Saturday afternoon: He brushes stray lint off his best cotton shirt. She brushes a few stubborn curls before pinning down the rest of her hair firmly. They are preparing to head out to a void deck in Lengkok Bahru, as they have done for the last seven years, every weekend, to meet the folks behind [email protected] Bahru.
An initiative based on the widely-acclaimed novel Tuesdays with Morrie, Raymond Khoo and his family welcomes about 100 families each week with baskets of bread and fruits. It is a community-driven gathering, with sessions that kick off with food distribution and end with laughter. Everything is powered by a need for the needy to feel more than needed — it is the one place where the search goes beyond what one truly needs in today’s society.
Over the weekend, around 200 beneficiaries, including underprivileged elderly, ex-offenders, as well as members and volunteers of the Prison Fellowship Singapore, joined the Joget-Joget High Tea session at this year’s Peranakan Festival. True to the nature of Peranakan tradition, it was a mix of delectable treats by The Peranakan and elegant performances. We caught up with Raymond himself at the event to find out more about this initiative, the unspoken issue of poverty in Singapore, and the existing culture of ignorance.
Hello Raymond! How did everything begin for you?
We started The Peranakan to promote the culture and heritage, which I think a lot of it is concentrated at the Joo Chiat area. The Orchard area allows us to capture tourists and local expats, which in turns exposes the culture to areas that are not as close or closely knitted.
As for [email protected] Bahru, it is currently our seventh year. What we do is we provide them with lunch each Saturday, and they take a goodie bag with a fresh loaf of bread and fruits. Why bread? Because it is sustainable, and when you’re sick or unwell and you don’t have anything, you’d still have bread to eat. As for fruits, it is because when you have so little [cash], fruits are not the first thing to purchase. It isn’t as filling. You would always save the money to go and buy one packet of fried bee hoon or something.
What are some personal values that shape your journey?
Peranakan people are very big into food, I’m sure you’re aware of that, so we always make sure everybody has enough to eat. Being exposed to this mindset in our upbringing, we must be able to provide for everybody. In the past, we only distributed food on special occasions, like Christmas. But once a year is not enough. So I said, let’s go do something else, and ended up providing them a meal every Saturday.
In the past, we only gathered around during festivals. But it became clear to us that it should be more inclusive, so we made it every week. Slowly, the first Saturday of each month became a community birthday celebration. I will never forget the first time I announced that we will celebrate everyone’s birthday on a monthly basis because everyone started checking their ICs on the spot. I asked them, “Don’t you remember your own birthday?” They answered, “I don’t remember when was the last time I had a birthday.”
Let’s go into the technicalities of [email protected] Bahru. How do you control the number of people coming in? Do you have a list? Are there other people?
Yes, we have a list. We have up to 110 families, and give tuition to about 35 kids, from primary 6 and below. We have a teacher who handles all the tuition, while I manage the group. We also have volunteers from the church.
What are some key takeaways over the years?
Well, I think it’s very tough to go every Saturday. It is especially challenging because first, you have to make that time and effort. Some Saturdays, you just want to sleep in and do your own thing, but there’s always the memory of the joy on their faces, and it is that joy that says, “No, I must go there.” As you go there now, everybody dresses up for Saturday even though it’s held at the void deck.
Everybody makes an effort and the joy on their faces is always at the back of my head. If we don’t just go, we are going to disappoint them. Every single one of them (the elderly) has a story to tell, and it’s incredibly sad because they are just abandoned, lonely, and alone. In December 2015, there was a big write-up in The Straits Times, citing that among the local suicide rates, the highest belongs to the elderly. It’s very shocking and really brings the message home.
Do you think they do it because they are lonely or other circumstances? How do you help them?
I think it is the loneliness. For the everyday elderly in Singapore, you usually end up living in a one-room rental flat on government subsidy. You get about 380-400 dollars from the government, but you have to pay for your rental, about a 100 dollars, so what do you have left? Everywhere you look, you don’t see anything that makes itself into a point [to continue surviving]. Most of them have families, but they are always looking to move out or sell the house, leaving them alone and left out of the bigger picture.
We do help with welfare, but we come in by giving a helping ear first, then directing them to the relevant social workers. For example, we had a case where this old man forgot to extend his grant from the government, and the paychecks stopped coming in. By the time we found out, it was too late to appeal and the man was left with no money to his name. His bank book was empty and he was just sitting in his apartment, clueless to the renewal or why there is no money. In this case, we put together a fund for him and went around re-doing his applications for him.
Where do you see this going in five years? What should we expect next?
We have something good going, so I definitely see this extending to other neighbourhoods. Perhaps other districts because poverty is never restricted to one specific area. If people want to go in the same direction, why start a new chapter again when we got the mechanics for it right here? Let’s do [email protected] Payoh or Newton—we’re happy share our best practices on how to reach out to the elderly in particular.
We are also planning to set up a kitchen-specific to the needs of these people. The restaurant supports what we do and Lengkok Bahru. Those who support [this place] help to pay for other expenses that we do there, but we’ll love to set up a soup kitchen in the Lengkok Babru area to provide one hot meal a day per person. Criteria-wise, it will be open to those that need it. In order to stay at a one-room rental flat, you probably already pre-qualified by HDB category, so we will use their pre-qualification as a guide.
Do you see younger people coming into the picture, in particular, to help out with poverty in Singapore?
Unfortunately, we see very few young people coming to join us. Young people have it good nowadays because everything is mostly provided for them. They are ignorant of problems, like poverty in their own country, mostly because their parents pamper them too much. I know parents who will say, “Eh, I spend hundred of thousands sending you to Australia and USA for your studies, and you come back to have a starting pay at $2.8k only? I rather give you some money to start your own business.”
Only when they start working and their parents stop pampering them, then we will start to see a change in the current landscape. The perception of such parents must change in order for their children to change too.
Why do you think this is so? What steps can we take?
Because there is an emphasis on the lack of poverty in Singapore. We have ministers saying things like, “Oh, no, Singapore is so well off, why don’t we go to Cambodia and help the people there?” But there is a real need in Singapore and not enough people know about it. Why don’t we redirect help back to our home ground? The people who are stuck in the poverty cycle are the same people who are responsible to helping Singapore get to where she is today. We are reaping the fruits of their labour. We have it so good now because of their effort, and yet, when we have the chance to help, we choose to help everyone else but them.
I think exposure is a good step ahead. There are two types [in Singapore], corporate and educational exposure. The younger people just come mostly [to help out] because of school events and sometimes to fulfil their curriculum. As for corporate, it gets tricky because this is not a registered company. We are just a group of volunteers, entirely funded by ourselves with no government help.
In the past, we’ve got big corporate companies offering money but hesitating as we aren’t registered. Each will have their own agendas, especially in Singapore, whether it is to satisfy their corporate social responsibility (CSR), get some form of tax incentive, or even just contributing money and not helping out physically at all. We are not just looking for money or photographs, but also people who will either send their staff or themselves to help out with the activities we do.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever given your child and/or anyone from the younger generation?
I think we have to be careful of what we have now. We tend to take things for granted, but the reality is that everyone works really hard for what they have now, so the future generation has to avoid that mentality.
Edit: After clarifying, “inmates” has been changed to “members and volunteers of the Prison Fellowship Singapore”. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
The Peranakan Festival 2017
When? 27 May — 17 June
Claymore Connect, 442 Orchard Rd, Singapore 238879
Cover image credit: The Straits Times