The tissue issue

By Tan Yu Jia

A plastic chair to rest her knees.

A purple grocery trolley filled with tissue packets. Her arm outstretched with tissue packets in hand. This is how Mdm Zakaria, 47, makes a living every day at Jurong Point.

She is the sole breadwinner of her family, as her husband suffers from a heart condition and cannot work. As people put money into her hand, her upturned cleft lip curves into a smile.

When we walk past tissue paper sellers like Mdm Zakaria at MRT stations and shopping malls, we may often be faced with a moral dilemma.

We know it is impossible to buy from every one of them, but rejecting them leaves us feeling guilty.

So instead of debating whether to buy from them or not, perhaps it is time we find more effective ways to lend a hand.

The selling situation

In 2014, the National Environmental Agency (NEA)’s Street Hawking Scheme declared that tissue paper sellers who sell from a stationary spot are unlicensed hawkers, and introduced a $120 licence fee.

According to NEA, only 11 sellers across the country are licensed.

Without a licence, most sellers can forced to stop selling. They do not have job security, unlike other seniors working in similarly low-wage contractual jobs, said Assistant Professor of Psychology Andy Ho from NTU’s School of Social Sciences.

At its implementation, NEA’s $120 license fee caused a furore as members of the public expressed their anger at NEA for being unsympathetic towards this low-income group. Many of these comments were posted on NEA’s facebook page.

NEA then clarified that their officers would first direct illegal hawkers with genuine financial difficulties to social service agencies before imposing the $120 fee.

However, the Agency also said: “Street hawking may not always be the best solution for someone trying to make a living.”

Financial struggles

However, these sellers may not have much of a choice. Many of Singapore’s tissue paper sellers that I have talked to while volunteering are struggling with the hefty cost of medical treatment.

Mr Najib sits by the walkway outside Choa Chu Kang MRT station with a walking stick by his chair. He relies heavily on the walking stick due to his paralysed right leg, the result of a stroke three years ago.

The lunchtime crowd at Choa Chu Kang bus interchange whizzes past Mr Najib, who sells tissue at the same spot every day. PHOTO: LEE YI HONG

Compared to the $4,500 salary he earned as a facilities manager prior to his stroke, Mr Najib now earns about $600 a month from selling three packets of tissue for a dollar — sometimes he receives $10 notes from well-meaning passers-by.

In contrast, contract workers like cleaners earn anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per month, according to Dr Ho’s research about seniors in low-wage menial jobs.

Besides NEA’s efforts to direct such illegal hawkers to social service agencies, Workforce Singapore (WSG) Career Centres also provide career training and advice to help them secure a long-term job.

Individuals with disabilities can also find work via the Open Door Programme’s Jobs-ODP database, where they can access hiring postings online for free. Additionally, organisations like SG Enable provide job-matching for disabled individuals.

“Many tissue paper sellers are not aware of this financial help available,” said Dr Ho. Instead of using job portals, a lot of them, including Mr Najib, sell tissue after getting advice from their friends.

Instead of just giving them a meagre dollar for three packets of tissue paper, we can point them towards these other sources of help.

Restoring dignity

As much as they need money, many tissue paper sellers also desire more from us.  

According to Dr Ho, they often belong to the lower socio-economic class, falling behind in terms of education and social skills. As a result, they may suffer from lower self-esteem.

“What they long for is acknowledgement and respect,” he added.

We exacerbate the situation when we stuff money in their hands and walk away quickly. Michael Loh Tong Seng, a retired organisational psychologist, stated in a commentary published in The New Paper in 2015 that tissue paper selling is a “disguised form of begging”, which highlights our thinly veiled disparagement of sellers.

Giving them money without buying anything makes monetary sense but to Dr Ho, it does not help them with their self-esteem.

They do not want to be looked down upon as a beggar waiting for donations. Instead, they want to feel empowered earning their own livelihood. Many take pride in their work as well.

Joan (not her real name) hawks tissues outside the entrance of a neighbourhood mall. She is wheelchair bound due to a birth defect, and blind in one eye after being hit by her ex-husband.

Passers-by have criticised her, saying that selling tissue paper is a useless job. “I don’t believe in that,” Joan says. She wants to be useful to society.

Even though her resources are limited, Joan believes in giving back to people. From her meagre savings, she still buys Christmas presents for her family and friends every year.

As she sells tissues, she also looks out for people who are under the weather and makes it a point to talk to them.

“If I sell tissue, it doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to society,” Joan says. “Cheering people up is meaningful too.”

It’s easy to reach out

We can start to reach out by befriending them, or acknowledging their presence with a simple greeting. If time allows, we can also stop in our tracks and have a chat to find out how to help them more.

Maybe they need long-term financial aid, or job opportunities that suit their condition. We can point them to that. If not, a simple “Hi, Uncle!” can make them feel accepted too.

I spoke to Mdm Zakaria on a warm Friday evening while crowds whizzed past us. It initially felt out of place to stop and chat with her, but as she opened up, the awkwardness melted away.

I asked what I could do for her, as I didn’t have enough cash with me.

She smiled. “You talk to me, is very good already,” she said.

We don’t always have to give money to make an impact. We can start by reaching out to these tissue paper sellers in need. Proper financial support is available, and their dignity can be restored – all they need is someone willing to stop and care.