PRC peddlers waving tissue paper in your face

From ‘Upset over foreign tissue paper sellers’, 13 Sep 15, article by Theresa Tan, Sunday Times

Able-bodied foreigners are flying in to sell tissue paper in public areas, upsetting elderly or disabled Singaporeans who are earning a living this way.

Women in their 50s and 60s from China, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar have been seen selling packets of tissue paper at hawker centres, coffee shops and other places. They come as tourists, stay as long as their visas allow, and sell three packets of tissue for $1 – the same as the local sellers.

Hawkers and local tissue paper sellers said they first noticed the foreigners about a year ago.

…In the first six months of the year, the NEA rounded up 145 illegal hawkers selling tissue paper, mobile phone accessories, clothes and other goods. About half were foreigners, an NEA spokesman told The Sunday Times.

…Retired organisational psychologist Michael Loh said he finds it annoying when Chinese nationals approach him at food courts and coffee outlets at malls near the Jurong East MRT station.

“They are aggressive and wave the tissue paper in your face. This is a disguised form of begging and I feel they are taking advantage of Singaporeans’ generosity,” he said.

The elections are finally over, and we already have the first piece of news that would make the Opposition think: ‘Damn, why didn’t I bring this up during the rallies?’.

I’ve always wondered how foreigners who need to sell tissue paper or even beg from generous Singaporeans could afford to even buy their ticket into the country. During Ramadan, foreign beggars from countries as far away as Pakistan make up the ‘seasonal menace’ at Kampong Glam, going around the enclave receiving alms from locals. (Beggars descend on Kampong Glam, Jul 5 2015, ST). Some speculate that these foreigners could be part of a syndicate. In 2014, a ST Forum writer cited an incident of a man coming out of a ‘Malaysian-registered’ van collecting and replacing a donation tin belonging to an elderly man with no legs. It’s no wonder that tissue paper is lucrative enough for schemers to capitalise on, since Singaporean office workers can’t have their lunch without their trusty ‘chope’ companion.

If these ‘guest’  tissue sellers are truly part of an international syndicate, they could be sent home with a comfortable cut on a plane the very next day, having sumptuous airline food, while our ‘pioneer generation’ count coins to buy themselves kopi for breakfast, not to mention recoup their $120 licence fee. NEA may be rounding up the flock, but perhaps the damage has already been done, as Singaporeans become more wary of tissue peddlers or street vendors in general, whether they’re licensed by the authorities or not.  But this foreign competition isn’t the least surprising, considering that it’s a struggle faced even by elderly cardboard collectors. Here we have needy Singaporeans living day by day toiling in the sun, only to have some fly by night PRC on a tourist visa bossing them around and claiming territory in a land that doesn’t even belong to them.

Maybe the Workforce Development Agency could do something, like teach our cardboard collectors how to negotiate with aggressive foreign competitors around turf lines, or self-defence catered for seniors, which they should be able to pick up easily since they’ve done so much ‘exercise’ already. Caring for our unskilled work force and throwing money at them isn’t enough. The Government needs to fight for their very survival against this tide of strangers who invade our shores to illegally eat into the rice bowls of our own people. Interpol should be engaged to crack down on syndicates, not runaway rogue politicians. ICA needs to do a more thorough job screening visitors with shady agendas, whether they’re here selling tissue paper or their own bodies for a few days. If the NEA can’t physically hunt them down, then by God, Tan Chuan-Jin, please put your sprint prowess to better use.


Tissue paper sellers paying a $120 licence fee

From ‘Tissue paper peddlers are unlicensed hawkers, says NEA’, 17 April 2014, article in CNA

Mobile peddlers selling packets of tissue paper on the streets are unlicensed hawkers, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) in response to a letter posted on a website that these peddlers are charged a S$120 licence fee. “Although technically in breach of the laws against itinerant hawking, those peddlers who are needy are referred to the relevant agencies by the NEA for appropriate assistance,” the agency said on its Facebook page on Tuesday.

In a letter posted on the socio-political website The Real Singapore, the writer had questioned the need for street hawkers to pay S$120 to get a licence following his encounter with a visually-impaired man who sells tissue paper for extra income.

The NEA said that, at present, only 11 street hawkers under its Street Hawking Scheme are licensed to sell tissue paper in town council areas. Under the scheme, which started in 2000, those who meet the eligibility criteria pay a nominal fee of S$120 a year, or S$10 a month, to peddle their wares at fixed locations without having to pay rent.

In response to TODAY’s queries, the NEA said unlicensed peddlers selling tissue paper at coffee shops and hawker centres will be warned to stop selling their wares….”If they ignore the warning, the NEA will take enforcement action against them, just as it does for other illegal hawkers,” it added.

‘Enforcement action’ against what the law describes as ‘itinerant hawkers’ entails a fine not exceeding $5000, or up to $10,000/imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months for repeat offenders. On surface, this appears to be a major ‘compassion deficit‘ on the part of NEA to anyone who’s ever encountered a blind tissue peddler led by a relative walking around hawker centres, or the lady in a wheelchair who sings ‘Tissue paper One Dollar’ around MRT stations. I wonder if she’s also required to apply for an Public Entertainment licence.

Tissue paper ‘hawker’ Edwin Koh, 43, makes about $30 to $40 over the weekend, charging $1 for 3 packets. Rejected by his family, he sleeps in the playground after getting thrown out of a shelter for smoking. 75 year old Chia Chong Hock is reported to be the ONLY licensed tissue vendor in Singapore, earning his keep at Tiong Bahru MRT wearing a Santa hat, his makeshift ‘stall’ decorated with cherry blossoms and a Singapore flag. Even with all the props and decor, he still makes $20 to $30 a day. A Madam Rani who used to hang around the junction at Orchard Road facing Heeren (and someone I personally encountered) was reported to earn only $14 a day even for a busy district. Most of us spend that same amount in a single meal without even thinking about poverty lines. There are exceptions of course, foul-tempered peddlers who curse at you for rejecting their sale, or pushy ones who stuff tissue packs in your face as you’re eating bak chor mee.

While the cost of everything else seems to be going up these days, it’s a sobering thought that these Singaporeans are still keeping their tissue prices at 3 for $1,  especially since there is a constant demand for the goods, being used to reserve tables and all. Without the milk of kindness by strangers giving beyond the selling price of tissue paper, I wonder how these folks even survive. Some ugly Singaporean customers however, have even been known to compare prices (5 for $1 vs 4 for $1) between peddlers and haggle. If you take a closer look at some of the brands of tissue hawked, you’ll find a popular one called ‘Beautex’, with a tagline that reads, rather ironically, CHOICES FOR BETTER LIVES.

To be fair, the government hasn’t completely turned a blind eye to their plight. Amy Khor calls tissue peddling a ‘ very uncertain livelihood’ and that such elderly folks should be referred to the MCYS and CDCs for financial assistance. Then again, there are ministers like Wong Kan Seng who in 1987 slammed a group of blind tissue sellers for ‘acting like beggars’, his Ministry even accusing members of the ‘Progressive Society of the Blind‘ of duping the public with claims that proceeds were going into building a music school. It would be temporary blindness of the officers under his charge that led to the escape of a very famous fugitive 10 years later.

Still, I question how the statutes define ‘itinerant hawker’ (any person who, with or without a vehicle, goes from place to place or from house to house carrying for sale or exposing for SALE OF FOODS OR GOODS of any kind) and why selling tissue paper is subject to NEA’s regulations. If the NEA clamps down on people selling curry puffs or otak-otak, I doubt anyone would complain, since you could get sick from consuming their wares without proper sanitary controls. How does the need to control something as benign as tissue paper fall under the Environmental Public Health Act? Does tissue paper give you lip salmonella? Has anyone been hospitalised from severe allergic reactions after wiping their faces with tissue paper? If you use tissue to chope tables at food centres, do they leak toxic fumes all over the place? Does tissue paper turn your pimples into 3rd degree burns?

Since the rise of tissue peddling in the early 2000’s, NEA have not relented on their stand against illegal hawking, with a spokesperson in 2004 deriding the hardship as ‘disguised begging’. Tell that to the Santa Claus uncle, NEA.


Tissue chope-ing a Singaporean tradition

From ‘At Changi Airport’, 26 April 2011, My Point, ST Forum and ‘It’s uniquely Singaporean and very rude’, 26 April 2011, ST Forum

(MR JEREMY CHIAN): ‘I recently went to Changi Airport to pick up an overseas guest. While waiting at the arrival hall I cringed on seeing huge posters informing visitors that if they saw tissue packets placed on foodcourt dining tables, it meant the seats were already taken…How embarrassed I was when my guest inquired if this was the culture in Singapore. Publicising this practice gives our country a bad image.’

(Su Timmins): …At a well-known food chain, just as my husband and I were heading towards a table with our food, two girls walked in and headed straight for our table to place their tissue packs. I told them it was our table and they moved to ‘reserve’ another. We finished and left before they even got their food.

As we left, another two girls placed their tissue packs on our table and there were at least 15 people in the queue ahead of them.

When I complained to the owner, his reply shocked me. This was the custom and culture of Singapore, he said, adding that he did not think he should reject the traditions followed in the place he operated.

Since when and how has this practice become a Singaporean cultural tradition?

The humble, practically worthless tissue pack has the perfect size and visibility as an object to stake claim on a space, compared to say, a watch, a pen or anything that one is less willing to lose. By its function, it is understood that someone wants to eat there, and the very fact that it is so dispensable means patrons  are aware  of the tenuous hold  that the tissue pack has on eating space, since no hearts would be broken if someone swiped it.  Likewise there’s no authority or  SOP on tissue chope-ing, and nothing illegal too if someone throws it away or assumes that it was left behind by a previous patron and sits down anyway, though you would earn some scowls throughout your meal as a consequence of your tactless flouting of the Singaporean ‘chope’ custom.

Singaporeans nonetheless have grown to accept this ‘unspoken rule’, just like how it’s accepted to slurp your ramen loudly in a Japanese noodle shop, waste water at a Songkran festival in Thailand, or run with the bulls risking a butt-gore in Spain.  These customs aren’t pretty, even absurd, but our perceived ‘rudeness’ of seat chope-ing can’t possibly be worse than our reputation as ruthless vandal caners. What matters is that we have achieved a social equilibrium and mutual understanding of the  gesture amicably without ending up in a brawl tossing chilli at each other. Some foreigners even claim that reserving seats (including using someone to ‘jaga’, a staple method for those who eschew the tissue-chope) is unheard of in their country (see below, Is anyone sitting here? 8 Feb 2001, Voices, Today).  The science behind ideal turnaround times at hawker centre tables is as fuzzy as traffic prediction, so it’s hard to tell if a free for all no reservations system  as the writer below suggests would ensure that everyone walks away satisfied and without a black eye. In fact, with prohibitions on reservations, you’d see people rushing for seats, clashing trays, spilling food all over the place and fighting because of the two predisposing factors to an ugly situation: Hungry. And being Singaporean.

In fact, some would even argue that tissue-choping is a time saver (Tissue system’s a time saver, 17 April 2007, Voices, Today), ensuring that tables are occupied for less time since the group would otherwise have been waiting for the ‘choper’ to finish his meal before giving up the table together. Which probably explains how this ‘system’ has evolved from the stress of a tight lunch hour, sometimes half-hour even, that most Singaporeans are allowed as a side effect of our obsession with productivity, unlike the leisurely hour and a half long lunches (power naps inclusive) which our complaining tourists are used to.

The problem really, is ENDORSING through posters as what Changi Airport does that tissue chope-ing is our de rigeur way of doing things here, alongside say getting the death penalty for drug trafficking. One might as well include it in the disembarkation form for tourists to check the acknowledgment box that says ‘I will not sit at tables with tissue packs on them while eating out’.  This effectively tilts the delicate balance in favour of the tissue-chopers, who would otherwise be forced to compete with the likes of people who just throw their tissues away or ignore them. It also means that you can get away with the ‘phantom tissue’ argument, whereby you accuse an innocent random patron for stealing your tissue pack just so you can squeeze into his table at the expense of his lunch companions. In any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about such deeply entrenched behaviour (at least 10 years) short of imposing a fine for ‘littering’, if not for ‘reserving seats’. So other than just making do, we might as well make the tissue pack a national icon too. Hey, it’s uniquely Singaporean, what.

Tissue issue

From Some boxes had much less tissue paper 15 Sept 1987 ST Forum

I was planning a game for a party when I discovered something strange. Has anyone counted the number of tissues in a 120g box of tissues? I did, and was shocked to find that Brand X boxes contained an average of 52 while Brand Y boxes contained 105

I’m sure Curious Cat would find immense entertainment in comparing Brand X and Y Thai Fragrant Rice. I wonder what happened to those tissues after being removed from the respective slits in the boxes and counted.  This wins the “nothing better to do’ award.

Tissue paper sellers

From Rid Orchard Road of beggars and hawkers 2 Oct 2007 ST Forum. Thanks to Mr Wang Says So

ONE cannot help but notice an increasing number of people begging for money and selling tissue paper along Orchard Road.

Also on the rise are illegal hawkers at places such as outside Orchard and Somerset MRT stations, selling anything from mobile-phone covers to roasted chestnuts.

I urge the authorities to take action against this group of people, as they are giving a bad image to spanking clean Orchard Road.

Killer toys

From Toys in cars are dangerous to motorists 30 Sept 1987 ST Forum

Even one box of tissue paper in my rear windscreen is enough to make me feel less than safe when driving. Yet there are motorists who don’t see the danger of placing objects like toy tigers where they should not be.

Tissue chope-ing

From Tissue shock at food court 12 Feb 2010 ST Forum online

I had lunch recently at the Great World City foodcourt. I spotted an empty table while my friend went to order the food.

This was a table for four, and this young man in his mid or late 20s plonked down at the table and said it was his as he had a tissue paper packet there.

There was no tissue paper packet around, so he insinuated that I had removed it so I could occupy the table. He then called his friend and one minute later, she appeared and also plonked down at the table.

Well if it isn’t The Case of the Phantom Tissue Pack. All this random ‘plonking’ about at peak hour at hawker centres can be readily solved if people are just willing to share tables and eat alone, or have an actual person ‘chope’ seats instead while someone else orders food for him or her. It’s hard to decide if tissue chopers are just plain kiasu or just a few brain calories shy of rational thinking.