Written by: Gilbert Goh
I have met up with Kelvin thrice so far and am always amazed at his survival instinct and determination to look at the bright side of life despite the adverse odds that plagued him these past few years.
Kelvin is an avid reader of our Transitioning. Org blog.
The fact that we are born on the same year – 1961 also helped to draw us closer as close buddies.
Used to earning $4000 a month as a sales manager just three years ago before been retrenched during the global financial crisis, he is reduced to ekking out a living as a dishwasher now making $6.00 an hour at a cafeteria – a lone Singaporean amidst a sea of foreigners in this service-orientated industry.
Single, articulate and focused, Kelvin tried to see things from a glass half full than half empty perspective and perhaps this is how he has thrived all this while – even when things went pretty much downhill the past few years.
He has a diploma in management from SIM and used to work with the SAF for 11 years as a navy communications supervisor. His last drawn salary was around $2000 then.
He later went on to do sales for another ten years earning between $3000 – $4000 and living quite a comfortable life.
He travelled widely and provided well for his two ageing parents. As he stays with them in a fully-paid HDB 4-room flat, he could save up quite a lot and thought that his retirement plan is pretty much in place. He has no lack and life was simple but comfortable.
He has no fancy dream to upgrade to a condo like most Singaporeans do and after several failed attempts to get hitched, he decided to stay single.
“Maybe marriage life is not for me!” he qulped. “And moreover, it could be a blessing in disguise as many of my friends’ marriages broke up.”
His perpetual sanguine remarks peppered the several meetings we had over the past two months and I told him that he had the hallmark of a survivor in him.
Like many PMETs during the 2007 global financial crisis, Kelvin was retrenched from a $4000-a-month sales job and life went very much downhill from then on.
After sending out thousands of emails for work vacancies and countless failed interviews, he decided that he could not hang on anymore.
Moreover, his savings were mostly exhausted and he has two aged parents to take care of. He tried out security work for the past two years drawing a salary of around $1200 a month.
The security job provided for his basic necessities and soothed the frantic desperation in him when his life savings – meant for his retirement needs, dwindled down to the low thousands.
Nevertheless, the shift work nature of the security field soon took a toil on his frail body.
He had three operations on his weak heart before and a pacemarker was finally installed so that he could breathe properly. In all, the operations wiped off $40, 000 from his CPF accounts. He also panted easily and could not take up any work that taxes the physical part of him.
He has to quit from the security job after two years as he feared that his weak body may not be able to take the physical strain anymore without futher damaging the impaired heart.
Failed Business Venture
During these few months, he tried his hand at setting up a business in Myamar and sank $20, 000 into the venture. It was a telecommunication business venture.
He knew that he would not be able to make it back in the sales line industry as there were less than five interviews throughout a 12-month period despite thousands of applications emailed out.
The venture bombed badly on him and he recounted how the failed business made him looked silly and incompetent.
“Maybe I am not cut out for business, Gilbert,” he told me.
“The business partner in Myamar simply said that the venture could not carry on anymore due to some legislation and the $20, 000 that I sank in completely went to ashes.” There was no recourse for any compensation and it took him a few weeks before he could accept that his money was as good as gone.
Part of the money was from his life savings and the other part he took out from banks’ overdraft.
Ominously, he was sued by three banks as he utilized his credit cards and overdraft to survive during that period. The accrued total amount owed was only $16, 000.
He is down to his low thousands and fortunately his sister helped to pay for the flat’s utilities bills and general basic necessities.
He is now waiting for the bankruptcy suit as he didn’t want to keep paying the minimum payment to the three banks.
I told him that it was silly to be made a bankrupt because of a $16, 000 debt.
“Its never ending,” he told me. “The amount never dwindled and if you make a payment late, the penalty fee could be as much as $50.”
“You ended up just servicing the interest monthly but the principal is always there – umoved.”
Personally, I have never seen a person welcoming bankruptcy so readily. Many people would have borrow, beg or even steal to pay off the small amount to avoid bankruptcy but not Kelvin. Perhaps, the strain of having to find enough money to pay off the monthly minimum payment took such a toil that on him that its better to face the music now than dying in a slow painful death.
However, the bankruptcy suit also brought about a ugly twist of event.
I was troubled to receive a string of texts from him last month asking me to check with a lawyer whether the bailiff could be barred from entering the person’s home.
Normally, when a bankruptcy suit is entered here, the court will appoint a baliff to serve notice to the occupiers that the home’s possessions will be seized and sold off as part of the bankruptcy’s writ.
This was troubling Kelvin a lot as he did not want his aged parents to be bothered in any way by his financial misjudgement.
He told his dad about the writ and he freaked out calling him names that were unprintable. He loved his parents very much and the last thing he wanted is to implicate them in any way.
Hurt and wounded, he decided to move out so that he could change his address and hopefully the baliff will find him at his rental place instead of his parents’ home - where he has stayed for the past 49 years.
He is still at odds with his aging dad.
In his desperation, he took up a dishwashing job which paid around $6 an hour. He worked the night shift from 6 to 10pm.
“At least my basic necessities of food and transport are provided for,” he told me in his usual cheery disposition.
He told me that he needs about $500 a month to survive on and still could give about $200 to his parents as pocket money. I told him that many Singaporeans spent $500 a week alone on food!
“There is nothing much for me to hope for now except to have three meals a day and a roof over my head,” Kelvin told me the last time that we caught up over dinner at Plaza Singapura foodcourt.
“It’s also fortunate that I am single as I don’t have to really provide for my family. I can’t imagine what will happen to my family if I have to work as a dish washer to provide for their needs. My wife will probably leave me.”
Kelvin hoped to see more priorities in employment given to local Singaporeans who are in transition. There is hardly any policy that sees to the rehiring needs of local Singaporeans – like giving them some priority over foreign workers.
“There are all kinds of work permits that allow our employers to hire foreigners over local Singaporeans!” he told me in a rare display of frustration.
“I have given up applying for sales positions as after three years of trying, I have more or less given up hope that I am able to return to my old trade.”
“Maybe I will be a dishwasher for the rest of my life…”
Kelvin is only 49 years old and as I looked at him that day, his situation does not look very bright and things may not turn around for him anytime soon. Ominously, when he left his previous part-time dishwashing job due to personal reasons, he began to look up another dishwashing job citing the ease at finding such work as one main reason.
I wondered how many Kelvins are out there washing dishes, putting on the smart security guard uniform or driving a cab when our foreign talents are happily working away and making decent salary… it just does not make any sense here. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against people who are dishwashers, security guards or cabbies.
It’s just that after studying for 15 years in our world class educational system, clocking up decades of work experience in a first world economy and putting in the required 24 months of national service defending our nation, we are reduced to such pathetic state when we have reach our forties? Something is very wrong somewhere out there…and our renowed meritocratic system may have failed all of us here.