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The Two Sides of Singapore, As Seen By A Food Delivery Rider

The Two Sides of Singapore, As Seen By A Food Delivery Rider

  • Culture
  • People
All images courtesy of Yusuf Abdol Hamid.

Yusuf Abdol Hamid co-owns a production house, Vamos Photography, but had to put his business on hold because of the coronavirus. In the meantime, he is working as a food delivery rider, which, in his own words, has made him “see Singapore in a way he never has before”. 

In this piece, Yusuf tells RICE about his experiences switching jobs from a business-owner in a creative industry to what tends to be seen by many as a dead-end job, and what this change has taught him about Singapore society.

Yesterday, I had a delivery to Ardmore Park. I was about to key in the unit number at the intercom, when the security guard started yelling at me from the back, “Use the other door!”

Sometimes I think these guards see themselves as a barrier between the riff-raff and their diamond-encrusted residents who are valuable and precious and fragile all at once.

There was no other door I could see. So a domestic helper who was coming back directed me.

“Oh, we go to the other lift,” she said.

We went to the lift at a corridor hidden at the back. I asked her, “Why are we using this lift? Why are there two lifts?”

“The boss use the other lift. People like us, we use this lift.”

I told her, “We must be very smelly to them la.”

She laughed.

Yusuf on his father's "expensive bicycle".
In 2010, I started a photography and video business, Vamos, with my partner, Chang. We took a long time to get profitable, but it’s since been going quite well, actually.

This year would have been the 10th-year anniversary of our business. We were hoping to celebrate. You know, not bad what, a small tiny SME, with only two people, surviving ten years.

But in February, clients started to cancel work that we had lined up.

When Lee Hsien Loong announced the first lockdown, I took it as … just accept it. Stay at home, be like everyone else, start baking, doing HIIT, and all the usual stuff.

Then the surprise of the second month comes in, and it becomes real. Like: Oh. Fuck. The business is seriously screwed. Now, it’s reached the point when all our projects are cancelled. There’s nothing at all in the pipeline. 

My projection, for our particular business, is that it’ll be down and quiet for a very, very long time.

The only available option for work that can pay you immediately would be Grab, or any variety of delivery. I mentioned to my family that I was going to do this. I didn’t even have a bicycle, so my dad had to lend me his.

I cycled home from my parent’s place in my Grab uniform. My parents were watching me cycle off. It was like, what a proud moment, you know. His son has finally graduated to the big time, wearing this beautiful green luminous uniform, making the country proud. All those years of paying my tuition fees for university, sending me to tuition, culminates in this pinnacle of professional career.

In terms of the money, it’s not great.

Even if I were to push myself like crazy, to my physical limit on my bicycle every single day, I doubt I could break more than $2500 or $3000 a month. And this is like riding every waking hour, no rest, don’t spend money on things. It’s really tough.

But I was quite positive about the whole thing. I still am.

Taking photos and videos really helps. I’m giving myself some imaginary sense of purpose, beyond earning slightly above minimum wage.

A lot things are happening that I have not seen in Singapore.

I pass the Johor bus station at Sungei Road quite often. It’s empty every day, yet there’s a bus driver sitting there. Or like one auntie sitting next to a taxi, waiting for the one customer who has a reason to go to Malaysia. 

I guess everyone is struggling.

After the first few days of cycling around, I realised I am seeing Singapore in a way I’ve never seen before.

By that I mean, in town, there are pockets of public housing on the outskirts. Like Jalan Kukoh, Jalan Sultan, Crawford Street. Man, it’s weird … The blocks are not maintained very well, the paint is peeling off the walls, some corridors smell of urine. 

Then you walk past all the doors along a very long corridor, and you always see some ah pek sitting in a singlet, by the door, just facing the world with a blank look on his face.

On the other extreme, I’m being thrown to the fanciest of the fancy condominiums that I would normally never go to unless I had an expat friend who invited me for drinks or something.

These places, they range from medium fancy to super crazy fancy. I’m talking about River Valley Road, Grange Road, Leonie Hill, Mount Sophia.

It’s a different world, compared to what I see at Jalan Kukoh, Jalan Sultan, that kind. Those places are open and free. This is the opposite. It is very jarring to go from the desert to the mountain between deliveries.

From some nice Indian auntie who coos, “Thank you for delivering my food” in the smelly HDB with the pee smell in the corridor, to the Ardmore Park condo with the guard and the super cold lift lobby with the super high ceiling with the empty useless space that people are paying for.

The doors are all closed. There’s obviously no neighbourly interactions—they are limited to passive-aggressive notes. 

Everyone there just wants to be exclusive.

A lot of these places have these kind of fucked up service lifts at the back for the smelly people, the non-residents and stuff.

Some have lifts for regular residents, and lifts for penthouse people. There are even private lifts. I was pretty shocked because I’d never experienced this before. The lift door opens to the person’s house. But, of course, there’s another door. This particular lady, she refused to open the door big enough. She pushed it so slowly so that I can just about squeeze the Starbucks in. 

I was thinking: is this a Covid thing? Or do I smell bad? Or what?

It … makes you small la. You feel very invisible.

In my previous work, the way I worked with my client was very professional. It’s at a white-collar level. You have a meeting with your client: you sit down and discuss the projects, they look at you like you’re equals, they want to listen to your opinion.

Clients respect me and listen to me.

This is a totally different world. I’m being sent around by an algorithm. I struggle, I sweat, sometimes it rains heavily and I still have to cycle to the top of Mount Sophia, which is like a 15-minute HIIT challenge.

Then I get yelled at by guards or customers because I took the lift to the normal apartments instead of the private lift to the penthouse, where the customer lives, and I have to dial for the guy again, who is getting annoyed because he has to get out of the chair and go to the phone and pick it up again, god, so sad, so he picks it up again and shouts at me, “THE OTHER LIFT MAN, IT’S THE OTHER LIFT.”

But still I have to smile at them. I give him the food. I say, “Enjoy your lunch sir,” all servile and polite.

I’m not complaining. It’s just an observation. I think that’s just the way the world is.

I’ve become a lot more sensitive to the value of every single cent. If I had to open my wallet now and spend $15 on anything, it would hurt me deeply because I’m literally looking at close to an hour of deliveries.

Sometimes, when I’m starting to feel tired and I’m smelling the fried food of my deliveries, I get tempted. I think, maybe tonight I’ll dabao something back instead of cooking for myself. Then I’ll look at the price of food and think, no way man. 

When I do a string of delivery, it averages out to $4.50 a delivery. That’s not even an à la carte Zinger at KFC.

Can you imagine cycling half an hour uphill to get a Zinger burger? I don’t think anybody would. Spending money on a mass produced burger that costs more than my effort to send someone a coffee? It doesn’t add up.

The value of money for the people in condos is different. It’s … whatever. I’m hungry I want this I crave this I’ll order this. Money almost feels like an afterthought.

The deliveries I get in the town area, the final figure is like … $110. That kind of crazy number for very few items, because each item is very expensive. I’m always carrying a light backpack for very very expensive things. One pizza and one pasta for $85. That they order for dinner on Tuesday. No special occasion. 

Like, there’s a bunch of Japanese expats who live in Martin Place and they’re always ordering from Ma Maison.

And delivery fee is not that cheap, right? So you order things that make sense, like a full meal. But I get the weirdest orders from Grange Road, Leonie Hill. One scoop of ice cream from Häagen-Dazs. I pick up the thing and it’s like weightless.

Then I will hold the ice cream, look at the Häagen-Dazs lady, and be like, “This? That’s it?”

And she’s also like, “You know, rich people like that la,” and we laugh and pretend we’re friends.

There’s also this guy who always orders one latte from Dal.komm at Centrepoint. One latte. Just one latte. Every time. It’s roughly $6 to $7 for that stupid latte, But with the delivery, he’s paying $11 to $12 for the latte every day.

Don’t you think this guy has an expensive espresso machine at home? I’m sure, right? But he must have his daily $11 Dal.komm latte.

But they’re paying my salary, so thank you.

I’m not describing anything new. There’s always been a class divide in Singapore.

I saw a sign along River Valley Close for a new development. The catchphrase for it was literally: “Not all homes are created equal.” 

In terms of financial security or freedom, delivering food is not it. Going a step beyond that, I fail to see how this can be a … long-term thing you could do where you feel fulfilment, enjoyment.

This is not to knock people who are doing this full time. If this is your job, this is your job. You have to hustle, and now I know what it feels like. 

The job gets very exhausting because it’s a cycle of negativity. Can you imagine if you never feel satisfied with your job? You’re always tired. You always feel like you’re not earning enough. You always feel people don’t respect you. You always feel invisible.

You’re one unhappy citizen in this country.

Maybe I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who knows a different life, was from an upper-middle-class background, and I’m forced to experience this.

I honestly cannot say I feel so happy I delivered coffee to this family while cycling uphill. It’s more like, fuck this hill.

The only thing that fulfils me is when I see my little gem incentive completed and I get an extra $12 for the day.

I hope …

I don’t know what I hope.

I hope that there’s some way for people who do delivery or Grab to feel more fulfilment.

Maybe they do.

I don’t know.

Are you a food delivery rider? Have you had similar experiences or thoughts? Share them with us at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Yeo Boon Ping Staff Writer