Growing Up with Less


An interactive multimedia documentary on the plight of children growing up in low income families in Singapore. Published online:

Published as a Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (NTU) final year project.


Growing Up with Less explores the hidden side of cosmopolitan richest-country-in-the-world Singapore where the government-built apartment complexes are littered with trash and used sanitary pads and your neighbor next door could be a drug addict. The documentary focuses on the plight of children from low-income families where parents struggle to make ends meet leaving their children unsupervised, often hungry for food and affection and extremely vulnerable to bad influences. Through the observing eyes of the cameras, the many facets of their lives and the accompanying dramas that rolled over from the adults’ lives are exposed, showing how just how vulnerable the children are and how much they need a guiding hand to bring them out of the poverty cycle.



Large families living in tiny rental apartments are often the result of poor family planning and poor education. In a two-room flat, nine children run about the house noisily and the eldest has to hide in the bathroom to study. While their parents work long hours and grandparents spend most of their time watching TV, the eldest daughter takes over the parental role to round up her rowdy siblings and calm the crying baby. We bring viewers into the home of a family with 15 people living under one tiny roof, and explore how living in an overcrowded environment affects the young children during their formative years.

We also include a text story on the importance of family planning based on an interview with the Vice President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, Mr Edward Ong. Though as a whole, Singapore has a low fertility rate, those who can afford it are not having children while those who can’t are. The story attempts to explain why the poor are having more children and what can be done to help them do family planning.

Type of story: Photo stories, text stories

Complex ties

In the same neighbourhood, three sisters and their families live in three-room and two-room rental apartments. One sister, Madam Tan, has a few children, fathered by different men. Both her nieces, one of whom had committed suicide, had the same experience. The orphaned children are being cared for by relatives. The vicious cycle of dysfunctional families perpetuates itself in this household – the dead girl’s 19-year-old sister has two children, and is living with her 18-year-old boyfriend, who fathered her second child.

This baby is barely a year old. Madam Tan’s daughter, eight-year-old girl Jamie, feeds the baby and changes his diapers. She acts all grown up for her age, and together with her seven-year-old sister Michelle, often oppresses her quiet cousin who is also being taken care of by her mother in the household. Her speech is punctuated with vulgarities – which are ignored by her mother, who takes care of seven children.

Madam Tan says that she does not hold much expectation for her children’s future. “As long as they don’t go astray and end up at the police station, it’s enough,” she says. At home, she does not pressure the children, most of whom are still in primary school, to study or do their homework. “I tell them that if they don’t study hard and do well, and they end up as road sweepers in future, they will have to deal with it themselves,” she says. “I don’t force them to study.” She appears resigned to her circumstances and does not believe that they can break out of the poverty cycle.

The children eat barely enough – sometimes just a bowl of porridge or chee cheong fun to last them through the day. We seek expert advice on how much food is enough for children. We also explore the rich-poor gap in Singapore, policy philosophies of financial aid schemes, and how children grow up with all the negative influences of the neighbourhood and ironically, their own parents.

Type of story: Video stories, text stories

Picking up the Pieces

Children growing up with divorced parents suffer from lack of parental supervision. After her husband left her nine years ago, Madam Salbiah goes for job interviews and skills-improvement classes to enhance her employability. She only returns home in the evenings, with barely enough time to take notice of her three children. Left to their own devices, her 14-year-old eldest son Irfan plays computer games till the wee hours of the morning, while her 10 and 12-year-old daughters run about outside the house, engaged in their own playtime activities.

Having had the maturity to experience the full blow of his father’s sudden departure, Irfan grows up with much bottled up angst and loneliness – he becomes less trusting of the people around him, seeking solace in his computer games and companionship from the family cat.

Good financial management is also seen in Madam Salbiah’s family. Despite having been unemployed for three months, Madam Salbiah scrimps and saves to put food on the table. She would cook instead of eating out, for instance. Having homecooked meals also keeps her children at home for a longer period of time.

In Madam Salbiah’s story, we also explore the role of a social worker, and how they help low income families obtain financial aid, giving emotional support and counsel; ensuring that their client’s basic needs are being met. We speak to Saiful, a case officer at Association of Muslim Professionals, to find out more about his personal motivations and beliefs that inspired him to choose his profession. We also explore the struggles and challenges of being a case officer, and lend insight to the day-to-day responsibilities of the job.

Type of story: Video stories, Photo stories

Through their Eyes

13-year-old Gavin and his 11-year-old sister Germaine live with their father. Their parents are divorced. When not in school, Gavin has his eyes constantly glued to the computer screen while Germaine keeps herself busy on her smartphone.

We explore how children in single parent families grow up as they struggle with the absence of one parental figure, and how the presence of parental supervision can have significant impact on the child’s growth and activities.

We also get the children to talk about their neighbourhood so viewers could see their environment through their eyes.

Type of story: Video stories

 “All for my Daughter”

Thila is a single mother looking after her daughter who has just set for ‘N’ levels. They live in a rental flat in Jalan Kukoh, but despite their challenging circumstances, Thila has never thrown in the towel. Well aware of the dangers in her neighborhood, with drug addicts as neighbours, contraband cigarettes being sold, and strange people going into supposedly empty units, Thila has put in place many safety precautions to safeguard her only child. Her daughter is expected to stay at home after school and not open the door to anyone. Thila’s occupation as a nurse also affords her some respect among her neighbours, though she has to make sure that she doesn’t get the midnight shift so that she can be with her daughter through the night. Sharp and articulate, she has managed to protect her daughter from the uncouth influences of the neighbourhood.

Besides the good upbringing of Thila’s daughter that is a contrast to many of our other subjects, we also explore the issues of single parenthood in a complicated neighbourhood and the dynamics of the mother and daughter.

Type of story: Video stories

The Void Deck Entrepreneur and The Aunty with a Cause

In heartland estates, there are sometimes community leaders who rise up to make life a little better for the needy. Leaders like Joanne Lim and Nicole Seah have banded together to start an affordable tuition centre for needy children living in Circuit Road, while Samsuri has started up a self-help group among the Muslim community living in Jalan Kukoh. We speak to these people to find out about their motivations behind rallying up a strong community spirit, and understand their difficulties and struggles in the process.

Joanne Lim is well aware of the dangers lurking in her circuit road neighbourhood. Forced to work part time in order to supplement her husband’s meager income, she brings her daughter to work every day to prevent her from mixing with bad company. Despite not knowing much English, she is also very savvy with the different help schemes available.

But more than that, Joanne is the go-to aunty of her block when anyone has a problem. More than just dishing out advice on help schemes, Joanne is very passionate about helping the younger generation so that they can break out of the poverty cycle. Recognizing education is the key, she hopes to get her daughter into tuition, but she is unable to afford the $80 a month fee. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this is the exact case Nicole Seah was talking about during the general election rally where she teared up. Despite losing the election, Nicole went back to find Joanne, and together they managed to start a free tuition programme with 80 children from her rental flat block involved in it at its height. Though the programme has since been scaled down, Joanne feels no less passionate about her cause and is always encouraging every child in her block to study hard. Not willing to succumb to her disadvantaged circumstances, her desire to help not just her own child, but her entire block of lower-income children is truly inspirational.

Similarly, Samsuri is equally aware of the dangers of his Jalan Kukoh neighbourhood, which is littered with drug addicts and suspicious people smoking, drinking and loitering around the void deck. Having observed the sedentary lifestyles of the children living there, he teamed up with a few other concerned residents to start up Pekik Jalan Kukoh, the only independent self-help group in the neighbourhood. This group organises activities for the residents, such as neighbourhood concerts, celebration of festivities, and a children’s football team. The main motivation that mooted the team was to encourage the children to engage in a healthier manner such as this, instead of leaving them to loiter around the void deck and pick up habits like smoking and drinking from residents who do so. Samsuri wants to ultimately set up a social enterprise that can allow him to be the go-to person whenever companies look for temporary manpower from Jalan Kukoh, which according to him is a “minefield of manpower resources”.

Type of story: Video stories, photo stories

Children’s Playspaces

HDB common areas such as void decks and common corridors frequently serve as play spaces for children living in Singapore. However for the children living in the troubled neighbourhood of Circuit Road, they can be seen playing outside mostly unsupervised, sometimes way past midnight. We capture these moments of mindless play, which also reflects the absence of parental guidance in terms of discipline and education. We explore if these children are exposed to risks that come from their complicated neighbourhood environment, where sometimes one can find heaps of refuse on the first floor after being thrown out of windows, walls covered in graffiti sprayed by loan sharks and stairwells littered with used syringes discarded by drug abusers. We seek to explore and give insight to the environment of a rental flat area.

Type of story: Photo story


Our stories are also featured in both mainstream and online media.

One of our interviewees, Mr Samsuri from the Void Deck Entrepreneur story, has also recently been featured in Al Jazeera’s programme on the widening income gap in Singapore.

Look out for updates and contact us on our Facebook page.

Our videos are also available on our YouTube channel.

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