Saturday, May 16, 2009

Former millionaire now sleeps at Changi airport

Former millionaire now sleeps at Changi airport
Sat, May 16, 2009
The New Paper

By Liew Hanqing and Joanna Hor Peixin

AMID the hustle and bustle of travellers passing through Changi Airport every evening, one man cuts a lonely figure.

For about four nights each week, Mr Leong Chee Onn, 66, sleeps at the arrival hall of Terminal 2, with just a canvas bag of personal belongings in tow.

The airport has been his home for the past three months.

"I came here because I don't have a home I can go back to," Mr Leong told The New Paper.

Which isn't quite true. He shares a one-room rental flat with another man in his 70s, but says they can't get along.

But whether airport or one-room flat, it's a far cry from his former home - a bungalow in Oei Tiong Ham Park, off Holland Road.

Mr Leong said he was a multi-millionaire before he lost his fortune to failed business ventures in the early '90s.

A check with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority showed that Mr Leong had been involved with 15 registered businesses between 1977 and 2007, most of which are inactive.

His marriage fell apart after he went broke and he's no longer in touch with his ex-wife, who used to work in a bank. He also seldom sees his two children, who are in their 30s.

Mr Leong claimed that his housemate had punched him twice before and verbally abused him.

"My housemate drinks a lot, smokes and gets violent sometimes. He just doesn't like me. He thinks I bring him bad luck," he said.

So Mr Leong decided three months ago to spend his nights outside the Raffles Place MRT station. But he ended up getting robbed, he claimed. And that was what made him decide to make the airport his home.

On a typical day, he wakes up at about 6am and roams around Chinatown or Little India looking for part-time jobs, or he uses the Internet at his sister's office at Beach Road.

He heads back to the airport in the evening, and sometimes has dinner at the staff canteen at Terminal 2.

Meals, he says, are a luxury.

Mr Leong showing the catheter attached to him.

To save money, he only eats one proper meal every two days. The rest of the time, he snacks on fruits and nuts whenever he feels hungry.

When The New Paper approached him at the canteen on Wednesday evening, Mr Leong had just tucked into a few pieces of beancurd and a small plate of mutton curry, which cost him $3.50.

It didn't include rice.

On most days, he takes sponge baths at the airport toilets, but goes back to his flat for a proper shower "once every few days".

Lost two toes

Pointing to his gnarly, blackened feet, Mr Leong said he suffers from cholesterol embolism, a medical condition where the release of cholesterol causes obstruction of blood vessels.

The condition resulted in him losing two of his toes to gangrene, and he now walks at a much slower pace. He said his feet hurt when he walks barefoot.

He survives on a monthly allowance of about $300 from his 35-year-old daughter, and $300 from the Central Provident Fund (CPF).

He was forced to stop work as a taxi driver about six years ago after he suffered a heart attack and was deemed unfit to work.

Up till the late '80s, he made a good living as a sales manager with an oil company.

This fact could not be verified independently.

He then became a business consultant for a large liquefied natural gas plant in Indonesia, earning more than $300,000 a year.

At his richest, Mr Leong estimated he was worth about $15 million.

But several failed business ventures wiped him out, forcing him to sell his bungalow to clear his bank debts.

Among his failures were an electronic waste management business, extracting semi-precious metals from electronic waste, and a company supplying engine repair tools to aviation companies.

He recalled: "In those days, the bank interest rate was very high. I put myself in a bad position by borrowing too much money, and I couldn't keep up with the payments."

In the early '90s, he was forced to sell nearly all his assets to clear his debts.

He tried for several years to recover his losses by starting several small businesses - including one making signboards - but all were short-lived.

He recalled: "My ex-wife told me that if I sold our house, she would leave. And she did."

Mr Leong claimed his ex-wife got most of the money left from the sale of the bungalow after settling his debts.

He said he does not know what she is doing now - and he "does not care".

He said: "She said we still can be good friends, but that's not true."

His daughter is married "with her own life to lead", while his son is studying abroad.

But he said he is grateful for whatever his daughter gives him.

Besides giving him $300 monthly, his daughter also tops up his Medisave account regularly to pay for his medical treatment.

Mr Leong said he also receives some money from friends and relatives who visit him at the airport. He showed us a cheque for $100 given to him by a relative.

With whatever money he has, Mr Leong sometimes buys supplements to improve his health.

"Whenever I get wounds on my feet, I apply manuka honey to them. Soldiers carry manuka honey to treat their wounds during wars," he said.

He also takes multi-vitamins to boost his immune system.

Several times a week, a close friend visits him at the airport to keep him company.

Said the friend, who declined to be named: "I come here whenever I can. Sometimes I'll bring some food for him, or we'll eat together in the canteen.

"We would chit-chat and exchange views on current affairs."

More than 30 years ago, Mr Leong was his boss when they were with a French company, he said.

"It's very sad that he has ended up in this state, but he's a fighter."

For a man who has lost almost everything, Mr Leong is surprisingly stoic.

He said: "I don't believe in living in the past. You can't turn back the clock and think, ?I should have done this, or I should have done that'.

Not many demands

"I'm just happy to have survived a heart attack. I only hope for a reasonable lifestyle - I don't need a lot of money or a big house. I don't have many demands."

Mr Leong showing the most recent receipt for his bank account.

He added that he has not lost hope, even though he has lost his wealth, his marriage and his health.

"I still pray sometimes. I pray for peace, for good health, and for everybody to be happy. I believe the good Lord has His reasons for everything," he said.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said that people who repeatedly stay overnight at the airport will be referred to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

The spokesman added: "CAAS does not condone persons staying overnight at the airport for extended periods of time."

Fix problem with flatmate

WHEN housemates can't live together, it might be because they have "difficult" personalities that lead to disagreements.

Mr Gilbert Fan, a social worker who is also president of the Singapore Association of Social Workers, said that in Mr Leong Chee Onn's case, his flatmate may not be solely to blame.

"It could be due to his personality. It may not be a case of total victimisation," he said.

As for having a home that Mr Leong can't go back to, Mr Fan felt that this would probably have to be resolved by the Housing Board.

He added that social workers would have to check on Mr Leong's situation to better understand how to help him.

Mr Ravi Philemon, centre manager of New Hope Community Services, said he has seen such cases before.

He suggested that Mr Leong should try to sort out his issue with his flatmate.

He said: "He should not give up his accommodation. They have to try to come up with conditions that are agreeable to both."

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