Luxury is a bathroom to call your own

From sleeping on the beach and in a van, single mum now looks forward to own flat

A fleeting, furtive affair at the office sent Shidah's quiet comfortable life into a tragic tailspin.

Her husband left her, sold their marital flat in Marsiling and took their two children with him to his native Malaysia.

She turned to her abusive lover, only to end up homeless, pregnant with twins, sleeping on the beach and in a van.

But barely three years on, the 39-year-old has turned her life around and is on her way to owning a four-room Housing Board flat.

Sitting in the living room of her spartan interim rental flat in Siglap, as her 21/2-year-old twins play nearby, the articulate woman exudes an air of quiet confidence.


She's suffered a lot, but never did she wallow in self pity. It was always, 'How can I get out of this?'

PAVE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR SUDHA NAIR, on how Ms Shidah did not let her problems drag her down but instead worked to overcome adversity

"It finally feels like my bad times are ending. And I can't wait to get my new home," she says.

Problems began when Ms Shidah, an administrative assistant, had an affair with a colleague in May 2010. When she tried to end it, her lover told her family about their illicit liaison and her marriage was over.

She had paid much of the cost of her marital flat but, mired in shame, she says, she handed her husband all the profit from the sale. Their children, now 15 and five, are with him in Malaysia.

"No one in my family was divorced, so what happened was quite a scandal," she says. Her parents were long dead and she was estranged from her only sibling.

Without a roof over her head, she says she had no choice but to move in with her boyfriend and his family.

For the next year or so, she says, she helped cook, clean and do the household chores for her boyfriend, his mother and stepfather and his 10 younger siblings.

Fourteen of them lived in three rooms of a four-room flat. "I was like a maid to them and had no money and no freedom," she says. "They would taunt me that my own family did not want me and I could be their slave."

Her boyfriend, a van driver and compulsive gambler, also began beating her. In the middle of 2011, they were kicked out of the flat because he owed his family money.

Between June 2011 and October the following year, they lived in his delivery van. Abusive and controlling, he made her accompany him everywhere.

She could have run away, but had nowhere to go, she says. "My family would say I brought all my problems upon myself by having the affair. So there was no point."

When she discovered she was pregnant with twins, she tried to rent a flat from the HDB, but was not eligible because she had sold a flat less than 30 months earlier. The HDB is known to make exceptions for divorced mothers, but she was not divorced yet.

The twins were born premature and she took them along when she went to see her boyfriend's MP, Dr Maliki Osman. She was referred to a shelter and to Pave.

Pave executive director Sudha Nair remembers the first time Ms Shidah came to see her, cradling an infant in each arm. "Both babies had very high fever and were throwing up. Our first task was to send them to hospital."

Social workers at Pave liaised with KK Women's and Children's Hospital. The twins needed a special kind of expensive milk, which the hospital gave free for a year.

Dr Nair also wrote to the HDB asking for a rental flat on compassionate grounds, as Ms Shidah did not meet the rental criteria. She moved into the Siglap IRH (interim rental housing) in April 2013, when her twins were less than a month old. "Having your own bathroom after so many years was a luxury," she says.

The social workers linked her with the Legal Aid Bureau for help with her divorce proceedings and the Social Service Office for aid. She was granted $900 per month, plus rental and utilities vouchers.

But she was not content to live on aid. Even as she tended to her babies, she quickly got to work, baking cookies to sell and ironing clothes for residents in neighbouring blocks. "My boyfriend had emptied my bank account and I wanted to make money quickly to buy another flat," she says.

Dr Nair is impressed with her courageous, can-do spirit. "She's suffered a lot, but never did she wallow in self-pity. It was always, 'How can I get out of this?' "

When the twins were six months old, Pave helped Ms Shidah find an infant care centre within walking distance. The full fees are around $800 per month but, because of her financial woes, she paid only $10 per child through higher ComCare subsidies which Pave applied for.

The Workforce Development Agency helped her get a job as an administrative assistant.

"To me, the biggest advantage of having Pave around was that they could deal with so many problems all at once so I could concentrate on my kids and work," she says.

Recently promoted and earning nearly $2,000 a month now, she is waiting for a four-room flat.

"The main reason I can get it is that I had enough CPF savings from having worked for 15 years during my previous marriage," she says. Although her former boyfriend used up all the money she had in the bank, he could not touch her CPF savings.

The future is uncertain. Her twins have a blood disorder and have been in hospital seven times since they were born. She worries about their healthcare costs.

But there is also plenty to look forward to. Her new flat is being built. She recently re-established contact with her two older children, who are Singaporeans, and hopes to bring them home.

She has also finally broken up with the abusive boyfriend who took her money and damaged her self-respect.

"But he could not take away my education and my determination," Ms Shidah says. "And that is what I need to rebuild my life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Luxury is a bathroom to call your own'. Print Edition | Subscribe