A tale of two Singapores

A tale of two Singapores
Mr Raymond Khoo, 50, and his seven-year-old son Justin offering 101-year-old Lau Geok Eng durian, which is her favourite fruit, during a Saturdays@Lengkok Bahru gathering.

Justin Khoo, seven, attends a top boys' school in Bukit Timah. Like most kids his age, he loves ice cream and video games. But, unlike most kids his age, he has had a most unusual weekend pursuit for the past year and a half.

He spends Saturday afternoons with his parents befriending lonely older folk in one of Singapore's poorest housing estates.

Justin sings songs, helps organise birthday parties and even goes door to door with his dad, Raymond, distributing food items such as bread, fruit, oats and cookies.

As wages at the bottom stagnate, Singapore ages and a debate rages on the lack of diversity in our top schools, the Khoos have found a simple way of trying to ensure that their privileged young son remains grounded - and learns early that there are many who live on very little even in one of the richest cities in the world.

Saturdays@Lengkok Bahru is a small volunteer group started by Mr Khoo and his friend Jeremy Gui, comprising mainly friends and relatives. They pay for the food from their own pockets. Volunteers also hold tuition sessions for children in primary school from the same blocks.

It's a small effort but remarkable on many fronts. First, although initiated by private individuals, it is not an ad-hoc activity.

Second, it involves young children. Most of Justin's Primary One classmates have visited and distributed food at the block. An eight- year-old friend was so moved by what he saw that he asked for donations to the cause in lieu of birthday gifts. He raised $1,000.

And finally, and above all, it tries to build bridges between two groups of people who have little in common except their humanity.

Mr Khoo, 50, who runs his own F&B consulting business, was galvanised into action after visiting Lengkok Bahru with bags of goodies during Christmas 2010. It was his first experience of a rental block.

"I was just shocked at how little they had," he says matter-of-factly. "And I knew I needed to do more than just visit once a year."

Being "shocked" or "saddened" by the state of families living in rental blocks is a refrain I hear a lot, especially from first-time volunteers.

The surprise comes not from the condition the poor are in - indeed most have fridges, fans and TVs, luxuries unheard of among the poor in developing countries.

It lies more in the fact that poverty in Singapore is largely hidden behind the shiny facades of HDB blocks.

Unless you walk the corridors and knock on doors, you don't really see how the poor live. Some have no furniture at all. Others hoard.

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of two very different and disconnected Singapores. One is of low-income families who, despite increasing help, continue to struggle.

As of 2012, there were more than 100,000 households with average incomes of around $1,600 a month, including CPF contributions.

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