By Max Ang

The modern urban environment is a tough and unrelenting place where the simplest of needs is monetised. Money is needed in the exchange for basic necessities, such as food and shelter. Without it, one can starve amidst plenty.

Such is the predicament of Perumal Thamilarasan. Two years into his job as a scaffolder, he injured his hand at work. It now has metal implants, but the injury was so bad that he hasn’t regained full use of it.

For a year, he has been unable to work and without income. Evicted from the company dormitory, he has no regular place to stay. Wandering the streets has become a way of life; he sleeps on cold pavements,  at times seeking refuge in a temple. Not only is this not a sustainable solution, what about other essential needs? He would need money to survive, leading to a perpetual cycle of borrowing.

With friends rejecting his pleas for help, he turned to the legal assistant at the law firm he signed on with. Still, it was uphill. He had to pull at the heartstrings of the human psyche, gesturing to his injured left hand and telling the legal assistant, “Hand injure, no money.”

The legal assistant’s first reply was “I don’t know what you talking,” Thamil recalls.

Nevertheless, Thamil persevered and asked again and again. Eventually, the legal assistant caved in and provided a modest sum of $450 – enough to cover accommodation and expenses for a month. When the money ran out, Thamil slept rough and went hungry till he could persuade the legal assistant for another loan. Over the past year, this has translated to over $4,000 in borrowed money.

At the time of the interview, Thamil has just received his permanent incapacity compensation, amounting to over $16,000. This enables him to repay the debt to the legal assistant. He will soon be heading home to his village in India where the remainder of the money will be used to pay off his debts to family and friends. Fortunately, the family has some land and he will go back to being a rice farmer.

When asked about his feelings, the stoic and easy-going man tells me that it was “no problem”. His family cries over their phone each time he calls back, but Thamil takes it in his stride and comforts them, “Okay, okay, no problem, sorry, sorry”. His cheerful disposition has been an asset in the face of adversity. Thamil survived through his own grit and persistence.

And yet, it is not okay. According to law, employers are supposed to provide for the upkeep and maintenance of its employees until their departure from Singapore even if they have been injured and laid off. Upkeep and maintenance refers to food, lodging and medical expenses. This man has not received it. It leads one to ponder, why is it not enforced?

See also the analysis by Debbie Fordyce, Widespread but unnecessary reliance on lawyers.