Liyana Dhamirah’s “Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore” (Book Club, June 2021)

Hallway of a HDB flat in Singapore

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These are the discussion prompts and notes from the June 2021 book club, when we discussed Liyana Dhamirah’s “Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore” (https://nlb.overdrive.com/media/5256637).

1. Putting your knowledge of current affairs and social policies aside, what was your first feeling or emotion after reading the book? And which of her specific experience(s) stood out to you?

  • The sense of determinism of her growing-up experience when her parents divorced while she was completing her PSLE. She also could not take her “O” levels examination when she was pregnant.
  • “Family as the first line of support”: The moment when she was thrown out of her mother-in-law’s place during Hari Raya.
  • Feelings of concern and horror that the system was letting her down, such as when she was waiting for her rental flat. This included her visit to the Ministry of Social and Family Development when she was pregnant.
  • Her preference to live in her tent with her community than in some rental flats, especially when she had to share the flat with other families. On this theme of community (“gotong royong”; “kampung spirit”), the candles of strangers and the generosity of others who were homeless were acknowledged.

2. There are intersections between housing insecurity and other forms of insecurities: (a) Labour and income; (b) children with disabilities (e.g. Aunty Zainab’s daughter); (c) physical health and psychological well-being; and (d) parenting and caregiving. How do they compound in low-income households? What other forms of insecurity do they experience?

  • To have one’s sense of agency taken away is peculiar.
  • To have to prove one’s deservedness speaks to the surrender of one’s dignity. Rental spaces are small with few to no amenities, and yet one has to prove through means testing that one has no family members who can provide support. One has to prove that one needs aid, assistance, and help.
  • To have to jump through hoops can be degrading, humiliating, and laborious.
  • It is easy to slip into poverty, which speaks to the transient nature of the breathing space that the precarious and disadvantaged have. In the book, she had troubles with the law when her first husband was involved in transactions of stolen goods and when she had an inadvertent brush with a loansharking syndicate.
  • On gender, in the book, women were the ones who made key decisions and who balanced roles in caregiving, homemaking, and being a breadwinner.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic also compounded challenges related to one’s mental well-being.

3. Referring in particular to the interaction with the MSF social worker Mr. Tan, or your knowledge of how aid and assistance are delivered, what is your evaluation and for what policy and social changes should we advocate? And how do we go about doing so?

  • It is not just about holding Mr. Tan to account, but also interrogating the systems which produce or enable folks like Mr. Tan. How do we make sure that no one is slipping through the system in the first place?
  • Among social workers, the contrast between the “tough love” and “bleeding hearts” narratives deserves further attention.
  • Means testing may disincentivise folks from applying for help in the first place. Many may feel like someone else deserve the assistance more than they do or may feel like they are not in need. In the end, are we spending more money or using more resources administratively than what we are giving out?
  • On advocacy: It was luck that she ran into members of the process. Even after the ministers or other public officials and social workers stepped in, the solutions were not ideal. If the onus is for individuals and communities to advocate for themselves, what about those who may not be as articulate as the author?
  • Finally, to what extent have we considered the implications of the bandwidth tax for those living in poverty? And what are the role of enforcers, such as the NParks officers who are patrolling the parks and looking out for those who are homeless?

4. Since the book’s publication, Singapore’s first homeless street count estimated 921 to 1,050 street homeless people in the countryA subsequent count is now in progress. What more should be done?

  • There is a difference between having a postcode and a home.
  • Speaking to the experience of being involved in the street count, it was observed that some had addresses but chose to sleep rough. Some did not get along with their assigned flat mates. And many used McDonald’s for rough sleeping.
  • But things have changed since the pandemic. In the second street count, the number of visibly poor homeless people seems to have gone down. The homeless may be more easily tracked because of the TraceTogether application and the many safe-distancing ambassadors on patrol.
  • Overall, there have been added layers or enforcement and more policing. In addition, there was probably a scramble or a rush to house the homeless.
  • To argue that the homeless generally “choose to be outside” is to ignore more structural or systemic factors leading to their housing insecurity. There were observations that residents themselves may police their neighbourhoods, passing judgement on rough sleepers and being suspicious of folks in the vicinity.

5. Singapore’s “Many Helping Hands” approach to social welfare is centred on individuals, their families (both nuclear and extended, as well as family-like friends), and the community. Based on the book and your other observations, what may be the limits to the approach?

  • While we remain reliant on the family unit – paired with our insistence of keeping families together – we should also be aware of its limits. Allusions were made to the recent discourse surrounding no-fault divorce, which relate to the author’s lengthy and tedious experience of splitting up with her first husband. Whether we can move away from the primacy of biological ties, acknowledge that chosen families could function better than biological ones, and dispel the stereotype of families being necessarily wholesome were also raised.
  • Communication and coordination between agencies could be improved because their absence could add to confusion as well as additional mental labour and bandwidth taxes.
  • What does it mean to be a community? Thus far, with a desire for control, the government has sought to engineer communities through a top-down approach. Such an approach feels antithetical to the principles of trust, mutual respect, and authenticity, all of which are important ingredients for a functioning, self-sustaining community. Other points were raised about race/ethnicity quotas, policed spaces, and the long-term implications of an ageing population and a low birth rate for the creation of communities.

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