Homelessness in Singapore - Liyana Dhamirah, Author.



This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.


INTRO

I'm Prema Menon and you're listening to What Can We Do Singapore Stories. This is the third series of interviews I'm doing. And this time I'm speaking to individuals in Singapore, who work in nonprofits, charities, and the art sector. I'm from Singapore myself. And I've always admired those who have worked in these fields only because Singaporeans know how difficult it is not only in terms of earning a decent wage, but also in terms of getting Singaporeans to have difficult conversations about the things we need to work on as a society. Each one of them believes in the communities they live in or work with, and know that all of us can do better for each other.


PREMA

Today we'll be discussing homelessness in Singapore. It is not a topic that's widely discussed in the country or acknowledged for that matter. The first time I actually saw some sort of statistics on homelessness in Singapore, despite searching many times before, was late last year November 2019, in the Straits Times, which is Singapore's national paper. In it, it wrote about a first nationwide study that was done that estimated there were about 1000 homeless people in Singapore. Although it did say this was hard to determine. According to Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who led the study, Singapore's also missing an official definition of homelessness. And the closest thing that applies is the destitute Persons Act, where a person is found to be begging in a way that is a public nuisance, or has no visible means of subsistence, residence or cannot account for himself. The study outlines causes of homelessness and the three broad ones are insecure work in poverty, breakdown of social resources or family structure and support barriers to accessing housing services. The current policies encourage self reliance families As our first line support and public help, the government's help is always and must always be the last resort. My guest today is Liyana Dhamirah. Liyana lived through homelessness over a decade ago, as a single mother, who was also expecting a child. She released a book about her experience Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore.


PREMA

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Like I said, I read your book. I actually came across you on Instagram. I remember. I think I was following one of the bookstores and then I downloaded your book and I read it within a day. For the people who don't know you, could you please introduce yourself?


LIYANA

My name is Liyana Dhamirah. I am a mother of four. I've got two teenagers, one 10 year old and a five month old baby. I'm the founder of Virtual Assistant Singapore where we service other busy entrepreneurs and business owners from around the globe. I'm also the Author of the book that you mentioned, Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore. I do befriending work as well. I befriend other marginalised families. From the years of defending befriending work, that was where I get the boost or the courage or the spot to keep on to really highlight homeless, the book itself.


PREMA

I want to talk about the title, where you've included the untold story of a mother struggle increasing rich Singapore. Did that title for crazy rich kind of come out Around the time the CRAZY RICH ASIANS was being published?


LIYANA

Yes, around that timing and to cater to the follow up on that note. Crazy Rich Asians the movie talks about how Singapore is so luxurious or has the highest percentage of the rich here and spending money is like totally uncared for. I worked with a local publisher here in Singapore. And they mentioned to me about the idea of, hey, , this particular movie and we want to ground people back to reality that, hey, that could be a movie, but this is happening in reality is a first hand experience. So they prop up that particular idea to me, hey, why not? We have this kind of sub title, because I really stood my ground of having homeless as the title itself.


PREMA

My experience of being in in Sydney. Yeah, everybody thinks Singapore is this sort of utopia, but then sometimes I struggle trying to explain to them that all is not what it seems. I think that title of crazy rich is also really good to then pull in people who might have that idea and go, let's just now challenge that concept. For those who haven't read it, could you give us a brief summary about the book?


LIYANA

The book brings you on my life journey that happens two decades ago, up to this stage, of course. I share very intimately about my first hand encounter in one, poverty, second, being a single mother and a young single mother that time as well. Also, I touched on the point where I was 22 years old, seven months pregnant, I got kicked out of a family's flat and ended up homeless and staying by the beach. So that's a short summary of the whole thing about the book. Perhaps you can share your key takeaways from the book itself.


PREMA

It's known that Singapore doesn't have a safety net for those who fall through. But when you present this argument to people, there are those who might say, well, there's affordable housing, if you follow the rules, you can get it. But I think a lot of people forget that we are all not all made the same. We don't come from the same circumstances we don't earn exactly the same amount of money and I feel the system in Singapore, there is a gap that many people fall through because they may not be able to afford or maintain payments for HDB. But then neither can they go into the free market. So then where do people like that go? So, my key takeaway was that, that how your journey and trying to talk to the different MPs getting their help. And then it really only took another level when Ravi Philemon and Andrew Loh gave you support from The Online Citizen and they profiled your case. And then that suddenly got a lot more movement and I think you were moved overnight into into a house and into a flat.


LIYANA

That is a good argument actually because compared to my own initiative in finding help finding aid during the predicament and taking me over like what three months to try and get the proper aid. I needed someone or another party to just come into the picture, say something and then they exposed my case and I got help. Almost instantaneously or overnight.


PREMA

You did all the things that you were supposed to do, like you followed the rule-book, you went to talk to people who you're supposed to talk to. And Singapore, Singaporeans love a good rule book, but yet the system didn't work for you. Second thing I really liked was the friendships that you formed with the people who were down the beach with you. When you paint those scenarios, as a reader, and I live, my family home, my parents live near east coast. So these are scenes I would have seen, but never thought of it. And now when you talk about it, in your book, I connected to the people that I saw at East Coast with their tents. A lot of things are so glaringly obvious, but we somehow don't acknowledge it, because we come from a culture of not questioning,


LIYANA

Not only that, we come from a culture that is not questioning, but at the same time, we do not want to interfere in other people's business. And it's like a almost like a taboo for us, especially like in Asian culture to, meddle with other people's personal affairs or just say, Hi, are you okay? Do you need help? As I was recalling the scenes in my head and I was writing out the manuscript, it come forth to me this is very important because not many people know that this is going on. A lot of people like sweep it under the rug, pretend like as if Singapore is very clean, orderly, everything's efficient, like how you mentioned earlier on, and these are all the things that will never usually be discussed, shared in public, and honestly took a lot of courage. I went through a month or even years of, being okay with myself to really share the story. So that indeed is a struggle or a transformation or owning of your story is one of the process that I had to go through to even get this book.


PREMA

Sounds like a journey in itself. Because when the reader reads your book, they will see that a lot of the struggles started from a very young age, not to say that the homelessness at that young age, but the kind of little steps it takes to push you out into the edge to then suddenly fall off the edge. And these are all incremental things that happens in everybody's lives. But for some people, it's just that fine line between beings in a home or being on the street, that that journey is quite, quite incredible.. What was that journey like, in actually getting this book to be published? It's not a discussion that we want in the mainstream.


LIYANA

I faced a lot of stumbling blocks to get this book published as well. What I didn't share in the book is that after I got out of homelessness, I help the other families to obtain housing, on their end as well. So these are the families that are on the beach and those that I discovered along the way in my journey from that particular personal capacity of doing the befriending work. That is where I can really see that this keeps on happening, after even a decade after there is nothing, nothing at that particular moment, as I was writing the manuscript that shows or shares about homelessness in Singapore. Yes there are books about poverty, social inequality, written by academics, but there's nothing that comes from firsthand experience first person encounter, right? So that was, what fuel the fire in me to really, really get this manuscript or book published. And it was really such a huge relief, when one local publisher finally said yes, I got the partnership with them to really publish the book out and get it across the mainstream in Singapore. That is like a huge accomplishment. So I'm really thankful for that.


PREMA

Perhaps you could take me through the kind of feedback that you received.


LIYANA

I really, really am grateful that just from the publication alone helps to spur more conversation, also solutions and actions and I can see that the government is taking more initiative and effort right now. So, apart from ordinary Singaporean private messaging me on my various social media platforms, give you a saying to me, that also is inspirational. They're very inspired by the courage. The minister in Singapore starts to take notice and I got, I got contacted by them personally, the social service sectors from the government side, they write in to me anonymously, saying that from that book itself, it helps them understand better on the whole journey and help them to put in the effort to really help their clients right now. All of these social workers do not have easy on them because at one part, they need to juggle the red tapes of the system on itself, and on the other hand, are helping their clients, which is the other marginalised families and those people who are seeking help. They kind of wrote saying thank you for writing this book, it sheds more light. you discuss it very openly. And thank you, we hope that you can guide others who may fall through the cracks and what was the system to get proper help from them.


PREMA

Even from your befriending work that you've seen a lot of things haven't changed, they're still the same. What are some of the similarities that still persists today?


LIYANA

I can paint a picture of how someone can be homeless but at the same time, look alike an ordinary Singaporean as he or she can be right? They would usually hold a job regardless of their status right? Whether they have a place of residence or not, they will still hold a job, they will still wake up in the morning, they will still go to work because they know that they need to be self reliant. That is one of the things that our government usually push to fellow Singaporeans in Singapore. It can be as ordinary as can be, because it means they maintain their grooming and all of that, why they do so is because they want to keep it under the radar. So that one they would not invite any other troubles onto them because hey, they already facing a lot of challenges already. Finding help is like a huge mountain for them. Also it is baffling to me that in Singapore people say that when you get into this sorts of challenges, it's because of your own fault. And it's really, because that sometimes it just happens to be apart from all accumulating factors that you will land into that kind of position. Nobody wants to be homeless. No one.


PREMA

Is there a misconception that homelessness in Singapore only affects a certain racial group or a certain population?


LIYANA

Yes, there's a misconception. A lot of the preconceived notion is that homelessness only happens to those who are of a certain race, of the Muslim malays here in Singapore, so they are majority. But from studies itself, it goes to show that that's not it. So even academic studies shows that it doesn't apply to one single race itself. It doesn't apply to any form of family background.


PREMA

At that time when when you were going through this experience yourself, and even for the people who were there with you, did you know where to look automatically? Was that information available?


LIYANA

No. When it happens to me, I have no idea, no clue at all what to do. And this comes because I am as, as ordinary as other fellow citizens can be, which is going to work coming back being self reliant, just take care of your family and not meddle with other people's affair, right. But when that particular challenge happened to myself, I discovered on my own that, hey, there are two families within by the beach as well. Knowing about where to find help are also from the people by the beach, they sort of need to go through the same process the same journey on their end because they know themselves how painstaking the could be to get to where they really need or require help, or up to even the stage where I meet them at the beach and yesterday that was to say that they have to go through the process and they still can get out of that. Certainly back then or up to now, even that the government shares were to find help. That could be like a general information in some sort of way. But there are a lot of other schemes or a lot of other welfare state that the government has set out to do but not publicly announced it, what I find up to these days, so it takes the social worker to really understand what the family is going through to comes up with, okay, this is what you can do A, B and C. it could be that he has to retell over and over again, only to get the form of assistance or the form of support to see that he Yeah, this particular scheme you can apply for and get help.


PREMA

So the onus is on you, on the person that is experiencing homelessness to go get help. And then you can't get help here A, and you have to go to B and retell the same story. That must have been really taxing and must be really taxing for everyone.


LIYANA

Of course, it's emotionally draining. Put yourself in a position where you already control a lot of trauma, and they need to recall the trauma again and again, to let your voice be heard to let your story be told. And just to get one particular aid that you require, is very demoralising.


PREMA

Did you find during this period in your life, that men and women receive very different responses? I ask this question because in the book when you were going through this, you were expecting and I think when The Online Citizen kind of profiled your story, there was also the added element that you were an expectant mother living in rough conditions.


LIYANA

A good point that you bring up. Honestly, I don't know. But at the same time, I will have to raise this point up. I went to the social worker, I went to these various agencies being I was expecting I'm already. I was leading to my third trimester of pregnancy, and I'm heavily pregnant and it's very obvious right? But then itself on my own, by my own effort and my own accord by going through that I still do not receive that proper help, but it needs another push of from a news outlet or someone from media to come up with the kind of story, and write a letter to the MP to get my voice heard. It's more of how you get your story out. So I honestly am grateful that I got to just accidentally come across these people who, at the end of the day helped me but what about the other families who doesn't have the mediums right?


PREMA

For the everyday ignorant person, you might think the problem of homelessness is over when the person gets a home. Is that the case?


LIYANA

No. That's a short answer to that. But filling you more on that is that people would think that only the problem to homelessness is just because they do not have a home. But it's really beyond that there is the challenge that these families are these individual things are multi layers. So it could be they do not have a home because of they do not have a good relationship with their family or they might, they might come from a family background who tell them not to find help, because finding help is akin to begging in some sort of way, right? And they are embarrassed by that in some form. So because of all of these barriers, it land them into homelessness. So to me homeless is like a symptom instead of just the problem in itself. And when someone who is homeless, they got into a home that is not the end of it. Because after that, what else for the individual? Do they need some upgrading work to do? Do they need to work on themselves? Do they need to work with their family? Do they need to work on their financial? Because there are multi layers on why they land into homelessness.


PREMA

When you were relocated into a flat, was it a permanent flat that you got to live in? Or what was the experience of being relocated?


LIYANA

Moving into all these shelters or this temporary housing, where it will only know give you that shelter, for example, three months, six months. It's just a short term arrangement in that sense, and during that course of time the individuals or the families will need to work to still get a job, get financially independent, get a house of their own. Even if they are eligible to get the public rental housing, they will need to be holding a job. And some what I know some of the families or individuals that I've helped, they also face challenges in getting a job. that these shelters are just temporary is still not stable. It's still uncertain of these individuals and families and they still need to work a heck lot to get themselves out of that situation.


PREMA

And what happens if those three months to six months run out and you are still not able to find a job or another place what happens then?


LIYANA

Based on my personal encounter and some of the families that I know you will still need to meet the social worker frequently, you will still need to visit. They were saying to me that you reassess your situation after again recalling whatever that you have to go through. You kind of need to justify why you still need the temporary housing. It's only after that that they will still call with another three months or extend the length of stay that you can get, regardless of his temporary housing or the shelter. So I think just from that alone that experience it is tiring. And again, is recalling the trauma, the process that you have to go through that that takes a toll on one's even mental health.


PREMA

In your case how long did it take from being moved into this transitional housing to finally settling in to a home of your own?

LIYANA

Takes me three years. In the temporary housing I stayed for it's about a year and a half to two years. And it was only after that, that I finally received a letter from the Housing Development Board of Singapore, telling me that hey Liyana, you're finally eligible for a rental flat public rental flat under public rental housing scheme. from transiting from the beach, to the temporary housing. And finally, to rental housing, at least have a tenancy of a year or two years.


PREMA

Throughout your journey, even in the book, you talk about how you've always been quite entrepreneurial, and a business woman and you did a few different business ventures. It was quite brave to kind of enter into it during this period of uncertainty. That was a common thread that you are a person that will solve a problem. You won't sit idle. Out of this whole experience, you founded Virtual Assistants SG which is the company that you now run.


LIYANA

Going out in the traditional workforce that means to leave your children in some care, and then go out and work that doesn't fit for me. Because I find that based on my own personal experience back to my own mother, who was single mother back where I did not receive the attention or guidance that I need, right so I take it upon me to not repeat the same pattern that I had to go through. And that was why I thought I'll find based on how I as a single mother can still stay home, take care of my family, but still bring food on the table. finally virtual assistant Singapore worked because it allows me to stay home, different companies or different agencies can outsource administrative or secretariat stuff. o the tough work, but they just require internet and a laptop.


PREMA

Did you set it up keeping in mind that you would want to hire people who had been through similar situations as you have or people who have been through similar struggles like single mothers?


LIYANA

Yes and no, because initially as a I was setting up I questioned myself is if this method could work too. I questioned that as well if the method is the method work, given the traditional business operations here in Singapore, requiring us to be physically there, but hey, surprisingly, it does. And because of that, I kind of like well, wait a moment Why not I extend these to other single mothers as well.


PREMA

That's fantastic. So how many people do you have now working with you at at VA-SG?


LIYANA

Okay, at the moment, we have about 15 of us. But we are all working from home and scattered around.


PREMA

So actually, this COVID-19 pandemic is actually a really good test for how your business works, because a lot of people need this kind of work done and not necessarily in the office.


LIYANA

Yes. And it also it also boiled down back to us to, educate these particular businesses who have no choice right now in Singapore to transfer to online, right.


PREMA

Can we talk a bit about your befriending the average person might say, Look, I've been through this, and I just want to close that chapter in my life. You've gone ahead to then start befriending people from similar backgrounds, people who are experiencing homelessness, what kind of prompted you to do that. And what do you do in your befriending services?


LIYANA

The only the only word that pops of mind is being human because I know at a particular time when I was seeking help There's no one to guide me, I highly benefit from someone accompanying me going to somewhere someone to talk to them to share, he feels kind of less of a burden because of that expose me to be friendly other families and as I do so and as they share that thing, they are grateful they are thankful.


PREMA

So you're really there as a sounding board and a guide on how to navigate this situation.


LIYANA

And at times, it's well I accompany all of these families to the social worker appointments and all of that.


PREMA

I know you said a lot of the same problems still are there. Have you observed that it's gotten better?


LIYANA

I would say that's more awareness and there are baby steps in the solutions to take now that the government are getting even the religious buildings like the malls, the the temples or the churches in Singapore to open up the doors to just accommodate to this homeless or displace family physically, and give them like a one night with a proper roof instead of sleeping out in the open through my befriending work, it seems to me that they are looking to the method. Like for example, if I were to go to a social worker, they told me that Oh, you will need to wait for two weeks or a month for for them to get back to you, whether you are a proof of receiving the aid or not. But now it seems that Oh, within a week or two, they are able to get the answer that they require if they can get their help.


PREMA

What would you like to see happen? Because you've been through this, and you've also now been helping people who are going through this journey. But what are some things that in your mind, governments or institutions can put in place to support people who might fall through the cracks?


LIYANA

The law makers, policymakers need to get on the ground and find out for themselves what is happening instead of just sitting behind the desk and just pushing out laws, which is not relevant to all of these, people who tell, and social workers because they have a lot of things on their plate and they got to work around with so many limited or constricted, settings, that it's hard for them to go out to every MP, individual families to understand. But what is it? I honestly feel that social, the social service sector as well as the minister still got a long way to go in terms of finding what is exactly the needs of their fellow citizens.


PREMA

From what you are saying you saying homelessness is a symptom of many other underlying issues in a person's life. Do you think there ever will be a reality in Singapore that there will be public housing the sense public housing to support people who may not be able to afford it?


LIYANA

That also boils down to the lead owners of all of these other assets right that they have like the buildings and opening them up.


PREMA

Are there any non governmental organisations that help people who are homeless in Singapore?


LIYANA

Well, I do know of some organisations who open up projects to to provide housing for these families to falling through the cracks. Like for example of where I'm not sure if you're, you know about the Association of Women for research in action, right? This kind of organisations are the ones that really tapped into their own resources they reach out to at the expense of the the philanthropies who will open up their homes or to accommodate to house all of these other families who would require


PREMA

How can the average Singaporean who may not have spare flats or spare rooms help? Are there organisations they can donate to help educate themselves about this kind of stuff?


LIYANA

Well, one they can do is befriend, like how I do get to know the family, build the rapport, build the relationship so that it will be easier for you to suggest what they can take on or what form of help they can apply for. Because it this kind of family may face some challenges, even to go out and seek help, right? So you need to build that relationship and that rapport first. So that's one, befriending services. Secondly, relations because all these families will live paycheck to paycheck. And usually most of the time in the middle of the month A lot of them will not have any food left in their kitchen. Right? So the least we can do is to organise our coordinate like ration and then distribute it to all of the families in the public rental housing areas, or even if they were to see someone who are so called homeless who they kind of feel it trust your gut instincts because you may be ignoring it can be but somehow your gut tells you that hey, there's something not right here and we'll know that that person needs help.


PREMA

So when you say befriending it's really going down to the beaches where most of the homeless Singaporeans tend to congregate. I guess because there's already an existing community there is that why?


LIYANA

Yes, that is why there could be as the thing community one. in the beaches in the parts, sometimes in the central central parts of Singapore where when there's the business district. they would normally appear like at night, where a lot of people will a lot of the other. Other Singaporeans will be like at home asleep by then. As mentioned, they will usually try to be in the shadows they do not want to, bring any attention to themselves. So the least we can do is just hear their stories and see if there's any way we can accompany them to any other organisations to help or even inform the other organisations.


PREMA

In closing, if there's one thing that you want the listener or the person who's watching this a takeaway, what is it?


LIYANA

I would say you wouldn't lose out in being human. In fact, you will get more by extending your hand to just one person. And you will see that how that transformation can be a huge impact for the other individual and how you just by extending a bit of your hand, and perhaps just reaching them to the right organisation to get help, you will see how much of an impact you can be.


PREMA

Thank you so much, Liyana. I am very thrilled to have met you because I think reading that book and then meeting you, it just all comes together in my head. I think that the manner in which you speak and the manner in which you write are very, very similar and it's a very sincere sort of expression. Enough of everything that you believe in. And thank you so much for speaking to me today. Thank you and I stay safe. I wish you every success, and I hope to read more stuff from you the future.


LIYANA

Oh, yes. I have a book in August actually.


PREMA

What is that about?


LIYANA

That is what they called the birthday book of Singapore. So they are putting up together pieces from other writers here in Singapore. And yeah, that is scheduled to be out on the National Day, which is in August sometime that so I will share more coming to that date itself. But yeah, that's that's a lot more going on. And I'm honestly very grateful to be where I am right now and hopefully can impact others.


PREMA

Thank you so much. Liyana. Take care.


LIYANA

Likewise, you stay safe.


OUTRO

Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please rate or follow this series on whichever podcast service you're on. Another great way to support this series is to follow it on Facebook. On Instagram, just search for What Can We Do Podcast? You can visit whatcanwedopodcast.com where you can learn more about each episode's guest check out previous episodes and get in touch with me. What can we do is an independent podcast series produced and edited by me Prema Menon, and the audio you hear has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.


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