Being There

Extra extra, read all about it

You are reading this newspaper, thanks to moonlighters who lift heavy loads to deliver it to your doorstep before dawn breaks

Newspaper deliveryman Richard Lim (right) shows reporter John Lui how to deliver The Straits Times at lightning speed.
Newspaper deliveryman Richard Lim (right) shows reporter John Lui how to deliver The Straits Times at lightning speed.ST PHOTO: MALCOLM KOH

This newspaper delivery man is beginning to get on my nerves.

“I can do it, sir,” he says with icy politeness, then quickly drops a copy of The Straits Times behind a metal gate.

Mr Richard Lim, 47, is supposed to show me how to deliver the papers, not do it for me.

He marches along an HDB corridor, delivering the next three newspapers so quickly it feels as if he is trying to shake me off his trail.

The photographer and I break into a jog to catch up with his short, muscular frame. His legs whip back and forth at high speed. He pulls a shopping trolley laden with broadsheets and tabloids.

I snap. “Okay, let me have this one,” I almost shout.

“No need, sir,” he says stonily, tightening his grip on his battered-looking trolley.

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’,” I say through clenched teeth, putting my hands on the red wagon.

After a short and very polite tug-of-war – “Nonono,” he cries, “Yesyesyes,” I reply – he reluctantly lets go. I can almost hear his sigh of disappointment. Mr Lim has to complete his route by 6.30am. A pesky reporter pretending to do his job for a day is not what he needs.

For a piecemeal worker like him – he earns $3.50 per publication per month – time is money, in the most brutal sense of the phrase.

What’s more, today is heavy news day. About one kilogramme’s worth, to be exact. The Straits Times on Saturday – the edition you are holding today – is a backbreaking beast. 

I will try making sure that every sheet of this 224-page sumo wrestler of a read is sent to 70 or so subscribers living in two blocks of flats in the Serangoon area, along with a half-dozen other English and non-English papers. For the unhappy Mr Lim’s sake, I will do it as fast as I can, for as long as I can.

Delivery men are paid extra for inserting the Life!, Saturday Special, Classifieds and other sections into the main paper. ST PHOTO: MALCOLM KOH

From 9am to 5pm, he is a goods van driver. But like 3,000 others in Singapore, he will show up at a distribution point every day, seven days a week, a few hours before daybreak. He is a moonlighter, in the truest sense of the word. 

Just after 3am, a handful of workers gather at the void deck, swarming over the different sections of The Straits Times dropped off minutes ago. When newsprint prices are high, thieves have been known to swipe unattended bundles to sell to recyclers.

This Saturday morning, workers fall upon the bundles, tearing the cords and peeling off the brown wrappers.

In several ways, Mr Lim’s job is a perfect mirror to changes in Singapore lifestyle. The pre-dawn brigade used to be made up of schoolchildren out to make some pocket money. In recent years, parents have mostly put an end to the practice. 

According to numbers from the Singapore Press Holdings, more than 90 per cent of delivery workers are now men, mostly aged 35 or older.

And as more people have switched to a five-day work week, Saturday has become a stay-home-and-read and shopping day – so advertisers want to catch their eyes with special offers. Hence the gargantuan proportions of the Saturday paper. 

No matter how heavy a bundle is, people like Mr Lim are paid the same. That is part of the problem. He has just joined the trade but he has told his boss that he plans to quit.

Newspaper delivery staff are leaving in droves. The heavy Saturday paper is one reason. The other is that other jobs do not need workers to clock in at the ungodly hour of 3am, every day of the week. If Mr Lim chooses to take a day off, he might need to ask his wife or relative to take his place, or else get docked the day’s pay.

Reporter John Lui and deliveryman Richard Lim gather with others at the void deck at 3am to collect the newspapers and insert other sections into the main paper. ST PHOTO: MALCOLM KOH

Singapore Press Holdings, working with the newspaper vendors and trade unions, are on a recruitment offensive. They advertise, match candidates to within walking distance of their delivery zones and try to increase or reduce the size of a carrier’s zone to match his needs.

And what we are doing now at the void deck at 3.30am – inserting Life!, Saturday Special, Classifieds and other sections into the main paper – is paid work. It can be done by machine, but giving the task to delivery staff lets them earn a few more dollars. On average, a delivery worker makes $500 a month for two to three hours work a day.

Carry my trolley

The labour, the hard sweaty stuff, comes next as I struggle with my nemesis – Mr Lim’s much-repaired red trolley, with a handle that is on the verge of snapping off.

We start at the top floor. At the end of the corridor, the first trolley-load has to be taken down a floor using nothing but elbow grease. The lifts do not serve all floors here and even if they did, Mr Lim thinks it is quicker to use the stairs. The block design means I have to walk up some flights of stairs.

I keep the delivery card, with symbols stating each home’s subscriptions, in my back pocket. Quite soon, the effort of manhandling the little red vehicle down the stairs and around tight corners makes me look like something the cat coughed up.

I try to focus my vision, growing more unsteady by the minute. I match the right paper to the right house – most of the time. 

Delivery starts from the top floor and it is quicker to carry the cart to the floor below. ST PHOTO: MALCOLM KOH

Mr Lim is looking on worriedly, like an unhappy hawk. Without saying a word, he drops off papers at homes my sweaty eyes have missed.

After working 10 corridors, I have worked up a nice bubble of rage against my fellow writers (write shorter pieces, for God’s sake), and the trolley, which, in my hands, has tipped over several times.

After I have taken care of 50 subscribers, I let Mr Lim have his red wagon back. It is rapidly approaching 6am and he is dying to finish delivering to the other 70 subscribers on his route. He needs to scoot to his other job.

His employer, 50-year-old Mr Jayakumar S.P., runs Sun News Distributors and remembers the bad old days when he was stared down by a pair of thugs sent by a rival distributor while he was trying to sell subscriptions in what he thought was a new, unclaimed housing estate.

But that is nothing compared to the headaches he has these days trying to find more Mr Lims. Current regulations do not allow him to use migrant workers. He is hoping that my experience, tough though it might have been, will encourage those who have the time and do not mind working up a little honest sweat to take up the job.

And if you do take up his offer, remember to wear comfortable shoes, and for goodness sake, bring a trolley that works.