Growing up in Singapore through the 1970s and 1980s, the karung guni man was a common feature. They collected newspapers and cardboard boxes. Over time, the karanguni men that collected old stuff became more interested in electrical items. There is a garbage collection/recycling industry out there that is lucrative. As usual, it is lucrative for those higher up the economic food chain.
At the lower end of this food chain are those that wheel around a trolley looking for discarded cardboard boxes at rubbish disposal areas behind shophouses and business premises. Many of us are too busy rushing back and forth from work and we hardly come across these people. However, I am sure that a growing number of Singaporeans have been noticing a trend of elderly individuals collecting cardboards or tin cans. When my office was in the Bugis area, I used to come across a regular tin-can collecting uncle probably in his 70s or in his late 60s at the very least. He would hang around the coffee shops to pick empty cans from tables. There is an old lady with bent back that can be seen struggling to pull an old trolley loaded with flattened cardboard boxes. With my office now located near Chinatown, I do come across more such old people in the back alleys of Chinatown.
These are hardworking men and women. They are around the age of my mother and father or even older. These are the men and women that have been working hard all their lives. They struggle but they soldier on. When I look at these elderly people, the thought that crosses my mind is: ‘Why? Why do they still need to work at this age?’ I know that the answer to this question cannot be unidimensional. Cardboard collectors don’t make a fantastic amount of money. I understand that a daily average can be anywhere from $2 to $5.
Are these elderly people living on their own? Do they not have children? Do their children not provide for them? Is it that their children cannot afford to take care of them? Do these elderly people want to have their sense of dignity and fend for themselves? Do they want to keep themselves occupied in their old age by doing the one job that they know?
The State perspective
One of the most disturbing aspects of the Singapore government’s official position on poverty has been its non-acknowledgement. From statements to the effect that there are no homeless persons in Singapore to a refusal to define a poverty line, the state has systematically tried to keep the problem of poverty under wraps. However, it cannot be denied that the government has rolled out initiatives to assist low-income families. I remember attending a closed door seminar where Minister Shanmugam characterised the Singapore government as being socialist but giving the appearance of being capitalist. From what he said on that occasion, I understand that the PAP leaders probably see themselves as being in a position where they need to appear to be very pro-business to keep investment in whilst at the same time quietly carrying out welfare measures. Perhaps, this could be the reason for often sounding very pro-business and appearing to ignore the existence of a social underclass. Perhaps, appearing to ignore but not really ignoring.
That would be a kinder way of looking at how our leaders perceive the masses. I’m not so sure if that is true. I truly wonder if our leaders and decision makers are living too much in an ivory tower to fully appreciate what is going on at the ground level.
Today I noticed some funny comments on facebook about elderly people exercising by collecting cardboard boxes in the hot sun. I traced those comments to the origin and it turns out that Minister Tan Chuan Jin has posted on his facebook about elderly people collecting cardboard boxes. To be fair, he appears to acknowledge that there are different reasons why the elderly engage in this work. However, what is disturbing is that the post is intended to build on the narrative that old people want to have a sense of dignity and they derive that through work and also for the elderly people work is a way of keeping themselves occupied or even getting some exercise.
I reproduce the Minister’s post in full here as I don’t want to take him out of context:
“While I often chat with them when I meet them, I haven’t gone so far up the value chain to know the middle man and the whole set-up. I was most happy to join a group of young Singaporeans from Youth Corp on a project they initiated – to get first hand insight into the lives of elderly cardboard collectors: what motivated them to do what they do; and the challenges they face. The youngsters devoted their weekends over a 2-month period to befriend the cardboard aunties and uncles on the streets in the Jalan Besar area, and spent time talking to them to understand what they are going through in life.
They shared with me that they were surprised by their own findings! The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true. There will be some who do this as their main source of income. Some do so to supplement what they have. Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.
For members of the public, the simplest thing that one can do for these people is to talk to them to understand them. More often than not, people make judgements without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors. But of course, for those who genuinely need financial help because they are unable to find other jobs to supplement their income from cardboard collecting, the government will do what it can to help these people. If you know of individuals who need help, do let us know.
I’d like to thank Zaihan Mohamed Yusof who started it all with his articlehttp://www.tnp.sg/news/when-cardboard-gold in The New Paper. The youngsters picked up on the idea and followed up. Cheers to Koh Cheng Jun (Tm Lead) and Muhammad Syazwan Bin Mohamed Suhri who were with me on the ground, and thanks to the team who shared their thoughts with me…Goh Pei Yi Valerie, Janarthanan Ahalya, Khoo Lay Keat Bryan, Lee Jun Xian, Serena Mok Jia Xin.
Inspired by you guys for taking that extra step. We all can too!”
The truth is that there are bound to be some elderly people working for those reasons pointed out as there will be those that work because they have no other choice. I have nothing against looking at cardboard collecting elderly people from a nuanced perspective by considering all the varieties of reasons for which they collect cardboard boxes. However, I do object to highlighting a particular perspective that assists in bolstering the state narrative that there is no poverty in Singapore.
I know many of my fellow Singaporeans (especially professionals) have no idea that there is poverty in Singapore. I have engaged in social work with residents in rental flats and some of these in localities such as Chai Chee where the flats house the elderly. Many of these residents are surviving on a mixture of government grants and charitable donations of food and groceries from social workers. (As an aside, the great redeeming feature of our rat-race driven country is the existence of a decent number of charitable, socially conscious and responsible citizens. There is still hope for our society.) The plight of the underprivileged in our society is unpardonable considering that we are a 1st world country. Clearly more can be done by average Singaporeans as well as by the state. It really doesn’t help to build a narrative that eventually makes it acceptable for our pioneer generation to work till the day they die. If they are to work as an MP till the day they die without having to turn up in Parliament or carry out active constituency duties, I don’t think anyone would object to that kind of work for the elderly. If you expect someone in his/her 80s to work as a cardboard collector with no safety net, then somewhere along the way, the system has failed these people.
One problem with my parents’ generation is that many of them had no retirement planning. That was their background. It is not possible to blame them. To many, their kids would have been the retirement safety net. My parents have been fortunate to be able to retire. I know that this is not the case for many elderly people. Some elderly people have to resort to working because they don’t want to burden their children. They see their sons and daughters struggling to maintain their families. Wages for many have not increased to keep up with inflation and many low-income families find it virtually impossible to fully support their parents. It is true that if you asked some of the working elderly they would reply that they work to have dignity and not to have to ask their families for help. The sub-text in that reply is that their children are not in a position to properly support them.
This year we celebrate 50 years of our nationhood. We have progressed economically and many have benefited but many have also been left behind. Let’s not forget the back breaking work of a generation of Singaporeans that continue to work in the shadows of our skyscrapers. There is no point in constructing myths about how the PAP turned a fishing village into a modern metropolis when the people that were responsible for the rapid growth of the 1970s are now left to toil till the day they would die.
Let’s acknowledge the existence of a problem. Let’s see what can be done to solve it.
(P.S. To be fair to Tan Chuan Jin, he does mention in his post to let the government know if we know of individuals that need help.)