she was going through her second pregnancy and the stroke left the right half of her face paralysed.
She was forced to make a difficult decision: her baby or her looks.
Corrective surgery would cure her paralysis, but it could cause a miscarriage. She chose her unborn baby over surgery.
For years after the birth of her son, she endured curious looks and rude stares.
She felt shunned by strangers. She lost her confidence. Her self-esteem plunged.
Today, at 61, she is a changed person, having found gratification in helping others through volunteer work.
Even though half of her face remains paralysed, she has been volunteering with the People's Association (PA) for the last eight years.
Opening up to The New Paper about what happened 29 years ago, Madam Lau said she was already a mother to a 10-year-old daughter when she discovered she was pregnant.
Seven months into her pregnancy, she suffered a stroke.
Madam Lau said in Mandarin: "I just had to have my son. It's an obvious maternal choice (between your child and your looks)."
Her decision to not undergo the surgery came at a cost beyond her looks.
Because of the paralysis, she could not close her right eye fully, causing discomfort when she slept because of dust going into her eye.
In 2003, she had corrective surgery. Despite that, she still received strange looks from people.
She said: "People would also just stare at me. I felt that they were judging me based on my appearance, so I avoided mixing with people."
Her son, Mr Desmond Lim, now 28, a business development associate, told TNP that he found out about his mother's sacrifice when he was in his teens.
"I used to be very rebellious. One day, my sister told me what had happened and pointed out how much my mother had sacrificed for me. It was like a wake-up call and I became more obedient."
Declining to reveal her occupation, Madam Lau said that after giving birth, she stopped work for about half a year. Even when she returned to the workforce, she chose to keep to herself.
"I didn't have many friends. So my life revolved around going to work and going home. At home, I would just watch TV and cook," she said.
"I would have loved to go out, but I found it difficult to meet people.
"Even my colleagues would sometimes give me strange looks so at work, I preferred to just stay quiet. I had very low self-esteem."
A few years after the birth of her son, Madam Lau befriended Madam Daisy Lee, the co-owner of a grocery store she frequented.
Madam Lee, 61, now a retiree, is a PA volunteer who gives exercise classes targeted at the elderly. (See report on facing page.)
Even though Madam Lau was very shy, she and Madam Lee became friends.
Madam Lee said: "We have incredible chemistry together. We connect very well.
"I would teach her how to cook Western food and she would teach me to cook Chinese food."
She gradually introduced Madam Lau to more people and her confidence grew.
But the one thing that really brought Madam Lau out of her shell was when Madam Lee introduced her to volunteering, about eight years ago.
Madam Lee even got her to help out with her exercise class
Madam Lau said: "Initially, some people who took the class would question my abilities because of the way I looked.
"But Daisy would encourage me not to care and she would talk to those people (about it)."
Madam Lau is now an assistant instructor for Madam Lee's classes. She helps with pre-class preparations and taking attendance.
She said: "By volunteering in these classes, I've met a lot more people. This has also helped me make friends at work.
"Daisy really broadened my world view. Without her, I would probably be at home all day."
Madam Lee said of her friend: "I find that she has progressed a lot. She's happier and a more positive person now.
"I even joke that during class, she's too busy taking attendance to bother about her looks any more."
She started volunteer work 40 years ago
People's Association (PA) volunteer, Madam Daisy Lee, teaches the Liu Tong Quan and Five Elements Health Exercise class.
It consists of 36 movements, involving different parts of the body, and is said to help promote health such as by improving blood circulation, blood pressure and memory
The classes, which are free, are held every Tuesday and Friday from 8pm to 9pm at the Ulu Pandan Community Club.
Madam Lee, 61, first got into volunteering about 40 years ago in a youth group at Tanjong Pagar Community Club.
After a break from volunteering to focus on her marriage and career, she returned to join the Ulu Pandan CC.
Madam Lee, a retiree who used to co-own a grocery store, said: "Initially, I just sat in at meetings and did nothing else.
"But I slowly became more involved in the various activities and committees and also made friends, so I continued volunteering."
Madam Lee is active in three committees at Ulu Pandan CC.
She considers herself a "bridge" between the Government and the people.
She said: "Sometimes, the elderly don't speak English or don't know how to communicate their concerns, so I will help them and bring up their concerns during my committee meetings."
Madam Lee also volunteers at the Tsao Foundation, where she teaches the elderly how to care for their health and diet.
More PA volunteers needed
The number of volunteers in grassroots organisations under the People's Association (PA) has generally grown from 2011 to 2015.
Last year, there were around 16,000 female and 20,000 male volunteers, according to PA's figures on the Ministry of Social and Family Development website.
The 2013 National Youth Survey also found that fewer than one in five Singaporeans volunteered in 2014, with the rest saying they lack the time to do so.
This is a fall from 2012, when 32.3 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered.
The survey found that the older people are, the less likely they are to volunteer.
It also found that 33 per cent of teenagers aged 15 to 19 spent more than 10 hours volunteering a week, compared with 25 per cent for those aged between 30 and 34.