An extra helping hand
A non-profit organisation in the heart of Chinatown helps the needy and elderly provide for themselves.
BY: Law Kim Hwee
Fifty-year-old Norlela Bte Md Rohania or Mdm Lela as she prefers to be called, can’t imagine being without the assistance of the Chinatown Social Enterprise (CSE), a non-profit organisation established by the Kreta Ayer – Kim Seng (KAKS) Citizens Consultative Community in May 2010 to help the needy and elderly provide for themselves.
The mother of three shared: “Oh, that would really be a pity [if CSE didn’t exist]! I have been here for such a long time and I am very grateful for the opportunity to participate in CSE to pass my time, learn skills, socialise and be paid all in one – I’d probably be at a loss how to find a replacement activity!”
She remembered when she first came to CSE in 2010, she was clueless even about hand-sewing. But through patient mentoring and training from another CSE member/beneficiary, she was able to sew gift items such as a Samsui woman and a clown. Last year, she picked up yet another skill – machine sewing – and this will allow her to find employment as a skilled seamstress or even take on orders of her own.
Another CSE member, 60-year-old Woon Chye Heng had no intention of sitting at home since his wife passed on. With no children to look after him, he decided he wanted to continue to be useful. Thanks to his previous storekeeping skills, he helps the organisation with packing and packaging details. He also has no problems chipping in to help with cutting textiles and other materials for his colleagues to sew. Having done this for a while, he even has picked up some shortcuts and produces consistency when working with the textiles.
Even though both Lela and Chye Hong take home about S$300 a month each, a small sum in today’s standards, they are glad for the opportunity to keep themselves active. CSE has a handicraft and gift store located at The Majestic as well as a workshop at Blk 4 – Level 3, Sago Lane (next to PAP Kreta Ayer – Kim Seng (KAKS) branch).
Ageless Online chats with JK Tan, manager of CSE, who is in his early 60s, about the organisation. He retired in 2012 but after about six months, he wanted to lead a more active life. He shares more about CSE:
How did the idea of CSE first come about? How many members/beneficiaries do you currently have?
Essentially, it was conceived to encourage and empower the needy, lower-income and elderly residents (anyone above 45 years) of KAKS constituency through economic activities to supplement their household income and enrich their lives.
We do this in two ways. Firstly, participants work three days a week for four hours from 10am to 2pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. For their efforts, they get a wage of at least S$250 per month or between S$4.50 to S$6.60 hourly. Not only that, full CPF is paid into their accounts without any deduction from their wages. And a 13th month AWS is also thrown in for good measure! We also organise two excursion trips each year.
The second aspect is more ambitious and long-term. The work that participants do here at our workshop requires some skills. Many who join us are not skilled in, for example, sewing or stitching. We have trainers or the older participants to teach the new ones. As and when projects or ideas arise, other skills that require learning to operate small machineries may be needed. Such training serves to build up the individual’s confidence in herself or himself. Perhaps, opportunities may come along and we will be happy to let them go to work full-time some place else.
At CSE’s inception, I was not the manager. But I understand that the workshop was only half the current 2,000 sq ft or so size. Regardless, we currently serve more than 20 members and aim to increase our intake even as I try to secure more orders to provide sufficient work for our members. Then there is also the sales revenue from the retail operation. That is highly dependent on walk-in customers.
How many have since left and gone on their own?
Three persons found a better job.
How has the organisation evolved over the years? What challenges have you faced?
Currently, there is no other similar initiative in other constituencies. When CSE first kicked off, it was almost reliant entirely on retail sales for its revenue. However, that was clearly unsustainable. Hence, as we evolved, we realised that we needed to supplement the retail activities with new product ideas at a regular pace and also reach out to potential customers for project-basis orders. We have sold many many items, just to give a few examples like handbags, Samsui dolls, Merlion passport holders, cushion dogs, small purses, baby blankets, postcards, necklaces, keychains and ear studs. Hence, we now have a trainer who is also tasked to come up with new product ideas every four to six months.
Furthermore, we try to secure bulk orders from walk-in customers who may be there to look for door gifts, tokens, etc, for various commercial or personal functions. We have fulfilled orders for company annual dinners and weddings too. My job also includes visiting potential customers across the island to tell them about our services.
The main challenge to keep CSE going is to be able to strike the balance between orders and manpower against trying not to be a loss-making enterprise. Too many orders coming in all at once may give rise to delays as member headcount is not easy to boost quickly.
Where else do you sell their products besides at the retail shop? How much is given back to the members/beneficiaries after the sale? How many members/beneficiaries have benefitted from CSE?
Other than our own retail shop at The Majestic, we sell only on-demand to private organisations, schools and individuals. Such orders can be rather seasonal which also means scheduling problems for our workshop.
Our beneficiaries/members are paid their fixed wages regardless of the orders we get or do not get enough of to let them work regularly. CSE bears all the risks of the business. It is an approach that gives our members peace of mind. Where there is any shortfall in revenue, we rely on community leaders here at KAKS to top up our expense budget. As it is, CSE continues to incur losses albeit much less than before.
To date, more than 150 members have benefitted from CSE’s activities.
Can you share more about the elderly in the KAKS constituency and their needs?
KAKS has, perhaps, the highest proportion of elderly of any constituency of similar size. The reason is partly historical. Given that this is Chinatown, many of the early migrants from China, the main ethnic group in Singapore, settled here and stayed.
Surprisingly, the area with its central location and just beside the CBD, also continues to attract younger citizens. Loneliness, minor infirmities and a lack of regular income are key issues for the elderly here.
That is why CSE tries to play the role it does – to provide a supplementary income, an interesting place and activities to pass time with fellow residents while getting a small wage as a bonus of sorts. And, yes, learning new skills that result in a physical creation is always something that warms the soul.
Are you planning to go beyond the area that you reach out to?
We can only work within our own constituency. Even then, we have probably reached out to only a small portion of the community at KAKS. It is too costly to visit each flat individually to see how CSE may be able to help. We rely on word-of-mouth of our current and past beneficiaries to spread word of our existence. Some members are referred to CSE at MP’s Meet-the-People sessions.
What are your future plans to keep the non-profit sustainable?
The day when CSE becomes self-sustainable may not come. Given our mission to reach out to the elderly and poor, and the social objectives of CSE, we are not able to, as it were, ‘peg income to performance’. No, that is not the goal.
Furthermore, being right in the heart of the city, there is no way to sustain an operation if we are charged commercial rates. Therefore, my goal is clear, the social aspect of CSE precedes that of its commercial viability.
Notwithstanding that, I do my best to motivate our members whenever the workload increases – without putting them under undue stress. Everyone knows that they may be called upon on occasion to work more than three days a week – but only when absolutely necessary.
This understanding seems to work for everyone at CSE.