Youths learn why the elderly collect cardboard
Study done by youth after reading TNP report shows no 'one size fits all' help for cardboard collectors
Why are there still cardboard collectors in our First World country?
Who are these people slogging away under inclement weather in our neighbourhoods?
A group of young people asked those questions after reading a report describing the plight of cardboard collectors in The New Paper last November.
For six months this year, from January to June, the seven volunteers from the Youth Corps Singapore spent time with and observed a group of 13 collectors.
They started with a pilot study of the situation, interviewed residents who lived nearby and spoke to shop owners who provided the cardboard.
Mr Koh Cheng Jun, 21, and his team spent about eight hours a week over two months with the cardboard collectors at Veerasamy Road.
The others in the team were Ahalya Janarthanan, 16, Mr Bryan Khoo, 23, Mr Lee Jun Xian, 19, Mr Muhammad Syazwan Mohamed Suhri, 26, Miss Valerie Goh, 19, and Miss Serena Mok, 19.
They come from different backgrounds - the youngest, Ahalya, studies at National Junior College, and the oldest, Mr Syazwan, works at the Singapore Association for Mental Health.
The team spoke to about 45 cardboard collectors, including many young foreigners in the trade.
But they narrowed it down to 13 collectors because they focused on Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 55 and above.
Mr Koh, who starts his national service today, said the Social Service Offices (SSO), under the Ministry of Social and Family Development, had suggested this as the most vulnerable group.
Although the group members wanted to help, they realised their initial assumptions about the needs of the cardboard collectors were wrong.
Thinking that there would be road safety concerns, they thought that putting up signboards to warn drivers and providing storage space would help the collectors, Mr Koh said in a Facebook posting.
He added: "The collectors do not seem to welcome a storage area or signallers (such as reflective material) that they could attach to their trolleys. They have been doing this for years and will not change their long-ingrained habits just because we tell them to.
"This is the moment when we realised that this community has diverse needs, each collector has a story to tell and implementing a blanket 'solution' to problems we perceived to exist would truly be an ostentatious form of 'wayang'."
While they knew the elderly were doing it for money, the group was surprised to learn a few did it for leisure.
So they embarked on a needs analysis research, as proposed by the SSO, to gain a better understanding.
Mr Koh told TNP that this was the first study of its kind. The questions focused on health, financial status, social and family support of the collectors.
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said of the group's project: "For those who need financial help as they are unable to find other jobs to supplement their income from cardboard collecting, the Government will do what it can to help these people."
He commended the youngsters' efforts, saying: "The simplest thing that the members of the public can do for these people is to talk to them to understand them.
"More often than not, people make judgments without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors."
Mr Koh told TNP that it was never their intention for their observation to be a scientific study.
They acknowledged the need for a long-term solution - one that would perhaps get the cardboard collectors off the streets.
But the team had to take the first step of asking the questions and getting involved.
Their proposals will be submitted to the SSO soon.
"...implementing a blanket ‘solution’ to problems we perceived to exist would truly be an ostentatious form of ‘wayang’."
— Youth Corps member Koh Cheng Jun
Minister explains online post
ON THE GROUND: Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin (in purple) was at Veerasamy Road last Wednesday, together with two members of the Youth Corps, to visit the cardboard collectors. - TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
On July 8, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin visited the cardboard collectors at Veerasamy Road in Little India.
After chatting with them and the volunteers, he put his observations in a Facebook post with the heading "Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty".
He noted why some of the elderly were collecting cardboard, saying: "Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home."
For his comments, Mr Tan was criticised by netizens telling him to get out of his "ivory tower" and actually talk to the old folk on the ground, reported The Straits Times Online.
In an interview with website The Middle Ground, Mr Tan said his Facebook post was an attempt to show that people should not make generalisations about how others live their lives.
He was suggesting that people go and talk to the cardboard collectors, understand their issues and help them directly.
Like what the Youth Corps members did. Their study was aimed at helping the needy, but first they had to understand their needs.
In a response to the online backlash, team leader Koh Cheng Jun said on Facebook: "We acknowledge that there are limitations to our research.
"Not least the self-selecting bias as those who shared may not be reflective of the entire base."
He also emphasised that this project was self-initiated and hoped that "more would be encouraged to participate in looking for ways to help" the cardboard collectors.
In spite of the backlash, the team hopes to do more to serve the community through more projects.
'Tough' but it's extra cash
Last Wednesday morning, The New Paper joined Mr Koh and his team, where we saw a queue of collectors waiting to get paid by a middleman.
Several collectors complained it was tough and they had worked for long hours through the night.
The collectors would use a trolley or a bicycle to transport the cardboard.
Madam Yeoh Bee Choo, 63, said she once had a tug of war with a foreign worker when he took some cardboard she had claimed were hers.
But she said that most collection runs are not as difficult because some shop owners reserve the cardboard for her so that she's guaranteed a haul every trip.
Madam Yeoh, who makes $5 to $10 a day, said: "Of course, the work is tough. But I do what I can to support myself."
One of the collectors, who wanted to be known only as Mr Kwoh, said he also works at a provision shop and as a street performer in Chinatown for extra income.
He declined to give his full name because he said his son would scold him if he found out that he was collecting cardboard.
Mr Kwoh said he lives in a three-room flat and his son gives him a monthly allowance.
He said: "I choose to do this because it's better than staying at home. I know all these cardboard collectors. After so long, they are like my friends now."
What the Youth Corps does
Initiated by the National Youth Council, the Youth Corps Singapore is a national body under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.
It was set up to give youth an enriching volunteering experience while creating sustainable long-term change in the community. The group hopes to spearhead social change in Singapore and elsewhere through the projects it undertakes.
The first cohort of Youth Corps volunteers was inducted in June 2014, and there are now 200 volunteers after the third cohort of volunteers was enrolled a month ago.
The group consists of Singaporeans and permanent residents, aged 16 to 35, who are interested in serving the community by doing volunteer projects.
They carry out projects on a range of social issues, both locally and overseas.
For example, the team led by Mr Koh will be in Laos for six months to help the visually impaired.
Depending on the projects, they will partner different organisations, such as Outward Bound Singapore, Ministry of Social and Family Development and other social services.