How The Poor Stay Poor

By Chahaya co-written with Mei.

In 2018, I met Chahaya through a mutual friend. Chahaya has always lived in financial precarity and the pandemic made things worse. Her husband had his hours cut and her children had to shift to online learning, which increased her electricity bills. Her family was thrown into debt again, unable to maintain their monthly payments for the renovation loan they took to fix their dilapidated flat. 

The following is a compilation of email and face-to-face conversations touching on income inequality in Singapore we had over a month. 

How were your family and friends affected by COVID-19? 

The pandemic affected our overtime pay, which the bulk of our income comes from. After CPF deductions, we have to clock in extra hours to bring home a decent amount. Most times, we barely last till the next paycheck. The overtime pay was higher during the Circuit Breaker, but that was temporary.

Could you talk a little about your work? Are you able to save from your salary?

I have not been working full-time because of COVID. Engaging a babysitter is expensive, so I take care of my children. I work as a self-employed delivery attendant, which is irregular and unstable. I am unable to save a penny.

Note: On top of working as a delivery attendant, Chahaya is also the caregiver for her ailing mother-in-law and father. 

How much are babysitters? Private babysitters or student care centers?

Home-based babysitters cost between $350-$500 per child. Student care fees cost between $200 – $400, monthly, per child. Although student care offers subsidies, the prices do not include the activities organized. Based on my previous experience, I still had to pay for activities such as enrichment classes or outings. There are also surcharges for school holidays whenever my children need to be at the center. All these costs accumulate and became a financial burden for me. 

Do you know of available schemes that help you, and do they help?

It helps temporarily but not in easing the daily necessities or monthly commitments. With the increase in utility, housing loans, and school materials, the amount is occasionally insufficient. I know of many schemes available and sought assistance from social welfare organizations and compare. To keep up with these assistance schemes, we have to keep reproducing documents related to reviews which sometimes are not helpful. It takes a lot of time to produce documents, submit applications, appeals and wait for the approval. Getting financial aid from the government is a tedious process. Sometimes, after all the effort, you get rejected with no further explanation. This is appalling and frustrating because they encourage you to reapply or appeal. 

But it’s not only the tedious paperwork, you have to brave through the judgmental officers. Once, I overheard an officer make a passing remark, “Oh! Malay again?” Other times, when I explained how I was a single mother with no family support and unable to maintain a full-time job, they said “Wah! Malay only know how to make babies but don’t know how to work one ah!” and “why you Malays don’t know how to control one (having babies and such)?” I was totally ashamed and devastated at how they did not see my humanity. I blamed myself a lot and lost trust in government provided social aid. 

Sometimes, I feel the process macam minta sedekah. They make you feel like you have to beg for help. This must sound ungrateful, isn’t it? But this is the truth. Do we need to be beggars just because we’re financially challenged? It’s not surprising that so many turn to crimes and loan sharks just to stay alive. Once, I was in such a desperate situation and could not get the help I needed, I resorted to shoplift for milk and diapers. In the conversation with the IO, it was a worrying trend to have parents being detained for the same reason. I was released on bail and with humanity by the Court.

When I stayed in a transitional home by AWWA, I was asked why I turned down canned food rations given to me. My answer was: Are poor people supposed to only consume unhealthy canned food? Are we not deserving of fresh groceries which can be cheaper and healthier? What will happen to our children’s growth and health when they’re only consuming canned food? They couldn’t answer my questions because NGOs depend on donors, and I wonder if donors think of our wellbeing?

How long, on average, is the wait time between application and approval?

Average is 6 weeks, can be longer, and repetitive document submissions.

It must be very anxiety-inducing and overwhelming to navigate the administrative process. Do you have anyone helping you or are you expected to do it yourself?

I do all the administrative work myself. The work includes running to banks to get statements, CPF printouts, etc. 

Note: Anyone who has ever had to wait for institutional approval for financial aid, travel, or work visas, know how anxiety-inducing the wait can be. On top of that, the language is often convoluted and confusing to understand, making the process even more daunting and exhausting than it already is.

What are your concerns when job hunting? 

Language. Currently, for the jobs I’m looking at, the trend mostly requires proficiency in Mandarin. Other skills and experience acquired from past work are not usually recognized unless we own certificates or have paper qualifications. 

What obstacles did you meet while job hunting?

Based on my job hunting experience, mothers faced the most challenges in securing a decent job. My commitment to work is questioned right from the beginning of the interview. The first thing some interviewers ask is how many kids I have and then they proceed to question my ability to commit or manage my time. But the biggest challenge is securing a job with a suitable location and working hours. Sometimes, I would secure a job, but the place and working hours are not compatible, considering I have children to care for. As a mother, I will have to plan ahead for child care arrangements. For example, what will happen if the child is sick or unable to go to child care? Who will take care of the children? Do I need to take leave? Can I take leave?

But it’s not only at interviews. At the workplace, co-workers would ask me ridiculous questions like why Malays don’t want to practice birth control as though we purposely make babies, beg for financial assistance and live our life without working hard. When we are working 2-3 jobs to survive! Some employers also truly believe that Malays are lazy and troublemakers. Why would we do our best and work our hardest for employers like that? 

What do you think of skills upgrading? 

Skills upgrading is good, but I wonder how far these can help me get a suitable and stable job. My concern is how much skills upgrading certificates can help someone without the standard, accepted educational qualifications to secure employment. If I want to sign up for a course based on interests and obtain the required skills, I will need to pay high fees to enroll. 

Although there are schemes that provide subsidies, I do not have the extra cash to pay the remainder of the cost. I saw most skills required me a top-up a few hundred dollars while the cheaper ones are mostly basic skills, which I would already have. That’s why it’s challenging for me to find relevant and affordable courses to upskill.

How has your income increased over the past few years? 

Not much of an increase. We still need to engage in extra jobs to afford other necessities. Our primary source of income is my husband’s full-time job. He brings home $1700-$1800 after overtime pay. 

What are your thoughts on income inequality in Singapore? How does it make you feel?

I’ve talked about inequality with my old social worker (I’m thankful for her patience in fighting this battle with me for 5 solid years). While many will say that we are fortunate to be born and bred in Singapore, few know of or acknowledge the poor. Singapore is good at hiding the existence of the poor. Not those living in slums – but those living in fear of settling monthly bills and getting cheap quality food every day. 

My husband and I drive through landed properties to deliver items. So I see these multimillion-dollar houses and think to myself, where on earth do they accumulate so much wealth?! And wonder where the money come from… legal or illegal? Haha! I sometimes wonder what they gain from living a lavish lifestyle. Do they face the same stress as the poor? Like racing against time to get enough money to pay the bills and do they really enjoy the wealth without fear of losing it?

How do I feel? Sometimes disgusted. I know there are humble rich people who contribute back to society. But, to me, buying million-dollar properties from other rich people is just investing amongst the rich, whereas charity organizations, social welfare, and NGOs have to find donors to fundraise for the needy and lower income communities. 

As someone who was homeless before, wouldn’t it be better to contribute that money to build homes for the homeless? When my family and I were homeless, I approached MPs and relevant organizations to appeal to get housing. We were turned down almost immediately because we didn’t have the right documents, no CPF or marriage/divorce cert (unmarried, single mother). There was also no empathy from the judgmental officers, and I had to experience many humiliating situations. 

Working in delivery and logistics, I encounter a lot of rich people. When delivering orders to their homes, some will demand to have their items brought into their homes even though that’s not our job. If we refuse, they will write in a complaint affecting our salary and our ability to get a raise. They find fault even if the reason is so minor. Once, my husband was suspended because he was not wearing the vest provided by the luxury brand. He felt deceived because the client seemed satisfied with his service and showed a positive attitude. 

Hardworking workers work more than 10 hours a day and earn a meagre salary, but employers enjoy the profit. When in fact, workers risk a lot to help boost their business. Many employers delay salary pay-out, and this affects us. We need to keep up with bills and buy food. Late payment of bills will have penalties and incur interest. Will these rich people help? Definitely not. The rich will keep benefitting from investing in the rich. While the poor stay poor and have to keep working until the end of time.

Income inequality is an injustice that can never end. The victims will always be the poor. 

What kind of future do you imagine for your children? 

My dream for my children is simple – live their life modestly. Wherever or whatever they wish to pursue, I would only want the best for them. I don’t want to set any high expectations. Life is already stressful; it will be worse in the future. 


Chahaya is a mother of five. Inspired to write her story and views on financial and social issues faced by many women like her, Chahaya hopes to share her experience and help others. Chahaya is also a participating member of Daughters of Tomorrow, seeking new learning platforms and opportunities to upgrade herself.

Mei dreams of a world where no work is undervalued, and no one is exploited.

Illustration by Elisa Tanaka