An interview with Liyana Dhamirah

I met Liyana Dhamirah at a McDonald’s by an MRT station in late June. She’d just come from a book showcase at Epigram Books’ office—she told me she hadn’t expected the high turn-out at that event. It was her first time attending something like this, for the first book she’s ever published.

“[This] event not only showcased the book that I'm publishing […] there's also the other authors as well, right? So I'm hearing they sold like 20,000 copies, 50,000 copies, I was like, ‘Oh, can we even make it to 1000 copies, at least?’” she said, giggling. “So that is [something] that makes me have, you know, this mixed feeling. It's kind of like nervous, but happy at the same time.”

Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore, is Liyana’s account of her experience with homelessness, when she was only 22 years old and heavily pregnant.

That was around the time we got to know each other. Back then, I was a volunteer with The Online Citizen had been involved with some of their coverage on the issue of homelessness (at a time when the PAP government was still reluctant to acknowledge that there was homelessness in Singapore).

Since then, I’ve seen Liyana work her butt off to pull her family out of poverty and provide a stable and loving home for her kids. I feel it’s fair to say that Liyana is one of the most unstoppable and hardest workers I know, so when Epigram asked me if I would read her manuscript and provide a blurb for the book, it was a no-brainer.

Now that the book is out, I’m publishing this short interview with Liyana—really, just a short conversation between friends. (I’ve edited it for language, clarity, and brevity.)

Enjoy!

This isn't the first time you tried to publish your book, right? You’d tried crowdfunding to publish your memoirs before…

In 2013, when we first set out to publish it, we went through the crowdfunding campaign, and it flopped. It failed. And after that I was chucking this whole thing to the side, just keeping the manuscript, then [my friend] was like, "You gotta start working on it again, don't stash it away."

After the last crowdfunding campaign failure... I have to be honest, it took really quite some time for me to gather the courage and the confidence to attempt this second round. So we sent [the manuscript] to about 20, both literary agents and publishers, local and overseas as well. Only three of the local publishers got back to us. And then only one actually had the guts to take it on. And it was Epigram. So I'm really thankful that they are brave enough to actually take this particular project.

So the other publishers told you that their concern was with the topic?

Yeah, correct. Their concern was the topic. And they also mentioned that it’s pretty sensitive. So they’re not sure if they were suitable to promote it on their end.

But it’s a topic that everyone is talking about now, isn’t it? Especially with Teo You Yenn’s book This Is What Inequality Looks Like doing so well…

It's very current, I will say, for people to start embracing it, that there is such a reality going on. Previously, it's more of a denial that, you know, homelessness is like… neither here nor there, it's like [saying] “displaced families” instead of using the real word, which is like, yeah, they're homeless. “Displaced” means what?!

So yeah, I think currently, [people] are much more open to accepting the fact that this exists. And yeah, hopefully this will be another topic to talk about.

I remember, back in 2010 when TOC was covering the issue, it wasn’t really acknowledged that there was even such a thing as homelessness… so now we’ve finally admitted it.

Yes, I know, right! Which is only quite recent. It’s not like when we talked about it in 2010, when they started talking about homelessness, it was only in what… 2017? From that year? Yeah.

Because of the Homeless Street Survey that was done then.

Correct. And more organisations are coming forward to do more case studies on the homeless in Singapore.

But just admitting that there’s homelessness is a very small step, right? Have you seen any other progress?

I would say little steps. Because I can see that, apart from embracing or accepting the fact that there are homeless people in Singapore, there are people who have come forward to help.

Back then, when we were first discovered on Sembawang beach… One night, we had a raid at Sembawang Park—I’m not sure if you were there? (I wasn’t.)—during that raid itself it was only the TOC people, the volunteers, and us, the families on the beach, helping each other to get the help we needed. Other than that, there were no other organisations that came forward back then.

But now, looking from year 2015 onwards, I can see that, you know, Homeless Hearts, that organisation, they are helping, especially those individuals who are sleeping at night on the streets and all that, apart from those who are living in tents by the beach. There are different kinds of people who are homeless, according to different situations.

How about policy? Have you seen changes there?

What I've discovered when I was writing the book, right… one of the pages that we put in was the resources list, so that it can help readers who are in need. The thing I discovered was, starting in 2017 or 2018, the government is deploying more charity organisations to open up shelters for the homeless. So there are two more shelters that have popped up… it’s quite recent. So I think there are baby steps there, but there's still more that needs to be done.

How do you think the Singapore public sees homelessness? Are there misconceptions? Do you think people understand the issue?

To be honest, I don't think so. I don't think they understand that homelessness really exists in Singapore. Because they're still struggling to accept the fact that there are homeless people. Because to them, Singapore is so prosperous, right? And they don’t see the people who are homeless, unless they venture to the beach or stay at the beach for one week, then they can see the difference, right? But other than that, they're still struggling to have this image that there are homeless people.

There are often comments or arguments that people are poor because they don’t work hard or make bad choices. But when I read your book, I could find no evidence in your book that anyone was slacking off and being lazy. Everyone you mentioned in the book was working. How does it feel, then to see so many Singaporeans have the perception that homeless people aren’t working hard?

The misperception will be like that lah, “these people, they get into such predicaments because they are lazy, they don't plan well, they make a lot of mistakes in their decisions” and all that.

But to be honest, just reflecting on my own personal journey, it can just purely be… luck. It's just your so-called—what are you going to call it—bad luck, where you just stumble into that particular phase... Nobody wants to be in that situation in the first place. But it just happens, no matter whether you’re hardworking or not, or you have savings or not.

How hard is it in Singapore, if you fall into that bad situation, to pull yourself back out?

Believe me, it's quite hard! It took me months, and... okay, it took me six months to get the correct aid that I was looking for, the actual aid that I need. And it took me two years to finally get the exact solution that I need, which is to have a proper home. And that’s when I got the rental flat. Two years after that whole fiasco. So if you're talking about time, the length, the duration itself? Hard lah!

We’ve known each other for almost 10 years. From the time I met you, seeing you and your family going from the beach to actually being able to own your own HDB flat… it’s been years!

Yes, it's almost a decade! I could say it’s a struggle, but it’s a hidden struggle, it’s not really showcased. It’s not really portrayed much in public because people only want to share the good side of things that happens here in Singapore. But the process that someone needs to go through, it’s rarely been shared. And from my personal experience, when we go through all this assistance and all that, they make you sign forms that say, you know, no disclosure of some sort, that kind of thing.

What is that process like, then?

I would say that... okay, not a lot of forms to fill, but more of reliving the story again and again, because you need to keep on telling the story to the social worker. Even if it’s already on file, they’ll still ask you the same thing, like, “What happened? Why are you here?” All of that.

And almost every visit, you need to retell the story again, and it's emotionally draining, because you’ve already mentioned it once. It’s already taking a toll on you, you know, to recall it all and to tell the story. And at every visit, you have to do that. So it's really emotionally draining.


Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore is now out and in stories. You can order it online, or find it in bookstores like the Huggs Epigram Coffee Bookshop!