Four weeks ago, Samiah and Eddie* granted Al-Jazeera an interview for their story, ‘Government policies force some onto the streets’. They hoped it would generate greater awareness about homelessness in Singapore and maybe, just maybe, lead to a way out of their dire situation. But help was not forthcoming. Instead, on 27 April 2010, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) published the article, ‘Government takes Al-Jazeera to task for misreporting on homelessness cases’, where Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, accused Al-Jazeera of inaccurate reporting.
According to Minister Balakrishnan, checks were carried out on the couple featured and ‘a different story’ was found. He reported that “the man in the video” had made “a tidy sum of over S$220,000 for the sale of three flats”. “The woman” in the video, meanwhile, was ‘found’ to be an owner of a HDB resale flat with her ex-husband. He also stated that the woman was receiving financial aid from the South West Community Development Council (CDC), and that the couple had turned down offers of shelter from social workers.
Conspicuously absent in the article were the voices of the couple. TOC visited the couple, Eddie and Samiah, for their side of the story.
The couple responded to the CNA article with visible frustration. Eddie, in particular, found the allegation of his hefty profits illogical; if he had that much money, he asked, would he have spent the past two years sleeping in a tent instead of providing a more comfortable life for his new wife and children? We then worked through his property ownership history to ascertain how the MCYS minister may have arrived at the S$220,000 figure.
Eddie’s “tidy sum”
Eddie was first married in the 1980s, and bought a three-room flat direct from the HDB for approximately S$12,000. However, he was divorced ten years later. The 3-room flat was sold for about S$30,000; after CPF deductions, he walked away with a profit of approximately S$6,000. He then bought a five-room flat from the HDB upon his second marriage for S$129,000, using both his CPF and the money he had gained from the sale of the three-room flat.
In 1999/2000, financial problems forced him to sell his five-room flat and downgrade to a four-room. The five-room flat was sold for approximately S$290,000; after CPF deductions, the profit gained was S$112,000. However, there were debts to pay: his brother had applied for a personal loan with him as a guarantor. When his brother defaulted on the loan, Eddie was left to pay it off (with interest). Other costs included the renovation and furnishing of his new four-room flat, his children’s education and the wedding of a daughter.
Eddie was again divorced in 2007, and the four-room flat, bought at S$140,000, was sold for S$170,000. As he was already over 55 years old by then, after retaining about $70,000 in his CPF Retirement Account, from the flat sale proceeds to meet his CPF Minimum Sum requirement, he and his ex-wife were left with S$100,000 from his CPF withdrawal after 55, which was divided between them. He used the money to open a food stall in Jurong West. Unfortunately, the business eventually folded, exhausting his $50,000 from his after-55 CPF withdrawal and saddling him with new debts.
So how did MCYS arrive at the “tidy sum of over S$220,000”? We could only surmise this was done by totalling up the profits from the sale of the three flats: S$18,000 from the three-room, S$161,000 from the five-room and S$30,000 from the four-room, which adds up to S$209,000. As Eddie gave TOC approximate figures, it is possible this is how the S$220,000 sum was arrived at.
However the sum may have been derived, the point is the way it was presented by the minister in Parliament, which may have given the impression that Eddie was sitting on a large sum of money. The fact is that this is a simplistic view and rather misleading.
In actuality, this “tidy sum”, as Channel NewsAsia termed it, was earned (and spent) over a long period of time: over twenty years. Similarly left out of the equation were all the other pressing financial burdens Eddie had to shoulder, including debts, divorce proceedings and maintenance of his children.
The above is TOC’s approximation of how the figure of $220,000 may have been derived by the minister.
Perhaps the MCYS minister, who mentioned the figure of $220,000 in Parliament, would be best placed to explain how he arrived at the figure so that there is clarity on the matter.
Eddie retired from the police force in 1982 to work in a shipping firm until he left the company in 2003. By then, he had to settle for doing odd jobs, as his age was an obstacle in seeking employment. With his wife (at the time) not working, the burden was solely on him to support his family with the meagre salary he earned
Eddie has six children in total. [Updated]
He is 60 years old.
Samiah’s resale flat
During our meetings with Samiah over the course of this year, she made no secret of the fact that she still co-owned a resale flat. The problem, however, is that she is unable to live in it. Her ex-husband, who has been abusive towards her in the past, is currently staying there. Samiah once had to make a police report against him after a heated quarrel turned violent.
The flat is in the process of being sold; however all proceeds from the sale must be channelled towards paying off the loan they had taken out to buy it. On top of that, Samiah and her ex-husband still have to come up with more money to fully pay off the loan.
Financial aid for the couple
This is the financial aid Samiah and Eddie have been receiving, according to what they told TOC:
– Since last year, Samiah has been receiving money monthly from the South West CDC. The original S$550 a month was reduced every three months. She now gets S$450 a month for her and her three children. In September 2009, the South West CDC also helped Samiah with pocket money and transport costs for her children.
– In March 2010, the South West CDC gave Eddie food vouchers of S$50 a month for three months.
The money that Samiah gets from the South West CDC goes mainly to her three children for school pocket money and transport. The little that’s left over goes towards purchasing her asthma medication and paying various bills. Obtaining full-time employment has been challenging as she lacks the necessary qualifications, she says. She also suffers from migraines, as well as other stress-related health problems, preventing her from returning to work in the security line, which demands long hours.
Currently, Eddie holds a security job, earning approximately S$1,100 a month. Samiah works on a casual basis, earning about S$40 a day. Between them, they have nine children.
While their children are currently not homeless, that risk remains: Samiah’s three children are currently staying in the resale flat with their father, but once the sale is finalised – which will take several months more – they would prefer to live with their mother.
Eddie’s three children (from his second marriage) are currently living with their grandmother, but Eddie bears all their costs, and the grandmother is hoping for the children to move out soon.
As they lack access to a kitchen, it is necessary for Samiah and Eddie to eat out at every meal, every day. To save costs, they have two meals a day, sometimes just one.
The ‘refusal of shelter’
Samiah and Eddie were both offered shelter at New Hope Community Services, a non-governmental organisation which provides shelters for the needy. The offer was for them and their children. As they are not legally married in Singapore, they were not allowed to stay together. Samiah, who is prone to acute asthma attacks that sometimes require swift hospitalization, was worried Eddie would not be there to take care of her and the children if she were to have a severe attack. Therefore, they decided to turn down the offer so that they could stay together.
Upon his second divorce, Eddie had applied for rental housing under the Single Parent Scheme. Since he had just sold the four-room flat, he was told he would have to wait 30 months before he would be eligible to apply for public rental housing. 30 months later, he returned to the HDB office only to be told that he was still not eligible as he had already bought and sold two flats direct from the HDB.
The ‘findings’ cited by the Minister are not false. They are, however, a selective choice, stripped of their context and grossly misrepresenting a complicated situation. It creates an impression that Eddie and Samiah are sitting on a large fortune, when the reality is very different. Although the financial aid received from various organisations and their current incomes assist in subsidizing daily expenses, they do not allow them to buy a resale or rent a flat in the open market.
The couple are distressed by how their case has been painted in public.
Al-Jazeera has responded to the allegations and maintains that their report is “factually correct”. The news channel acknowledges the couple previously owned and sold homes, but maintains this is “not strictly relevant”. The fact remains that Samiah and Eddie have been homeless for two years and their protracted efforts at accessing state support for housing fruitless. Currently, they both remain ineligible for rental housing; Samiah because she is still co-owner of a resale flat with her ex-husband, she does not have full custody of her children (she shares this responsibility with her ex-husband) and therefore she is not eligible to apply for a rental flat now. Even when she sells her flat and obtains legal custody of her children, she will still have to wait 30 months before she can apply for a public rental flat, not to mention that the current waiting list can be as long as another 30 months from the date of eligibility to apply.
Eddie, on the other hand, first applied for a public rental flat after the sale of his last flat. He was told to wait for 30 months, since he had just sold a flat. However, during this 30-month waiting period, the HDB changed its rental policy to bar those who have sold two flats from renting public rental flats. Of course, Eddie only found out about this policy change when he went back to the HDB after having waited the requisite 30 months.
He was told he was not eligible.
In the meantime, they live in a tent, in a park. At every turn, they face judgement and censure. Now, on top of it all, they have been publicly humiliated by persons they trusted and believed could help them.
This article, while focused on ‘setting the record straight’ on Samiah and Eddie’s situations, is not just about this one couple. TOC ran stories about a number of families who were sleeping in parks because they had no access to a comfortable roof over their heads. Each of those stories were equally complicated, mired with sad tales of mishaps, ill-health and financial woe. Through our reports, we hoped the state would step in and review its policies, that the relevant authorities would be woken up from their stupor and seek ways to remedy an alarming situation. The Minister, despite public proclamations of concern and assurances of assistance, has chosen instead to pick on one homeless couple and publicly discredit them, instead of taking the opportunity to address a serious issue in Parliament with gravity and depth.
*Eddie is not his real name.