Tissue issue: Many sellers, but only 11 are licensed
One tissue seller says he once made $8,000 a month. Only 11 sellers are licensed, but many throng the streets, including foreigners
Though it is late - 10.30pm - Mr Mohamad Isa Saat, 63, hobbles along Bedok Road and approaches a group of diners at a popular Halal restaurant.
He stops and leans on one of his crutches, with the other hand holding four packets of tissue paper.
"Uncle, Aunty, you want tissue paper?" he says politely.
The diners glance at him and immediately notice that he is disabled, without his right leg. One proceeds to give him $1 for the tissue packets.
Mr Isa calls out well wishes to the buyer: "May your wishes come true and God bless you." He then hobbles to the next table.
He is part of a small group here - one of the few people who have a licence issued by the NEA to sell tissue paper.
The conditions of the licence say that he must sell from a single spot, but Mr Isa goes around the eateries at Bedok.
He says he has an "okay" to do so, but will not say from whom.
Mr Isa was persuaded to let us shadow him for a day after this reporter explained that The New Paper on Sunday is trying to understand the lives of tissue paper peddlers in Singapore.
Mr Isa is grateful for the licence, which he received only a few months ago.
He has been selling tissue packets for about two years, after losing his right leg in a car accident in 2009.
He remembers only that a car crashed into the taxi he was riding in.
SELLING FOR A LIVING
He subsequently lost his job, and says he had to turn to selling tissue paper for a living.
No one would hire him after he lost his leg, he claims.
He lives apart from his family - he is divorced and his two children have their own families to look after.
Home for the past four years has been a rental flat which he shares with a flatmate. He lives simply and goes to the nearby hawker centres for food.
He even skips his meals sometimes.
Mr Isa says ruefully: "When I told my family I might start selling tissue, they were so shocked and asked if I had other options."
It was difficult in the beginning. He wore a cap slung down low on his head so that no one would recognise him.
"I felt very embarrassed and scared that people who recognise me will find out that I'm selling tissue. But now I'm okay because the people here (Bedok) make me feel welcome."
Mr Isa says he makes a good living, selling three packets for a dollar.
He gets his supply of tissue packets from ABC Bargain Centre near Bedok Interchange at $4.90 for 72 Beautex tissue packets.
He claims he once made $8,000 in a month. But he had no way of proving this claim.
When we watched him from afar one night last week, 10 people bought tissues from him in an hour.
Five gave him $2, four gave him a dollar and one gave him $10 for the tissue. Buthe cannot go on for hours without rest.
Although he told this reporter that he works from 6.30pm to past midnight "every day", he was nowhere to be found on subsequent nights.
When we tailed him for the day, he told us he was concerned about preserving his livelihood. There is more competition from other sellers these days.
There is a middle-aged woman who also sells tissue in his area. He grumbled that a man with no fingers sometimes accompanies her to gain more sympathy.
Mr Isa says: "Maybe after seeing my state, she decided to bring him in."
Regular customers and shopkeepers in the area have also witnessed the competition between the tissue peddlers.
A senior manager of a restaurant there, Mr Lalit Kumar, 30, says that usually there are three or four tissue peddlers in the area.
He said: "Abang (Malay for brother, referring to Mr Isa) is the nicest and he doesn't force people to buy his tissues, unlike a woman who always disturbs the customers and blocks the way."
Mr Isa has to also compete with foreigners.
He says they are from Vietnam and China. "Some of them are very greedy, they not only sell at Bedok, they go all over Singapore to sell."
He finds it hard because not only are these able-bodied folks quicker than him, they may be selling for the wrong reasons.
Mr Isa heard from a regular customer that these foreign tissue sellers are actually on holiday to visit their children who are working here.
Shaking his head, he says he can only hope that they will stop and give needy people here a chance.
Mr Isa hopes to one day to save enough to go on the haj pilgrimage.
Before he started selling tissue, he had very little savings because most of the money was used for medical bills.
He also had no savings in his Central Provident Fund account.
Despite his struggles, Mr Isa said: "I'm very happy and glad that I'm still alive."
- Additional reporting by Hariz Baharudin
"When I told my family I might start selling tissue, they were so shocked and asked if I had other options."
— Mr Mohamad Isa Saat
Illegal to sell tissue paper without a licence
Some tissue paper peddlers are breaking the law.
Only 11 of the 362 licensed street hawkers sell tissue paper according to the National Environment Agency's (NEA) website.
It is illegal to sell tissue paper, food and other products on the streets without a licence.
BREAKING THE LAW: A tissue paper seller at Simpang Bedok.
The licence allows them to sell only at fixed locations.
An NEA spokesman told The Sunday Times that in the first six months of the year, the NEA rounded up illegal hawkers selling tissue paper, mobile phone accessories, clothes and other goods.
Out of the 145, about half were foreigners.
Able-bodied women from China, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam were seen selling tissue paper at food centres and coffee shops in Geylang Serai, other parts of Geylang and Chinatown.
First-time offenders are fined $300, while repeat offenders may be taken to court.
The NEA said Singaporeans caught hawking illegally and found to be in genuine hardship are referred to social service agencies.
Disguised form of begging?
Is it begging if the tissue paper is for sale?
Yes, says retired organisational psychologist Michael Loh Tong Seng, who has over 30 years of experience.
He says: "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."
But is this fair?
We would have all encountered those who peddle tissue paper.
I spotted four at a popular eatery in Bedok. They are there most nights.
You will also encounter them along underpaths in Orchard Road.
Dr Loh is correct. There are many schemes to help those with little means.
But do these tissue paper peddlers understand they can be helped? Or do they prefer to fend for themselves?
I went around the island to talk to some of these tissue paper peddlers. Many were wary and some were outright hostile, but all said they needed the money.
I met retiree Lee Ah Ming, 92, at Eunos Bus Interchange. He sells fewer than 10 packs a day, earning about $14. He uses the money to feed himself.
When I pointed out the help which is offered by different voluntary welfare organisations, he laughed before saying: "Who are these people, what good can they do?"
I met Mr John, a visually impaired tissue seller, at a walkway near Toa Payoh MRT station on Monday.
He said he has been selling tissue paper for the past seven years since he was retrenched, and the money pays his medical bills and also helps his sick parents.
He claims that he does not qualify for help as his brother, who earns $2,000 a month, lives with them.
I wonder if some use this as the route of least resistance.
I am not claiming to understand the complexities of their circumstances but those I spoke to know little about the help available, and some will not seek them out.
There have also been reports about able-bodied foreigners travelling here to sell tissue packets. So what can be done?
There is actually a little-known licensing scheme for tissue paper sellers.
According to the National Environment Agency website, these sellers have to apply for licences under the Street Hawking Scheme and the annual fee is $120.
There are only 11 street hawkers licensed to sell tissue paper.
Unlicensed sellers with financial difficulties are referred to help agencies, it says.
None of the 15 sellers I approached are licensed.
CAT AND MOUSE
Dr Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore and an authority on Singapore's welfare policies, is all for enforcement to get the foreigners out of the scene, but notes there are real difficulties.
He says: "The sellers would play cat and mouse."
So this approach the authorities have taken - having a scheme in place but which is not fully enforced - could very well be the best-case scenario for dealing with such sellers.
But the peddlers still need help.
I would like to suggest a mobile team of social workers.
This team could ply areas that are rife with sellers and proffer the appropriate help schemes.
Yes, it is a tall order because of the resources needed.
But it is also clear that siting help centres in HDB blocks and community centres simply may not be enough.
Perhaps what Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said in a Facebook post last year says it best: "There are probably more that a few who see these efforts as easy money-making opportunities, there are genuine folks who do need help."
"So don't stop speaking to them and following up... it may make a real difference to some of them."