Volunteer-driven group helps Singapore’s cardboard collectors one meal at a time

Extend The Feast, a charity event organised by the Happy People Helping People Foundation, serves free meals to the needy who are trying to make ends meet. Its eighth event was held last Sunday. (Photo: Calum Stuart)

By: Calum Stuart

In the sweltering heat of the midday sun, about 300 people – most of them over the age of 60 – gathered under a large pavilion in the Toa Payoh HDB estate to collect food from an improvised catering service. Certain blocks in the neighbourhood house some of Singapore’s poorest citizens in public rental flats subsidised by the state.

Every couple of months, a charity event is organised by the Happy People Helping People Foundation (HPHP) to aid local cardboard collectors – some of the lowest earners in Singapore – as well as other elderly poor living in the rental flats.

Extend the Feast, which began in December 2013, is made up entirely of volunteers who come to serve food and offer support to some of Singapore’s most vulnerable, while also raising awareness of urban poverty. These events are becoming increasingly well-known in the area: at the end of last year the number of attendees was around 150, but has doubled seven months later.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that Singapore is not always as the media portrays us to be, like very glamorous,” said Mohammed Nafiz Kamarudin, who founded HPHP. “There are people living in poverty in Singapore. You see people in their 70s and 80s collecting cardboard for a mere four or five dollars a day - that wouldn’t be enough for most Singaporeans to live off.”

“We think Singapore is very rich and there’s no one poor, but if you come down to these areas you’ll see that some people barely earn enough for a meal in one day.”

Singapore’s cardboard collectors are a common sight around Singapore. Men and women - usually pensioners - are often seen pushing stacks of cardboard on trollies or piled on the back of bikes; they are out in the blistering heat or tropical storms, and the cardboard they collect might fetch a price of about 10 cents per kg.

Cardboard collectors made the news recently, after Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin wrote a Facebook post saying he had met several cardboard collectors when tagging along on a research project carried out by a group of students:

“The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true,” Tan wrote in his post. “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.”

Tan’s comments triggered an uproar, with many criticising him for being out-of-touch and privileged, dismissing the hardships suffered by the poor in Singapore.

Collecting cardboard for a variety of reasons

Mohammed Nafiz Kamarudin (center) from HPHP speaking to cardboard collectors Tan Loy Chai (left) and Tan Ah Lek (right) at the Extend The Feast event (Photo: Calum Stuart)

Tan Loy Chai, a 65-year-old local, has been working as a cardboard collector for the last two years. She is a regular to Extend the Feast events, and often struggles with money. “I collect about 15 to 19kg of cardboard a day,” she said, “[and make] about two to three dollars from it.

“It’s not enough, lah. A lot of that goes towards the rent – if not enough some days we have to go without food. Maybe sometimes somebody will help us…”

The hours of cardboard collectors can often be highly irregular depending on where their collection points open: “I can go out around eleven o’clock or midnight, until the next morning. Even now I haven’t slept,” she said, speaking to us in the afternoon. “In the afternoon, the places might have [cardboard] but we can’t take yet, so mostly we sleep in the afternoon.

“Roughly around 52 [collectors] work around here. I don’t think the MPs help us – we have to help ourselves,” she said, adding that she had sometimes told grassroots or social workers that she was doing it for the exercise so as to cut short any interaction or further queries.

Her friend Tan Ah Lek, 66, has a different experience. Having worked all her life, she is now retired and living on CPF payouts of about $300 a month, out of which she forks out about $100 to cover rent, town council fees and utilities. She started collecting cardboard in 2011 when a former cardboard collector asked her to take over picking up cardboard from a particular shop.

She picks the cardboard up from the shop when she can – usually after she’s done watching her Korean dramas on Channel 8 at night, she says – keeping them at home until she has her trolley stacked high before she makes the walk to the cardboard collection point four or five streets away.

“If it rains you get drenched, if it’s hot you get burnt to a crisp. But I like it. I don’t want to get a job, I’ve worked so much when I was younger,” she said in Mandarin. “I am exercising, because now I have CPF.”

She said she used to earn $5 or $6 a day, but the price has dropped somewhat: “You used to get $1.20 for 10kg. Now it’s $1.10. If you have 50 kilos you’ve lost 50 cents.” Every month, she makes about $100 from her cardboard collection – about one-quarter of her monthly income.

Kamarudin says that he occasionally sees cases such as Ah Lek’s, but that they’re generally in the minority: “I think I get what [Tan Chuan-Jin] means; there are some who do this just for additional income, or if they’re bored, but they are a very small amount. Most of them are doing it because they’re poor and desperate – that’s why they are scavenging cardboard boxes for a living. So I think he could’ve phrased it much better.”