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Homeless in Singapore’s Island Paradise

madam L

You may recall that I wrote about the sad case of Rebecca Loh and the tragic consequences of our government’s callous policy of self- reliance at all costs. Recently I was saddened again by the plight of another victim of similar callousness though as yet still mercifully without the same tragic consequences.

I know of Madam L’s case because she had called our office to ask for help.  Yesterday I met up with her along with the assistance of one of our Hokkien speaking members. Before this our means of communication had been restricted to Malay. (My generation of Singaporeans were taught in English but non-Chinese learnt Malay as a second language.)

I will tell her story as she told it although we are still working on her case and no doubt more details will emerge.   I believe it is not atypical.

As with the case of Rebecca Loh , Madam X had been through a divorce and her ex husband had in fact passed away some years back. She had been renting an HDB unit until last year when she was evicted. Which is why she is now living on the streets.  She is currently being pursued by HDB for rental arrears of over $5,000 (US$4,000).  Strangely Madam L keeps the letters of demand from HDB on her person, folded into her clothing inside a plastic envelope. They constitute one of her few remaining personal possessions.

This is more remarkable for the fact that she is illiterate and has no job other than a small amount that she is able to make by collecting cardboard (according to her she gets paid about 8 Singapore cents a kilo).  She looked as though she had not been able to wash or launder her clothes for some time.

It is the cornerstone of PAP policy that elder citizens who hit a rough patch must move in with their children. Naturally HDB told her to go and live with her son. However he is already a non home owner, renting and subsisting in a one room HDB unit which he shares with his wife and three children. He survives by doing odd jobs.  Madam L says she has never had a regular job and thus had no CPF savings. Apart from her son she has a daughter but had become estranged from her many years back and has since lost touch.

The address on her NRIC card is that of her son and this is how HDB are able to contact her regularly with demands for the arrears.  In fact I wonder if this listing of relatives on NRIC cards is how the PAP are able to claim that there are no homeless people in Singapore? Technically I suppose she is homed in the one room unit with her son and his family.   HDB rules do not allow single people to rent a room and as moving in with her son was impossible, HDB had promised to match her up with someone to share with. However that was over a year ago now and the only communication she has had from them was in connection with the above mentioned arrears.

Although we were able to help her with her most immediate needs she clearly needs somewhere to live long-term as she is still only 65 and this is where she was primarily asking for my assistance. Madam L had immediately recognised the picture of my late father in our office saying, “Ah there is JBJ.” Unfortunately she mistakenly believed me to be a lawyer too. I’m not sure that being a lawyer would have been much help anyway. In fact, after going through this case and seeing how she had fallen through one gap after another I felt like I was back writing to the President of Singapore asking his office for a straight answer to the question, “ Did you approve this loan”. We all know how that got shunted from pillar to post.

As she was destitute I thought that she should qualify for Public Assistance. In the last Budget this was raised to S$450 (US$360) per month for a single person. She met the qualifying criteria since her lack of qualifications and advancing age would make it difficult to find a regular job and she had no other source of income. Her son already had several dependents and was presumably earning below the limit of $1700 (US$1360) per month.  Though S$450 is not a princely sum, she told us that her HDB rental used to be S$50 (US$40) per month so she should have had something left over for living expenses.  Clearly collecting cardboard is not something our elderly citizens should be doing.

We phoned ComCare but they referred us to the Family Centre in Ang Mo Kio. When we called that office their attitude at first was that of not being bothered. Eventually however an employee phoned us back (we will refer to her as Ms J).  She at first tried to fob us off by asking us to call Samaritans of Singapore, though it is hard to see how a counselling service for the suicidal (incidentally set up by my mother in Singapore) could help an elderly woman who was destitute. We asked that they send somebody down to interview the woman and see how they could help her, given that she clearly qualified for Public Assistance. Finding a roof over her head is obviously the most urgent priority.  I said that her situation was pretty desperate and she should not have to wait too long. Would they be able to come down on Friday and meet her at or near our office?

Ms J did not sound very hopeful but said she would get someone to call us back about possibly coming down on Friday at 4pm or failing that on Monday at the same time. As of today we are still waiting for them to call us.

It seems incomprehensible to me that the public housing agency would make a senior citizen without a job or any means of support homeless, even if she had run up rent arrears. They could at least have referred her to ComCare for assistance. Madam L had also used up her savings and meagre CPF on medical treatment which involved having a body brace fitted. She also told us that she had lost all her personal belongings when she was evicted including some medical equipment that she was using after that operation. Naturally, I will be following up the arrears demands with HDB after we deal with the more pressing needs.

Just as in the case of Rebecca Loh, it seems incomprehensible that a country where the government has accumulated surpluses amounting to several hundred billion dollars over the last few years should place so many obstacles in the path of its citizens in genuine need. After all the reserves belong ultimately to the people not to the government and the people produced that money that is the reserves.  They are the financial equivalent of Hotel California. You can put them in any time you like but you can never take them out! If you want to know more about our reserves read here and here. For my views on the losses accumulated by MAS read this.

I also wrote that Rebecca and Gabriel were known in her neighbourhood, that they were not recluses behind hidden doors.  Madam L is also known to the organisations that should be assisting her.  Although I have found again and again that even the limited amount of assistance available is frequently not taken up because those who need it do not know it is there or have trouble accessing the information. When people do apply then mean-minded bureaucrats often reject their applications on dubious grounds. Even in the case of something that should be automatic like Workfare, many of the poorly educated are not even aware of the scheme’s existence or how to apply.

I will update you shortly on whether the Family Centre has responded to her need for assistance. Meanwhile we are contacting various voluntary organisations to find Madam L a place in a hostel where she can have access to a bed and washing and laundry facilities. That can only be a temporary situation and really I don’t see why our genuinely deserving are reduced to begging for charity in the midst of so much government affluence?

I feel the same way about the Straits Times pocket money fund. Every year they raise a few million dollars and this amount is celebrated. But why should families be reduced to asking for charity to provide meals, clothing, basic stationary and books so that our children can attend school because in fact education is not yet free? After all the Straits Times’ profits are inflated because it enjoys a government monopoly through the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act.

I will finish up here by quoting from my piece on Rebecca Loh where I explained my use of the rice bowl metaphor:

“….Remember I wrote this in February 2011 two and a half years before Gabriel died. If it sounds prophetic it is not. I was only stating the facts of life under the PAP then and they have not changed. Here is what I said,

“Sometimes the rice bowl slips from our fingers and cracks or breaks through sheer ill luck. There will be precious little sympathy for you in a porcelain rice bowl State should you be foolish enough to be retrenched, to have elderly parents, a chronic or terminal illness, a child with special needs or to be caring for a mentally or physically challenged dependant.”


  1. YCS – If one have 3 kids and all schooling then one might think otherwise about FREE EDUCATION. The money do not drop from the sky yes true, but we Chinese have a saying “We Take From Society, We Should Return to Society.” I educate my children to ‘Return’ to society when they are capable themselves and help the needy without questions asked. One might want to give but helpless people are afraid of one, a stranger. WHY? They are really ashamed to be in their predicament already, they lost everything even their pride. How else does one wants them to feel? PROUD to be asking for help and food or money? I guess ONE IS NOT A DONOR because one do not understand how it feels to be helpless and lost. So what does one’s “Money do not drop from the sky means”? That one should earn every single cent and keep it for one’s self only? The government takes from society (that’s us) for the longest time, their ‘returns’ are always asking for a rain check. So does one like the way government is sucking one’s hard earned money away and one still have the cheek to say nothing is free? How about the government telling one that being a citizen of Singapore isn’t free, it comes with a price tag? Does one like the sound of it? One seem to be very focus on issues that should come with a price tag, to me one seems to have a price tag for EVERYTHING including one’s self.
    How about the fact that most parents have to cough up hundreds of dollars even after subsidy for the child care and kinder-garden education? And I am only stating common schools not those expensive 4-digit ones. Why I say this – simple – “Been there, done that”.
    One might be pro-government which is fine really, someone has to support them otherwise they would be gone for sure. The matter at hand is to address real life problems in areas we do not notice everyday, issues that needs our attention even as a commoner to say the least.
    MPs do not have x-ray eyes to identify each and everyone’s issues but through us commoners we can make that difference.
    I encourage one to try be a homeless fella and try sit there one day out in the streets quietly. And when someone even approach to talk to one, I am very sure one will look away or walk away. Why? BECAUSE THE FEEL SHAME EXISTS!! Remember this – Donors needs not beg – receivers need no apathy. Donors needs to empathize – receivers will be grateful. The bottom line is to treat them like human beings, not like they owe one a living and that they must return gratitude without qualms.
    Someone WILL pay for the school fees, be it ourselves or someone else. Just remember “RETURN IT WHEN ONE CAN, EVEN WHEN ONE DON’T TAKE”.


  2. Money doesn’t fall from the sky, but education should be a right, especially in Singapore where its people are its only resources. It only makes sense and would be funded by taxpayers of course. Wouldn’t you want your money invested in the minds of the future rather than in the pockets of a politician?

    Small thinking and selfishness will be this country’s demise, as demonstrated oh so clearly in your ignorant comment.


  3. “But why should families be reduced to asking for charity to provide meals, clothing, basic stationary and books so that our children can attend school because in fact education is not yet free?”

    Want charity and yet too ashamed to asked? What do you want? The donors to beg the recepients to take their money?

    How can education be free? You think money can drop from the sky? “Free education” means someone must be force to pay for it? Who do you think we should force to pay for our “free education”


    • Well, PRCs are getting free education here in our local unis (accomodation included) aren’t they? So why not locals who actually provided those taxpayer monies?


    • No offense meant my friend but is money all you think about?

      (Language barrier)
      Please read the post properly, he did state that some are illiterate (meaning do not know how to read or write) thus might not know about the charity. This is not “too ashamed to ask” (I corrected your grammar for you) or rather, UNABLE to ask.

      If you would let me explain WHY are they UNABLE to ask. Its simply cause of language barrier nowadays. Pick any youngsters or mid 20s down the street and ask if they know their dialect, i believe majority will just say “NO”. I tried before and the comments I’ve heard is either “some dialects are too vulgar” or “hokkien is so uncivilized” as they often associate dialect with vulgarity. Its a wrong mindset and being in this way, it made us UNABLE to communicate with some of our more illiterate elders who dont really know how to speak either mandarin let alone ENGLISH.

      (Free education)
      If you cut a minister’s annual income by half (an option), you could probably PAY OFF or subside ALOT of more unfortunate youngsters’ education fee. Every country and society depends on the newer generation which will eventually become the leaders, brains and workforce. If you are unable to cultivate your younger generations properly, one society or country is bound to fall eventually or get taken up by another.

      Education do cost alot for some family, especially for those earning below $1000SGD or by having more children around. If you are one of this family, you might have a different mindset. Well lucky enough, I was not born in such a family BUT I have been through difficult times of my own (I survived on bread and water for a month) and even though its short, I know the pain of being financially impale.

      Just a simple explanation.

      During primary school education, you would probably need at least $2 a day (I think more nowadays maybe $5?) and x 20 days would be easily $40/$100 respectively. Secondary school would need around $5 or $10 per day which is $100/$200 respectively and of cause, tertiary and university would require even more! MUCH MORE. If you are father earning only around $1000 to $1500. How is that gonna fare? Might seem trivial to you but to some, $10 means alot or even days of survival.

      (Care for our elderly)
      I grown up in Chinatown and have seem the transformation over my past 20 years LITERALLY. From big dogs roaming, torn down houses and smelly wet market to newer market and food centre without any animals, its almost a 180 degree change. Living there I have my fair share of interaction with our elderly and i know for a fact, most of them just want to live the remaining of their life undisturbed and comfortably with minimum expenses. I believe thats not alot of ask for ESPECIALLY after ALL THE YEARS OF BEING IN THE WORKFORCE WHO HELPS TO BUILD SINGAPORE be it whether he/she is once a major CEO or physical labor.

      Taking the minimum care for our elderly is the basic respect and reward we can do for them as they have worked hard for the general public of Singapore.

      But sadly, till this age I’ve seem old granny with humpback working in food centre clearing plates to earn a few bucks as well as collecting boxes to sell. Its heart breaking, real heart breaking. As might as i would love to help them, i cant afford to and I can only give new things (i won at lucky draw, comes with purchases, etc) that I do not need to them if they ever need them. Or simply, giving them a FISH when I am back from my fishing trip, you could see that smile on their face and their gratefulness towards you which you feel like you havent done so much to deserve it.

      Another case would be our education system bringing away more unfilial acts rather than taking care of our grands. I have seem son married and kicked their old mum out of house and she had to stay with her friends instead, or leaving their parents alone in singapore after convincing them to sell their home for a penny with their lies. Know this, they arent your “AH BENG” or “AH HUA”, they are all degree holders with a future.

      (My personal conclusion for YCS)
      From just your reply to this post, I would say please stay out and keep quiet. If you dont have better suggestion to make then just keep quiet and read. My reply to you was to explain your lack of knowledge and insight of whats happening around in Singapore as I believe you havent been through alot disregarding how old you are.

      So please stay away and keep quiet or do constructive replies rather than just trying to act superior. If you love your money so much, swim in them, dont bother commenting here. Thanks and bye


    • You lack empathy. People don’t “want” charity simply as it is. Everyone has dignity, & are only seeking help because they are no longer able to help themselves. Maybe it’s hard for someone as selfish as you to understand, but i sincerely hope that when you grow old, you’d be homeless too. Then maybe, hopefully, by personal experience, you can start to gain an understanding about how strong these people are to even be asking for help. And maybe you can start to learn what you have probably missed out when you were younger, empathy & respect. But judging from the way you speak, I reckon your insight will be shallow too. So next time before you say something as irresponsible, disrespectful and selfish as this, please make sure your entire retirement is planned out & secured.


    • ycs – a big FUCK YOU to you.
      even if they asked, what did ah chan said? ‘the poor need concern NOT money.’ now the poor lady is reduced to begging, did anyone helped her?
      why can’t education be free? at least for the poor?
      money drop from the sky for those milisters.
      so are you forced to pay for spending billions on overpriced military hardware? did money drop from the sky?


  4. Kenneth,

    I read your article “Homeless in Singapore’s Island Paradise” and I would like to directly help Madam L by paying off her arrears and GIROing her rent to my bank account if you are able to find her a flat mate. I’ll try reaching you at your office, but otherwise, is there an email I can reach you at directly as I couldn’t find one on this website?



    • Hi Ben,

      I apologise for the late reply. Thank you for your kindness. You have made a very generous offer. I will pass it on to Madam L. The social workers have told me that HDB offered Madam L a room to share with a Thai woman but she would prefer to share with a Singaporean Chinese woman. You can contact me on



  5. Its absolutely unfair for everyone to not even care about others around them. do they not understand there are other people who need our help. gosh this is so frustrating whenever i hear this as close to nobody cares about people who need our help the most.


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