As of September 2017, there have been about 470 children and 440 foster parents in the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s (MSF) fostering scheme. Though a temporary arrangement, these altruistic families open their doors to children who are victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. One such family is Mdm Asiah Binte Mohamed Salleh, 58, and her husband, Mohamad Ashraf Koh Bin Abdullah, 57, who have been fosterers since 2003. They were the recipients of MSF’s 2015 Outstanding Volunteer Award, an award launched in 1995 to recognise individuals or groups of volunteers who have contributed significantly to various groups served by the Ministry.
“Nobody can change you except yourself. I can help you, but I cannot change you.” This was the advice Mdm Asiah had given to two of her foster children just once. Today, one is furthering her studies in the arts and the other is a researcher in a multinational corporation. Mdm Asiah’s genial face would light up when she talked about their achievements. For a brief moment, she was teary-eyed reliving the treasured memories of her children.
Together with her husband, Mr Ashraf Koh, Mdm Asiah has fostered nine children to date. While they have had their fair share of ups and downs in raising foster children, the trying times have only brought the family closer.
Mdm Asiah and Mr Ashraf Koh with a portrait of her parents in their living room. Photo by Terence C. Fong
Mdm Asiah attributes what she does today to her parents. Back then, her parents fostered children who were from poor and parentless families. She had grown up together with foster sisters and a foster brother whom had all been taken in by her parents. Mdm Asiah, the fifth child, and her siblings only found out that their eldest sister had been a foster child after their mother told them.
Mdm Asiah’s father had also taken in Hamzah, a boy of her age, from his workplace. Both Hamzah and Mdm Asiah had attended the same schools during their childhood, and he subsequently married her friend in a wedding put together by her parents. Today, the familial ties between the siblings and foster siblings still run strong as they regularly keep in touch, catching up over the phone and during festive occasions such as Hari Raya.
A family photo comprising Mdm Asiah’s siblings and relatives taken in 1971. (Mdm Asiah, first row, fifth from left; Hamzah, second row, fourth from left and her parents, last row). Photo courtesy of Mdm Asiah.
Mdm Asiah and her foster brother, Mr Hamzah Meer, today. Photo courtesy of Mdm Asiah.
Mdm Asiah had been inspired by Mdm Indranee Nadisen (also a foster mother and 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award recipient) whom she had first seen on television. Mdm Asiah felt she could offer unconditional love as a foster parent and that it was also a perfect arrangement as she could simultaneously take care of her own family.
She understood that the decision to foster was not hers alone and it was necessary to hear out the views of her husband and three daughters. The family discussed the initial difficulties they might face with the foster children as well as how to integrate them into the family. Despite the uncertainty, the family took a leap of faith and much of their anxiety during those early years disappeared with the arrival of two-week old Danial* in 2004.
Mdm Asiah recounted how thrilled her youngest daughter had been when Danial was brought home, as she had never had the chance to be an elder sister. “My youngest daughter, she was so excited when I got him. He was a bundle of joy and she loved being able to take care of him. She got a chance to change his diapers and when I bathed him, she’d help. So that’s how we worked together,” she recalled. Danial has since grown up in the family, showered with love and attention by all three of Mdm Asiah’s daughters.
Mdm Asiah and Mr Ashraf Koh with their three biological daughters. Photo courtesy of Mdm Asiah.
Mdm Asiah counts it a blessing that she has received so much love from her foster children. Two teenage girls she previously fostered help her with errands, lending an extra pair of hands around the house and even picking up groceries from the nearby mall for her. While she misses them, she knows she can easily call them or look forward to the occasional visit. Sometimes, she even teases them with pictures of her delicious home-cooked beef rendang in their WhatsApp chat group, enticing them to drop by for their favourite dish.
However, fostering was not always smooth-sailing for Mdm Asiah. She recalled one of her foster children did not heed her advice to stop playing truant. She had found the child at the mall when she was supposed to have been in school. Mdm Asiah advised her, “This is your future, you have to cherish what you have now because you did not have this chance last time.” Despite those hard times during which she sometimes regarded herself as a failure, she still has fond memories of the child – in the private moments they shared, the girl had been amiable and took to her before she subsequently returned to her natural family.
Mdm Asiah’s present time with Danial is a different story. Danial is a special needs child whom the family affectionately refers to as 宝贝 (precious baby). Mr Ashraf admits it was tough as they were learning as they went along. Danial has come a long way since then and it is undeniable how he has flourished under the care of his doting family.
What is Mdm Asiah and Mr Ashraf’s philosophy to fostering? It comes down to treating both their foster children and natural children equally. Mdm Asiah assigns the weekly household chores to all the children in her home fairly with no one getting special privileges. The children can even expect to be reprimanded if the chores are not carried out thoroughly.
For birthdays, everyone receives an equal amount of money in their ang pao (red packet). When one child gets new clothes, the rest can also expect the same. The result is that the foster children feel no different from Mdm Asiah’s own children, which further tightens their bonds.
In recent times, the couple have observed more new faces at workshops organised for foster families. They feel this bodes well because it means that more people are interested in becoming foster parents. Many more foster parents are currently needed to accommodate the number of children put up for fostering.
With 15 years of fostering experience behind her, Mdm Asiah’s tips for new foster parents are to “be sincere when taking the child in and please don’t give up.” She firmly believes that sending the child back is not an option as she knows how that would affect the child’s feelings and sense of self-worth as they are bounced between homes. For every foster child she has taken in, she has committed herself to staying with and caring for them until it is time for them to return home.
Toward the end of our interview, Mdm Asiah’s youngest daughter brought over Hasif*, who is another foster child. Mdm Asiah shared how his temperament had improved in the two months since he came to their home.
If this heartwarming scene is anything to go by, it is clear that Mdm Asiah, who has so much love in her heart, has earned the trust of the children placed under her care. Her promise is to be there for them and to catch them if they fall.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the foster children.
Note: The MSF Fostering Service invites interested foster parents to visit the website (www.msf.gov.sg/fostering) for more information and to apply. For enquiries, please email email@example.com or call 6354 8799.
Written by: Terence Cayden Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign