Stories of hardship, resilience and hope

The two reporters behind this project - one covering the community beat and the other, low-wage workers over the past five years - wanted to go beyond the big-picture trends, numbers and government announcements in tackling the poverty issue in Singapore.

It was conceived around the simple idea of letting those struggling with their finances tell their stories.

The reporters would craft their life stories to give The Sunday Times readers a broad, unvarnished ground-up picture of what living in financial hardship is like.

It was not easy coaxing these people to talk. For every family who agreed, at least two said no.

Some who said yes changed their minds, while others were busy working in the day or too tired at night to speak to the reporters.

One interview started at 10.30pm and ended at close to midnight.

Those with children often asked not to be named or photographed, so as not to draw ridicule from their children's schoolmates.

The parents felt a sense of shame, or even guilt, for not providing for their children better.

Listening to the stories left the reporters drained.

Both of them were almost in tears over the plight of an 85-year-old man with lung cancer.

He had been his family's main breadwinner even at that age, till illness struck him down.

These families have much in common. They live in Housing Board rental flats, have big families and suffer either health problems or have experienced setbacks in life.

Some of their life choices are baffling, like why the elderly karung guni man would spend over half of his $450 monthly government handout on cigarettes and beer, or why the single mother would commit to the big purchase of a new four-room flat despite mounting debts, or why a couple with primary-school education have seven children.

While resigned to their lives, most still harbour the hope of breaking out of the poverty cycle.

The project may have started out giving voices to various people living in poverty in Singapore.

However, it also found stories of dignity, resilience and, very importantly, the desire for a better life.

Toh Yong Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Stories of hardship, resilience and hope'. Subscribe