THE BREADWINNER WHO FELL ILL

From own 5-room flat to 2-room rental

Mr Leck Wee Nee in his two-room rental flat in Clementi. Doctors have certified him to be unfit for work, he says.
Mr Leck Wee Nee in his two-room rental flat in Clementi. Doctors have certified him to be unfit for work, he says. ST PHOTO: TOH YONG CHUAN

Life used to be comfortable for Mr Leck Wee Nee.

The 52-year-old owned a van and ran a one-man courier company, and wife Geraldine Chen had a small gift-and-flower stall in Clementi. They lived in a five-room Housing Board flat in Pasir Ris with their three children. They could even afford a maid.

Today, the couple and six of their now seven children live in a two-room HDB rental flat in Clementi about the size of four parking spaces. Mr Leck is unable to work because of a heart problem and high blood pressure, and his wife stays home to look after the children. Their only income is $1,200 a month from ComCare.

Mr Leck used to volunteer at the weekly Meet-the-People sessions at the People's Action Party branch in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, helping residents with financial problems write appeal letters .

Now, he has had to see his Clementi MP Tan Wu Meng to appeal for financial help.

  • INCOME AND FAMILY

  • PROFILE NAME: Leck Wee Nee

    AGE: 52

    FAMILY: Wife Geraldine Chen, 42, and six children, living in a two-room Housing Board rental flat in Clementi. The six children are: Risis, 21, working as part-time packer and attending night classes; Jun Jie, 18, ITE student; Jun Hao, 12, Secondary 1 student; Jun Long, 11, Primary 6 pupil; Jun Wei, 10, Primary 5 pupil and Jun Hui, seven, Primary 1 pupil. Eldest daughter Vivian, 22, has married and moved out of the family home to another rental flat in the same block. She is not working.

    JOB: Unable to work because of illness.

    FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Monthly ComCare short- to medium-term assistance scheme allowance of $1,200.

    HEALTH: Poor health. Suffers from heart problems and breathlessness.

    HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $1,200

    PER CAPITA INCOME: $150

    EXPENDITURE: $600 on food, the rest on transport and utilities.

    • Mr Leck's family of eight is one of the largest households receiving ComCare short- to medium-term aid.

    • About half of the households receiving such aid have sizes of one or two members. Only 7.4 per cent of the households have six or more members, like Mr Leck's.

    • About one in four households which receives such aid has the main breadwinner working, and one in four households has the breadwinner looking for work. Only about one in five households, like Mr Leck's, has the main breadwinner medically unfit to work.

    • While Madam Chen is able to work, she has to look after the five school-going children and her sick husband.

Their problems began when courier deliveries dried up during Sars in 2003, and his business folded a year later. He took to driving a taxi. "I drove about 18 hours a day without a relief (driver)," says Mr Leck.

Still, he could not keep up with the mortgage on his five-room flat, so he sold it and downgraded to a three-room flat in Boon Lay in 2006. In 2007, he was jailed after chalking up more than $1,000 in unpaid court and traffic fines. In jail, doctors found he had heart problems which led to breathlessness.

After jail, he returned to taxi driving but his vocational licence was revoked by the Land Transport Authority after a passenger complaint.

Mr Leck's health deteriorated and when he tried to work as a security guard, he almost fainted on his first day during patrolling. Doctors have since certified him to be unfit for work, he says.

Without a regular income, the family fell behind on mortgage payments. The HDB repossessed the flat and allocated the two-room rental flat to them in 2011.

Besides ComCare help, the family also receives $150 from Touch Community Services each month.

The Community Development Council has been trying to get Madam Chen, 42, back to work. "I tried working at Sheng Siong supermarket but had to stop because they wanted me to work night shift," says Madam Chen. "If I work nights, I cannot look after the children and my husband in the day."

Five of their children, aged between seven and 18, study full-time - three in primary school, one in secondary school and one at the Institute of Technical Education.

A 21-year-old son works as a part-time packer and attends night classes, after dropping out of secondary school. The Lecks also have a 22-year-old daughter - their eldest child - who got married and moved out last year, to another rental flat in the same block.

Mr Leck says the family's finances worry him. He shows The Sunday Times two bank books - a POSB one with a balance of just 66 cents as at December and an OCBC one with a zero balance as at last month. The ComCare payment is made to the OCBC account.

"The (ComCare) money comes in at the start of the month and runs out around the 20-something of the month," says Mr Leck.

The family spends about $20 on food each day, or $600 a month, out of the $1,200 they get from ComCare. About $160 goes to utility and service and conservancy charges, $165 to rent, and the rest to the children's education.

Madam Chen lost three of her four front teeth two years ago because of decay, but she cannot afford dentures. "That's why I don't smile," she says apologetically.

On why they had so many children, she says she thought about abortion, but could not go through with it as she is a Buddhist.

Still, she feels depressed when she sees her husband and four sons having to sleep on mattresses in the living room. She shares the bedroom with her seven-year-old daughter and the 21-year-old son, who sleeps on the floor.

The parents are pinning their hopes on 18-year-old Jun Jie, who is studying at ITE, and 12-year-old Jun Hao, who is in Secondary 1. Jun Jie hopes to go to polytechnic, while Jun Hao is good in his studies, says Madam Chen.


Toh Yong Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'From own 5-room flat to 2-room rental The breadwinner who fell ill'. Print Edition | Subscribe