SINGAPORE - They embarked on a six month project to understand the needs of old folk who collect cardboard for a living so they could help them.
Instead the group of students met with a torrent of criticisms and negativity online, as if they had "committed atrocities and transgressions of the worst nature," said the group's team leader Koh Cheng Jun on Monday.
The attacks started after Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin posted on Facebook on Saturday that he had visited cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar with some members of the Youth Corps Singapore team.
In his post, Mr Tan said the findings of the project showed that not all old folks did it for a living.
"Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home," he said.
For his comments, Mr Tan was soon attacked by people telling him to get out of his "ivory tower" and actually talk to the old folk on the ground.
Mr Tan said that it was "not unexpected" that the post drummed up so much discussion and noted that there were some thoughtful comments as well.
"The main message that I wanted to convey is that we should not generalise the things that we see, and we should always speak to the people involved," he told The Straits Times.
"For those who genuinely need assistance, we must and we will do all we can to help. "
The online criticism was also targeted at Mr Koh and his team, but Mr Koh, 21, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate said the project had been done with good intentions.
"We hope that our research will not be swept under the carpet amidst the cacophony of noises and accusations of political posturing, just like how this social issue of cardboard collecting should not be brushed away as irrelevant," he wrote in a Facebook post.
"The research is a culmination of our project, a team of seven members from various institutions, and we are not political pawns that can be manipulated for reasons other than the genuine desire to serve the community."
They spoke to close to 45 people over two months, and conducted in-depth interviews with 13 of them. Mr Koh noted that while there were extreme cases, such as one cardboard collector who lives in a landed property and others who are in need of help, most are "somewhere in the middle".
"Some are able to sustain themselves, at least that is what they think...But if there comes a tipping point where they realise they need help, such as if they fall sick, then the government and social support systems have to be ready to step in and provide help," Mr Koh told The Straits Times.
The team is submitting the needs analysis report on Monday night to the Social Service Office of the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Although the project is over, they hope that the office will continue to build on the research with a larger sample, said Mr Koh.
Workers' Party member Daniel Goh, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, also weighed in on the issue on Monday on Facebook.
He said many seniors may attach more than one meaning to their actions of collecting cardboard - besides doing it for survival they may also seek exercise - especially in Singapore where dignity is valued.
"I don't think the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers are being malicious or insincere. They are not trying to whitewash the poverty issue," said Prof Goh in his post.
"The problem is this. They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation."