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Best friends at work lost touch about 45 years ago – until one of them was asked to befriend lonely widow

Best friends at work lost touch about 45 years ago – until one of them was asked to befriend lonely widow

Published on

27 Dec 2022

Published by

The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - When she was in her teens, Madam Alijah Baji, 64, had a close workplace buddy called Santha. But they lost contact about 45 years ago after Santha had an accident at work and resigned after getting married.


So it was to Madam Alijah’s great surprise – and joy – that the pair recently reconnected in the most unexpected of ways.


Now volunteering as a befriender, Madam Alijah was assigned to visit and check on Madam Santha Koorunathan, a 68-year-old widow who is living alone.


Madam Alijah said of their reunion: “I couldn’t believe it until Santha showed me her burn marks on her leg. We hugged each other and we cried.”


The pair met as teenagers, working as production operators at a plant making semiconductors. They became close friends, taking their meals and hanging out together.


Then an accident happened at work and an explosion left Madam Koorunathan with burns on her face and limbs. After she recovered, she got married, quit her job and the pair lost touch.


That was before mobile phones existed, and the duo said their families did not have telephones at home back then.


About three years ago, Madam Alijah, a widow with two grown-up children, started volunteering as a befriender with NTUC Health, which runs nursing homes and daycare centres for seniors, among other services.


Madam Alijah, who also helps out at her brother’s food stall, said: “I volunteer as a befriender to pass my time. I like to show concern to others and I like to keep myself active.”


She now visits 13 seniors regularly. Around June, she was asked to befriend Madam Koorunathan.


They did not recognise each other the first time they met. During her second visit, Madam Alijah told Madam Koorunathan that she had a friend with the name Santha, a colleague whom she was close to.


Madam Koorunathan said: “I listened to her and said, ‘That Santha is me’. And we both started to cry as it has been so many years.”


At first, Madam Alijah was sceptical about Madam Koorunathan’s identity as the woman in front of her looked so different from the Santha she knew. Madam Koorunathan had aged and put on weight. 


Then she showed Madam Alijah the burn marks on her leg.


Madam Alijah said: “I believed her when she showed me the burn marks. And I realised she has the same smile (that the Santha I knew has).”


Madam Koorunathan said: “I never imagined that we would find each other again.”


The past two years since Madam Koorunathan’s husband died have been a lonely period for her. She has a leg problem and her gait is unsteady. So she spends most of her time alone at home. 


Her two children are married and Madam Koorunathan said she spends her time “talking to her plants” and listening to music.


With tears in her eyes, she said of her late husband: “I miss him a lot.”


A hospital staff member asked Madam Koorunathan if she would like a befriender to visit her, and she said yes. Touch Home Care delivers meals to her, while staff from Methodist Welfare Services visit her once a week to check on her health and that she is taking her medication. 


Since the pair have not met for about 45 years, Madam Koorunathan and Madam Alijah have a lot to catch up on and the conversation just flows, they said. Madam Alijah visits her twice a month now, often taking along Madam Koorunathan’s favourite food like peanuts and pandan cake.


Madam Alijah also took along their mutual friend, Madam Faridah Lawi, 64, to visit her. Together with another friend, Madam Jaya Mani, the four used to be buddies at work. They even went to a photo studio to have a group portrait taken.


Madam Alijah, who said they hope to find Madam Jaya Mani, added that their friendship provided “our happy times when we were young”.


The trio, Madam Alijah, Madam Koorunathan and Madam Faridah, recently took a picture of them wearing saris, recreating the studio photograph they had taken over 40 years ago.


Since they found each other, Madam Alijah has roped in her daughter to help Madam Koorunathan collect food rations, given her mobility issues.


Mr Spencer Loke, NTUC Health’s senior programme associate, said: “Madam Alijah and Madam Koorunathan’s story shows how the Community Befriending Programme can be mutually beneficial for both befrienders and befriendees.


“As loneliness in seniors is a growing concern in our society, we hope more befrienders can come on board to help build a stronger support system for Singapore’s seniors.” 


Mr Loke said NTUC Health now has about 150 active befrienders, who are linked to more than 1,000 seniors aged between 60 and 100. Most of these seniors have medical conditions, live alone and may lack social support.


Madam Koorunathan looks forward to Madam Alijah’s visits, saying: “We care for each other.”


To be a befriender, sign up at or call NTUC Health on 6590-4414.



Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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