Unpublished: Singapore’s war on tissue peddlers

Singapore’s disabled resorting to selling tissue papers to survive

Despite being rated as the most expensive cities to live in by CNN Travel in 2019 (alongside Paris and Hong Kong), Singapore houses Hawker Chan, the cheapest michelin star restaurant in the world with dishes ranging between S$2 (1.30€) to S$3 (2€). Hawker Chan happens to be situated in a hawker center, a food center that holds many food stalls with affordable prices similar, or slightly more than that of Hawker Chan. Hawker centers are reminiscent of Singapore’s past, during the time when it was a bustling port full of immigrants seeking better lives. Selling their native food by the roadside became a popular way of earning a living for these immigrants. Eventually, as an attempt to control the congestion of hawkers on roads, they were eventually relocated to food complexes. 

For many, hawker centers are part of Singapore’s culture; it forms a large part of their identity and social experiences such as having breakfast on the weekends with families, lunch on weekdays with coworkers or friends, et cetera. It is therefore logical when locals are deeply disturbed when illegal immigrants go around hawker centers disrupting their time with hard sell tactics selling tissue papers. 

“They (illegal peddlers) are aggressive and wave the tissue paper in your face. This is a disguised form of begging and I feel they are taking advantage of Singaporeans’ generosity,” complains Mr Micheal Loh, a retired Singaporean psychologist, reported on local newspaper, the Straits Times. 

In Singapore, citizens or permanent residents who are unable to hold jobs to support themselves due to illness or handicaps are allowed to sell tissue papers to provide for themselves, provided they obtain a license with an annual fee of S$120 (80€), otherwise they can be fined S$300 (200€). The license confines them to sell only at designated locations so as not to hinder residents, as explained by the local government board, the National Environmental Agency (NEA). It is also to deter illegal immigrants from going around hawker centers disrupting customers. 

Additionally, illegal peddlers also reduces earnings for handicapped locals who legally sell tissue papers for a living. “They are able-bodied and can walk, yet they sell tissue paper and snatch business from us,” describes a partially blind, dialysis-dependent tissue seller. 

When ranked according to wealth per adult above US$ 100 000, Singapore ranks top 10, as outlined on the Suisse Research Institute Global Wealth Report 2019. Singapore’s wealth inequality is also not extreme compared with other countries. If Singapore is so capable and wealthy – which is clearly the case – why are the ill-stricken and disabled left to fend themselves? 

There is little financial aid for handicapped adults in Singapore. For some, such as the partially blind amputee based in Waterloo Street, selling tissue papers in this manner allows them to pay for medical bills and daily expenses so as not to burden their families. Sure enough, there exist some support systems to eventually incorporate them as part of the workforce such as the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped where blind people are trained as masseurs and can be hired through the association. Additionally, although healthcare is not free in Singapore, depending on the person’s income, there exists heavy subsidies for hospital bills and prescribed drugs. Nevertheless, despite these aids, the fact that these ill and handicapped people resort to relying on strangers´ compassion for money by selling overpriced tissue papers in Singapore’s humid and hot climate for hours shows that these measures are not sufficient for them. 

It may be possible that in running a tissue paper business, handicaps find the autonomy and independence they seek. However, the tissues are normally marked up many folds — a report from the students of National University of Singapore describes 7 times — that makes it obvious that the aim is instead, appealing to peoples’ sympathy as a way to profit, which is the opposite of liberty. It is also plausible that the convenience it provides is an advantage and customers do not mind paying a premium price for an average product quality, but the peddling license only allows them to be stationary at designated sites which are not usually in Hawker Centers, where Singaporeans require tissues the most. 

Therefore, a better way to truly help have the disadvantaged is to start being critical and asking the right questions — regardless of whether you are a Singaporean or not — and that is why do peddlers even have to exist, and not how to protect them from the illegal ones.

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