At the age of 70, a happy retirement probably looks like this: financial stability, freedom, opportunities to travel widely, and savouring the joys of family.
While that’s the pretty picture that most of us paint of our latter years, the prospect is one that Madam Jane Teng does not even dare to dream of.
Most mornings, the 70-year-old can be seen pushing a rickety trolley all over Toa Payoh, scavenging for cardboard boxes and retrieving aluminium cans from dustbins and hawker centre tables. These items, so often seen as rubbish, are precious pickings that Madam Teng relies on for survival.
To save money, she scrimps on her meals and takes to bathing once every other day at a friend’s house. Poor, old and living alone in a rental flat without family to support her, it is a tough life but she is determined to keep at it, telling The Pride: “Even if it’s hard, I don’t have a choice. I need to pay my rent and utility bills.”
According to Singstat figures, there were almost 50,000 Singapore residents aged 65 and above in 2016. And while Singapore has no formally defined poverty line, Madam Teng’s story is a glimpse into the lives of a segment of this older population here who struggle to make ends meet.
Without an official measure, academic Dr Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy used 40 per cent of the median population’s work income to ascertain poverty in a paper he wrote for the Tsao Foundation in 2015.
By his definition, Dr Ng estimated that 60 per cent of the elderly population here were poor in 2011.
The number of elderly cardboard box collectors seems to have grown in the past five years in Singapore, observed Nafiz Kamarudin from community group Happy People Helping People. Started in 2013, the volunteer-run initiative provides monthly meal vouchers and provisions for elderly box collectors who are struggling to get by.
Speaking to The Pride, Nafiz felt that the ageing population and outsourcing of low-wage jobs to foreigners were contributing factors.
He said: “Most of (the elderly) are financially unstable because they don’t have jobs. There are those who have children, but unfortunately, Singapore’s cost of living is very high, and some are not earning enough to support their elderly. So these elderlies will find ways to make their own living.”
And the living made from selling cardboard boxes and other scraps is a meagre one. For each kilogram of cardboard picked, the going rate is between eight and 10 cents, which means many elderly pickers earn just a few dollars for a hard day’s work.
Madam Lai, 73, who first started collecting cardboard in her 50s, told The Pride: “The cardboard is very light, so I don’t earn much even if my trolley is filled to the brim.”
To supplement her income, she also sells tissue paper on the side — an effort that has got her into trouble with the authorities before. Stateless because she was born in Malaysia after her Singaporean parents fled there during the war, she only obtained PR status last year with the help of a social worker who was alerted to her plight.
Even so, a host of health problems makes it hard for her to seek formal jobs apart from cardboard picking. With no strength in her legs and chronic pain in her back for which she takes painkillers, Madam Lai cannot walk more than a few steps without a walking aid.
Asked why she persists in collecting cardboard despite her health problems, she said: “I have some friends who will keep aside used cans, newspapers and cardboard for me to sell. So I try to do it every day.”
Through HPHP’s monthly drives and distributions of meal vouchers and provisions to some 100 needy box collectors around the island, Nafiz has met many elderly folks like Madam Lai.
In addition to the typical old-age ailments, many of them pick up additional strains and injuries from the physical labour.
“You see people who are almost blind, even an elderly lady who is 89 and can barely walk… The first time I saw these elderly folks, of course as a human being, I wanted to help them to push their carts. But what I learnt is that when you take over the cart, a lot of them can’t walk properly. The trolley is a support for them.”
At one of HPHP’s monthly distributions at Cuff Road in early June, a 63-year-old man who was waiting to receive his vouchers and provisions told The Pride that he spends up to eight hours a day collecting cardboard.
The man, who declined to be named, said he couldn’t hold down a proper job because he needed flexible working hours in order to care for his deaf-mute brother round the clock. For the past 10 years since their mother passed away, he has brought his brother along with him on his cardboard-collecting rounds.
Describing the physicality of the job, he said: “It’s very tiring. It takes a lot of time for you to go around picking the cardboard. You’ll also need to flatten and stack the cardboard. As your cart fills up, it gets very heavy and you still need to push it all the way (to the collection point) to sell it.
“We do this every day… Many of us who collect cardboard develop pain in our legs due to the weight.”
On the perception that some elderly folks collect cardboard for leisure rather than out of necessity, Nafiz cautioned against taking their words at face value.
In addition to the matter of them wanting to save face, he explained: “The elderly don’t think the way we think. Some of them have dementia where they become forgetful and may say or do things that a normal person may find nonsensical, like hoarding. They may also have fallen out with their families and taken to depending on themselves.”
An 80-year-old cardboard collector who was also at the Cuff Road distribution professed that he did it “for fun” but in the same breath, explained that he did other odd jobs to supplement his income. Previously a kitchen helper, he said his age had caused him to lose his job as his employer worried he would fall down at work, and decided to hire younger foreign workers instead.
Despite living with his son, he prefers not to burden his family with his living expenses, saying: “My children are all adults now. I don’t feel good taking money from them. They already pay the rent. I can still walk, and if I can earn a few dollars each day to cover my meals, that’s all I need.
“I don’t gamble, smoke or drink. I can still get through one day at a time.”
To fuel awareness of these elderly poor, HPHP makes it a point to bring in new volunteers each month, so that more people can interact with them, personally learn about their situations and in turn, spread the word further.
While he thinks that the government could do more to ensure Singapore’s needy elderly do not fall through the cracks, Nafiz feels the community also has an important role to play: “We can’t just depend on the government or say that they’re not helping. What are we doing as the younger generation in our society? All of us need to do something. Not just the government, not just us, but together.”
At 70, Madam Teng looks much older than she is, with a weatherbeaten face and walking with a laborious limp. Asked if what she did for a living was too hard on her, she replied with a wry smile:
“If I don’t collect cardboard, does it mean that I don’t need to eat and don’t need to pay my rent? I just do what I can to survive.”
To break down the barriers that elderly folk like Madam Teng have built up, Nafiz hopes that more people would take the initiative to befriend and care for them.
He said: “Whenever you see old people in your estate who are collecting cardboard, befriend them, talk to them, find out more about them. If you can’t help them on your own, you can link them up with groups like HPHP.”
“I hope people realise this – that old people are vulnerable people and they need help. No matter how much they deny that they need help, we must still be there to help them.”