Meet Singapore’s cardboard collectors

Every day, his van is parked along Veerasamy Road off Jalan Besar.

Piles of cardboard boxes are stacked neatly next to a weighing scale sitting next to his vehicle.

“Normally, there will be a lot of people here but it’s been quiet today,” said the driver, who only wanted to be identified as Mr Lim, in Malay.

Veerasamy Road is one of two cardboard collection points in Little India.

“Some of the uncles and aunties work overnight to collect the boxes and they will be here selling them to me every day,” said the 61 year old, who collects cardboard from sellers before transporting it to a recycling plant in Tuas.

There, the boxes are sold for double the price.

It is grueling work for the cardboard sellers, many of whom are elderly.

And the payoff for pushing along loaded trolleys, often under the scorching sun?

“We pay 10 cents for 1kg of used cardboard,” said Mr Lim, who declined to give his full name because he works for a company “authorised to collect boxes in the area”.

He also declined to be photographed, for fear of being reprimanded by his employers.

Despite this, the soft-spoken collector – who has been on the job for more than 20 years – was affable and gave us an insight into a trade not many Singaporeans pay attention to.

“We used to pay about 25 cents maybe 10 years ago, but that price has gone down now,” he said.

“Some grumble about the low price, but many still come here every day. Usually, it’s not uncommon to see old people pushing up to 5kg of flattened boxes over several trips,” he added.

“Some come with 250kg of boxes, $25 is a good haul,” said Mr Lim. “With that money they can buy food or whatever necessities they need to get them through the day.”

But competition in the area is fierce.

As Mr Lim explained: “Many walk the back lanes to pick up the boxes and some get very territorial. Some fight over boxes, maybe because the price is low as it is.”

His clients – many of whom are familiar faces who haul the boxes on creaky trolleys – come from all walks of life.

“I know one who lives in a landed property while others are doing this to earn money to eat,” said Mr Lim, who buys between one to seven tons of cardboard each day.

“I’ve even encountered Malaysians who cross the Causeway each day, collect boxes and sell to us before going back home,” added the soft-spoken collector, who says he’s been on the job for over 20 years.

However, when we visited Mr Lim at Veerasamy Road on July 15 at around 10 am, there were hardly any cardboard sellers.

Said Mr Lim: “Ever since that article came out, people have been coming here only around 8 am and it’s quiet after that.”

“There has been a lot of attention brought to this area. I guess many people don’t want reporters coming around, asking why they are hauling empty boxes,” he said.

He is referring to Minister of Social and Family Development (MSF) Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook post on July 12 following a visit to cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar with some volunteers from the Youth Corp Singapore.

According to online reports, Tan had joined the group, who have devoted their weekends over two months “to befriend the cardboard aunties and uncles on the streets in the Jalan Besar area”.

In his post, Tan said the findings of the project showed that not all elderly folk do it for a living.

“Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home,” added the minister.

The comments have caused a furore online: Some slammed Tan for being out-of-touch and putting a spin on the plight of the poor.

Others like Daniel Goh, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, said on Facebook that he did not think the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers were trying to “whitewash the poverty issue”.

However, he felt the volunteers have “committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.”

Mohd Nafiz Kamarudin, one of the founders of Happy People Helping People Foundation, agrees with Goh. He told Yahoo: “Many of these cardboard box collectors don’t want to admit they are in difficulty.”

“They prefer to collect the boxes and sell them rather than ask for financial assistance,” added the 33-year-old, who has befriended and assisted cardboard box collectors living in Toa Payoh since 2013.

“Some would rather make multiple trips hauling boxes. In our interactions with them, some have told us they have asked for help but did not receive it. So they continue collecting and selling boxes to support themselves.”

At Veerasamy Road, all but one of the cardboard box sellers declined to speak to this reporter.

The only one who agreed – a 65-year-old Mr Goh – only did so on the condition that no pictures were taken, and that his full name was not disclosed.

He arrived at Veerasamy Road at around 1 pm. With a smile and nod, he traded the pile of boxes tied on the back of his bicycle for cash.

The amount?

$2.50. A paltry sum to a lot of us, but the fruits of a hard morning’s labour for Mr Goh.

“I come here every day and the amount of money I make depends on the amount of items I can collect,” said the retiree who lives in the Boon Keng area.

“Sometimes I get $40 a day, sometimes its $20 – it all depends on luck”.

He, however, denied he did this because it was his one source of income.

“I don’t come here every day; it’s a habit I’ve had since I was a kid,” he laughed. He then rode off, disappearing in the direction of Jalan Besar.

After he left, Mr Lim told me: “None of them would admit to strangers they do this every day.

“He is one of my regular customers. I guess he won’t tell you he sells boxes every day because he has too much pride.”