The first thing you would notice about Rahim (not his real name) is the slight bulge on the left side of his T-shirt.
As he lifts his shirt to reveal an ostomy bag attached to the side of his abdomen, Rahim tells us the pouch collects his stools. Surgical removal of parts of his colon meant he no longer could ease himself normally.
You see, Rahim has colon cancer.
It is ‘very troublesome’ whenever he has to change the bag when it got too full, he tells The Online Citizen. The only time he could clean himself up was at night when his wife was back from work, and in the privacy (and darkness) of their tent.
Rahim and his wife, who suffers from asthma, together with their their 18-year old son have been staying at the park for the past six months. Two other daughters (aged 13 and 15) are in a shelter run by Pertapis Welfare Service, a voluntary welfare organization. He has two other children from his first marriage but they are no longer in contact with him.
His wife has just started work as daytime security guard in a factory nearby. His son, who is from his second marriage, is awaiting his enlistment into National Service. He grinned when we joked that at least he would have beds to sleep on when he gets enlisted.
Unlike many of the cases we’ve met, Rahim and his family are not in the queue for HDB’s rental flats. They’ve used up all the ‘lifelines’ HDB has to offer.
In 2001, Rahim’s family moved into their first HDB rental flat in Clementi. A few years later, Rahim bought a four-room flat in Woodlands. As both his children from the first marriage were working, they could afford to finance the loan for the flat. According to Rahim, the two soon fell out with the rest of his family and left. Rahim, who had colon cancer by then, had to surrender the flat to the bank.
They then rented a one-room flat in Marsiling from the HDB. However, the flat was very far from the school which their younger children were attending. Their agent came up with a solution – sublet the Marsiling flat and use the rent collected to cover the rental for a flat nearer the school.
It wasn’t a perfect solution - they still had to fork out $100 every month to cover the rent for the flat near the school. Rahim says that he didn’t know it was an offence to sublet his rental flat.
In 2008, the HDB found out about the subletting, and evicted and barred them from renting any flats from the HDB for five years. Faced with no other options, the family ended up in the park.
Rahim’s search for help eventually took him to MCYS which arranged for his two daughters to be put in the Pertapis shelter. It was a painful decision, but he agreed because he didn’t want them sleeping in the park. (His son was too old to qualify for a place in the shelter.)
They also advised the rest of his family to move into Angsana Home where they would get free food and medication for his illness. However, he and his wife would have to sleep in separate dorms. They would also not be allowed to go out. Rahim rejected the offer as it would break up his family and prevent them from working.
“We can work,” he told us firmly. “We don’t need the free food. I just want a roof over our heads so my family can be together again.”
Happy Birthday, Mrs B
“I’m 47 today!” she exclaims, and her eyes tear up. “I prayed to god for a miracle, and you came along.”
We all make soothing noises. It’s nothing really, aunty. Just a few bags of biscuits. You know, to help you through the long evenings here in the park.
There’s very little light where the family is camping, so we can barely make out the expressions on their faces. Her 18-year god-daughter sits all poised and prim on the grass. She tells us she’s looking for a job, maybe as a waitress at Pizza Hut. Squished inside a smallish tent are her son and his friend. 18, and waiting to enlist in the army. They look like regular kids. One has studs in his ears. Spiky hair. He grins when you ask his name.
The family’s been living rough since 2008. A long, long time. Especially given the government's claims that people are only ever temporarily homeless in Singapore.
“Void decks, mosques. I’ve slept everywhere,” she says.
“People stare.” Her husband chimes in. He’s a skinny man with tired eyes. A sick man, battling cancer for the last 17 years. He clearly doesn’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. Even lifts up his t-shirt to show us his stoma bag.
“Three operations,” he tells you. “Colon cancer.”
They lost their HDB flat in 2005. His health was failing and his two children from an earlier marriage decided to stop contributing to the mortgage. The family managed to get a rental flat from the government but made the mistake of letting it out and moving to another apartment much closer to their children’s school.
“After that, they barred us for five years,” she says. Her eyes well up again. “Why so long? All we wanted was shelter.”
It’s Singapore. HDB has rules against subletting flats leased from the government. Did they not know that?
You almost ask the question, but then bite your tongue when you see the look on her face. She is weary. Exhausted. They wanted to be nearer to their children’s school. Surely any parent can understand that?
“I have two other kids,” she says suddenly. “They’re living in a home now. 13 and 14. I’ll see them this weekend.”
“So hard when they left,” her husband interjects.
You ask if they are working. She’s just found a full-time job as a security guard. It pays $1,300 a month. Her husband, on the other hand, can only work part-time. He says he used to be employed by Cisco but in 2004, they told him to leave because of his illness.
“They saw my stoma bag. They don’t like.”
They live from camping permit to camping permit. Once, they say, NParks officials came, took down their tents and confiscated their blankets. They were told they had to pay $300 if they wanted their stuff back.
“I said, OK, take. Give you lah!” For a moment, there is fire in her eyes. Then it is gone and she looks thoughtful.
“You know,” she tells us as we’re leaving, “thank you very much for coming. I don't want to trouble you. You are here on my birthday. And you brought us this food. A present for me! I thank god for that already.”