Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?

This is where the road ends for the collectors. They have been coming here for years. The middle man will collect, weigh and pay the collectors. And then a disposal truck would come and ferry the boxes away

Of the various uncles and aunties I spoke to, this lady in the background was the one I had most concern with. She sounded open to needing help. SSO has her details and will refresh and review again to see if circumstances had changed since they last knew of her situation

The gentleman on the right is the assistant to the middle man. I spoke to Mr Lim to look out for these folks and to let our SSO know if there are concerns. Too late! My colleague Sharon Chua and her SSO team had already established the links

Quite tiring leh! Which reminds me that I have loads of boxes to clear at home too!

Aunty is 80! Lives in Toa Payoh with her sister in a 4-room flat. They are in the karang guni trade. Flat is paid up

Encik is 82 and has 6 children but doesn't want to depend on them. His wife has some ailments. They are both managing. Our SSO knows of them

Some of the youth members, journalist, my SSO colleagues after a meaningful morning out in Jalan Besar area. — with Lim Bak Chuan Desmond

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.

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Why we shouldn’t take cardboard collectors’ comments at face value
Yahoo Newsroom/Yahoo photo - Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin calls on Singaporeans to build a nation they can be proud of. (Yahoo! file photo)

How much do we know about the cardboard collectors we see on the street, pushing along loaded trolleys, backs hunched? Recently Minister of Social and Family Development (MSF) Tan Chuan-jin accompanied a group of students to meet box collectors at Jalan Besar. Yet his findings has raised eyebrows among other volunteers.

Reading his post reminded me of a cardboard collector I’d met last year. It was raining when we met her, and she wasn’t going to get very far walking alone pushing her trolley in that downpour, so she agreed to sit down with us at a coffeeshop for a chat.

She’d earned just a couple of dollars that day. She said she wasn’t one of the regular ones because she couldn’t go around collecting cardboard all the time; her husband was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital, and couldn’t be left alone too long when they were at home. His trips to the hospital had become more and more frequent, but it was being deducted from Medisave, she said. Then she dropped the bomb: the last time he’d been to hospital, they’d been told that he had less than $20 left in his Medisave account.

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Daniel PS Goh: Responses not to be taken at face value

TCJ (Tan Chuan Jin) is getting a lot of flak for his FB post, “Have you ever spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?”

But I don’t think the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers are being malicious or insincere. They are not trying to whitewash the poverty issue.

The problem is this.
They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.
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Cardboard collectors story – Straits Times anyhow whack
Straits Times, 13 July 2015

Anyone who has been following the saga would know that the criticisms were not directed at the students (bless their hearts for taking time to try and understand the older folks). The criticisms, instead, were completely directed at Minister Tan Chuan-Jin.

Yet, the Straits Times – well-known for being a Government lapdog machine – finds it honest to redirect or divert the criticisms to the youths.

I think that’s pretty irresponsible journalism, not to mention totally unethical too. In the report itself, the Straits Times claims this:
  • “They embarked on a six month project to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living so they could help them.
  • “Instead the group of students met with a torrent of criticisms and negativity online, as if they had “committed atrocities and transgressions of the worst nature,” said the group’s team leader Koh Cheng Jun on Monday.”
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“Yes, we have spoken to cardboard uncles and aunties” – Youth Corps team leader
“What you cannot defend, doesn’t belong to you.”

Looking at the comments of the past 24 hours, some referred to my team through our friends, one would have thought that we had committed atrocities and transgressions of the worst nature.

It would be fine leaving the situation as it is; we came across encouraging feedback and were heartened by many who appreciated the hard work of the team. It is expected that certain perennial anti-establishment pages will misconstrue and exploit the issue for their agenda. But it is when the tsunami of negativities started to influence even neutral sources that I believe we should offer more people a glimpse into our project.

We are group of students from different JCs, polytechnics and universities, brought together by Youth Corps Singapore (YCS), a movement that supports youths keen to serve the community. Apart from our team, there were also other teams formed during the induction programme. Under the programme, we had a list of different projects to choose from; we eventually settled on cardboard collection due to its enduring presence in our society – “Why are there still cardboard collectors in our first world country? Who are these people who are slogging away under inclement weather in our neighbourhoods?”

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Students' research on cardboard collectors draws flak

They embarked on a six-month project to try to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living, in an attempt to help them. Instead, the group of students faced a torrent of criticisms online as if they had "committed atrocities and transgressions of the worst nature", said team leader Koh Cheng Jun yesterday .

The attacks started after Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin posted on Facebook on Saturday that he had visited cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar with some of the team members.

In his post, Mr Tan said that the findings of the project showed that not all elderly folk do it for a living.

related: Project about old folk collecting cardboard sparks discussion on social media

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MSF Minister’s post on cardboard collectors draws flak
On Sunday, the minister in charge of the Ministry of and Family Development (MSF), Tan Chuan-Jin, posted on his Facebook page about what a group of youth has told him about the lives of some cardboard collectors in Singapore

Some of these collectors were doing this “to supplement” what they have, and  “as a form of exercise”, Mr Tan said, referring to the findings by the youth group.

Mr Tan had joined the group, who are youths from Youth Corp, on a project they were doing – devoting their weekends over two months “to befriend the cardboard aunties and uncles on the streets in the Jalan Besar area.”

The youths then shared their findings with the minister.

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Tan Chuan-Jin to cardboard collector critics: “Hey, I’m trying!”

HIS wife called him naive for thinking that he wouldn’t be pilloried for his social media post about speaking to older folk who collect cardboard. Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin ticked off the epithets that had been used to describe him: “ivory tower”, “out-of-touch”, “stupid”.

He had half-expected that, he said, but “wah lao…”. He launches into how politicians especially from the People’s Action Party, simply couldn’t “win”. If they stayed put, they would be scolded for being too cloistered; if they went out, it would be linked to how they were prepping for votes.

He said he was simply trying to show that people shouldn’t make generalisations about how others live their lives. Go talk to them. Find out how they’re doing. And help them or direct help to them.

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Tan Chuan Jin: Old people who collect cardboard are just exercising

The new Minister of Social and Family Development Tan Chuan Jin is facing heavy criticisms from Singaporeans when he dismissed public perceptions by saying that old people who collect cardboard are not really financially well-off, and some simply took the demeaning work as an exercise:
“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.”
Minister Tan Chun Jin said that he based his belief from young Singaporeans in the youth group under the government’s National Youth Council, the Youth Corps. He said that these young Singaporeans spent their weekends over 2 months “befriending” the elderly cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar, and these are their findings.

Singaporeans face a retirement crisis because the nationalised retirement fund, Central Provident Provident (CPF), pays interest rates as low as 2.5% resulting in an accumulation rate slower than the rate of inflation every year. To worsen Singaporean’s retirement fate, the Singapore Government raise the retirement age repeatedly from the original 55 to 67 years old, and doubled the Minimum Sum in 12 years, from S$80,000 in 2003 to S$161,000 in 2015.

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Responses not to be taken at face value

TCJ (Tan Chuan Jin) is getting a lot of flak for his FB post, “Have you ever spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?” But I don’t think the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers are being malicious or insincere. They are not trying to whitewash the poverty issue. The problem is this. They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.

People give meanings to their actions. These meanings are cultural and laden with values. So even if the actions were primarily driven by economic circumstances, due to poverty for example, people would give cultural meaning to their actions beyond instrumental reasons of survival or profit.

For the cardboard-collecting seniors, it is apparent from TCJ’s post that they value dignity. This is very much in tune with our Singaporean culture, which treats begging as humiliating and values independence and hard work. Few Singaporeans would be okay with seeing themselves as poor. So when they come face to face with the young people taking a strange sympathetic interest in them, what more would they say if they were to keep their sense of dignity?

related: Looking beyond words and ascertaining the truth

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I was heartened and impressed by your sincerity when I read your Facebook post about cardboard collectors. When you described the elderly folk who collected cardboard sheets - not because they are poor - but because they wanted to exercise and keep themselves occupied, I immediately thought of my auntie

You see, my 70 year-old auntie collects cardboards with a cart to help the recycling effort, she doesn't mind if the waste company doesn't pay her for her effort, she is middle class with an environmental mission.

She looks dark and skinny because she is into healthy living, less body fat equals a longer life she said.

Sometimes she pushes her cardboard cart into the middle of the road like she doesn't care about her life. The truth is she is not a driver and doesn't know much about the traffic laws. We have since educated her about it.


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Cardboard collectors - Poor people in a rich country

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.

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Related: Old Lady Selling Tissue Paper

I had earlier posted about the PRC man begging (updates below). Curiously, the day after, I met an old lady selling tissue paper outside POMO. I spoke to her at length. She was reluctant to share her personal info but I managed to glean out some. She was going to turn 82 soon. She claimed that both her children didn't give her much hence her need to come out to sell things. She sounded scared to share details even after I assured her of our help because she seemed fearful of her daughter who she claimed had locked her out before. She later said that she was in not too bad a state and only came out to sell occasionally. She also added that she was selling to help someone.

She seemed in good condition and I couldn't determine if she was in financial distress...but at 82 and needing to do this? And with the fragments she shared...I was concerned at her well being from her children.

I asked the authorities to follow up and they found her there after visiting POMO twice. They got more details from her. The assessment is that she doesn't need immediate help but she knows who to follow up with if she does.

related: Other lady was sitting on the floor selling tissue paper

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Minister Tan Chuan-Jin Finds Tissue Seller Who Works For Fun
Elderly lady sells tissues to keep herself occupied

Have you ever heard of a tissue seller who sells tissues for fun? Apparently, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin met one. Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin is highly active on social media and often shares stories about the everyday people he meets. Some of them require help, while others seem contented with life.

Somehow, he managed to meet an old lady who sells tissues not because she’s poor, but because she wants to get out of the house and keep herself occupied.

After a chat, he concluded that she was probably doing fine, although skepticism for her well-being still exists. He wouldn’t have approached her otherwise.

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Some also don't have a choice

Was damn pissed reading the post by Minister Tan Chuan Jin about his cardboard collecting experience with some elderly.

We did two cardboard collections with a elderly woman at Chinatown late last year and her experience told us that it is not as fun as Minister Tan would suggest.

We have heard of two elderly collectors killed in the highway last year as they pushed their loaded trolley down our busy roads and met with accidents. I remembered shedding tears for them when I saw the news as they reminded me of my own mother who is fortunate enough to be well taken care of.

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Plight Of The Tissue Peddlers

Most of us might have heard stories of the elderly and disabled resorting to selling tissue paper for a living. Some unscrupulous “businessmen” even take advantage of the unfortunate by running tissue peddling syndicates, leaving a cut of the profits for themselves.

Last year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) was slammed for imposing a $120 license fee for tissue peddlers. NEA was derided for adding on to the plights of these tissue sellers and was accused of lacking compassion, but part of the reason for imposing the license was so that tissue peddling can be regulated, and these syndicates can be stopped.

The elderly lady that Minister Tan talked to has two daughters and a husband who works. Whether the old lady is a retiree or not is unclear, but she appears to be selling tissues because she has nothing to do, rather than because she is hard-up on cash; something Minister Tan wouldn’t have found out if he hadn’t chatted with her.

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25 years a cardboard collector
tired - cardboard collector - resting - public

She works 16 to 17 hours a day and earns barely $10. At night, she sleeps on cardboard under a carpark ramp.

Passers-by would think she is single, lonely, poor and homeless. But in reality, Madam Ye, who is in her 70s, has a husband, four children, a grandchild and a HDB flat in Sembawang.

Why does she collect cardboard and sleep in a carpark then? She told Youth.SG in Mandarin: "This is how I get by. I don't want to be a burden to people, I don't want to be waiting for my children's next pay cheque or take for granted that they will give me an allowance."

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When Cardboard Is Gold
I keep that $2 note in my wallet's coin compartment. This way, I'll not spend it by accident

Sure, the amount is small change by today's standards. Yet, this $2 note holds special meaning for me.

It was earned through sweat, and very nearly tears, and it reminds me of how, for some people, money is earned with much difficulty.

Toiling in the sun, picking up things that people discard, that is how they make a living.

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Karung Guni: The Rag and Bone Men
A karung guni cart

The practice of Karung guni is common in Singapore. Its practitioners are a modern form of rag and bone men that visit residences door-to-door. They can either walk along corridors (if that particular HDB estate has a covered carpark) or for certain HDB estates where the carpark is right under the HDB blocks, walk through the carpark downstairs honking a horn. However, around landed properties, they may drive around in a lorry with a horn attached to it, instead of going door-to-door. They make visits in carts, collecting old newspapers and other unwanted items. These will be resold at specialized markets and eventually recycled or reused. "Karung guni" is a Malay phrase for gunny sack, which was used in the past to hold the newspapers. The karung guni men would haul the heavy sacks on their backs as they walked their rounds to do the collection. Today, most of them use a hand truck instead.

These people can be distinguished by their use of horns or (rarely) hand bell and shouts of "karung guni, poh zhua gu sa kor, pai leh-lio, dian si ki..." ("Rag and bone, newspapers and old clothes, spoilt radios, televisions" in Singlish and Hokkien) when making their rounds. Depending on the person, a nominal fee is paid for the quantity of newspapers or unwanted items sold.

The karung guni industry is made highly profitable due to the dense urban nature of Singapore, where hundreds of public housing Housing Development Board apartment units are located in one block, with often a dozen blocks in each housing estate. This gives the karung guni men large access to sources of scrap. There are reported stories of rag-to-riches, karung guni men who have become millionaires just from the karung guni business. Today, however, competition is usually too great.

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Hazards being a Cardboard Picker
Death by cardboard collection, more common than…

CARDBOARD collecting isn’t exactly a dangerous activity, but at least three people have died from doing just that over the last two years.

Yesterday (March 30), Madam Poh Ah Gin became the third fatality when a taxi reversed into her at high speed at a carpark in Bedok North Street 2. The 78-year-old was collecting cardboard when the taxi driver lost control of the vehicle while reverse parking and rammed into her twice, killing her.

In November 2014, an 86-year-old woman who had also been collecting cardboard was run down after walking into the blind spot of a bus in Marsiling Lane. Madam Ching Guan Eng was dragged for a short distance, and her trolley and stash of cardboard were stuck under the bus. The coroner ruled her death as an “unfortunate traffic misadventure”.

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Collecting Cardboards from "a form of exercise" to "protecting our environment"

Saw 70 year old Mdm Lim from Blk 235 struggling to move 32kg of old newspaper for recycling. Good thing we ran into her and helped her with the load. Found out that with her bad knees and unsteady gait, she actually fell and had a slight bruise on her forehead just before we came across her. Fortunately she wasn't severely injured. Asked why she expended so much efforts to recycle these items, she insisted she wanted to do her part "to protect our environment." Her single-mindedness towards a worthy cause is deserving of a salute! Advised her to not over exert and to let us know in future when she needed help with these items. Thank you, Mdm Lim, for being an inspiration and a role model!

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Singapore: Best Place to Live and Work
Plight Of The Tissue Peddlers
Hazards being a Cardboard Picker
Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?
Singapore’s Story: What comes next
Singapore at 50: From swamp to skyscrapers
Singapore Good Old Times
The Poor & Homeless in Singapore
Support for the Needy and Elderly
The Singapore Story
Other Side of The Singapore Story

ChasingThe Singapore Dream
To Be Or Not To Be Singaporeans
Longing for the good old days
Singapore: A Sampan or a Cruise ship?
Singapore at 50: From swamp to skyscrapers
Singapore is ‘World’s Costliest City To Live In’
Coping with Inflation & Cost Of Living
COL goes Up, Up, Up!
Singapore “Swiss” Standard of Living
Tackling poverty the 'kuih lapis' way
Callings for a Poverty Line
Setting a poverty line may not be helpful
A minimum wage for Singapore?

No homeless,destitute starving people in S'pore:Poverty has been eradicated
Growing Up With Less