You see them around at malls and hawker centres, or at MRT stations and sheltered walkways.  Sometimes in wheelchairs or sitting down at benches or even on the floor.

You may have even bought some tissue packets from them.

Tissue paper peddlers have been around our neighborhood for years. Most of us walk past them with barely a glance. But each of them has a story to tell or a burden to bear.

Take one wheelchair-bound tissue uncle for instance, who says that he was once robbed of his money as he was trying to deposit his cash at an ATM. Or another peddler, an auntie in Chinatown who didn’t open up until a volunteer spoke to her in Cantonese – her face lit up and she started sharing her story excitedly with the group.

Or Madam Ng, who has been selling tissue paper for the last several years. Like many other peddlers, she was heavily affected by the circuit breaker last year when she couldn’t go out to sell her wares.

“It is more difficult,” she says, “I worry about money.”

The Signpost Project

All these stories come about from the work of a group of youths who call themselves The Signpost Project (TSP). The group of Yale-NUS students – Hazeem Nasser, Ada Foo, Claire Phua, Nikki Yeo and Frances Pek – set up the initiative in Oct 2019.

Hazeem says: “More than just a name, we believe the signpost represents the integral yet invisible community of peddlers that we mostly pass by without any second thought. At the same time, we hope to be a prominent signpost for peddlers, the government and the public to increase the visibility of this demographic and share their stories.”

Hazeem tells The Pride that during the circuit breaker last year, peddlers like Madam Ng went through financial hardship as their income was essentially cut off.  This was particularly difficult on many peddlers, who are usually supporting themselves or are the sole breadwinners of the household.

“Some are supporting kids at home, or have lost their partner. They see selling tissue paper as a last resort of income since most of them are unemployed,” Hazeem explains.

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During the extended circuit breaker, TSP kept in close contact with a peddler who had to support herself and her sister and made sure that she received financial assistance from the government.

Hazeem says: “As I walk around the neighborhood, tissue sellers are often an under-served community who face many issues – stigma against their occupation and sometimes, even physical or verbal abuse. Tissue sellers are often very visible in each community, especially in malls and MRT stations, yet that does not mean they are integrated.”

He recounts an incident where a young girl started playing with the keychains on the wheelchair of one of the tissue paper aunties, only for the girl’s mother to pull her away abruptly.

Things are looking up in Phase 3, as more people go out and tissue-paper sellers can start their activities again, masked-up of course.

“As the peddlers resumed selling tissue paper, we would check on their health and make sure they had sufficient masks and hand sanitisers on our befriending runs,” says Hazeem.

Why their stories matter

Singaporeans make many assumptions about such tissue-paper sellers, even whispering that they belong to some “tissue-paper selling syndicate”.

When asked, Hazeem laughs: “This is a story that we’ve heard, mostly from those who are not tissue sellers themselves! I think also when you talk to tissue sellers, not all of them may necessarily have a sob story.”

While many of these peddlers do see tissue-paper as a flexible source of income, some do it simply to pass time or to escape a solitary lifestyle.

One of the uncles said that he sold tissue paper in a public place so that if anything happens to him, at least there are people around him, shares Hazeem.

Others do it to maintain their financial independence because they don’t want to be a burden to their children.

Tissue Paper Sellers Singapore
TSP’s Hazeem, Ada, and Nikki Yeo on one of their befriending runs. Image source : The Signpost Project

Frances says: “There’s a tissue peddler with a disability that I regularly visit. Despite mobility and speech impediments, he is always full of energy and happy to hold a conversation with me. He shared that he only has a helper he relies on for his daily needs and I find it tremendously inspiring that he is fiercely independent in selling tissue packets and holds a positive attitude towards life.”

That said, selling tissue paper can get taxing on the peddlers.

“Most of these tissue paper peddlers work about seven to ten hours each day.  And because the majority of them are elderly, they will easily get tired after prolonged periods under the hot sun,” Hazeem says.

That is why the group decided that befriending these peddlers, earning their trust and getting them to share their stories, would be a good way of encouraging them and to ensure that they don’t go unnoticed.

“Understanding why they do what they do is the most humanising way to appreciate their effort and the service they provide,” says Claire.

Frances says: “TSP holds regular runs twice a week at areas in the West and Kreta Ayer. In these runs, we talk to the peddlers and look out for any new peddlers in the area. Building trust as we engage the peddlers, we learn their stories and any living needs that we can help with. Should it be necessary, we communicate with MSF (Ministry for Social and Family Development) for support and guidance.”

Growing partnerships

Care Packages for Tissue Paper Sellers
(From left) Nikki, Frances, Hazeem and volunteer Kenisha Alicia. Image source: The Signpost Project

Recently, The Signpost Project partnered with Oscar@SG, a fund under Temasek Trust, to put together 100 care packages for tissue paper peddlers. Each care package kit consists of a hand sanitizer, face masks, sunscreen and a poncho.

Says Hazeem: “This initiative’s rationale is to show our appreciation to the peddler friends for trusting us and greeting us with kindness. More importantly, many peddlers work hard to sustain themselves and their families. Actions are needed to support them in relevant ways during these trying times.”

Care Packages for Tissue Paper Sellers
Image source : The Signpost Project

Being an intermediary between the tissue-paper peddlers and MSF and social service agencies has allowed TSP to move beyond being just a support group.

Hazeem recounts an incident with a peddler who was going through a tough time.

“He was going through a particularly difficult period with some tension with his family, worsening health conditions that led to hospitalisation and a seeming cut in financial assistance. We acted as a listening ear and a group that he could comfortably turn to for moral support,

“We visited him at the hospital and helped him clarify his financial assistance issues with MSF, and it really warmed our hearts when during those conversations he referred to us as ‘his friends’.” says Hazeem.

In the future, TSP will continue to engage these peddlers, and use its social media platforms for advocacy and building new perspectives. It is very important to share these stories and experiences to raise awareness of this group of people in our society, says Hazeem.

What can we do to help?

Volunteer to help Tissue Paper Sellers
Image source: The Signpost Project

Consider signing up to volunteer at The Signpost Project’s Facebook page.

This allows them to have an extra pair of hands in their efforts to provide more assistance to the tissue paper peddlers in our community.

In fact, volunteering help towards various communities such as tissue paper peddlers does not always have to begin in the form of a major project or event.

Being compassionate and doing good can always start from small actions, even if it is as simple as greeting our tissue paper peddlers, or buying from them when we see them.

“Some problems will always exist somewhere; it’s really all about being more observant in terms of how people feel around you who might need your help,” Hazeem says.

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Top Image: The Signpost Project