POOR BOY WHO DREAMS OF POLY

Teen hopes to break long cycle of struggle

Mr Md Ridzwan Azmi with his grandfather, Mr Ahmad Taman, who was working as a security guard until earlier this month, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer after a fall at work.
Mr Md Ridzwan Azmi with his grandfather, Mr Ahmad Taman, who was working as a security guard until earlier this month, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer after a fall at work. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Mr Md Ridzwan Azmi, 18, wants to break out of three generations of struggle. His parents are in jail for drug offences.

Since birth, he has been raised by his 74-year-old grandmother, Madam Pon Md Nor, and his 85-year-old grandfather, Mr Ahmad Taman.

Until this month, Mr Ahmad was the main breadwinner, earning around $1,500 a month as a security guard. But he has just been diagnosed with lung cancer, after he had a fall at work and was taken to hospital.

Mr Md Ridzwan had dreams of being a modern dance performer, but he put them on hold to study chemical technology at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE). His dream now is to go to polytechnic and be a laboratory technician.

"If I achieve that, I will be the first in the family to graduate," he says.

  • INCOME AND FAMILY PROFILE

  • NAME: Md Ridzwan Azmi

    AGE: 18

    FAMILY: Lives in a one-room rental flat in Marsiling with his grandparents, three siblings, an uncle and a cousin. His parents, who are both in jail for drug offences, have another one-room rental flat in the same Housing Board block, where he and his brother Md Rizan Azmi, 24, go at night to sleep.

    JOB: Full-time Institute of Technical Education student

    FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Monthly ComCare short- to medium-term assistance scheme allowance of $1,400 for Mr Md Ridzwan and two younger sisters aged nine and 15.

    HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $1,400.

    PER CAPITA INCOME: $467

    EXPENDITURE: Food, transport and school expenses

    • Those on short- to medium-term assistance are mostly those facing crises such as illness or retrenchment .

    • Financial aid is typically given out in six-month blocks. Families with monthly household income of $1,900 and below, or a per capita income of $650, can qualify for assistance if they have little or no savings or lack family support.

    • In the financial year ending March 2015, 67,926 people were on the scheme. It is the ComCare scheme with the largest number of recipients - three out of four people who received ComCare help received short- to medium-term aid.

    • It is also the scheme that saw the largest spike in numbers - the recipients in FY 2014 more than doubled from 30,908 in FY 2010.

    Spending on short- to medium-term help quadrupled from $16.62 million in FY 2010 to $68.67 million in FY 2014.

Home is a one-room, second-storey Housing Board rental flat in Marsiling. It is about the size of three parking spaces, and Mr Md Ridzwan shares it with seven people - his grandparents, an uncle, three siblings and a cousin.

However, the family has another one-room rental flat on the ninth storey of the same block under his parents' names.

"I only go there at night with my brother (Rizan) to sleep. I spend most of my time in my grandparents' flat," he says.

Mr Md Ridzwan and his sisters - 15-year-old Ratwa Sari and nine-year-old Nur Diana - receive a total of $1,400 in ComCare assistance a month as they are still in school. He also works part-time.

"Wedding decorator, waiter, operating rides at Uncle Ringo's funfair, I have done all that before," Mr Md Ridzwan says. "What I earn, I give half to my grandmother."

He had to stop work this year after starting on an internship.

He does not invite friends home because he is reluctant to tell them about his family.

His brother, 24-year-old Md Rizan, has started work as an operations executive in a security agency, but his income is unstable.

Madam Pon, who manages the family finances, says most of the money goes to food.

She does not know whether her husband is entitled to financial assistance now that he cannot work.

The elderly couple also supports their son, Mr Kamal Ahmad, 53, who has a mental disability.

Mr Md Ridzwan says: "I cried when I found out my grandfather was ill. He is my role model because he worked hard to look after the family. He puts everyone else first.

"I had dropped out of Secondary 3 and met with bad company, but my grandfather did not give up (on me)." Mr Md Ridzwan subsequently finished his N levels on a Mendaki programme and got into ITE in 2014. But the worries over his family have affected his grades.

His grade point average slipped from 3.5 out of 4 in his first year to 2.2 in the first term of his second year. "I need to improve if I want to go to polytechnic," he says.

He knows that money is tight.

"I don't have a watch or cellphone," he says.

He uses a 7-inch Samsung tablet for schoolwork and messaging.

"I need a laptop for schoolwork, but I cannot afford it. It would cost $400 even with the school's subsidy," he says. "So I ask for more time to do computer work in school."

When The Sunday Times visited, his sisters were playing at the staircase and lift lobby, as their grandparents' flat is poorly ventilated. Nur Diana was riding a scooter with a broken seat.

"It is very difficult to study here," Mr Md Ridzwan says. "I want to be the first person to change.

"The family can't keep doing the same things over and over again in this environment."

But he has not given up his dreams of dancing, which he picked up in secondary school from a group of boys at the void deck.

"Maybe I can take part in a competition. I heard there are some with good prizes. Do you know of any?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Teen hopes to break long cycle of struggle'. Print Edition | Subscribe