Of Cardboard Uncles & Aunties

Tan Chuan-Jin

Back in 2008 when I started out in Poly, I took on a module called Social Psychology and we learnt about the human society – how birds of the same feather flock together (aka cliques) and we did our own social experiments in school.

A group of classmates then noticed that there were construction workers in our school compound working on upgrading renovations and decided to interview them.

To their surprise, the construction workers (what some people called “Bangalahs” as a general term) were not illiterate, but were also termed highly educated back in their homeland, some even having university qualifications. My classmates called it an eye-opening experience and we gained respect for those foreign workers.


Less than 24 hours after our Minister for Social and Family Development Mr Tan Chuan-Jin posted an album entitled “Have you ever Spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?”, it went viral and many people left comments to tell him he couldn’t be further mistaken.

For a start, they have names. 

Just as an old folks home lady once told us not to go around calling them ahgong/ahma but to know their right name and what they wanted to be called, I had a problem with our minister terming them as “cardboard uncle or auntie”, “this lady in the background” and “the gentleman on the right”.

Would you go to an international leadership conference, and say that guy spoke very well, this guy said this, that woman said that? Do the same for those above and below you.

Then there was the debate about whether this group of old folks are doing what they do because they want to or have to.

I’m sure that’s two ends of a scale, and many old folks are somewhere on the scale, depending on their culture, mentality, financial situations and health, etc. It isn’t fair to say our minister is wrong, but it’s true that he’s painting a generalized and possibly inaccurate picture of the folks too.

I guess people are pissed off because coming from a minister, it seems like they’ve disconnected from the people’s (read: commoners’) perspective of the world and reality.

I know a couple of old folks personally.

There’s this old lady I’d call P here. She lives alone in a flat, despite having children. She has retired, her HDB is paid off, but she isn’t retiring in comfort – she can survive, but she needs to do a little more to live comfortably without a worry.

One day a social worker came by and offered her free lunch everyday. P told them that her son would be pissed to see his mother asking others for food, so they offered to do house delivery. Later on, they told her about a group that can give her a small sum of pocket money about $40 weekly.

Hearing that, of course she said yes. Much later on then she realized they did a background check on her to assess her qualification to the pocket money fund, and called up her son. Then she was reprimanded by her son for asking others for money, when she didn’t know it’s such a complicated procedure.

If her son was willing to support his mother in the first place, she wouldn’t need the help, would she? Just because she has a son doesn’t mean that he would (willingly) help. It’s the sad reality that our welfare system doesn’t seem to want to step up to.

Sometimes it’s easy to say, “our SSO knows of them”, our CCCCC has gotten in touch with them, but have you personally gotten down to the auntie’s level to understand exactly how much help they are given, how long it takes to process and if the SOP is user-friendly?

Sure, there’s bound to be some feedback committees, but nothing compares to making a constructive session out of personal visits, and learn from them first-hand the variables of their lives. That’s the point of walkabouts fundamentally, isn’t it?


Then there’s the other uncle in my neighbourhood I’d call B.

I see B manually pushing the long rubbish trolley around our neighbourhood every morning despite having a head of white hair, and being thinner than any man his age I know. The wheels aren’t working well, the trolley is filled, and he is alone.

Then I see the possibly outsourced cleaners, dressed in uniforms and having the electrically-operated garbage truck – two young foreign men, clearing the rubbish chutes.

An old man working alone, with a manually pushed trolley, and sometimes he has problems pushing the heavy vehicle up the slope. And two young men working together, and they get electrically-operated truck.

I’m sure no one planned things this way, but these are the realities the commoners see in their lives that are swept under the rug during MP visits and walkabouts. Laughable, but it’s just like how secondary schools suddenly have bonsai plants and toilet papers in the toilets on the day our education minister is coming or during open house – MPs see more sugar-coated and even rehearsed scenes that are far from reality.


Whatever the ground matters, it’s always better to spark a conversation than to put a full stop. I would have appreciated Mr Tan’s post more if he shared more about what people and the government can do or think about.

For example, maybe our government can rethink the pioneer generation benefits to encourage the old folks to live well, not just for medical benefits – more privileges and facilities for them at community centres and such. Introduce them to active living and learn about their interests, stories and hobbies.

And encourage cyber users to find out more about the cardboard collectors and cleaners (aka unsung heroes) in their estate and share the stories, encourage discussions, perspectives and solutions. Or even share some links of communities that people can join to help, such as the Happy People Helping People Foundation, Hidden Good, Blessings in a Bag and Project Awareness.

If you’re going to share with the people, talk to the people on an equal level, not top-down.

As a student, I would never have the face to tell my teacher/besties I didn’t have enough money for lunch. I’d say I’m not hungry, or mom prepared dinner. It’s basic human ego, and when it comes to the real issues of livelihood, people often phrase it better than is true, which leaves us to read between the lines and observe meticulously with TLC.

Born in the generation of hardships, no elderly folk is going to tell you straight in the face, life is hard, I don’t have money to even flush my toilet, my son isn’t giving me money, these cans and cupboards I collect would determine if I have a meal tonight. Just because they say they are okay, doesn’t mean you can’t do your part to help them get even better. Touch their hearts, open their minds. Approach them as a person, not as a team to learn more about them.

For the record, I actually liked Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. But I cannot agree with his FB post. BUT! It’s a learning curve, as a new MP, as a new generation leader. If you can’t get it right the first time, stay open-minded, listen to what people have to say with a humble attitude, and you’ll win back their hearts if they see a change in you.


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