Andrew Loh / Deborah Choo
Mr Wong Tai Phong was a secret society member in his younger days. “I was one of the Bugis Street terrors”, he tells us in his home. I can see why. He is burly, and speaks in a rather brusque manner. As a gang member, he involved himself in gang fights, rioting, selling illegal goods on the black market and worked in gambling dens. His activities landed him in jail once and he was put on probation for three years. He was only about 18.
Having had enough of life in the gangs, he packed up his bags and became a seaman. “It’s an easy life,” he says in English. “I was a marine engineer.” He would be at sea for a few months at a time and found that it suited him. It paid him anything between $350 to $1,200, depending on the length of his voyages.
Mr Wong, who is 64, is finding life a little tougher now. He retired in 1996, and is living alone in a two-room flat in Aljunied Crescent. Since 2001, he spends a few hours each day collecting used clothings to sell to make ends meet.
“I only go out after midnight to collect clothes,” he explains in a softer tone. It brings him a measley $2 or $3 a week, he says. This is because Mr Wong has various ailments and cannot afford to exert himself more. He broke his arm some time ago when his kneecap gave way and he fell, he suffers from a corn infection, has diabetes and consults his doctor for his irregular heartbeats. In November last year, as he was getting up from his chair to fetch a drink, he toppled over and broke his right leg. He was also hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit in 2007 for five days because of a stomach ulcer. “They had to give me six packets of blood,” he told TOC. “I thought I was gone case already”.
He seeks medical treatment from the polyclinic and Tan Tock Seng Hospital for his ailments. He used to visit the National University Hospital for his irregular heartbeat condition but has, since 2007, cancelled all his appointments. When asked why, he said it is because he can’t pay for the treatments. “Each visit cost $28.50 and I have to go four times a month,” he explains. “How to pay?”
To get by, he moonlights as a security guard once in a while – on the sly. He has a friend who works as one and Mr Wong would stand-in for him whenever his friend couldn’t be on duty. But such instances are not many.
Mr Wong is the eldest among seven siblings. One of his younger sisters died from diabetes in 2006. “It was the fourth day of Chinese New Year,” he says. He has lived alone for 20 years in his Aljunied Crescent flat. His younger brother used to help him with his medical, utilities and phone bill but has since stopped. When TOC visited him, a nephew of his had just brought him a packet of rice.
Running out of options and barely able to survive on his own, he turned to the Community Development Council (CDC) for help. The front desk officer there asked for records of his income, bank account and bank book. When he told them he had no income and no money, they took down his particulars and told him they would get back to him. Hearing nothing from the CDC for weeks, he paid them a second visit shortly before Chinese New Year this year. Again, they asked him for the same records. Upset with the situation, he left the office.
He chanced upon an event in his constituency and approached the Mayor, Mr Matthias Yao Chi, who is also the MP for MacPherson, the area where Mr Wong lives. He was referred to a clerk who registered his particulars. He has yet to hear from them.
He visits the polyclinic and receives his medication once every three months. His ECG test, which he used to undergo at NUH, is now free at the polyclinic. His Medisave deposits have all been used up and he has exhausted his CPF savings paying for his house.
I mentioned that the HDB now has a new scheme called the Lease Buy-back Scheme (LBS) which is targeted at the elderly who are not able to fend for themselves financially. “LBS is a special scheme that provides an additional option for low-income elderly Singaporeans in 3-room and smaller flats to cash out part of the money locked up in their HDB flats, for their old age,” the HDB website says. It allows elderly home owners to sell the remaining lease on their flats to the HDB. The owner of the flat can continue living in his flat while receiving “a lifelong stream of payout to supplement their retirement income.”
Mr Wong replies that he is aware of such a scheme and that he would gladly sell his lease to the HDB for some monthly income – if only he could. But he too faces some problems here.
The two-room flat he lives in was jointly-owned by Mr Wong and his uncle. However, his uncle had returned to China when he discovered he had liver cancer. His uncle died in China. The problem Mr Wong faces presently is that the Chinese authorities did not issue a death certificate for his uncle.
Because ownership of the house remains in both their names, Mr Wong is unable to sell his lease back to the HDB. He will need to obtain his uncle’s death certificate in order to do so. He is thus caught in a catch-22 – the Chinese authorities did not issue a death cert, and without it he cannot encash his flat.
This also presents problems for him in other areas.
Mr Wong’s brother had been helping him pay for the service and conservancy charges previously. His brother over-paid on one occasion and the town council sent Mr Wong a cheque for $40 for the excess. However, because the house was jointly-owned by Mr Wong and his uncle, the cheque was in both their names. It means he is not able to cash it. He informed the town council that his uncle has since passed away. They too asked for his uncle’s death certificate. Mr Wong told them that he does not have it as the authorities in China did not issue a death cert for his uncle’s death. In that case, they told him, they could not issue him a cheque in just his name and asked him to get the cert from the Chinese authorities.
“How do you expect me to do that?” he asked them. “Fly to China and get the cert and fly back here? If I can do that, I wouldn’t need the CDC’s help already,” he said. The cheque for $40 remains un-cashed. It may be a small amount, but to Mr Wong, it represents several daily meals.
“Did you apply for public assistance?” I asked. “What for?” came Mr Wong’s reply. “The more you bother them, the more trouble you get into.” He related how the grassroots people now shun him, treating him with apparent disdain.
Mr Wong now spends his time at home. “My place is here,” he tells me as he points to his sofa set. He spends most of his time reading, a far cry from his street gang adventures of his younger days. He reads anything he can get his hands on, from detective stories by James Patterson to educational booklets he gets from garang gunis.
“Sorry but I have an appointment,” he says apologetically. “Where are you going?” I ask. “I have to go see the doctor.” “You should eat the food first,” I urge, referring to the hamburger and drinks Deborah and I had bought him.
“It is ok. I will eat later,” he says as he picks up his bag of documents.
At the void deck, he bids us goodbye, as he carefully maneuvers himself down a slippery slope dampened by the rain.
In a Straits Times report on 28 Feb 2008, on the Lease Buyback Scheme, it said:
First announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during last year's National Day Rally, the scheme aims to help low-income, elderly households monetise their HDB flats to meet their retirement needs.
The LBS scheme will benefit such households that live in smaller flats need help, as they are unable to take advantage of existing schemes to monetise their HDB flats, such as downgrading to a smaller flat, buying a Studio Apartment or subletting a room.
Under the LBS, HDB will purchase the tail end of the flat lease from the elderly household.
On top of the housing equity unlocked, HDB will provide an additional $10,000 subsidy.
Out of the total amount, $5,000 will be given to the household as an upfront lump sum, while the remainder will be used to purchase a CPF LIFE Plan to provide the owner with a monthly stream of income for life.
The household continues to stay in their flat, which will be left with a 30-year lease.
Perhaps what is needed in the scheme is also a flexible policy and some common sense – as in the case of Mr Wong. Sticking resolutely to the letter of the policy means the elderly, who are in various and different situations, may not benefit from the scheme.
HDB – and for that matter, the CDC as well - should inform its officers to be more sensible and allow them some flexibility in decision-making.
TOC would like to thank the reader who alerted us to Mr Wong's plight.