On 1 November (Friday), a Singaporean turned 60 but instead of having the usual lunch or dinner party with his immediate family members, he decided to do something different.
Mr Chua Soon Hock, a retired fund manager, took the noble step of inviting 36 elderly cardboard collectors to his birthday party and treated them to a delicious meal at 73 Hillcrest Restaurant, along Hillcrest Road in Bukit Timah.
Speaking to TOC in an interview, Mr Chua shared, “This year is my 60th birthday so I decided to have a bigger celebration. Usually, my birthday is just a simple dinner or lunch with immediate family members. Just partying is enjoyable but not as meaningful. So I wanted an added dimension, a more meaningful celebration that can benefit the needy,”
The Singaporean man managed to gather these senior citizens with the help of Happy People Helping People Community (HPHP) – a non-profit foundation set out to help people who are in need. He expressed that he thought of helping this group of people after working with HPHP where the “the plight of the aged cardboard collectors” stayed in his heart and mind.
“I view cardboard collectors with respect. They are old, aged and very poor but are dignified, as they still work very hard with their worn out hands despite their difficulties. Many are weak and sick, not in the best of health,” he said.
He added, “They are the visible representation of the poor living in poverty, estimated at 250,000 by a NHK documentary, hidden behind the close doors of the HDB flats in very prosperous Singapore. A visible tip of the iceberg of the underlying problem of suffering and pain of poverty.”
HPHP also took to its Facebook page on 1 November to share pictures of the birthday celebration. Besides Mr Chua and the senior individuals, Workers’ Party Sylvia Lim also graced the event, and she helped to distribute the red packets that Mr Chua had prepared for each of the cardboard collectors.
In the post, it was stated that an elderly collector known as Ms Koh from Bedok was “so happy that she cried”. She told the organisation that she could use the money “to buy pampers for herself and her foster mother who is already very old and sickly”.
Speaking of the red packets, Mr Chua said, “The most practical need of money support, which I am happy and privilege to give as Angpows. I cannot resolve their fundamental problems and cause. But some money can help relieve them for weeks or months.”
Neglected and forced to be cardboard collectors
When asked if he thinks that cardboard collectors are a neglected group in the society, Mr Chua said that HPHP is “probably the only group that focuses on cardboard collectors, but mainly in Chinatown area”.
“In my observation since 20 years ago, when I started reaching out to cardboard collectors in a small and limited way, the number of them has steadily increased over the years. There are more and more desperate aged poor resorting to collecting cardboards in various constituencies to meet their daily needs. So I believe the number of aged, sick, desperate poor in Singapore is getting worse and more,” he told. The poor aged and desperately poor is an expanding group in Singapore.
Echoing the same point, Mohammad Nafiz Kamaruddin, co-founder of HPHP, told TOC that he sees a growing trend of elderly cardboard collectors in the country, and they have no option but to opt for this job as “they can no longer get hired, especially those in their 70s, 80s and 90s”.
“They still need to earn to pay for things like rental, bills and food. Many are either without children, their children are themselves not earning enough or their children have abandoned them. Times are tough in Singapore. Even the young and educated ones are jobless because of competitiveness in the job industry because of high influx of cheaper foreign talent,” Mr Nafiz said.
He continued, “But for the young Singaporeans that are facing difficult times, they know exactly where to look for help, to ask for welfare. They still have other options like do small online businesses. But for these old folks, their options are limited to none. Most will either sell tissue paper or dumpster dive for things to sell”.
Although Mr Nafiz agrees that many of these senior citizens receive funding from government, he noted that the amount is insufficient given the high cost of living. To make it worse, he pointed out that a large amount of them actually get rejected due to the stringent criteria.
“Once they get rejected, they’d rather not try and try again because they have their pride and dignity. They don’t want to be begging for help. Anyway, to them, how long more are they going to live? Maybe that’s also the reason why welfare groups would not want to invest too much helping them as compared to helping the young and in need. This is the sad reality of it. So many end up collecting cardboard boxes and cans for a living. And there are also those who give up, which explains the high suicide rates among elderly in Singapore,” he opined.
Leaders should walk the talk
When asked if he hopes for more people, especially leaders of the country to step in and help the needy with such forms of celebrations, Mr Chua said that “the most powerful and sincere leadership is leadership by actual example and not talk or desire only”.
“Obviously if more people, especially leaders, take appropriate actions to help the cardboard collectors and the desperate poor, it will relieve them to a degree and bring much needed comfort. So at policy level, at organisational level and at individual level, we all have a joint responsibility towards our fellow desperate Singaporeans. I welcome and encourage all aspect of help to the needy, whether by birthday celebrations or other means,” Mr Chua said.
If that’s not all, he also hope that the government will review the recent change of placing the collection point at Chinatown a lot farther than before, making it more difficult for these aged group to reach the point.
“This has proven to be more difficult and dangerous for them as they need to cart the cardboards a lot further, even crossing busy roads. I hope the authority will review that, which has been a collection point for them for past 7 years.” (Latest update: There was a positive response from MP Lily Neo after HPHP petitions and social media highlight of the plight. The collection point has been revised to be nearer).
“We can always do better at every level. The issue starts from our heart and mind. 1 kg of cardboard sells for about 10cts, think about that? Maybe feel about that! Over the years, as we have more cardboard collectors, the price of cardboards probably has dropped. I hope the buyer(s) of cardboards will give them a good and reasonable price.”
But it is unfortunate that Mr Chua’s wish for a higher price for seniors is not going to come true, as the current price for cardboards is mere 4 cents per kg of cardboard and 60 cents for 65 soft drink cans. A senior who collect such items, typically earns just over 2 dollars a day.
So why do they continue this line of hard work?
Mr Nafiz in response to this question, is simply, “They are desperate”.