Why we shouldn’t take cardboard collectors’ comments at face value

kirsten han
SingaporeScene
Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan Jin calls on Singaporeans to build a nation they can be proud of. (Yahoo! file photo)

How much do we know about the cardboard collectors we see on the street, pushing along loaded trolleys, backs hunched? Recently Minister of Social and Family Development (MSF) Tan Chuan-jin accompanied a group of students to meet box collectors at Jalan Besar. Yet his findings has raised eyebrows among other volunteers.

Reading his post reminded me of a cardboard collector I’d met last year. It was raining when we met her, and she wasn’t going to get very far walking alone pushing her trolley in that downpour, so she agreed to sit down with us at a coffeeshop for a chat.

She’d earned just a couple of dollars that day. She said she wasn’t one of the regular ones because she couldn’t go around collecting cardboard all the time; her husband was sick and needed to be taken to the hospital, and couldn’t be left alone too long when they were at home. His trips to the hospital had become more and more frequent, but it was being deducted from Medisave, she said. Then she dropped the bomb: the last time he’d been to hospital, they’d been told that he had less than $20 left in his Medisave account.

The social worker at the hospital had offered to help them apply for financial assistance to pay for future medical bills, but her husband had refused. We made the offer again to her at the coffeeshop that rainy afternoon, but the little old lady hunched over the table was stubborn and resolute. “My husband doesn’t like this sort of thing,” she said. “If you apply they will go through all your private things and ask you so many questions.”

She left us to hurry home the minute the rain ceased, leaving us worried but with no way to contact her. She had a phone number at home but didn’t want to give it to us; she said she didn’t want to inconvenience us, but she probably meant that she would prefer privacy to help from volunteers she barely knew. “It’s okay, we can manage,” she said as she pushed her little trolley home.

It’s okay.

“The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true,” wrote Tan on his Facebook page. “There will be some who do this as their main source of income. Some do so to supplement what they have. Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.”

There are terms and standards that we need to be mindful of when we speak to people – very often our different life experiences give us very different concepts of what things mean. “Okay”, compared to what? “Prefer”, but what are they preferring this to?

It’s like when we ask migrant workers if they are “satisfied” with their time in Singapore. To us, satisfaction probably means a steady income, comfortable lodgings, an occasional Koi bubble tea or llaollao yoghurt.

But a worker from India once told me that he was “satisfied” even though he earned only $450 a month, with $50 of (totally illegal) “savings” deduction, worked long hours with compulsory overtime and only had one day off a year. But he was satisfied because at least he was getting $350 to send home to his family (saving $50 for himself for a whole month) – it was better than being back in his village with little to no work at all.

Yes, I’m satisfied. It’s okay. This is good exercise for me, better than staying at home.

It’s important to be able to make the distinction between people actually being treated with dignity, and people trying to maintain their dignity while in a bad situation.

Nafiz is the founder of the Happy People Helping People Foundation, a group of volunteers who regularly organise Extend the Feast, which provides cardboard collectors as well as other elderly poor with food and donated rations such as rice, Milo and biscuits.

“In Toa Payoh Lorong 8, the box collectors are earning just 10 cents per kilogram,” he said. “And that’s considered a good rate, because we know of a box collector who pushes her trolley of cardboard boxes from Whampoa all the way to Toa Payoh Lorong 8 just because in Whampoa, the karung guni man is only offering eight cents per kilogram. And how much does she earn per day? On some days, $4 to $5.”

“These people are resilient. They want to earn their own money, despite their age. But if given the choice, of course they want to spend their remaining days not having to work so hard doing such jobs. Unfortunately, many have no choice. Singapore is a very very expensive place for most of us, what more those of their age,” Nafiz added.

There’s pride involved, too. The elderly cardboard collectors I’ve met were willing to admit that it was a tough job, but few would admit to needing help.

“If you are an old box collector, would you, when interviewed, openly say that your own son is not giving you food that’s why you need to scavenge for boxes? I doubt so. Mothers will still protect and not shame their children openly to strangers. These people are very resilient. They do not want to show that they are too old and need help,” Nafiz said.

Yes, we should open our minds and learn more about the cardboard collectors who toil day after day under the Singaporean heat to pick up newspapers, tins and scraps of cardboard. Yes, they are deserving of respect and admiration for their strength. But we shouldn’t romanticise their self-sufficiency, absolving ourselves of all responsibility at the same time.

Just because someone says he or she is all right, managing, satisfied, doesn’t mean we don’t examine the conditions in which they live and work. Just because an old lady might say she is doing all right and just pushing this trolley with 10 kilos of cardboard “for the exercise” doesn’t mean we don’t ask ourselves why, in a country as prosperous as Singapore, an 80-year-old is doing this at all. How likely is it that cardboard collecting was her first choice in daily exercise?

Social welfare has thankfully been extended over the years in Singapore. Yet there are core presumptions that remain unquestioned, from the dignity of self-sufficiency to the need to rely on family and relatives first, leaving state support as a last resort. 

But the state can provide support without reducing the dignity of those who need it, particularly by creating structures that help everyone even before the situation gets dire. Provisions like universal healthcare would lessen huge burdens and anxieties – the husband of the little old lady mentioned at the beginning of this article would not have had to feel humiliated by means-testing or justifying his need for financial support to a social worker, because his healthcare needs would already have been taken of.

It was good of the minister to reach out to the cardboard collectors. But he shouldn’t be so quick to take their comments at face value. There is much that we can still do to help the vulnerable in society, and we shouldn’t wait for them to ask.