By Nabilah Mohammad

Imagine you’re enjoying a meal at a café by the street when a man in tattered clothes come alongside your table with eyes downcast and hands outstretched holding a disposable cup containing a smattering of small change. What do you do – avert your gaze and disregard the beggar? Or fumble in your pocket for a dollar or two?

For some, giving money to panhandlers is a natural thing to do. They let their innate sense of charity triumph over their skepticism and urge to judge. There are also some who lash out in disgust, and some who are tied in the middle, torn between good intentions and suspicions. Are beggars here really as destitute as they seem?

The Karyawan team went to the ground to observe some beggars among the Malay / Muslim community and conducted several interviews. We found out that beggars usually fall into three main categories: the truly needy, the ‘lackadaisical’ and the ‘professional’ beggars.

The Truly Needy

The truly needy are those who turn to mendicancy because they genuinely have no way of sustaining themselves. This would include those who are physically disabled, mentally challenged and those whose conditions makes it tough for them to hold a job.

One such individual is Rashidi (not his real name). The Karyawan team met Rashidi outside Joo Chiat Complex where he approached us and asked if we would like to donate any amount or buy a keychain for $10. When the Karyawan team asked if we could interview him, Rashidi was really keen to share his story.

For five years now, Rashidi, 29, travels from his home in Bedok, to different locations around Singapore with a bag of keychains on his motorised wheelchair. Rashidi has cerebral palsy, where part of the brain controlling motor functions has been damaged. As a result, he suffers from multiple disabilities from his waist down. He can speak, but with difficulty. Rashidi was accompanied by an able-bodied man who identified himself as Rashidi’s brother. His brother was there throughout the interview to help us communicate with Rashidi effectively.

According to his brother, disabled people like Rashidi who goes around approaching pedestrians with trinkets, prefer to be viewed as ‘sellers’. However, they continue to be stigmatised by some, as beggars.

“I am not begging. I prefer to call it ‘direct selling’. I get the keychains myself and I sell them. The Cerebral Palsy Association has posted me to other jobs in the past, but I don’t earn much from there so I decided to turn to this. Most of the time, people will help and support me,” Rashidi explained.

Despite receiving generous handouts and positive response from the public, Rashidi shared that he also had a fair share of unpleasant encounters.

“People are generally nice to me. There are rare cases when I get mistreated. There was once, I was asked to stand up because they thought I faked my disability. There were also people who doubted my condition when they found out I have a mobile phone. Can’t handicap people own a phone too?” Rashidi said.

Rashidi shared that he can earn up to $180 per day, on a good day. Most people will give him money without taking his keychains. Some handed more as a form of charity. Rashidi explained that he sells on the street because he does not want to be a financial burden to his family.

When the Karyawan team asked how welfare organisations could help, he mentioned that he is not seeking any financial assistance as he prefers to be independent. Rashidi’s brother added that Rashidi bought his motorised wheelchair and mobile phone with the money he collected from his rounds of ‘direct selling’. Indeed, earnings can be substantial. In an article by The Straits Times titled “Upset over Foreign Tissue Paper Sellers” dated September 2015, Singaporeans interviewed said they can earn $20 to $100 in a few hours. In addition, people with disabilities can earn more than $100 a day. In another article by The Straits Times titled “Begging an ‘easy way out’ for some S’poreans” on August 2015, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) mentioned that beggars can sometimes fetch up to $200 in just a few hours.

According to the Destitute Persons Act, begging is illegal in Singapore and repeated offenders can be fined up to $3,000 or jailed up to two years. Individuals with no visible means of subsistence are admitted to welfare homes where they undergo rehabilitation programmes to prepare them for independent living, whenever possible. The number of destitute persons admitted into these homes was 250, 251 and 207 for 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively. Consequently, the implementation of this Act seems to have produced a community of unlicensed peddlers who are technically, not begging.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) imposed a nominal fee of S$120 a year and stringent eligibility criteria to individuals who wish to sell on the street. Enforcement actions are taken against repeated unlicensed offenders, and those in genuine financial difficulties will be referred to social service agencies, voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and self-help groups for appropriate assistance.

Rashidi added that the existence of able-bodied street peddlers is upsetting the elderly or disabled Singaporeans who are earning a living this way. Some have even attempted to exploit him for monetary gains.

“A Chinese guy, whom I believed was part of a syndicate, approached me once to ask if I wanted to work for him. I declined. They often look out for people with disability and send them out to beg on the streets. They will then take 70% of what we earned for the day,” Rashidi said.

Tissue Paper Peddling: A Lackadaisical Attitude or a Job?

If you frequent the mosques for Friday prayers, you would have likely seen groups of able-bodied panhandlers loitering outside the mosques, waiting for the prayers to end. They are often ‘stationed’ at the entrances of the mosques and some will hand out packets of tissues for sale. Although they are sometimes ignored by the busy crowds, most people regard them with compassion.

The Karyawan team approached a few ladies who were seen lingering outside a heartland mosque during Ramadhan, after the terawih prayers (nightly prayers during the fasting month), with tissue packets in their hands. However, compared to Rashidi, they weren’t as eager to talk to us. The team eventually managed to persuade one of them by the name of Azean (not her real name) who eventually agreed to spare a few minutes when the crowds thinned.

“I’m a single mother who needs to feed six kids. You think I want to do this? I have standards, you know. I was a property agent last time. I worked in an office, I wore nice clothes. Then I met with an accident and things took a turn. I couldn’t work. My ex-husband got incarcerated. I have depression. Don’t be too comfortable in life, things can change in a blink of an eye,” she explained in tears.

When the Karyawan team asked if she has approached relevant organisations for assistance, she nodded.

“I have gone to a number of government agencies and self-help groups to request for help. I can bake. I wanted to start a baking business so I’ve asked for financial assistance from various organisations for a startup aid but nothing came out of it. They asked for documents to prove my situation, but it was very troublesome for me, so I left. Anyway, I am not begging, I am selling tissue papers,” Azean claimed.

The Karyawan team also spoke to Mr Zul (not his real name), an officer working at the mosque, who has met Azean before. He shared that he has seen Azean outside the mosque for years – from the time her teenage children were still toddlers. Mr Zul also claimed that Azean’s daughters are now joining her in her ‘trade’. According to him, some of the congregants and mosque officers have seen a car dropping Azean and her kids off, a few metres away from the mosque, only to pick them again when they were done.

“They come here every week. We pity her children. It is not a good environment to grow up in. We fear that this will lead to an intergenerational problem. They will grow up to beg and then make their kids beg too,” Mr Zul said.

The Karyawan team also spoke to Mdm Aisyah (not her real name), a mosque officer in a different mosque that is also facing similar issues.  According to her, these panhandlers frequent the mosque weekly to beg. The number of beggars and their frequency swell up every Friday, especially during Ramadhan, and in the days leading up to Syawal.

“They are usually the same faces. There’s a lady who looks like her is in her late 40s, who often come with her children. She has one daughter continuing her ‘trade’. The lady was once a zakat recipient but refused to continue, as begging allows her to garner more income. When we approached her, she argued and claimed that she is not begging but selling tissue instead. I offered her a booth to sell her tissue, but she refused. Obviously she prefers to beg,” Mdm Aisyah continued.

Interestingly, Mdm Aishah and her colleagues at the mosque have seen the lady driving off in a car. They also found out that she actually runs an online baking business on Facebook which has over 3,000 followers.

“It’s either a habit or she knows begging is the fastest way to make money. There is also another case of a lady who comes here to beg in a wheelchair. We’ve seen her walking normally without her wheelchair a few times,” Mdm Aisyah said.

When the team asked how the Malay / Muslim organizations and the mosques can help this community, she mentioned that the mosque officers have consistently offer social assistance to these individuals but they repeatedly decline it.

The practice of tissue peddling extends beyond the conventional understanding of a job or an act of begging. Rather, it is a composite of the two. It a job which incorporates elements of begging. While tissue peddlers view the act as a job no different from the usual commodity exchange, it also entails the commodification of emotions as part of the process.

In an AsiaOne article titled “Disguised Form of Begging” dated October 2015,  Dr Michael Loh, a retired organisational psychologist said that “the selling of tissue paper is a disguised form of begging and with so much help available these days, begging is not by compulsion, it is by choice.”

Selling tissue papers may not always be the best solution for someone capable of making a living. In the long run, such persons could be better off picking up new skills through the various government-funded training programmes and seeking employment.

The Professional Beggars

While many beggars are honest enough simply to beg you for your money without pretext, there are others who utilise a variety of ploys designed to gain your sympathy or allay your doubts. These are people who beg as a career simply because they are good at manipulating the philanthropic feelings of the community. Their tatty dresses, simulated physical disabilities, and unkempt looks are enough to elicit pity and money from many well-intentioned pedestrians.

The Karyawan team had the opportunity to trail an elderly-looking couple who were begging at a coffee shop in Bedok North. The man had his arms bandaged and walked with a limp. We later saw them a few kilometres away and discovered that they were actually able-bodied young adults. By appearing old and frail with a limp and a bandaged arm, he managed to illicit a lot of sympathy (and money) from the patrons.

Based on our conversations with the people we interviewed, a great deal of these ‘professional’ beggars may be richer than some of their generous givers, yet, they remain beggars on the streets. This is because most of them find begging to be very lucrative, even more than some jobs, consequently making it difficult to quit even after gathering enough resources to seek proper employment.

To Give or Not to Give?

There is a complexity of factors that may lead to beg: low wages, limited access to decent-paying jobs, lack of unawareness of assistance schemes, education, preference to beg because it’s lucrative and so on.

The issue of whether we should give to beggars can be a complicated one, but giving money to the able-bodied can sometimes be the least helpful option, as it is a temporary solution.

Unless we’ve had personal encounters, it is definitely tough and time-consuming to differentiate between the truly needy and those who are out to exploit people’s generosity.

Whatever the motivation that leads them to beg, the best option is to refer them to the relevant organisations that can better assess their circumstances. There is also a ComCare Hotline if you happen to come across any destitute persons on the street. While one-off donations can help from time to time, perhaps it is better for them in the long run if we were to empower them and enable them to get help through a comprehensive social assistance scheme.


Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, July 2018, Volume 13, Issue 3.

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