Growing up without a computer

Some Singaporean families cannot afford a computer at home but there are schemes to help them

The Welfords –  Alexandria, dad John, Ashley, mum Elisa, Victoria and Nicole – and the Chans – (from far left) Yi Xuan, mum Teoh Geik Luang, Yu Fan, dad Ming Kiat and Yu Heng – are among families here who cannot afford to buy a computer
The Welfords –  Alexandria, dad John, Ashley, mum Elisa, Victoria and Nicole – and the Chans – (from far left) Yi Xuan, mum Teoh Geik Luang, Yu Fan, dad Ming Kiat and Yu Heng – are among families here who cannot afford to buy a computer with Internet access. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONGST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO, MARK CHEONG
The Welfords - (clockwise from right above) Alexandria, dad John, Ashley, mum Elisa, Victoria and Nicole - and the Chans - (from far left) Yi Xuan, mum Teoh Geik Luang, Yu Fan, dad Ming Kiat and Yu Heng - are among families here who cannot afford to
The Welfords - (clockwise from right above) Alexandria, dad John, Ashley, mum Elisa, Victoria and Nicole - and the Chans - (from far left) Yi Xuan, mum Teoh Geik Luang, Yu Fan, dad Ming Kiat and Yu Heng - are among families here who cannot afford to buy a computer with Internet access.

In retiree John Welford's household, the six children do not suffer from a problem that afflicts many other families - addiction to the use of the computer for games or social media.

They strictly take turns to use the computer only on weekends or on weekdays between 8 and 10pm. Those are the only times they have a computer to use, when one of the Welford children, advertising manager Vargilia, 27, brings home her company- issued laptop.

Apart from that, they have no other computers at home. They are among Singaporean families who could be lagging behind in information technology developments because they have less financial resources.

Their children conduct research or send e-mail in school or public libraries. Some borrow their siblings' work computers or go to their neighbour's house.

Inconvenient? Yes. Frustrating? Sometimes. But these families make do.

In the Welford family, eight of them - two parents and six children aged 11 to 29 - live in a five-room HDB flat in Bishan. Only two are working. Apart from Vargilia, the eldest child Nicole, 29, works as a healthcare worker. The family has not owned a computer since last year.

Says father, Mr Welford, 57, a former administrator in an oil and gas company: "I sometimes feel bad that we cannot afford a computer in this day and age when everybody seems to be online. But our financial situation prevents us from owning one, and my children understand this. As a family, we try to overcome the inconveniences together."

Six years ago, the family owned a desktop computer provided through a computer ownership scheme by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).

Within three years, that computer stopped functioning. The family was then given a second-hand laptop by the Eurasian Association of Singapore, a self-help group which serves the interests of the Eurasian community here. Last year, that laptop also stopped working. Both ended up with the karang guni man, and the family has not owned a computer since.

The Welfords have applied again for the scheme this year and the application is being processed.

Thankfully, Vargilia has access to a laptop for work. So her two younger siblings - Victoria, 15, and Alexandria, 13 - use it for their schoolwork and personal communication such as Facebook and e-mail.

Alexandria, a Secondary 1 student at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School, uses the laptop to practise skills taught in her Computer Applications class, such as preparing a resume or spreadsheet.

Victoria, who is pursuing a certificate in retail services at Northlight School, uses it to research different companies and occupations which she might join in the future.

Says Alexandria: "My sister and I sometimes have to decide between ourselves how long each can use the laptop for. Having limited time forces us to plan how we spend it online. Projects and schoolwork come first. Idle chatting on Facebook comes last."

Adds Victoria: "It's troublesome having to wait for your turn. But some access is better than no access. Having to share the computer also brings us closer as sisters. We learn to accommodate when one has to 'eat into' the other's time in order to complete a school project."

Their older brother, also named John, 17, lets his sisters use the laptop instead of asking for a go on it. The Institute of Technical Education culinary arts student would rather go to his campus library in Choa Chu Kang to prepare his menus and restaurant reports.

He says: "I try to reach my campus two hours earlier to use the library computer. It's troublesome but my sisters need the laptop at home more than I do."

Indeed, computer literacy and skills are increasingly important in a child's formal education.

A Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesman says: "Schools harness infocomm technology to facilitate teaching and learning. Students learn infocomm technology skills and how to search and evaluate online content, collaborate online on assigned tasks or share ideas with their classmates. These are 21st-century skills which help to prepare our students for the future working environment.

At Yuhua Secondary School, for example, all Sec 1 students go through an infocomm technology enrichment programme that equips them with infocomm technology skills such as how to use PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and edit videos.

The school also conducts a home-based e-learning exercise for all students, held twice a year, where students attempt lesson packages at home through the school portal.

Says the MOE spokesman: "To support students' learning using infocomm technology, schools have processes in place to help students from less advantaged backgrounds to loan learning devices for use outside school hours or at home."

IDA has a computer ownership programme to help low-income families with schoolgoing children own computers with Internet access. MOE works closely with it to build awareness of this scheme in schools and among parents.

Schools, for example, disseminate information about it to parents through briefings and during school orientation programmes.

The Education Ministry also has the Opportunity Fund. According to previous reports, this fund gives schools money to help less well-off pupils have the chance to learn new things.

One beneficiary of the IDA scheme is Chan Yu Fan, 14, a Sec 3 student at Shuqun Secondary School.

Last year, there was only a second-hand desktop computer - which was slow and could not connect to the Internet - in her family's three-room HDB flat in Bukit Batok where she lives with her father, mother and two younger brothers, aged 13 and 11.

Her parents had bought this computer from a friend for $50, but it was of no help whenever she had to use it to do research for her school projects, about once every three months.

So instead she would take a 15-minute bus journey to the Bukit Batok Public Library to access the library's catalogue to find books on her project topic.

She says: "But sometimes, the books were loaned out and it'd be a wasted trip."

Says her father, technician Chan Ming Kiat, 50: "Yu Fan used to make so many trips to the library for her projects. It was frustrating, but she had no choice.

"There's so much emphasis on e-learning and computer literacy nowadays, it's impossible to avoid using a computer."

Last year, Yu Fan's mother, cleaner Teoh Geik Luang, 44, heard about the programme from one of her friends, and asked Yu Fan to apply for it.

Says Madam Teoh: "Our family is too poor to afford a computer. Meeting our monthly expenses is already challenging enough."

In September last year, the family got a new Pluto laptop at half price, paying $579 for it.

Since then, Yu Fan checks the library catalogue from home. She goes to the library only when she is sure there are relevant books there to borrow.

"On weekends, I can now spend more time resting or going out with my family," says the teenager, who has since learnt to use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. "I used to ask other project-mates to design the computer presentations. But now, I can design them."

Some Singaporeans, such as Madam Hariani Adnan, 41, are unaware of IDA's subsidy programme.

The housewife lives with her cleaner husband and four children, aged six months to 18 years, in a two-room rental flat in Ang Mo Kio, and they do not own a computer.

Says Madam Hariani: "When my children have schoolwork that needs a computer, they go to my neighbour's house, where there is a computer. Sometimes, they also go to my mother's house in Hougang, where there is a laptop. It's inconvenient, but what can we do? Computers are expensive."

When told about IDA's computer ownership programme, she says: "I didn't know this scheme exists. It sounds interesting and I will try to apply for it soon."

bang@sph.com.sg

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