The new Pioneer Generation: Freelancers

THE HANDYMAN: 'Ah Beng' kind of job? It gives him freedom

Mr Toh became an electrician on graduating from the Institute of Technical Education but later expanded into other areas, such as air-con maintenance and carpentry, to get more jobs.
Mr Toh became an electrician on graduating from the Institute of Technical Education but later expanded into other areas, such as air-con maintenance and carpentry, to get more jobs.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

As a teenager, Mr Desmond Toh would help his father fix up old attap (thatched) houses in kampung villages. It gave him a taste of working with his hands.

Now 45, Mr Toh has been a freelance handyman for more than 20 years. Many look down on his profession as "an Ah Beng-Ah Seng kind of job", he says (referring to being uncultured), but he has never contemplated a change.

"I don't feel like being tied down," he says. "I want the freedom to be my own person."

From morning to night, he drives from home to home around the island, installing lights, painting walls, repairing furniture - you name it. "If you're willing to pay," he says, "I'm willing to do it."

He pulls off around four to five jobs a day, rushing from Pasir Ris to Bukit Batok to Tampines.

  • FAST FACTS

  • NAME: Desmond Toh

    AGE: 45

    JOB: Handyman

    A FREELANCER FOR: 23 years

    EARNS PER MONTH: $3,000-$4,000

    ADVICE FOR OTHER FREELANCERS: "You can't just stay at home every day. You have to go out, make friends."

The back of his 19-year-old Mercedes Vito van is stuffed with the tools of his trade. A wood-cutter fits snugly up against stacked bottles of thinner and floor cleaner; a step ladder balances on top of drawers of screws in all sizes.

He prefers to work alone. "I found I cannot trust other people," he admits. "It takes me half an hour to install a light, but what if it takes my worker two hours? What if he breaks the light? How do I explain to the customer?"

UNPOPULAR PROFESSION

Nowadays in Singapore, it is quite difficult to find handymen. Young locals don't want to learn this trade because it is considered a dirty job.

DESMOND TOH

Mr Toh became an electrician on graduating from the Institute of Technical Education. To win more jobs, he taught himself to expand into other areas - air-con maintenance, for example, and carpentry.

He earns about $3,000 to $4,000 a month, although about $1,000 goes to expenses such as maintaining his van and health insurance.

"I don't have CPF," he says. "But I stopped worrying about it."

His chosen path means working odd hours, as many of his clients prefer him to visit after 5pm when they are home from work. He is usually still tinkering with appliances at 9pm or 10pm, and has been up as late as 2am rushing a job. He works on Saturday too, but his wife, 35, put her foot down when it came to sacrificing family time on Sunday with their daughter, 16, and son, five.

The bulk of his business comes through word of mouth. In the old days, he would get his friends who ran hardware stores to recommend him to customers. In recent years, he has started using phone apps such as ServisHero, which he can check on the go.

These apps have come in handy during leaner months such as June, when his customers often go overseas for holidays.

Mr Toh is aware that there are not many tradesmen like him around. "Nowadays in Singapore, it is quite difficult to find handymen," he says. "Young locals don't want to learn this trade because it is considered a dirty job."

Instead, he faces competition from foreign handymen who undercut his prices. "Maybe you charge $100 for a job, but the Malaysians come in and will do it for $50. We're worried now that when we raise the price, some home owners don't want to pay."

He adds: "Often they don't pay us on the spot because sometimes, something happens to the thing we fixed. Perhaps they damage it. Then they want us to go back and fix it again for free.

"We must say no at some point. Otherwise how do we survive?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'THE HANDYMAN: 'Ah Beng' kind of job? It gives him freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe