[UPDATE on Thursday, 24 April at 6pm: Adding more information from Gilbert Cheah and Valerie Sim]
After being photographed at work in Jurong pooling used oil near coffee shops, 50-year-old Valerie Sim has been struggling to keep her family afloat.
Web portals STOMP and The Real Singapore published pictures of her in February, triggering a witch hunt for others like her and comments from readers like “Who knows if they’ll use it as cooking oil?” Some readers also said they filed police reports against her and other people they believed were doing the same thing she was.
Actually, according to a report by The New Paper early last month, she was simply collecting waste oil to sell to licensed general waste collector Sky-Land (Oils and Fats), which would process the grease to turn into biodiesel. She was paid daily based on how much oil she gathered — about $5 per barrel, she told Yahoo Singapore in an interview on Thursday.
After the photos of her surfaced online, she and a colleague were advised by the National Environment Agency to stop work, according to TNP.
On Thursday afternoon, Sim recounted other subsequent developments. Sky-Land told her they were unhappy that she had mentioned their name and took back the lorry they had initially loaned out to her and her colleague to harvest waste oil, she said.
Sim, a divorcee of seven years who received only Secondary 3 education and is the family breadwinner, then had to borrow from relatives to get by in order to supplement her $800 take-home pay from part-time cleaning at a seafood wholesaler near Hougang. She also said her ex-husband has refused to pay her child maintenance, which is supposed to amount to $500 a month.
She and her two sons, the younger of whom requires psychiatric care and attends regular counseling sessions, survive on canned food like luncheon meat and sausages with plain rice, and the occasional soup she cooks in rice cookers and steamboat dishes. “As long as our tummies are full, it’s enough,” she said.
This week, she has received some help from strangers. Gilbert Cheah, managing director of a local publishing company, read about Sim’s story a month after it was published in TNP and shared it on his Facebook page inviting help from his friends or anyone who saw the post.
“I thought (the fact that people were getting angry at the sight of workers like Sim collecting oil) was very strange because no one seemed to have done their homework to check whether or not this was real,” he said, on seeing people on his Facebook feed sharing the STOMP and TRS posts and adding outraged comments. “I’m very sensitive and aware of how the internet can be… so I just wanted to do something, and it wasn’t difficult at all."
Obtaining Sim’s contact through the TNP reporter, Cheah said he pooled more than $2,000 in cheque donations and NTUC Fairprice vouchers from people who were keen to help and met up with her on Wednesday, alongside two friends, to hand them to her.
Cheah also received leads on three potential jobs which he handed to Sim, and the latter has since been for two interviews — although she is restricted by her need for a job with closer proximity to the Jurong area, and her inability to work full time or longer hours, because of her commitment to her son’s counselling sessions.
Sim is also receiving help from the Community Development Council and the government, and she said her 19-year-old elder son has just got a job and will be starting work next week.
“I’m really very grateful for all the people who have helped me,” she said in Mandarin, admitting that she was shocked by the number of kind people she has met, having been lied to by some in the past.
She says she would still like to collect waste oil, though — she said on good months, the work paid her close to $3,000 a month. She hopes mainly for the opportunity to borrow a lorry to continue her work, but she is still wiling to take on any other job that she can that will pay her bills, rent and other medical expenses.
“Mdm Sim said it means so much to her… to know that people care,” Cheah told Yahoo Singapore. “I just hope this encourages more people to help."