They say that disaster strikes when you least expect it.
In recent years, “disaster" definitely struck two women, Madam Sidah binte Yusoff, 50, and Madam Seri Ayurani Fadillah, 55. They reside in York Hill, widely known as one of the poorest estates in Singapore. Most of the 12 blocks there house rental apartments for the under privileged.
Both of them has worked since they were 14 years old but have had to stop after being struck by illnesses in the last few years. Their poor health has hampered their ability to work.
Now, both of them are surviving on less than $500, some of which are given by the Community Development Council (CDC). They receive further assistance from charities such as Yong-en Care Centre, which provides them with monthly food donations.
The assistance they receive helps to alleviate the stress of paying their monthly rents of $111 and utility bills that can amount to $70 each month.
While the two women struggle to fend for themselves, they have their family members to think of too. Madam Sidah currently takes care of her younger brother who had a stroke, while Madam Seri is taking care of her elderly mother.
Yahoo! Singapore visited the two women in their one-room flats where they provided us with an insight into their plight.
Madam Sidah – the former masseuse
We first visited Madam Sidah who was struck by what she calls a “package” of illnesses. She first suffered from a heart attack in 2009.
“The doctor told me that I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and I am prone to heart attacks,” she said, elaborating on her health condition since the attack. Her right hand is weak and her feet are swollen most of the time – she can no longer bake her usual Hari Raya cookies for sale to neighbours and friends.
The former masseuse, who, in the past, provided massage services to pregnant women for additional income, also worked at various spa centres such as Java Java Spa. Her regular clients included the late Channel 8 star Huang Wenyong.
“I was shocked when the news of his death broke because he never looked sick,” said Madam Sidah in Malay.
Before she embarked on a career in massage therapy, she worked in various factories such as Toshiba.
The years of hard work were not only to fend for herself, but to take care of her younger brother as well.
Known as Amin, 48, he had a stroke in early 2000, which weakened the left side of his body. As a result, he had to give up his job as a cleaner.
Amin now receives a monthly financial assistance of $200 from the CDC while Madam Sidah lives on $300, which is taken off her Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings. The siblings spend about $10 each a day on food and other necessities.
“Back when I was still a masseuse, I could easily bring home $2,000 a month and take my brother out for seafood dinners,” said Madam Sidah who added that there is nobody else to take care of Amin but her.
The divorcee, who separated from her husband due to his drug addiction, forced a smile while she reminisced her past.
“I guess we had our fun,” she said.
The siblings spend most of their time in the one-room apartment, which houses two single beds separated by a divider.
Madam Seri – the cleaner
In the same estate, another resident, Madam Seri, also depends on financial assistance from the CDC as well as food donations from Yong-en Care Centre.
Madam Seri, who has been suffering from frequent fevers since she was young, has become increasingly weak in recent years.
“I get fevers frequently. Each time I work, I tend to fall sick easily and will need a few days of rest to recover,” she said in Malay.
“My employers said they can’t afford to wait for me to recover each time and would rather employ others who are young, fit and cheaper,” she said, sounding disheartened.
While she tries to maintain a positive outlook in life, Madam Seri frequently finds herself on the verge of giving up.
“I’ve been working all my life and it seems like each time I struggle, things doesn’t get any better,” said Madam Sidah who is also a divorcee and has a GCE 'O' Level certificate.
Madam Seri has been cleaning homes since she was 14 years old and the growing number of foreign maids in recent years has made it difficult for her to find a job, she said.
However, she is grateful for her mother, Madam Sumira binte Satar, 88, who keeps her spirits up.
Despite her mother’s old age, she is much stronger, Madam Seri said. Madam Sumira does not get sick easily and she shared with a laugh, "There was once when I even ran after a bus."
“We were on our way to a free religious class at a nearby mosque and I didn’t want to miss the bus and be late. Since my daughter couldn’t run fast enough, I ran to stop it first,” she recalled.
Besides having a knee cap problem, Madam Sumira does not have other diseases.
“I would love to work if I could so I won’t be such a burden to her [Madam Seri], but when I asked the CDC to help me look for a job, they laughed at me,” said Madam Sumira, chuckling. “They said I’m too old to work.”
Madam Sumira has taken care of her daughter and son single-handedly since Madam Seri was only two years old – she worked as a house cleaner.
When asked if her son had provided any assistance, she said, “He is leading a difficult life himself. He has five children and he doesn't earn a lot.”
Madam Seri receives $300 from the CDC and her mother gets $180 from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) - this means they duo receives a total of $480 each month.
According to Madam Seri, they’re left with only $80 each month after spending on the rent, utility bills and groceries.
Fortunately, a helping hand is provided in the form of monthly food donations from Yong-en Care Centre, a charity organisation that provides help to the needy.
At York Hill, and nearby Jalan Kukoh and Jalan Minyak, the charity organisation distributes food donations to about 40 underprivileged families. Besides the monthly food donations, the organisation also conduct house visits to check up on those families to see how they are coping.
Madam Sidah said, “In the past, there were times when my brother and I did not eat for days. But that rarely happens now with the help of food donations. If I can’t afford buying groceries, I can have canned sardines or instant noodles that were given.”
Madam Seri added, “The food they give us has helped to cut our monthly cost a lot. But my worries remain, and that’s paying the rent and utility bills.”
The two women also receive help from the Tanjong Pagar Town Council (TPTC). A day after the interview, TPTC donated a new bed to Madam Seri and her mother as their previous bed had termites.
At the same time, a community organisation led by a resident, Mr Samsuri Mahadi, 48, help to bond the community through social activities. Called “Pekik” (shout in Malay), it organises activities like barbecue parties and outings to the zoo, with the help of government funds – the poor families living in York Hill may not otherwise have the funds to enjoy these outings.
Such help has improved the lives of residents such as Madam Sidah and Madam Seri significantly.
Poverty in Singapore
In 2012, three per cent of households in Singapore earn below $1,000 according to the Singapore Department of Statistics. In the same year, there were 9.2 per cent of households with no working persons.
There are several assistance schemes made available to the needy to cope with the cost of living. According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, the number of heads of households currently receiving public and social assistance under the ComCare long term assistance scheme in 2012 is over 3,000 (3,047). For short to medium term assistance, a total of over 10,000 (10,432) cases received assistance in the same year.
There are many Singapore-based organisations providing further assistance to the needy too. Yong-en, for example, was first registered as a charity in 1996 and was set up by Fairfield Methodist Church. It was a result of the church’s decision for a more concerted effort in helping the needy, something they have been doing since 1986.
Besides taking care of underprivileged families, its two other departments include the Dementia Day Care Centre, where free care is provided to those with dementia to ease the family burden, and home care, where qualified nurses treat the underprivileged who have medical conditions.
Their efforts to help the needy do not come without challenges though.
“Some of the underprivileged families are reluctant to upgrade themselves,” shared a Yong-en spokesperson.
“Then there is another group who are so used to getting hand-outs from charities that they would not want to seek employment (even though they can). Rather, they would use different excuses to go from charity to charity to seek assistance,” he added.
Besides Yong-en, others include ONE Singapore, which is part of a worldwide group that aims to end poverty and inequality, 4PM, The Soup Kitchen Project and New Hope Community Services.
For a full list of registered charities, go to Charity Portal.
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Singapore 9 is Yahoo! Singapore's annual National Day honours project. Back for the third time running this year, we are honouring nine charities in Singapore in the lead-up to the nation's birthday on August 9. Join us to Change A Life!
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