PEOPLE

From despair to desire to help others in debt

Ms Santha's nightmare started when she borrowed $500 from an unlicensed moneylender. Several loan sharks and moneylenders later, the sum had soared to $8,000.
Ms Santha's nightmare started when she borrowed $500 from an unlicensed moneylender. Several loan sharks and moneylenders later, the sum had soared to $8,000. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Widow driven to attempt suicide gets help to turn her life around

Harassed by loan sharks and overwhelmed by debt, Ms Santha K. M. swallowed 15 to 20 paracetamol pills and went to sleep, expecting never to wake up again.

The 54-year-old was lucky to survive the ordeal last May with only bouts of vomiting, diarrhoea and giddiness. Soon after, she managed to get help from a personal loan start- up and a debt advisory centre, and clawed her way back from the brink.

But the widowed mother of two will never forget how close she came to taking her own life. She now wants to help others who have fallen prey to loan sharks.

"No matter how much they make you suffer, it is not worth it to take the life of a human being," she said.

Her nightmare started in January last year with an innocent desire to take part in a grassroots Mother's Day beauty pageant. She needed $500 to register for it.

CONSTANT PRESSURE

They would call me three, four times a day, even at midnight. They would use vulgar words on me. They would threaten to throw paint at my neighbours, throw paint in my face. They told me to go to Geylang to sell my body so I could pay them back.

MS SANTHA K.M., on the loan sharks and unlicensed moneylenders.

  • Tips for people facing debt woes

  • • Stop paying unlicensed moneylenders, and make a police report.

    • Work out your budget and see if you can set aside a consistent surplus with which you can eventually negotiate a more reasonable repayment plan.

    • Approach Credit Counselling Singapore for help.

    • Focus on your family's needs and seek their understanding

    HELPLINES FOR BORROWERS

    • Credit Counselling Singapore on 1800-225-5227 or e-mail enquiry@ccs.org.sg

    • Association of Muslim Professionals on 6416-3960 or e-mail firdaus@amp.org.sg or saiful@amp.org.sg

    • The Silver Lining on 6749-0400 or e-mail admin@silverlining.com.sg

    • One Hope Centre on 6547-1011 or e-mail help@onehopecentre.org

    • Blessed Grace Social Services on 8428-6377 or www.bgss.org.sg

    • National Council on Problem Gambling on 1800-6-668-668 or e-mail admin@ncpg.org.sg

It was money that the customer service officer, who lives with her two sons in a three-room HDB flat in Jurong West that she is still paying off, did not have.

She could not, however, resist the once-in-a-lifetime chance to take to the stage. She said: "I wanted for once in my life to feel beautiful."

So she turned to an unlicensed moneylender who had been spamming her mobile phone with messages promising easy cash.

He agreed to transfer the money to her - at an interest of $150 a week. She said: "At the time, it didn't sound like that much. But it was really a trap I would not be able to get out of."

Keeping up with the escalating payments soon proved too much for Ms Santha, who earns $1,500 a month. She turned to another moneylender, and then another.

In a few months, she was in debt to eight moneylenders - four licensed, four not - and the amount had snowballed from $500 to $8,000.

By then, the harassment from the debt collectors and the loan sharks was beginning to take a toll.

"They would call me three, four times a day, even at midnight," she recalled. "They would use vulgar words on me. They would threaten to throw paint at my neighbours, throw paint in my face. They told me to go to Geylang to sell my body so I could pay them back."

The loan sharks also called her workplace, and even got hold of the phone numbers of her sons, an F&B manager, 29, and an engineer, 28. "When my sons found out what I did, they were hurt and disappointed with me," she said.

She did not know who to turn to. Her husband had died 11 years ago of cancer. "I was a woman standing alone. I had no shoulder to cry on."

She considered running away from Singapore, and then contemplated suicide. "My life was miserable. I was so stressed, I just wanted to make it all go away."

After her suicide attempt failed, she tried to get a loan from Onelyst, an online start-up that helps users compare personal loan rates from licensed lenders. They rejected her because of her poor credit history, but she kept calling.

Onelyst co-founder Mohamed Abbas said: "Over the phone I could hear her voice trembling. I knew something was wrong."

Mr Abbas then introduced her to the debt advisory centre at the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) in July.

By this point, she had paid $5,000 to moneylenders - 10 times the original sum she borrowed.

The centre explained her rights as a borrower, advised her to stop paying the loan sharks, and crafted a monthly budget and debt management plan for her to deal with the licensed lenders. They also invited her to support group sessions and helped her explain her situation to her work supervisor.

Said the centre's assistant manager Saiful Nizam Jemain: "Clients like Ms Santha get into high debt very fast because they borrow from loan sharks. These clients are charged very high interest rates and they are forced into making multiple payments for the same loan under the threat of harassment and harm to their families."

Mr Saiful said during the centre's support group sessions, many debtors revealed their suicidal thoughts after being harassed. Four of their clients have attempted suicide, but either failed or were talked down.

Ms Santha is back on track repaying her remaining debt of $3,000, having successfully paid off one of the four licensed lenders. She said the loan sharks have since stopped harassing her.

She has also repaired her relationship with her sons. Her second son is getting married in July and she has invited Mr Abbas and her AMP case officer to the wedding because "without them, I would not be alive to see this day".

She recently volunteered to help a hospital worker in her 40s who was so stressed by loan-shark harassment that she contemplated killing not just herself, but also her 20-year-old daughter.

Introduced to the woman by her AMP case officer, Ms Santha called her daily, took her out for coffee and taught her tips such as getting her colleagues to tell the loan sharks she had moved to another department.

Ms Santha is planning to start an informal support group of her own, and hopes to reach out to more debtors. "I don't have a lot of money and I have nothing to give but my words," she said. "But I hope they can save more people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'From despair to desire to help others in debt'. Print Edition | Subscribe