Family of 7 live on $1,300 a month

Mr Ong with his mother Ng Tang Neo, 72, and wife Chew Bee Lee, 36, and their three daughters. He puts in long hours as a cooked food stall assistant to make ends meet, working from around 7am till nearly 9pm.
Mr Ong with his mother Ng Tang Neo, 72, and wife Chew Bee Lee, 36, and their three daughters. He puts in long hours as a cooked food stall assistant to make ends meet, working from around 7am till nearly 9pm. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Some people call sole breadwinners like Mr Ong Leong Hock the "sandwiched class" because they have young children to take care of and elderly parents to support.

But Mr Ong, 49, is literally sandwiched between his wife and three daughters on two beds joined together in a room every night. His family of five would squeeze in a room because the other room in their three-room flat is occupied by his parents.

Though he promised his wife when they got married 13 years ago that they would get a place of their own, it has yet to materialise because finances are tight.

"I have applied for a two-room rental flat nearby because the kids are growing and need their own space and my parents can rent out the room for some income," says Mr Ong in Mandarin. His three daughters are aged four, 12 and 13.

To make ends meet, Mr Ong puts in long hours as a cooked food stall assistant. He starts work at the economical rice stall at the nearby Kovan Hougang market and food centre just after 7am and knocks off at nearly 9pm on weekdays.


  • NAME: Ong Leong Hock

    AGE: 49

    FAMILY: Lives in a three-room flat in Hougang with his wife, three young daughters and his parents.

    JOB: Cooked food stall assistant

    HEALTH: Family healthy except for his 80-year-old father who has lung and heart problems, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

    FORMS OF ASSISTANCE: Children on Ministry of Education Financial Assistance Scheme


    PER CAPITA INCOME: $260 (excluding his parents who dig into their savings to help support themselves)

    EXPENDITURE: $800 on food, household expenses

    • Mr Ong belongs to a lower-income group in the "sandwiched class" who support both their parents and children, and struggle with living expenses.

    • However, the term sandwiched class is used more commonly here to refer to the squeezed middle class who pay personal income tax but do not obtain sufficient government subsidies to achieve their aspirations.

    • Both the lower- and middle-income sandwiched groups who have young children and elderly parents to take care of face added financial and care-giving stresses.

    • That is why last year's Budget had measures to help them with the cost of living, including halving the monthly $120 concessionary maid levy for those with children or elderly parents, removing fees for all national exams, top-ups to education accounts and a 50 per cent personal income tax rebate for last year, capped at $1,000.

Yet he brings in only $1,300 a month, barely enough to provide for all seven family members. So his 73-year-old mother, until recently, has been working as a cleaner to supplement the household income.

Last week, she quit her $1,000 a month cleaning job to help care for her husband, 80, who has lung and heart problems, diabetes and other chronic medical conditions.

Together with her daughter-in-law, a homemaker, they wipe him down every day and cook for him. Last Sunday, he was admitted to hospital after coming down with a viral infection. He has since been discharged.

"We scrimp and save by sharing packets of food and getting donated clothes from the aunties at their schools," says Mr Ong.

"But the bigger headache comes when one of the children gets a fever in the middle of the night, as the hospital bills and taxi fares can come up to a few hundred dollars," he adds. For such situations, he borrows money from friends, as he has no savings.

After dropping out of Secondary 2, he worked as a food delivery man and a food stall assistant.

"It is stressful coming home after a long day having to worry about the health of my parents and putting food on the table for the children, but this is reality," he says.

When asked about switching to a better-paying job, he says: "With my age and educational qualifications, who wants to hire me? The most I get is $1,800 as a delivery man, but the sums work out to be the same. As a stall assistant I get free meals and it's walking distance so I save on transport."

He has not applied for the ComCare financial assistance scheme as he has not heard of it. "My English is not good and I don't have any computer so I don't know what all those are," he says. However, his three daughters are on the Ministry of Education Financial Assistance Scheme that covers textbooks, school attire and transport expenses.

He does not have any ideas on how to plan a better future. "By the time I come home, I am too tired to think. I can't go for those skills upgrading courses because my pay will be cut if I take time off work. The economy is so bad, what if I get retrenched? Better to stick to what I am familiar with," says Mr Ong.

"I would rather look for extra part-time jobs during the weekend, as they give me immediate cash, than worry about the future."

The loving father makes a point to set aside time to bond with his family. Last Monday, the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, he had a day off, so he took his family out to nearby provision stores to stock up on household supplies.

"Since I can't give them much, I always nag my kids to study hard so they can find good jobs," says Mr Ong. "For myself, I don't dare to dream because there are no savings, no starting point. I will take one step at a time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Family of 7 live on $1,300 a month The 'sandwiched class' breadwinner'. Subscribe