It was a life-changing moment for Teo Cher Tee, 72, who six years ago was struggling to make ends meet pushing a cart full of cardboard boxes rounded up in Toa Payoh on an empty stomach.
Then he bumped into the Happy People Helping People community, a nonprofit providing free meals and leisure tours to the mostly elder folks selling scraps for a living. After a freak accident cost him five toes and landed him in a wheelchair, Teo now depends on its free daily meals and allowances to live.
“I was collecting cardboard along Toa Payoh and then suddenly I saw the whole group. I smiled at them but my smile was forced because I was hungry at that time,” he said in an interview recalling the crowd of volunteers he encountered near the group’s meeting point on Lorong 8.
He is one of 47 beneficiaries in Toa Payoh, where he has lived for five decades. The nonprofit is helping nearly 200 across six housing estates.
“People started to help us. They started to form societies like Happy People so they all come to us. So our life is getting much more better because there’s somebody who noticed us and then came to help us,” he said.
Muhammad Nafiz Bin Kamarudin, 40, founded Happy People in 2013 and has continued to reach out the needy elderly who have been collecting cardboard boxes, cans and electronics in their push trolleys for sale to recycling or industrial companies to make a living.
They usually earn a meager S$0.04 per kilogram of cardboard, he told Coconuts.
“I’m sure you don’t want to see your grandparents digging through dustbins, looking for cans, looking for cardboard boxes, staying in a place full of all these items picked up from the dumpster,” the full-time first aid teacher said. “So I have to at least do something about it and since I cannot help financially, I can help by creating awareness.”
The government does not publicly count how many collectors live between the cracks in affluent Singapore. Most are in their 80s and 90s and collect scraps because they are either too old or mentally incapable of entering the job market.
No laws stop them from scavenging, nor is much effort expended to support them, despite public calls to do more. Even attempts to raise awareness have been criticized as out of touch.
It was a yikes-inducing moment when former Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in 2015 insinuated that the elderly collected cardboard “as a form of exercise and activity” in an attempt to remove negative stigma about them.
Happy People counts at least 100 volunteers today. The beneficiaries, 65 to 100, mostly reside in Jalan Besar followed by Toa Payoh, Chinatown, Ang Mo Kio, Geylang and Bedok, where there are eight beneficiaries.
Who qualifies for their program? Seniors 65 and up who are staying in rental flats but the group will also step in if an elderly Singaporean lives alone with no income or someone to depend on.
It all started with Happy Sundays, a program delivering free meals to beneficiaries’ homes on the first Sunday of each month. Volunteers would deliver either home-cooked or stall-bought meals, a canned drink and S$30 cash or grocery vouchers bought with donated money. On average, the group receives only about S$6,000 a month, some of which goes straight to the elderly as a stipend or to help pay their bills.
But Nafiz wanted to feed them every day, on his terms, with enough food options that those in need could choose what they wanted to eat that day.
“It’s more purposeful if we find a way for them to have food every day. When we deliver the food, they don’t have an option, they just have to eat whatever is delivered to them so there’s a bit more dignity if they can have some choices,” he said.
That’s when Secondmeal comes in. It is an online platform where those in need can go to 13 participating food stalls at coffee shops around town to claim a free meal sponsored by the public. There are close to 3,000 sponsors with more than 8,000 meals claimed so far.
Of course, the pandemic has complicated things.
So far, Happy People has lost at least two people it helped to COVID-19. Most recently, an 84-year-old man from Chinatown whose wife had to say her final goodbye by Zoom.
Happy People volunteers have no authority to force the scrappers to stay at home – most live in tiny one-bedroom flats – and can only urge them to avoid crowded places.
“What to do with this sickness you can’t do anything right so just try to avoid la. When there’s a group you don’t go and join in, just walk out of the room, and pray for yourself,” said Teo, the disabled 72-year-old Toa Payoh resident. “This is something evil you know, it will kill you. Don’t play a fool with it.”
Every few months, they see fewer of the older faces they’ve become familiar with. It’s just a depressing reality, Nafiz said.
Before social gatherings were restricted, Happy People brought people out every month for meals or to explore Singapore. They went to “every place you can think of” except for Universal Studios Singapore because it’s costly and not safe for everyone.
Nafiz never thought that outings were a huge deal until he realized that many of their clients didn’t have the wherewithal to go anywhere – or families to take them around.
“I never thought that outings were something important, I always thought food on the table is more important, but I think the elderly also need to have some form of social life to see things, to meet new people, to get to know the volunteers,” he said.
The most memorable was in 2018 when they took 100 people around Singapore in rented wheelchairs to see the iconic Christmas lights along Orchard Road. The trip started at Botanic Gardens with a picnic and games and continued until sunset at Orchard.
“It was very chaotic and scary because you don’t know what can happen when there are 100 beneficiaries. You can’t really see everyone in crowded Orchard Road during Christmas, but because we trust that each beneficiary is taken care of by at least one volunteer we let them free,” he said.
They switched it up for the next few Christmases wheeling from Lau Pa Sat and Sentosa.
Teo never got sick of the outings that included fishing, watching movies and eating meals together. In fact, he says he is always the first one there and never loses out to others at all their karaoke sessions.
Now, like most, he has to chit-chat and catch up with friends at coffee shops.
But he remains patient and is positive the outings will resume.
“Wait la we have a chance what because we are still alive so we just wait for the date to open up,” he said.
While Happy People provides much needed relief and quality of life for the elderly-in-need, its ultimate goal is simple – to not exist. Nafiz urged people to extend a hand to those around them in need.
“We should take better care of our old folks, our families, our parents, our grandparents. If everyone has somebody taking care of them then I don’t think we will see a lot of cardboard collectors,” Nafiz said. “So I hope one day we don’t have to exist.”
Other stories you should check out: