Students' research on cardboard collectors draws flak

The project was an attempt to try to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living, but it soon generated a torrent of criticisms from netizens.
The project was an attempt to try to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living, but it soon generated a torrent of criticisms from netizens. PHOTO: TAN CHUAN-JIN/FACEBOOK

They embarked on a six-month project to try to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living, in an attempt to help them. Instead, the group of students faced a torrent of criticisms online as if they had "committed atrocities and transgressions of the worst nature", said team leader Koh Cheng Jun yesterday .

The attacks started after Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin posted on Facebook on Saturday that he had visited cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar with some of the team members.

In his post, Mr Tan said that the findings of the project showed that not all elderly folk do it for a living.

"Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home," he said.

For his comments, Mr Tan was soon criticised by people telling him to get out of his "ivory tower" and to talk to the old folk on the ground. Mr Tan said it was "not unexpected" that the post drummed up so much discussion and noted there were some thoughtful comments as well.

"The main message that I wanted to convey is that we should not generalise the things that we see, and we should always speak to the people involved," he said.

The online criticism was also targeted at Mr Koh, 21, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate, and his team from the Youth Corps Singapore. But Mr Koh said the project was done with good intentions."We are not political pawns that can be manipulated for reasons other than the genuine desire to serve the community," he said on Facebook.

The group spoke to close to 45 people over two months, and conducted in-depth interviews with 13 of them. Mr Koh noted that while there were extreme cases, such as one cardboard collector who lives in landed property and others who are in need of help, most are "somewhere in the middle".

Workers' Party member Daniel Goh, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, said on Facebook that he did not think the the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers are trying to "whitewash the poverty issue".

"They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation," he wrote.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Students' research on cardboard collectors draws flak'. Print Edition | Subscribe