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Why Do Seniors in Singapore Still Collect Cardboard Boxes?

Minister Tan Chuan-Jin interviews an 80-year-old cardboard collector. Photo from the widely shared Facebook post of the minister

Minister Tan Chuan-Jin interviews an 80-year-old cardboard collector. Photo from the widely shared Facebook post of the minister.

The plight of elderly cardboard-collectors has become a popular topic in Singapore over the past two weeks, after a government minister conducted a random street interview and concluded that some older people, struggling under various economic hardships, are in fact only collecting cardboard as a form of exercise.

Together with some youth volunteers, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin talked to some elderly cardboard-collectors two weeks ago and posted his reflections on Facebook. The story went viral, after many people accused the minister of simplifying the country’s poverty problem.

What did Tan Chuan-Jin write that provoked many to react strongly against him? First, he expressed doubt that cardboard collectors are financially-challenged:

The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true.

Second, 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.

And third, he assumed that many people have a wrong perception 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.

Reactions on social media have been mostly critical about the minister’s interpretation of why older people feel the need to scour the streets for old cardboard, with many accusing the minister of being out of touch with reality. Sociologist Daniel PS Goh pointed out the official's error in “representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.”

Many seniors are likely collecting cardboards because they want some exercise, desire independence AND so they can survive. That seniors collect cardboards because they seek exercise does not mean that they are not driven to it by poverty.

Ariffin Sha, who has experience assisting cardboard collectors through the Happy People Helping People Foundation, reminded the minister that cardboard collecting is not an enjoyable physical activity for seniors:

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 Singapore, which is one of the richest countries in the world:

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.

Because of the viral post, many are becoming interested in learning more about the country’s cardboard-collectors. Some collectors are unhappy about the attention, while others online have described their own experiences.

Tan Loy Chai, a 65-year-old collector, narrates the hardships of cardboard-collecting:

I can go out around eleven o’clock or midnight, until the next morning. Even now I haven’t slept. In the afternoon, the places might have [cardboard] but we can’t take yet, so mostly we sleep in the afternoon.

It is reported that a kilogram of used cardboard could fetch about 10 cents and that collectors earn about 4-5 Singapore dollars (about 3 USD) a day.

Youth Corps Singapore, which is responsible for the minister's controversial interview, is quite unhappy that many have already dismissed the relevance of the project. It acknowledges the limitations of its initiative, but the group has urged the public not to ignore the small reforms that can alleviate the suffering of cardboard-collectors. Cheng Jun Koh, the leader of the project, wrote on Facebook:

We hope that our research will not be swept under the carpet amidst the cacophony of noises and accusations of political posturing, just like how this social issue of cardboard collecting should not be brushed away as irrelevant, but one that inspires more in-depth studies by other interested parties. We hope that more would be encouraged to participate in looking for ways to help and not be put off by the negativities.

We are not political pawns that can be manipulated for reasons other than the genuine desire to serve the community.

The youth leader emphasized that the aim of the project is to answer at least two questions:

Why are there still cardboard collectors in our first world country? Who are these people who are slogging away under inclement weather in our neighbourhoods?

The situation of cardboard-collectors highlights the persistence of inequality and worsening poverty in a First-World country like Singapore. The issue will likely fuel continued public debate, as Singapore prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence from Malaysia on August 9.

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