Tissue Paper Sellers

If you are living in Singapore and you commute daily by public transportation, the usual sight that would greet you each morning would be tissue paper sellers – old ladies or disabled people who stand at walkways, underpasses, at the exits of train stations and bus interchanges, holding out tissue packets.

This morning, I counted on my way to work, 1 old lady, 2 old men selling tissue. And the rather famous old man who plays the harmonica for your spare change. The blind couple who usually sits where I enter the MRT station were not at their position this morning. So my usual route to work would see me walk past six elder or disabled folks either selling tissue or busking for a living.

The heaviness of a Monday morning is made worse when you meet them. Not because I loathe them or they irk me. Because they present the existence of people who have been left behind by society, and have benefited little or nothing from this nation’s progress.


Over the last 10 years, Long had reminded me on occasions that if we (actually more me than him) are not careful with our money and savings, we could well end up there.

He said seeing the old people selling tissue papers, collecting empty cardboard boxes and empty cans for a pittance always affects him. He is right. it affects me too, but somehow it didn’t quite stop me whenever I feel like “rewarding myself”.

Over the years, as an adult, I have been very careless with my spending… I like pretty things. I get swayed easily when something is “in”, and I want it too.  I like a good cup of coffee. I like eating at hipster cafes and Japanese food. I forget to pause when Little Foot takes a mount of things in the toy store or grabs yet another Barney toy at NTUC and I would just pay for them without thinking. I forgot about the days when I had $50 left in my bank account when my pay was pathetic.

The presences of tissue paper sellers all over Singapore weigh heavily on me, and I’m sure on other Singaporeans too.

The sight of them –  some with resignation on their faces, some with a slight embarrassment on their faces, some just exhausted with life, some missing a limb – it tugs at something deep inside.

Fear.  That we could end up there (because I have squandered).

Embarrassment.  That I think twice each day, wondering to give or not to give (I usually give a $2 note and take 1 pack of tissue so as not to embarassed the seller). That I hold back when I walk past these poor folks each day, but I had not held back when there is a new Ju-Ju-Be range to be released, or when I walked into a boutique and buy myself a new pair of shoes or an expensive bag. Or when I carelessly cart and checkout pretty clothes and cute things for Little Foot.

Questions in my head.

How far can the money I hand out help them?  I wonder whether the Uncle or Aunty who gets the $2 from me occasionally has a good meal from it, or if the money goes to medicine, or pays for some necessities at home.

What did they use to do? Was life always so hard for them? Where are their children (or maybe they do not have any)?


And the biggest question of all — why is it that their presence are such a common sight in Singapore and yet, government bodies, volunteer welfare organisations and whoever should be doing something, are not able to do something for them.

Life is never fair we say. So cliche, but so true.

Nobody in his or her 70s or 80s deserve to be out there, exposed to the weather, swallowing their pride, and holding out a hand hoping that people who walk past will stop and buy a pack of tissue paper.

That’s not how anyone’s life story should end.

What will our old age be like? It really is a depressing and sobering thought.

It is the season to curb spending. Better late than never.



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