Bread. January 2007
Sir, may I have the can please?
I was having a late lunch at a hawker centre -- just some fried noodles
and a canned drink. In Singapore, one usually gets a cup of ice along with
the drink, and the first thing we do is to pour half the can into the ice
before we begin with the noodles. That way, we give the drink a few
minutes to be chilled.
Halfway through my noodles, a woman came by, pushing a cart on which was a large garbage bag. She looked at me, I looked back. She indicated with her hand that she wanted the soft drink can. Immediately, I put my own hand on it because it was still half full. I hadn't even started drinking from the cup, let alone what's in the can. No way was I going to part with it.
It wasn't that she wanted a sip of it; she wanted the aluminium container, for it could be sold for a little bit of money. In her cart, she already had at least 30 or 40 of them.
Now, this is nothing really new. From many years ago, we've noticed scavengers along our roads, going from one trash bin to another, retrieving stuff that they could resell. I used to cringe seeing how they'd put their entire arm into a filthy bin just to pull out an item. The dirt, the disease, the scratches and cuts they exposed themselves to... I sometimes wondered what it must be like to have such a life, and felt sorry for them. However, like many others, I suppose, I tried very quickly to put them out of my mind.
Yet, they keep letting us know they exist. More recently, we've seen them in the eating places themselves, where they'd go from table to table looking out for empty soft drink cans. They'd ask if you've finished your drink, and if you have, could they have them? If you hadn't finished, they move on to another table and come back later for yours.
Not this time. Noting that I hadn't emptied out my can yet, she pulled back, but she didn't go away. Instead, she just stayed there about 2 metres from my seat, sometimes watching me, sometimes looking around for other cans.
I must admit, I didn't appreciate that, as I felt pressured to finish my drink as soon as possible in order to please her. At the same time, I could understand her predicament, for in the vicinity were other scavengers going around too. If she moved too far from me, another one might just come by and get the can instead.
How did things get to be like this? From the occasional scavenger we see from a distance along the roads, to a single man or woman in an eating place, and now to a competitive situation with 3 or 4 in a hawker centre?
* * * * *
Travel writer John M mentioned to me last week, "There seems to be more homeless people in Singapore. The last times I was here, I might have seen one or two, but this time, I've noticed more of them."
He allowed that such observations were purely incidental. For example, this visit, it's been raining heavily, and what had struck him the day before he met me was a cluster of homeless people -- or what looked to him like destitute homeless people -- taking shelter together. But where he had previously noticed one here and another in a different part of town, this visit there seemed to be a wee increase in density.
He may be right, he may be wrong, but like in the case of aluminium can scavengers, I doubt if anyone is counting. We may have a problem and not even know about it.
How did my conversation with John get to homeless people? Because there was a bad smell on the bus.
It was the first time he had
taken a bus in Singapore, even though he had been riding the metro
extensively this visit and previously. Bus routes aren't easy for tourists
to figure out. But as luck would have it, the bus we boarded had a
disgusting smell. I was utterly embarrassed; he might think all our buses
were as malodorous and unhygienic as this.
Rather than pretend I didn't smell anything, it was better to acknowledge there was a problem. "I'm sorry, but there seems to be a really bad smell about this bus," I said. "I assure you, this isn't typical."
Naturally, I tried not to breathe in too deeply, but breathe shallowly I had to, otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to last the journey. After a few half pulls of air, I was able to characterise the smell: a sour mix of stale urine and damp fermenting mop.
I looked around the floor of the bus, but couldn't see any uncleaned mess. Perhaps there was a dirty mop in the bus? But while turning my head around, I noticed the man sitting behind us -- stained teeth, rough-complexioned, straggly hair knotted with dirt, torn clothes somewhere between indeterminate mud brown and charcoal black. It's him.
"There's a vagrant behind us," I said to John. "That's where the smell is coming from."
"Yeah, I've noticed too that there seems to be more homeless people in Singapore...." he replied.
* * * * *
By way of explanation, it was also revealed that while businesses here serving global markets are enjoying robust growth, those serving the domestic market are not doing as well. Domestic private consumption was only growing at 3% per annum, a far cry from the headline figure of 8% GDP growth. (Unfortunately, the news report didn't state which year these figures referred to.)
This and other indicators point to Singapore having a "dual economy".
The conference was also reminded that
Statistics can be very useful. They can illuminate starkly some feature of our complex world, which otherwise may be hard to discern. They can serve as forewarnings of silent threats creeping up on us, giving us the luxury of time to think up and implement counter-measures.
But to achieve its usefulness, statistics must (over)simplify to some extent, otherwise its message does not ring clear. In doing so, however, it may remove from public view the fact that what it really describes is a continuum, and its clinical ability to forecast may lead us to place the threat as something in the future since it hasn't yet affected many people, when in truth, for some individuals at the unfortunate end of the continuum, the unhappy reality is here and now.
Anecdotally, it seems to me that our society is already beginning to fray at the edges. There is an increasing coarseness to life. People have no more time to be considerate to others; even scavengers have to become pushy for fear of losing out to competitors.
As I've said before, it doesn't take much social decay to begin to affect everybody. Speaking of "future social instability" may be too sanguine; it doesn't take much fraying at the edges to change the tenor of society, and we cannot always insulate our lives from the less fortunate around us.
Even if you would close your eyes to vagrants around us, you can't avoid breathing the air that you share with them. Even if you drive around in sealed BMW's and Lexuses, one day, homeless kids will catch up with you at traffic junctions offering to clean your windshield. Or you find yourself taking the long walk to your parked car, because the shorter route takes you past suspicious-looking men who might be desperate enough to snatch your bag.
I wonder if the decay has begun to set in, even as we continue to boast of high GDP growth rates.
© Yawning Bread