“Yes, we have spoken to cardboard uncles and aunties” – Youth Corps team leader

cardboard collector - Extend the Feast videoBy Koh Cheng Jun

"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?”

We strived to find out more about them, and we did. This was in January, and we had already started planning about how to approach the cardboard collectors at Veerasamy Road (a scope defined by YCS together with our community partner—Social Service Office @ Jalan Besar). We began with a pilot study of the situation, interviewing residents staying in the vicinity (knocking on doors unit by unit) and talking to shop owners (who provide the cardboards that collectors pick up daily).

What we gleaned from the residents included road safety concerns,and we've also read about cardboard collectors who had to resort to sleeping on the streets to look after their cardboards overnight. We started working on solutions that could alleviate these perceived problems – including installation of signboards to caution drivers and providing storage spaces for the cardboards.

All these while consistently engaging the cardboard collectors and allowing them to get accustomed to our presence.

We acknowledged the need for a long-term solution; one that would perhaps get them off the streets, but in the short-term, we wanted to respect and support them in what they are doing and making it safer for them.

It is not long after we realised that the collectors are reflecting the same sentiments as some of our previous interviewees. The collectors do not seem to welcome a storage area, or signallers that they could attach to their trolleys; they have been doing this for years and will not change their long-ingrained habits just because we tell them to. This is the moment when we realised that this community has diverse needs, each collector have their story to tell and implementing a blanket “solution” to problems we perceived to exist, would truly be an ostentatious form of “wayang”. We eventually discarded the idea and embarked on a needs analysis research as proposed by SSO.

The team talked to close to 45 cardboard collectors over a 2-month period, including many young foreigners in the trade. We eventually narrowed our interview pool to 13 collectors, on the criteria that they are Singaporeans/PRs aged 55 and above, as suggested by SSO to be the most vulnerable group. This would be the first study of its kind. The questions would focus on health, financial status, social and family support of the collectors.

These are our main findings:

1. Most cardboard collectors do it for the money (no doubts about it).
2. Minority does it for other reasons – form of leisure/exercise, recycling (small but exists).
3. Most hold another job (in order to earn enough/have other sources of income security, depending on how you see it).
4. Most are financially able to support themselves/deny the need for assistance (again, depending on how you see it).
5. Most are supported/offered support by their families, including a few who do not want their families to know,as they do not approve.
6. Cardboard collectors are facing competition from younger foreigners.

(Image - seijieiga.blogspot.sg)

(Image - seijieiga.blogspot.sg)

Yes, we met an isolated case of one who stays in landed property. But no, we will not generalise to say that most are not in it for the money. A few shared with pride on how their children have gone overseas for studies or are enrolled into local universities, and despite their financial support and objection to cardboard collection, they prefer to continue working as they’ve been doing it for years and would like to continue seeing their friends/as a form of exercise. Not less than a handful cited flexibility and freedom of this job as the reason behind. We've also met one who griped about CHAS and its inadequacies as she did not know which clinics were involved in the scheme and went to the wrong one. Some lamented about the rise in foreigners competing for cardboards.

In essence, we uncovered diverse reasons for cardboard collecting,which is a surprise as we initially thought ALL are in it for the money. But without doubt, the vast majority is in it for the money. However, most are consistent in saying that they do not require assistance. We do not know whether this is due to their resilience and independent streak or there other reasons that they are unwilling to share. This would require more follow-up investigations.

We presented the facts as it is to Minister Tan at MSF HQ, but were pleasantly surprised when he suggested visiting the scene for himself. Contrary to some suggestions online, the only “sweeping” of the place was done by Minister Tan’s lone security personnel as per the norm. The team was worried that there would be very little to none cardboard collectors on that day; the team had gone down on many occasions and on some days not found any collectors. There was no way of contact beforehand with the collectors and most of them do not have their personal form of contact or are unwilling to share. I hoped for more collectors to be present so that the Minister would have a higher chance of meeting the truly needy ones and offering assistance. The Minister checked their ICs against the record and together with briefing by SSO, had hopefully gotten a better insight into the situation.

Throughout the process, our team served to be the bridge between the collectors and the SSO officials. The complexity of the issue meant that it took longer than expected.

It was all worth it though, and especially heart-warming when the collectors start recognising you and initiate the morning greetings.

We acknowledge that there are limitations to our research; not least self-selecting bias as those who shared may not be reflective of the entire base; responses cannot always be taken at face value; results may differ for collectors in another area etc. But we hope that our research will not be swept under the carpet amidst the cacophony of noises and accusations of political posturing, just like how this social issue of cardboard collecting should not be brushed away as irrelevant, but one that inspires more in-depth studies by other interested parties. We hope that more would be encouraged to participate in looking for ways to help and not be put off by the negativities.

Perhaps it is the election fervour, or the lack of civic society institutions in the past that resulted in today’s association of all grassroots activities with the government. But as the title suggests, the research is a culmination of OUR project, a team of 7 members from various institutions, and we are not political pawns that can be manipulated for reasons other than the genuine desire to serve the community.


Mr Koh is the team leader for Endeavo 1. This article first appeared on his Facebook page, which he wrote to clarify any misunderstanding about what Youth Corps Singapore has achieved in their study project. We thank Mr Koh for allowing us to republish his article.

Minister for Social and family Development Tan Chan-Jin, who joined Mr Koh's group for one of their rounds, had earlier remarked on his Facebook page to suggest that some cardboard collectors do it for exercise and leisure. His comments have drawn the ire of the online community for being out of touch.

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