Diploma holder earns $800 – homeless?


Why do we continue to have a system whereby those with a criminal record are discriminated in employment?

I refer to the article “He’s 35 and homeless: Eight years of destitute living” (Channel NewsAsia, Oct 8).

It states that “At the age of 18, he’d been sentenced to two years in jail. He had appealed for a probationary sentence – a year of probation and release on good behaviour – but this was denied.

“So basically, I was sent to jail for two years for stealing S$200… I was a first-time offender, unlike all these people active in secret societies. In my mind, I was cursing and swearing.””

Comment: Is our system too harsh – when an eighteen year old first-time offender is sentenced to two years’ jail for stealing just $200?

“Ben decided to keep his head down and retake his O-levels. To take the exams, he had to be transferred to another prison – but in his psychiatric assessment, he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “My (transfer) application was rejected,” he said.

His second attempt to request for a transfer was approved after he managed to get the support of another prison warden. Yet, Ben did not exactly get what he wanted – he was assigned to take the N-levels instead.

Nevertheless, he served his time and got out with an N-levels certificate. He was 20 years old when he returned to the world.”

Comment: Is our system too harsh when an inmate who wants to study is first rejected, and then subsequently approved, but for N-levels, instead of O-levels?

“Ben had another one and a half years of electronic monitoring to complete, during which he had to remain in his father’s home. Two months after this was over, he got the freedom he’d yearned for.

“My dad told me to leave,” Ben recalled. “He said, you’re 22. You’re an adult, you can take care of yourself.”

“To be honest, I anticipated it. It didn’t surprise me at all. Of course I said okay.” That was the last time he ever spoke to or saw his father.

Fortunately in 2003, room rentals hadn’t yet escalated, so he could afford to rent a room for S$200 to S$300 a month. He continued renting for six years.”

Comment: With minimum room rentals at about $500 now – how do the lower-income cope – and may end up homeless?

“But things changed when he enlisted for national service. His allowance was not enough to cover the increasing rent.

“You were supposed to book out of camp every day and go home, but I did not have a home,” he said. “That’s when I officially became a destitute.””

Comment: Don’t we have provision for the homeless when they are called up for national service?

“He’s not the only destitute individual spending the night at this outlet. A quick headcount at 10.30pm reveals there are already seven of them.

“I know the faces, but we mostly just keep to ourselves. People get territorial, everyone has their designated sleeping spot. If you sleep in my spot, where am I going to sleep? Disputes like that do happen,” Ben reveals.

“In fact the lady who usually sleeps here saw us just now… She made a face and left.”

It is hard to believe how Ben will get any rest tonight. The music in this outlet plays 24 hours, and it’s anybody’s guess when the crowd will disperse – especially on a weekend.”

Comment: Why do we seemingly have so many homeless, when we have been ranked by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as one of the richest countries in the world?

“He’d worked at several cleaning jobs like dishwashing in order to save up more than S$2,000 for the course fee (70 per cent of which was subsidised by Workforce Singapore). Saving up gave him a sense of direction, he said, and once he’d accumulated enough, he’d pumped everything into the course.

But the returns have been disappointing.

“It’s probably more of a placebo effect. You feel more confident: At least you got a diploma. But so far, I  haven’t been successful in my efforts. You’re not going to land a cushy job just because you got yourself a diploma. There are so many people with degrees these days.

“So I’m back to square one.””

Comment: What’s the point of the consistent rhetoric to workers to upgrade, when jobs may be so hard to come by with the competition from foreigners?

“Ben attributes his difficulty in finding a better job to his criminal record as well. Many doors have been closed – for example, he can never apply for security-related jobs. He cannot drive for Uber or Grab either, he said.

I ask if he ever regrets his past actions.

“Every day,” he says, voice tinged with unmistakable remorse.  “A criminal record is permanent. Nothing you do is going to erase that.

“You’re going to live with that for the rest of your life.””

Comment: Why do we continue to have a system whereby those with a criminal record are discriminated in employment?

“Right now, he just wants his own accommodation. When he turned 35 in June, he became eligible for a public rental flat under the Joint Singles Scheme. He has managed to secure one and is due to move in in December this year.

But he’s not particularly optimistic about the prospect.

“You have to live with another person. Most people can’t even get along with their family members, let alone with a total stranger.

“There are a lot of destitute people who are in that scheme – they just sleep outside because they can’t get along with their housemates.””

Comment: Isn’t the HDB public rental scheme kind of harsh in requiring two persons to share a one-room HDB flat and their combined monthly household income must not be over $1,500?

F”or the last eight months, Ben has been working as a banquet waiter, making about S$500 to S$800 a month.

He does not enjoy the work, but is doing it to make ends meet. His income largely depends on whether he is assigned jobs by agencies and the hourly rate he is paid.

“You know Maslow’s pyramid right? To be able to proceed to higher levels, you need to satisfy certain lower needs first. You have to get a stable job first, then you can think about more lofty aspirations,” he says.

Last year, he completed a diploma course in tourism at the Tourism Management Institute Singapore, in hopes that it would be “leverage” for a better job. “Instead of doing saikang (shit work) for the rest of my life, you know? I don’t think anyone wants to live like that, right.””

Comment: Why is the pay so low for so many jobs in Singapore?

Leong Sze Hian


About the Author

Leong Sze Hian has served as president of 4 professional bodies, honorary consul of 2 countries, an alumnus of Harvard University, authored 4 books, quoted over 1500 times in the media , has been a radio talkshow host, a newspaper daily columnist, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow, columnist for theonlinecitizen and Malaysiakini, executive producer of Ilo Ilo (40 international awards), invited to speak more than 200 times in over 30 countries, CIFA advisory board member, founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Indonesia and Brunei. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional  qualifications.