I Live in Jalan Kukoh, One of the Poorest Neighbourhoods in Singapore. This is My Story.
This is the first piece in a series on Jalan Kukoh’s rental housing situation. Through an exploration of people and public policy, the series attempts to help us understand how the poor in Singapore live, and, more importantly, the kind of support they need.

I tend to notice the trouble I have to go through just to explain where I live.

As someone who just turned legal last September, clubbing in Clarke Quay eventually became a biweekly routine. After a night of destroying my liver with alkey (alcohol), and wholeheartedly dancing from techno bangers to hip-hop hits, the last thing I want to get asked is, “How are you heading home?”

“I’m walking,” is my go-to response, bracing my drunk self for the predictable reaction.

“Wow! You so rich ah, you stay in condo is it?”

Goddamn it, not this again.

If I’m rich, I wouldn’t have to secretly take a sip of your gin and tonic or steal drinks from random strangers’ tables. But I’m at the lazy-drunk/sleepy time of 3 AM; I prefer to head home now than elaborate on the fact that I stay at an ‘ulu’ HDB area located nearby.

However, there are lucky nights when I am ‘rich’ enough to afford a cab home. Taxi uncles are such a blessing when it comes to navigation, until they start talking to me. I definitely don’t find it an issue, but please, not now. I reek of alcohol and I can barely walk straight, so what makes them think I can keep up a conversation?

“Uncle, Chin Swee Road.”

“Huh? That area still exist ah, I thought en-bloc already?”

Uh, I don’t know la. It hasn’t en-bloc yet so just drive me hooooommmeee.

The void deck of my block.
Security cameras are aplenty around my estate.
This, together with the two cameras in the previous picture, are all at the same lift landing.
Jalan Kukoh, better known as Chin Swee Road by taxi uncles, is situated at the intersection of Clarke Quay, Chinatown, and Outram. The convenience of heading to town, to chill at hipster cafes in Arab Street, or to the many other hip places in Singapore, are the only reasons I enjoy living in this area.

Living in Jalan Kukoh for the past six years has made me realise how well poverty in Singapore is hidden. Surrounded by the delightful views of reflective glass condos in Robertson Quay, well-maintained blocks of Pinnacle@Duxton, and the multi-million dollar skyscrapers of Raffles Place, I’ve always dreamt of a good or ‘better’ life.

But I’m aware that not all dreams come true.

The CBD area can easily be seen from home, which gives me mixed feelings. It’s hard for me to decide whether I am inspired to have a better life, or demoralised at the thought that I may not have a choice but to live here forever.

Still, there’s nothing much I can do but be grateful to even have a roof over my head.

I also have the tendency to browse local property sites and wow at everything in IKEA, so I’m slowly becoming an 18-year-old auntie. It brings me joy to view houses for sale or rent, and imagine how my dream home would be. I’d look at the layout of the house and plan how it should be furnished and decorated.

At the same time, with my living conditions, financial situation, and family background, it’s most likely that my dream home would be nowhere near possible.

I don't like that Pinnacle@Duxton is so easily visible from my flat.
The CBD can be seen in the distance when I walk the corridors of my flat.
When my mother first told me we were downgrading from a 3-room flat in Whampoa to a 2-room unit in “Chinatown” in 2013, I supported the decision. I was elated that we were finally moving out of a family home that held only awful memories.

In my old home, I witnessed my brother being abused for bringing home bad results. A specific argument between my parents even resulted in my dad being imprisoned afterwards. I still remember the look on his face as he was handcuffed and taken away with one police officer on each side of him.

Without a father figure to guide me through the crucial milestones in my life, I lacked love and support from an important family member. I struggled with self-esteem issues and didn’t feel worthy of the good things I wanted.

During kindergarten, I was constantly bullied—or at least I think it was bullying? I remember the mean things my group mates would say to me. Not being the brightest kid back then, I was called “dumbo” or “stupid” for scoring 4 out of 10 for spelling.

Since it happened almost every day in school, my teacher would reply with the most abrupt, “Ok,” whenever I complained. I soon became one of those brats who’d cry in the morning before entering the class.

I’ve always felt like a disappointment just for existing, so I was shocked that it was possible to feel even worse when I finally moved into my new home environment.

This is my super cramped room.
My personal stash of items right next to my bed.
Jalan Kukoh is considered a rental housing estate. To me, it’s a slum.

I hate the house that I live in—a one-room rental flat with a window facing Landmark Tower, which is a condominium across the CTE. I’ve always imagined the houses there to be spacious with huge windows; well-organised, adequately furnished; a balcony facing Duxton or the CBD.

In contrast, my personal space is the utility room (some of my friends call it the maid’s room lol) with less than 20 steps around its circumference. It has poorly painted walls, and everything of mine is strewn everywhere. Super ratchet.

Sometimes, I like to think that I live in a budget dollhouse. Unfortunately, the aesthetic is nowhere close.

It doesn’t help that my grandmother, the only person I live with, is a stubborn hoarder. It takes so much time and effort just to convince her to throw her things away and tidy up the house.

Living in this kind of environment puts a strain on who I am and who I want to be. Having a distorted self-image makes it 10 times more difficult for me to cope with my identity crisis; I constantly want to become a better individual, yet I feel unable to achieve what I want in life.

My mind deludes me into believing that the whole world is against me.

I guess my astrological sign is never well-aligned.

Just things I see littered around my neighbourhood.
Stuff and more stuff.
The benches next to the basketball court.
I’m not a religious person. But sometimes I pray so hard that we’d move out of this dreadfully small house, or for someone to do something about the estate’s cleanliness. I’ve seen three Bangladeshi cleaners put in their best effort, but it’s not enough to clear up all the litter.

There’s not a day or hour where I don’t see trash (although I’m one) around the neighbourhood. I’ve even seen sanitary pads, diapers, and styrofoam boxes containing food waste being thrown out of windows.

Once, I was almost hit by a plastic bag filled with ice while walking home from the bus stop. From then on, I started walking only in sheltered areas, not wanting to take any chances.

But the worst kinds of litter are the ‘trinkets’ left behind by drug abusers, such as used needle syringes in drains or stairwells.

Regardless of Singapore’s strict drug laws, drug abusers still roam the neighbourhood, unintentionally causing potential harm to others. In an estate like Jalan Kukoh, mischievous kids as young as four wander without any adult supervision. It’s hard to imagine what these curious, miniature humans would do should they come across used drug instruments.

Older folks make up a part of the neighbourhood’s population, and from what I know, loneliness may have even caused a few to commit suicide. It’s not all bad though—some seem to have made peace with what’s left of their lives, choosing to relax at the benches under their blocks with people who feel the same. I also have neighbours who take care of their grandchildren more than a few times a week.

There are definitely also younger residents here.
I know I should be saving money, but dressing up makes me feel better about myself.
After being an outcast almost my whole life, I feel like I don’t belong anywhere at all, especially in this neighbourhood. I’m always home late, and I refrain from ‘lepaking’ anywhere around the area.

Most of the people who live here usually dress in plain shirts and Tat Sing slippers. But for me, my clothes, accessories, and make-up can make it hard to believe that I reside in Jalan Kukoh.

Basically, I look like an emo loser from MySpace days (back in 2010), which I personally think is more than ‘just a phase’. I usually don a black t-shirt with ‘Pleasures’ printed across in Nirvana’s ‘BLEACH’ album cover font, which I pair with either satin pyjama pants or Dickies 873, and an abused pair of 1970s Chucks in collaboration with CDG Play.

I know dressing up and looking presentable may be expensive, but having low self-esteem comes at a price. To me, it’s more than worth it to spend on items that help boost my confidence.

It’s pretty obvious that I wouldn’t leave the house without any make-up. Specifically, without my eyeliner which is the most crucial part of my make-up regime. I draw my winged liner, as sharp as I can like the weapon I’d use to cut my enemies. Using a thick layer of mascara, I emphasise my almost non-existent eyelashes. I’d like to believe that if I can bat my eyelashes fast enough, I’ll be able to fly away from my existential crisis and problems.

To finish my look, I accessorise, hoping to receive the attention I never received in my childhood. I slide a heart ring down my middle finger, so that flipping someone off would not only be offensive but also aesthetically pleasing.

Then I click a chain earring on my right earlobe and a key earring on my left. The dangling key reminds me of the key to my childhood home, and the metal rings that form the chain have rusted. The earrings represent the ‘corruption’ of an ideal family I thought I’d have.

Oh wow, so deep, it’s like I’m a reincarnation of Shakespeare or something. I hope you didn’t drown like Ophelia did.

The view down from my window.
The view on the other side of the building.
I dropped out of school in secondary three, taking my N Levels as a private candidate after that. Though I started working at 15, I never received any sort of formal tertiary certification.

Up till two years ago, I always wondered why people consume drugs when everyone says it’s harmful. But then a few acquaintances who consumed illegal substances offered me my first hit of cannabis when I was tipsy. I’m not going to bullshit you and say that it was life-changing; it didn’t cure my depression or borderline personality disorder.

However, it helped tone down my erratic thoughts and feelings. It was an unhealthy coping mechanism that slowly became an addiction.

It didn’t take too long for the law to catch up. In 2017, I committed a crime unrelated to drugs that led to me getting caught. It was a pretty dumb mistake; things would’ve been different if I didn’t do it, but I don’t think it would’ve been better.

I’m currently serving my sentence, and it’s such a chore. But I’m not ashamed of my past as it has impacted my worldview and made me more self-aware.

For getting caught, I was ‘awarded’ a one-month programme called HATCH that pairs at-risk youth with industry internships. They gave me this opportunity to be an intern here at Rice.

In my spare time, I binge watch shows on Netflix (for free, since it’s not even my account) or hang out with my friends whenever I’m invited. Though I hope to try out DJ-ing, I currently lack the resources to do so.

I’m still lost, but I aim to be successful or at least financially stable soon. For all the issues I’ve faced, a plastic paper printed with Yusof Ishak’s face seems to be the number one problem solver.

P.S. My all-time favourite shows are Breaking Bad, Rick and Morty, Dexter, and Workaholics.

All images by Grace Yeoh.

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