Why are the Elderly Collecting Cardboard Boxes in Prosperous Singapore?

A recent incident raises some troubling questions.

Why are the Elderly Collecting Cardboard Boxes in Prosperous Singapore?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago, Singapore’s Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin joined a youth group in interviewing some elderly cardboard collectors to learn more about the latter’s conditions, motivations and the challenges they face. The minister shared his observations on Facebook which immediately sparked an intense public debate over the country’s poverty situation, the hardships experienced by elders, and the government’s lack of adequate knowledge about the daily struggles of many Singaporeans.

What exactly did the minister write that provoked many to accuse the government of being insensitive to the plight of ordinary people?

First, he questioned the popular opinion about the economic situation of the collectors. “The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true.”

Then, he described cardboard collecting as a “form of exercise”.

“Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home. They do this to remain independent, so that they can have dignity and not have to ask their families for help.”

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Finally, he urged the public to rethink their views about the elderly collectors. “More often than not, people make judgements without finding out the facts of the matter, in this instance, the stigma surrounding cardboard collectors.”

The backlash was instant. The minister was criticized for ‘whitewashing’ the issue. Some described his position as a naïve understanding of the problems facing many elders. Writer Kirsten Han reminded him and other public servants to conduct a better probe of the general situation of the cardboard collectors instead of making a conclusion based on a one-time encounter with the elders. “We shouldn’t romanticize their self-sufficiency, absolving ourselves of all responsibility at the same time,” she wrote.

Sociologist Daniel PS Goh acknowledged the sincerity of the minister but he pointed out the limitation of the interview to assess the real conditions of the people. “They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.”

Ariffin Sha of the Happy People Helping People Foundation insisted that it’s inaccurate to equate cardboard collecting with exercise. “Slogging it out under the scorching sun while pushing heavy loads is not something many do ‘for fun’ or ‘to exercise in their free time.’ If given a choice not to collect cardboard and rest or work somewhere else, most will take that choice without hesitation.”

Mohammed Nafiz Kamarudin, also from Happy People Helping People Foundation, is hoping that the issue will create more awareness about the existence of poverty in the country.

“I think it’s important for us to understand that Singapore is not always as the media portrays us to be, like very glamorous. We think Singapore is very rich and there’s no one poor, but if you come down to these areas you’ll see that some people barely earn enough for a meal in one day.”

Gilbert Goh, who works with an agency that assists unemployed workers, highlighted the need to give more attention to elderly workers in Singapore. “Our belief is that our elderly should not even be doing such tough manual work in our prosperous first world economy even though some may enjoy the work for personal reason. I have travelled widely to many first world countries and have never see their elderly work as hard as ours in their twilight years.”

For its part, Youth Corps Singapore, which conducted the interview with the minister, clarified that it is aware of the need to implement a more comprehensive program to improve the lives of the cardboard collectors.

“We acknowledged the need for a long-term solution; one that would perhaps get them off the streets, but in the short-term, we wanted to respect and support them in what they are doing and making it safer for them,” wrote Cheng Jun Koh, the leader of the project.

If the minister’s aim is to inform the public about the situation of cardboard collectors, then he has succeeded. In the past two weeks, the media have been consistently reporting about these elderly workers. The public learned that a kilogram of used cardboard could fetch about 10 cents and that collectors earn about $4 to $5 a day.

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But the most important issue is the question raised by the youth group that inspired the minister to visit the cardboard collectors. “Why are there still cardboard collectors in our first world country?” This question is relevant as Singapore prepares to celebrate its 50th founding anniversary.