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By Toh Yong Chuna and Kevin Lim
The Straits Times
Apr 30, 2017
His flight from Singapore to Qingdao, China, was not due to leave Changi Airport until 1.45am.
But at 4pm, some 10 hours beforehand, construction worker Meng Xiangbo was all packed and dressed to go to the airport for his Scoot flight.
"I am ready to go home," says the 39-year-old in Mandarin.
"I have not seen my wife and two children for about a year since I went back home between my job contracts."
He adds: "I came here to work in early 2010 with one piece of luggage and a backpack.
"Now I am going home with the same luggage and backpack. And that wheelchair."
Matter-of-factly, he points to a black wheelchair next to him in the six-bed, non-air-conditioned ward on the third storey of Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan Hospital.
"The wheelchair has replaced my legs," says Mr Meng as he sits up in bed, the rest of his body from the waist down, inert.
"My legs are paralysed. I cannot stand.
"I will never walk again."
CRUSHED BY CONCRETE SLAB
The last time Mr Meng stood on his own two feet was Sept 4 last year.
He was working as a carpenter at a construction site in a public housing project in Sembawang when a slab of pre-fabricated concrete wall being hoisted by a crane fell on him.
The crane operator could not see him.
"Everything was fuzzy. I remember a sharp pain on my back and legs. I could not move," he recounts from his hospital bed.
He cannot remember how he got to his initial port of call, Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
But he recalls a doctor there telling him that the nerves along the spine at his lower back were severed, and would not heal. "The news was hard to accept," he says.
He hid the injury from his family for more than a month: "I did not want them to worry about me. What can they do even if they know?"
He spent about two months at TTSH before being transferred to the Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan Hospital to recuperate while the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) sorted out work injury compensation.
"The (TTSH) doctor said there was nothing more they could do for me," he recalls.
His employer, Ban & J Construction, a sub-contractor, only visited him once in the hospital, he says.
"It was to return my passport because I need it to go home."
At Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan, which is a community hospital, Mr Meng met social worker Jeffrey Chua from HealthServe, a non-governmental organisation that provides healthcare services, counselling and shelter for injured foreign workers.
Mr Chua says: "When I first met Mr Meng in November, he was really worried about his family's finances. He is the only breadwinner. I flagged his case to MOM for attention."
The ministry tells The Sunday Times that it was alerted to Mr Meng's plight by HealthServe in November and expedited the compensation claim.
On Feb 6 this year, five months after the accident, Mr Meng was told that he would receive $327,500 in compensation.
It is the highest amount that injured workers can receive under the Work Injury Compensation Act, for those like Mr Meng whom doctors certify as completely disabled and unable to work for the rest of their lives.
Of the amount, Mr Meng says: "The money may look like a lot, (but it) will eventually run out in three to five years."
However, he decided to accept it rather than sue the employer in the hope of getting a higher amount, a process that can take several years.
"This is so that I can go home instead of dragging out the case," he says.
But while Mr Meng received his $327,500 cheque in February, he still could not go home - the employer dragged its feet in paying him nearly $19,000 in wages that accrued when he was on medical leave.
He received the amount only in the middle of last month.
It also claimed that it could not afford Mr Meng's plane ticket home.
The MOM stepped in, paying $732 for two one-way tickets for Mr Meng and social worker Mr Chua to go to Qingdao.
On March 25, more than six months after the accident, Mr Meng set off for home.
'WHAT IS THERE TO SMILE ABOUT?'
Mr Zhang Xihong and Mr Wang Qingguo, two workers from China staying at the HealthServe's shelter for injured workers in Geylang, turn up at the hospital at 8pm to accompany Mr Meng to the airport.
At one point, Mr Meng gets annoyed when Mr Wang does not handle the wheelchair gently.
"Be careful, the wheelchair is important (to me), cannot damage it," he snaps.
Mr Meng keeps to himself in the taxi to the airport, where Mr Chua is waiting.
At the airport, the four pose for a wefie in front of a Merlion statue.
Mr Chua coaxes Mr Meng to smile.
"What is there to smile about?" the latter retorts.
"You are putting this behind and going home to your family," Mr Chua replies.
Mr Meng smiles, tentatively at first.
As a stewardess helps Mr Meng from a wheelchair to his seat in 12D, a red plastic bag falls from underneath his brown sweater.
"I am sorry. Be careful with it," he says, embarrassed.
It hides a urine bag that the nurses had connected to a urinary catheter.
Mr Meng cannot control his bowels and urine. He wears adult diapers and a urine bag for the journey.
The plane takes off at 2am.
He sits upright throughout the six-hour flight, dozing off occasionally, but is never fully asleep.
When the plane lands, Mr Meng's younger brother Meng Fanjin, 37, wife Yuan Jie, 43, and cousin Meng Ning, 34, are waiting.
The reunion is undramatic.
There are no hugs or tears.
Mr Meng insists on wheeling himself to the waiting car.
It is a four-hour drive to Mr Meng's home in Ganyu's Shimen (stone gate) village.
Home is a two-storey, four-bedroom terraced house, on a land about the size of two five-room Housing Board flats, built in 2015 at a cost of about $50,000.
Living there are his wife and son Meng Xiangjin, 10. Daughter Meng Yuan, 16, studies at a boarding school in the city and comes home every fortnight.
There are five steps from the courtyard to the living room.
"Let me carry you," says Mr Meng Fanjin, piggybacking his older brother into a bedroom on the ground floor.
"I need to lie down," Mr Meng says.
"I am very tired."
He falls asleep almost as soon as he is laid down on the queen-sized bed.
His wife cooks a lunch that includes buns, fried beans with pork, steamed fish, fried cucumber with meat from a pig's head and cold quail eggs that are eaten together with their shells.
"These are local dishes that he likes," she says.
"But he is sleeping now. You come back tomorrow."
'I AM HOME, BUT I FEEL LOST'
The next day, Mr Meng is still wearing the same jacket that he wore on the plane.
"I am home, but I feel lost," he says.
"I regret going to Singapore. If I hadn't gone, I would not have been injured."
When asked about his plans, he stares out of the window, saying: "I might look for a doctor in the larger cities like Nanjing. They might be able to help me."
Mrs Meng adds: "I am more worried about money. There is no one working to support the family now."
At about noon, Mr Meng's son Xiangjin comes home from primary school for lunch.
He hugs his father and holds his mother's hands. She whispers into his ear and hugs him.
They cry. Mr Meng looks away, his eyes welling up.
Later, Mrs Meng told The Sunday Times that she asked her son to study hard and not worry about his father's condition.
On the third morning, the journalists and Mr Chua visited the family to say goodbye.
Mr Meng's father, 66-year-old Meng Qingbin, showed this reporter his hands. His left hand is missing a thumb.
"We are a family of construction workers. I lost my thumb in 1974 in a worksite accident," he says.
"It was a minor injury compared with my son now."
Mr Meng's brother Fanjin, who is also a construction worker, says he had thought about going to Singapore to work.
"Not any more."
When asked how he feels about his brother's disability, he choked as he tried to answer.
He took out a notebook from his shirt pocket, tore off a page and wrote, ku du yu sheng.
The phrase means suffering for the rest of one's life.
"This is how my brother's life will now be," he says.