Taxi driver, security guard, eldercare worker: Stepping into the shoes of people I write about

The Straits Times' manpower correspondent Toh Yong Chuan working undercover as a security guard. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
The Straits Times' manpower correspondent Toh Yong Chuan working undercover as a security guard. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

I started thinking about this series two years ago.

As a Straits Times reporter covering the manpower beat, I meet and interview many workers in the course of my work.

One security guard I met in August 2012 stuck in my mind. Mr Edmund Chua, who was then 57, told me that he worked a 12-hour day, six days a week, and that many people looked down on his job.

"Mr Toh, you are a reporter, how would you understand what we go through," he said in a faintly dismissive tone.

His remarks pricked my conscience and the idea of putting myself in the shoes of low-wage earners and people doing jobs we do not pay much attention to came to me. I pitched the idea to my editor in December 2012 and received the go-ahead.

I picked the jobs of a security guard, a taxi driver and an eldercare worker because they represent three different segments of the services sector which employ about two in three workers in Singapore.

Security guards hold low-wage jobs in a sector that battles low morale and a massive shortage of about 10,000 guards. Eldercare jobs are unglamourous but will become increasingly essential as the Singapore population ages. As for taxi drivers, well who is not interested in the tales of the taxi uncle?

It took me more than two years to put the three-part series together, from the day Mr Chua spoke to me to the publication of the first article in The Sunday Times in November.

I took personal time off from work last year to attend the training courses and tests that are required of security guards and taxi drivers.

For 11 days in early July, I was a taxi driver plying the roads of Singapore.

For four days in late July, I was a security guard at a District 9 condominium and at the worksite of an uncompleted building in Little India.

My one-week stint as an eldercare worker at the Touch Seniors Activity Centre in Geylang Bahru was in August.

After the report on my experience as a taxi driver was published, Mr Chua sent me this text message: "I like the article you wrote... (unlike others) who only talk so much yet they never feel the pulse on the ground."

I wasn't seeking his approval when I embarked on this series, but his text message made the two-year project well worth it.

Just smile, don't talk: Rookie security guard learns to be seen, not heard

It was 7.45am when I reported for duty at the guardhouse of an upscale condominium in District 9, dressed in my uniform of white shirt and dark blue trousers.

Mr Johari, a middle-aged guard who had been working there for two years, showed me the ropes and the first thing he said to me was: "Watch out for the cars."

He meant I would have to memorise some residents' car registration numbers in a hurry if I was going to do the job right. Read more here

Tales of a taxi 'Uncle'

On my fourth day as a taxi driver, I drove for six hours at night with just one five-minute toilet break.

It was past midnight when I headed home and absent-mindedly got into the wrong lane at the junction of Bishan Road and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1. The traffic lights turned green and I took off, almost hitting another taxi.

When I got home, my wife greeted me with a hug and said: "You have the taxi driver smell." Read more here

Caring takes a toll on the heart

It is 8am on a Tuesday when I report for work at the Touch Seniors Activity Centre in Geylang Bahru, dressed in polo shirt, jeans and sneakers.

The 16-year-old centre is at the void deck of Block 61, one of two blocks of one-room rental flats in the ageing Housing Board neighbourhood.

About the size of two five-room HDB flats, it has a common area lined with potted plants and rows of tables and chairs, where eight women and three men, all Chinese, are having breakfast of kaya-on-bread and Milo. In one corner, an Indian man is reading The Straits Times. Read more here

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