‘Citizen Hustler’ by Tan Biyun: A heart-wrenching and necessary exploration of struggles faced by Singapore’s elderly poor

(Note: Spoilers of Tan Biyun’s ‘Citizen Hustler’ ahead)

While Singaporeans may have frequently read news reports and academic studies on the elderly poor in the country, ‘Citizen Hustler by filmmaker Tan Biyun viscerally captures the essence of the struggles they face, often hidden and rendered invisible in the shadows of the republic’s gleaming skyscrapers.

The film, slated to be premiered on 5 December at the Singapore International Film Festival, centres the story of a hawker in his late 60s who was evicted when the Sungei Road flea market was forced to close in 2017.

Plagued by various ailments, Uncle Chan Fook Seng and his partner Seah Siok Tiang are left with little recourse. For them, negotiation is imperative to their survival not only in their informal trade but also in navigating their way through the thicket of bureaucracy to access financial aid.

The film opens with the closure of Sungei Road flea market, with tenants being evicted at night as construction crew begin to fence the area off.

People are seen setting up their wares just outside the fence but are soon told by enforcement officers that they have to leave.

Uncle Chan ends up selling illegally at the Chinatown market, along with many other vendors, as he was not one of the few evicted vendors who were granted a license.

The film follows Uncle Chan’s struggles to make a decent living and navigate the red tape of government aid.

The setting shifts to his home — depicted as being filled with so much stuff the audience might think they are watching an episode of “Hoarders”.

No real explanation was given to why the items were there — however, there is a general idea that these items will be taken out bit by bit to be sold on the streets.

The items ranged from jewellery to old phones and radios and even a laptop.

Uncle Chan heartrendingly reveals that he worked as a cleaner but is unable to take up that job anymore due to his old age and weakened limbs. He has no Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings to speak of either, having run out of his CPF payouts.

Relying on welfare and government aid via the Silver Support Scheme that he has to stretch for two people, Uncle Chan get about S$700 from the government. But his expenses go up to over S$1,000 a month.

His partner isn’t on welfare. She is also two years short of being able to withdraw her CPF savings — the two of them subsist on whatever financial aid they get from the government and income brought in from hawking.

The impression I got from it is that hawking income is rather negligible in the grand scheme of things.

When Uncle Chan loses his wallet which contains his and his partner’s ID cards, getting replacements prove to be just as difficult. He says the interview process by the ICA felt like he was being interviewed for welfare assistance.

Eventually, he got a replacement and a waiver on the replacement fees. However, he had to fork out S$60 for his partner’s replacement ID card.

Still, despite every single stumbling block and challenge—aching legs, no money for proper meals, barely a social life, and the crushing resignation that the system is not designed to make your life easier—they still push forward. They go out, hawk some goods, chill at a kopitiam together and banter with the staff.

Throughout the film, you see Uncle Chan being helped by the film director herself.

Tan helps him find a Family Services Centre (FSC) to help get his ID card replaced. She helps him source out other avenues of financial aid. She translates official letters addressed to him from various government agencies.

It baffles me that the government does not simply send him letters in a language he understands and is comfortable with, particularly given that Mandarin is also one of Singapore’s official languages.

But of course, there’s only so much one person can do. Even the social workers who handle Uncle Chan’s case are limited by laws and regulations in terms of how much help they can extend to him and elderly low-income persons like him.

Uncle Chan’s struggle in accessing what appears to be a labyrinthine government aid system is also brought to the spotlight in Tan’s film.

For example, Uncle Chan’s Silver Support payout is only S$300 each quarter of the year, as he is on welfare. His medical expenses are deducted from his Medisave before welfare kicks in — he is essentially paying his own medical expenses.

His monthly NTUC vouchers also eventually expire. It appears everything has to be reapplied for, with no guarantee that the aid will be renewed.

The film sheds light on possible gaps in Singapore’s social support system that led to Uncle Chan—and undoubtedly many others like him—falling through the cracks, leaving them with no option but to drink only coffee for breakfast or dumpster dive to find potential items that could be sold for cheap.

One thing that Uncle Chan says about two-thirds of the way into the film that struck me is that people like him are “useless” after 60.

It is clear that Uncle Chan thrives from working and keeping a steady momentum. Perhaps something people–or at least I–have never considered before is that a social safety net has to comprise more than just financial aid.

Quality of life is more than just being able to put food on the table and a roof over one’s head.

Such basic needs must be met before one could address existential struggles such as battling the feeling of uselessness, of course, but the significance of a dignified life is one we should be taking into account.

The film tells us that Aunty Seah has been flagged as a vulnerable person by social workers and is now on short term welfare handouts, pending further review of her case.

If nothing changes, then Aunty Seah will very likely have to continue navigating the same aid bureaucracy that Uncle Chan had been doing for both of them before he died. Only now, she has to do it without her partner. That’s possibly the most heart-wrenching part of this story.

It’s not an easy film to watch, emotionally, but it’s one that should be seen. It needs to be seen not only by everyday folks who may not be aware of just how bad it can get for the aged poor in this metropolis, but also hopefully by the bureaucrats who designed and maintain the system that is not working as effectively as often touted.

The film notes that about 5,000 people are on welfare in Singapore. Only 5,000. Even Uncle Chan found it hard to believe that the official figures are so low. The thing is, how many have fallen through the cracks? And how many who have been caught by the net are still struggling to live a dignified and comfortable life?

These are questions the film have raised for me. I hope it raises questions for you too and similarly inspires action.

Watch an excerpt of the film here:

 

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