REWIND three decades and Block 2, Jalan Kukoh, was a boisterous place, with children playing in the corridors and neighbours keeping a friendly eye out.
Fast forward and the lively atmosphere has gone along with the communal spirit, with many wary parents such as Madam Josephine Ong, who is now afraid to let her nine-year-old daughter Cheryl out. Ever since the 47-year-old single mum moved into the rented one-room flat in 2006, she has kept her gate bolted and forbids Cheryl to venture out without supervision.
‘I have seen too many complicated characters in this block,’ she says in Mandarin. ‘Allowing Cheryl to go out and play is not a risk I am willing to take.’
Many parents in Block 2 feel the same, a consequence of vast changes in income and lifestyle that have occurred over the past 20 years. Rental flats like these have become more like way stations, temporary residences that serve a purpose but are not places where forging neighbourhood ties rates high on the priorities list.
The high turnover of residents means communal bonds never have time to put down roots.
Suspicion has become the default setting. It spells a detached life for Cheryl, who has a good stock of toys and educational videos to help make up for the lack of social activity.
‘I try to buy her this stuff even though my finances are tight. It’s already very sad for her to be growing up here in a place with no friends and where she can’t play outside,’ says her mother, who bakes cookies part-time.
Even the most dedicated parent at Block 2 struggles when meagre finances come up hard against their aspirations for their children’s education.
Four-year-old Mohammad Saliqin Abdul Resa is already falling behind. He loves watching TV but instead of popular children’s programmes such as Barney and Friends, he is growing up on a staple of Indonesian horror flicks because he does not understand English.
His father, Mr Abdul Hamid, 28, is the sole breadwinner, bringing home about $1,000 a month as an odd-job labourer – not enough to send Saliqin to preschool where he can learn English.
‘After paying for rent and utilities, we still have to eat,’ says Mr Hamid, who admits that Saliqin’s education is the least of his concerns. With preschool education now the norm, children from such disadvantaged backgrounds will find it hard to play catch-up when they enrol in mainstream schools.
In 2005, Mr Hawazi Daipi, then Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Education and Manpower), said in Parliament that on average, academic performance had a correlation with housing type as it is related to parents’ education levels. However, he noted that this is just one of several factors and that ultimately it is the aptitude and attitude of a student that matters.
However, Dr Tam Chen Hee, a sociology teaching fellow at Nanyang Technological University, says that giving financial help to level the playing field for these disadvantaged families solves only half the problem.
Children from rental flats still encounter difficulties in trying to communicate with their peers, most of whom are from middle-class families. ‘If their friends talk about overseas holidays and private music lessons, these working-class children can find themselves unable to assimilate into the school environment,’ he notes, adding that the noisy confines of a one-room flat make studying difficult. Their poverty may make them unable to afford now basic learning tools like a computer.
Even efforts by parents to improve their lot can be harmful, if both are working so hard that they have no time to guide their children’s development. Such guidance is doubly important in a difficult neighbourhood like Jalan Kukoh.
Mr H. Mohammad, 60, took up two shifts as a security guard, working up to 16 hours a day, just to send his son, Shahid (not his real name), 21, to tuition classes, religious lessons and silat training in his formative years.
‘I wanted to give him what other normal kids would have, so I worked as much as I could,’ said Mr Mohammad, who moved into Jalan Kukoh when Shahid was five.
His homemaker wife had her hands full with household chores and caring for Shadid’s younger sister, now 18.
With little parental supervision, Shahid drifted into bad company. He says: ‘This estate is like a ghetto. It’s complicated… there are drug dealers. Some people do crimes outside, but they all live here.’ By age 12, Shahid was smoking and getting into fights. ‘I seldom saw my father, let alone have time to talk to him,’ he recounts.
Fortunately, ties between father and son improved after Mr Mohammad found a job in a manufacturing company. He started to have more time for his son and the pair can now ‘talk like friends’.
Shahid, now 21, is serving his national service as a firefighter and intends to make that his career.
‘I am proud that he did not grow up to be a gangster. He is religious, respectful to elders and can take care of himself,’ says Mr Mohammad.
Despite breaking with his past, Shahid says it was not an easy journey. His advice for downgrading families who move into Jalan Kukoh in the hope of overcoming financial hardship is: ‘For anyone who wishes to start a new life here, they must weigh the money saved against the future of the young ones in their home.’
Source: Straits Times, 20 June 2009