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The amazing life of Fatimah, probably the world’s oldest human

Here’s a story you don’t usually see in a history book - a 1958 newspaper article detailing the life of Fatimah binte Abas, a Singapore resident who supposedly died at the age of 131, which would make her Singapore’s, and also the world’s, oldest human.

In many ways, Fatimah binte Abas, who died in Singapore last Sunday, was a remarkable woman.

Her identity card showed her age as 131. If correct, this (could) make her the oldest person in the Colony – living or dead.

She was born in 1827, or eight years after Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819.

Fatimah is said to have come here from Java when she was 12 years old.

But Fatimah was born in an age when few bothered about birth certificates. Hence she had no documentary proof of her extraordinary age.

Herein lies the problem - it is impossible to verify when exactly she was born. Officially, the oldest person to have lived is Jeanne Calment of France at 122 years and 164 days, but that’s because she had a verifiable birth certificate.

But the claim is made plausible by a living proof offered in her 12-year-old great grand children. A life which spanned five generations conceivably could not be far from that of a centenarian.

Her progeny totalled 90 – five children, 22 grand children, 65 great grand children, and eight great great grand children. She lived so long she survived even two of her great great grand children.

The story goes that Fatimah once “died but returned from the dead”.

Said grandson Inche Jaffar Mali, a journalist in a Singapore Malay newspaper, whom I interviewed today. “It is quite true. Older members of my family were present when Fatimah ‘died’ from a sudden illness at 3pm. At 8pm she sneezed and sat up in her white death-shroud.

“All those around her fled in terror, except my uncle Kassim, now dead. He alone dared to stay, and found that his mother was not dead but had recovered from a death-like trance. It was three days before she recovered her speech.” Then she was 86.

I love stories like this. It brings a character to life (pun intended). The story is fantastic, yet I want it to be true!

Henceforth Fatimah became known as “the woman who returned from the dead”. She is a legend in the Malay kampongs of Singapore.

Superstitious Malays explain her longevity by saying “Allah gave Fatimah a second lease of life”.

Her activity and exploits made Fatimah an even more legendary figure.

As a “bidan” (midwife) up to the day of her death, Nenek Melen (“The Grandma of Sepoy Lines”), as she was known, travelled everywhere – alone.

Reminds me of my maternal grandmother. Up to the time of her death in her early 90s, she travelled everywhere by herself. She had to walk slowly and feebly, but she could do so without support or assistance. She was fiercely independent.

Said a relative, Che Kamsirah binte Khairon, 65, another long-lived member of the family:

“Nenek scorned any assistance. Only last year, she went alone to deliver a child at Pulau Bukom, getting on and off a boat unaided. Our protests were in vain.

“She had what Malays call ‘safe hands‘, and the babies she delivered were countless.”

Even in old age, Fatimah had perfect eyesight. She could thread a needle without trouble.

Physically well preserved, her hair was still black, with only the slightest suggestion ever of greying.

Said Che Kamsirah: “Nenek had a morbid fear of doctors, and never saw one in her whole life.”

Said grandson Jaffar: “My grandma was a 5am riser throughout her life. She fasted three months, instead of one, required of Muslims. Every Monday and Thursday was also a fast day.

“She could not tolerate even a spot of dirt in her household. She chewed betel all day and loved to smoke cigars. But she had one strange taboo – she would never drink milk.”

Fatimah was also known as Nyayi Siam (“The grandma from Siam”) because she spent about three decades of her life in that country which, she often said, she loved.

She went to live there with her Javanese husband, Khairon, a syce in the royal stables of the King of Siam. He died many years ago.

Her husband must have had many interesting life stories to tell, too!

Among her better known descendants in Singapore today are Inche Mahfuz bin Haji Mustafa, a police inspector; Inche Jan bin Haji Mustaffa, M. B. E., a hospital assistant; Inche Aid bin Haji Mustaffa, a school teacher, and Inche Mohamed bin Haji Sidek of the Singapore Harbour Board.

It’s interesting how in the 1950s, “better-known” seems the equivalent of having better-paying / higher-profile jobs requiring higher educational levels.

This remarkable “Grand Old Lady” of Singapore was buried last Sunday at Teban Cemetery in Kampong Batak.

I was considering searching for her tomb, but no luck here - Kampong Batak, with Teban Cemetery, has been long expunged. The area it used to occupy is now inside Paya Lebar Air Base, north of Bartley Road East, far from public access.

Another way of finding out more about Fatimah binte Abas is through her descendants - the people mentioned in the news article above. I shall pursue this path and see what I uncover. Considering her progeny was 90 in 1958, it must be far larger in number today. I wonder if her legend has persisted to the present, 62 years after her passing.

Watch this space!


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