“I HAVE TO DEPEND ON OTHERS.” Interview with former Dakota Crescent resident Tong

Tong, at 90, has no family and no children. He shares the struggles of ageing alone and his unease at relying on others. He talks about being caught in a vicious cycle of debt, and bitterly confronts us with how Singapore has left a generation of elderly people behind.

This is an excerpt of an interview from They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team, which examines public housing resettlement, ageing, and poverty in Singapore through the eyes of former Dakota residents, volunteers and academics. The book will be launching on 23 February 2019.

(Photo credits: Between Two Homes)

What is your name?

My name is Tong.

Are you married? Any kids?

Not married, no kids.

Do you still have a job now?

No work. I retired long ago, when I was 60 years old.

What were you doing before you retired?

Before I retired, I was on charity [i.e. welfare]. Charity was around S$200 at the start, later it increased to around S$500.

When did you know you had to move?

The government wants to redevelop Old Airport, so we have to move. They said long ago.

Will the shift cause you any inconvenience?

I’m old now, so it’s very difficult. I need help. That’s the thing. I can’t manage it myself.

Do you have any problems with your new house?

No real problems. I have used up the S$500 from the charity department. The government’s help makes it a bit easier.

Are the charities doing anything for you at your new place?

Need to take time to sort out the new place, so it’s easier to move about and I won’t fall. I’ll be in trouble if I fall.

That’s the thing.

We all need help from friends sometimes. But I have no friends, only help from the charity. Need to ask HDB to sort out the water and electricity supply. That’s the main thing. If it’s done properly, then I won’t fall.

Have you been to your new home at Block 52?

Yes, I go over to have a look every day, to see if there are any water leaks or other problems. I’ve checked the tap. I have. It’s going to be my home, I should take a look.

Do you have any opinion of your new house?

The environment is poorer. My flat now is a one-bedroom flat, it’s very spacious and airy. The new flat is small and not as well ventilated. It will take some time to get used to.

Do you want to go to your new home?

If you ask me, of course I don’t want to. Nobody knows what the new place will be like.

The old place is better, it’s more familiar, isn’t it? At our age, a change of environment is difficult.

Do you think there will be changes to the way you live after shifting over to Cassia?

Changes, not really. I can’t stay at home all the time. After taking a shower and doing my laundry, I will go out. I’ll only go home in the evening. I go out to buy breakfast in the morning. After breakfast, I will think of where to go. I will ride my bicycle everywhere. It’s like exercise.

Do you have friends that are moving over to Cassia with you?

I have very few friends here. They know my difficulty. Sometimes they’re afraid that I’ll ask to borrow money. So we don’t talk.

Because the S$500 from charity is not enough. Food, telephone, water and electricity bills, household items, haircut, washing powder, toothpaste, I need to pay the government rent, utilities… it’s not enough.

When I run out, I’ll borrow from friends. From my taxi friends, or vendors at the market. It’s not much, S$20 or S$30 each time, after I run out.

They cut the rent. S$26. Rent is S$26, utilities may also be lower. Maybe the S$500 will cover it, so I won’t need to borrow. I think so. There may be other problems later on, that I’m not sure about.

When I see the doctor, I need to take a taxi. Because of my high blood pressure, I get dizzy very easily on the bus. So I need the taxi, costs more than S$20 two-way, then the money runs out. I need to see the doctor every 3 months, 2 months. Sometimes when he is worried about my condition, he will ask me to see him the next month. Then my money will run out and I will need to borrow.

But when I borrow, I will always pay them back. When I get my S$500 I will definitely return. Drag four, eight, 20 days I will repay them. I won’t owe them the money for very long.

Why are you in such difficult times now?

Moving is already difficult. If you have financial problems, it will be even harder. The government promises S$1,000, but you may not see the money, you may not see the money tomorrow. It may be three weeks, four weeks, who knows?

Roger* told me, you have to clean up the flat, let them inspect the place, only then will they give you the S$1,000. If it doesn’t pass, they will deduct from the S$1,000. It’s hard, I tell you. I may seem well now, but it can change tomorrow.

I don’t talk about these depressing things normally. It’s only because you asked.

In your view, what is the most important thing in your life right now?

Let me tell you, at my age, money is the most important. If I have money, I can relax a bit and not clutch so hard.

When I borrow S$50 from Mr Tan, how long can it last? My charity money won’t be here till the 4th or 5th. Today is the 23rd, so many days before the S$500 comes again. Then I can repay the money. Once you repay, you have no money again. You must pay back the money you borrow.

That’s why none of this furniture is bought. The chair is a donation from charity. I will throw this one away. The one you are sitting on, I will bring over.

And now I just received a notification from the government that I have to pay around S$60. It gets more difficult. My life, my financial situation, it won’t improve. When I have to depend on others for living expenses, there’s no point in living. If things still don’t work out…

[Tong makes a hand gesture, as though he is falling from a great height]

...I will leave this world.

What is the point when you are suffering every month, every week? There’s no point. And it’s not like I’m still young.

If I’m young, I can still look for work. I can read construction plans, I am capable. Even though I didn’t go to school, I figured it out. Now I can’t do that anymore. My eyes and ears don’t work so well anymore.

To you, born as a Singaporean, what does Singapore mean to you? What is Singapore?

Singapore is a good place for the middle-aged, not for the elderly. Lee Kuan Yew built this place so that middle-aged adults can lead a good life. Those in their 40s and 30s. Because they have a lot of CPF savings. They can afford a condo, a car. Life is good for them, not for old people.

Look at young people these days, they drive Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, and Four Rings [Audi]. Their lives are good. For older people, if they don’t get money from charity, they end up in an old folks’ home.

Old folks’ homes are not a good place for old people. Old folks’ home are a place of suffering for old people. Like living in a bird cage. People outside, like us, with charity money, lead a slightly better life. It’s still difficult, but not as difficult as in old folks’ homes. It frightens me just to see it, frightens me to death.

Moving to the new place is also frightening. The only way is to look away. After a shower, I go out for meals and come home in the evening. Go out from the morning, 5 or 6 am. Don’t look at it. That’s what I think.

Thank you for talking to us.

You’re welcome. It’s good to let people know what life is like for elderly people like us. You all must also understand our lives.

People like yourself, you work hard to build a family, build your life, you will have a future. If you keep drifting, you will never make it big. You won’t have a nice home, a bungalow, a condo. You won’t be able to afford a car. These things don’t fall from the sky.

This interview was transcribed from Between Two Homes’ interview with Tong.

* Roger Neo was the Centre Manager at Tung Ling Community Services, which catered to the needs of Dakota residents.

For the next instalment of this series, check out Cassia Resettlement Team volunteer Rocky's reflection on caring for Tong.


About They Told Us To Move: Dakota—Cassia

They Told Us to Move: Dakota—Cassia tells the story of relocation through a three-part conversation, involving interviews with the residents, reflections by the volunteers of CRT who have helped them with resettlement, and essays from academics. Together, they draw out the complex issues underpinning each story, including urban planning; gender and family; community development and participation; ageing, poverty, and social services; civil society and citizenship; and architectural heritage and place-making.

The book explores human stories of devotion, expectation, and remembrance. It asks what we can achieve through voluntary action and how we can balance self-reliance and public services. This book is for people who want to understand the kind of society we are, and question what kind of society we want to be.

They Told Us to Move: Dakota—Cassia is available at all outlets of Books Kinokuniya, Times Bookstore, Grassroots Book Room, and here on our website