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Cardboard collectors get a free meal a day, thanks to Happy People

SINGAPORE — At 70 years old, Mdm Ooi Ah Yang works two jobs — a cleaner by day and cardboard collector by night — in order to support herself and two brothers aged 78 and 62.

The Happy People Helping People meal card project has over 130 beneficiaries aged late 50s to 96. Photos: Bobby Chia/HPHP, TODAY

The Happy People Helping People meal card project has over 130 beneficiaries aged late 50s to 96. Photos: Bobby Chia/HPHP, TODAY

SINGAPORE — At 70 years old, Mdm Ooi Ah Yang works two jobs — a cleaner by day and cardboard collector by night — in order to support herself and two brothers aged 78 and 62.

After she knocks off work as a cleaner at 6pm, Mdm Ooi, who is unmarried with no children, heads out and begins her rounds collecting discarded cardboard boxes from dumpsters, wet markets and hawker centres near her one-room rental flat in Braddell. On weekends, Mdm Ooi sets off early in the mornings because “others will pick them up” if she is late.

When she has gathered enough, Mdm Ooi lugs her haul of cardboard boxes — often as heavy as 20kg to 30kg — on a trolley and makes a 45-minute trek to Trimax Engineering & Trading at 10 Toa Payoh Industrial Park to sell them for 15 cents a kilogramme.

For her efforts, she earns about S$3 to S$5 each time.

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It was on one of her collection rounds that Mdm Ooi bumped into Mr Mohammad Nafiz Kamarudin, founder of non-profit organisation Happy People Helping People (HPHP) Foundation.

With Mr Nafiz’s help, Mdm Ooi and her brother can now be assured of at least one meal a day through the volunteer-based HPHP project.

Mr Nafiz, 36, started HPHP with two friends in 2013. Back then, they were helping to raise funds for the needy in Indonesia and Malaysia. A year later, the group decided to focus its efforts closer to home and began organising activities like potluck sessions where volunteers would also give out food rations to needy elderly in Toa Payoh.

Through its interactions, HPHP then decided to focus on helping elderly cardboard collectors.

“We find it disturbing to see very old and frail senior citizens pushing cardboard boxes to earn a living… At that age (70 to 90 years old), a lot of them cannot walk properly,” said Mr Nafiz, who added that there are some who also suffer from dementia, while others do so out of loneliness.

Mdm Ooi, who collects cardboard in order to supplement her S$1,100 income in order to support her two brothers, said: “I have been doing this for more than 40 years. (My elder brother’s) heart is not too good and he has a pacemaker.”

“Sometimes when I pick up cardboard boxes, people will look at me strangely… They never stop to think that I need money,” said Mdm Ooi, who only has primary school education.

“I am very grateful for Nafiz. He works very hard to raise funds for us. If there are excess funds, he will bring us out on excursions, to places we have never seen before,” she added.


HPHP raises funds through crowdfunding platform Give.Asia. The group uses the money raised — about S$15,000 to S$20,000 monthly — for the Happy Friends Card programme as well as occasional recreational outings for the elderly.

The Happy Friends Card is a meal card that allows beneficiaries to go to a selected economy rice stall within their estate to claim 31 meals over a period of a month.

(Photo: Wong Casandra/TODAY)

Depending on funds raised for the month, the group also distributes NTUC vouchers ranging from S$20 to S$50.

The meal cards are distributed every first Sunday of the month at various locations — strategically selected due to their proximity to trucks or stores that purchase cardboard boxes — across five targeted estates in Singapore: Toa Payoh, Cuff Road at Little India, Kreta Ayer in Chinatown, Bedok, and Geylang.

The HPHP project has over 130 beneficiaries aged from late 50s to 96.

Eddie, 63, and his brother are both beneficiaries. Eddie had to quit his job as a printer more than 10 years ago to look after his 68-year-old deaf-mute and diabetic brother when their mother died. The brothers have been collecting cardboard boxes ever since and can be seen around Cuff Road in Little India, which was where HPHP volunteers met them about three years ago.

(Eddie, left, and his brother. Photo: Bobby Chia/HPHP)

The meal card has helped the brothers get by on most days. “For example, one meal for one person can be about S$6. It can take us one, or sometimes, two days to pick up S$15 to S$20 worth of cardboard boxes altogether.

“The savings (from the meal card) can be great and will definitely help us... It’s very hard to pick the boxes because there are many other people collecting as well,” Eddie said.

Furthermore, going on excursions would otherwise be impossible for the brothers. “How can we afford it?”


Besides the meal card programme, HPHP now wants to look at helping this group of needy elderly with their electricity bills. In April this year, the group started an online campaign to petition the authorities to consider waiving electricity bills for needy elderly living in one-room rental flats.

As some of the needy elderly also suffer from dementia, Mr Nafiz said, some end up staying in the dark because they forget to pay electricity bills, while others do not qualify for such social assistance because they have children. But, according to him, “unfortunately, their children are not supporting them”.

“Living without light as an elderly (person) can be dangerous. They need electricity to charge their phones so that they can make a call in case of an emergency,” Mr Nafiz explained.


The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has also enlisted the help of more than 10 cardboard collection agents/middlemen to partner the Social Service Offices (SSOs) to check with the elderly collectors whom they meet, to refer them to the SSOs should they need assistance.

“MSF will continue to strengthen our partnerships with these groups and multiply efforts on the ground,” said a ministry spokesman.

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