SINGAPORE: The 3-room flat is clean and airy. But the first things you notice as you enter are the rows of full red plastic bags taking up most of the living room area.
Two people are seated at a dining table tucked inside the hallway, poring over papers and occasionally referring to their tablet.
“Come in,” 62-year-old Anthoni Raj tells this reporter, as he holds out his hand. “They will start coming soon.”
Once a month, Mr Anthoni and his two volunteers, Meera Ramachandran and Alvin Dawson, distribute everything from cooking oil, rice and noodles to diapers and formula milk to low-income families from the Singaporean Indian community.
The team has been doing this for almost a year. It receives groceries donated by members of a Facebook group Mr Anthoni started. Once the groceries arrive at his home in Yishun, Mr Anthoni packs them for beneficiaries. Called Blessing Item for Indian Families, the group now has about 1,200 donors.
“When I started the group, there were about 80 members,” Mr Anthoni said.
“So the donors are increasing, but the number of needy families who have asked for help is also increasing. When I first started, we were helping about seven families, now we have about 35 families, with about 15 on the waiting list.”
Today, the first beneficiaries start streaming in just past 9.30am. Some are accompanied by young children, who go straight for the donated books and toys, lying in a heap.
“Uncle Anthoni!” they shout as they greet the stocky, elderly man as they pick up the plastic bags and stuff them into trolleys they have brought with them.
Some of the older beneficiaries have chronic diseases like diabetes, and cannot work due to medical complications.
A young woman with two children enters the home at around 10am. She picks up her bag of groceries and diapers, then proceeds to speak to Mr Anthoni, Meera and Alvin in Tamil.
Later, Mr Anthoni explained that most beneficiaries receive rations for between three and six months, after which their financial status is reassessed.
“But we've been helping this lady for about seven months now," he said.
"Her husband has been going in and out of prison. He’s back in again now. She’s a young mother who can’t go to work because she can’t leave her children. She stays in a one-room flat.”
Another young lady comes with her mother and a little boy, who looks to be no older than five years.
“Your brother?” I ask the young woman, wanting to interview her.
“My son,” she corrects me.
Some beneficiaries, like Rajeswari, are widowed mothers of young children.
“This is my second time collecting these ration bags,” she says.
“I’m working part-time because my children are still young. I bring home about S$195 each month and I also get financial assistance of between $500 and $800 a month. But every three months, we have to apply to renew the assistance.”
Rajeswari says getting these food rations, which are worth about $100, helps to alleviate the family’s financial woes.
A FORMAL SYSTEM IN PLACE TO HELP THOSE WHO NEED IT MOST
What started out as an ad hoc initiative has now grown into a formal process, thanks to Meera and Alvin, who have years of experience as social workers.
“We have a system in place now,” Mr Anthoni said.
“Who to give and how to give, basic checking. We can also check whether they are getting help from other places. We have documentation. I’m not good with Excel so Alvin and Meera help me in that way.
"They also give the families other help such as where to go for legal advice and other issues. because they have experience as social workers.”
Meera said the group is also able to direct families to relevant agencies if they need other forms of assistance.
By 11am, the number of families picking up their food rations has dwindled. But many ration packs still remain uncollected in Mr Anthoni’s small living room. They will go back into his spare room, awaiting collection for another day.
“Initially I wanted to rent out a room to supplement my income but now all the rations are coming in,” Mr Anthoni said.
“And when people don’t turn up to collect their rations, I have to wait for them to come another day. I don’t have the heart to tell them off either. I tried renting out a storage space but it’s too expensive. No one wants to give me space for free. So I have to leave it at my place.”
PRISON WAS A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Despite the initiative being less than a year old, the idea was planted some years back, under trying circumstances.
In 2008, Mr Anthoni was sentenced to six years imprisonment for secret society-related activities.
“I did a lot of soul-searching in prison,” he said.
Mr Anthoni left home when he was 16, rebelling against the strict upbringing he had experienced.
"Eventually I got married but it didn’t last very long. After that, I was doing some sub-contract work like renovation. I did not fully concentrate. It was very touch and go. I was not focused. I ended up joining gangs in my 30s."
That decision would result in a series of bad decisions, right up till he was sentenced.
“When I was in prison, I kept thinking, going back to my childhood, coming back to adulthood and thinking, ‘I have done nothing’.”
"I thought back to school. I was doing well, but I dropped everything. If you ask me now why I did that, I don’t have an answer. Maybe my parents were too controlling and I was just rebelling against them."
But a visit from his estranged father while he was in prison sparked a real desire for change.
“I hadn’t seen him or had been on good terms with him for many years. When he visited me, I apologised to him. I said, ‘I’m very sorry for what I’ve done’. What he told me, I still remember. He said, ‘You haven’t done anything to me. The only person you have harmed is yourself'."
But the road to change was filled with setbacks. After being released from prison in 2014, Mr Anthoni could not get a job, due to his age and the fact that he had a criminal record.
He now gets by painting homes and provides electrical and plumbing services.
“When I started my handyman work, I had a lot of free-time and wanted to do something for people, for my community,” he said.
The idea for the initiative came to him while he was helping out with another ‘blessing group’ as the team calls it. Mr Anthoni said he noticed many low-income Indian families were in need of food rations.
“I NOW HAVE A SENSE OF PURPOSE”
As the number of donors grows, Anthoni hopes to eventually do more. During the June school holidays, he and the team organised a party for the children of some 30 low-income families.
Members of his Facebook group provided the food and the children were also entertained by a magician who volunteered his services.
The team also set up a catering service run by needy families. They have fulfilled some orders, all through word of mouth.
But as the team decides to scale up its efforts, more help is needed.
“Sometimes I am unable to cope when the rations come in and I have to repack the rations,” Mr Anthoni said.
“It’s tiring work. I need more volunteers. Having young people volunteer, perhaps university or junior college students, would be good. If they can spare a couple of hours every weekend, we can help clean houses, go to our beneficiaries’ homes and spend time with the children, perhaps take them down to the playground.”
Eventually, Mr Anthoni said he hopes to extend help beyond the Indian community to other Singaporeans in need.
But what drives him to keep this going, even though he has his own struggles and is losing out financially by not being able to rent out his spare room?
“Before, I was just doing what I liked, going with the flow,” Mr Anthoni replied with a contented smile.
“Now I have something to look forward to. I wake up in the morning and I turn on the computer and go into the Facebook group, people are asking me questions. I have a sense of purpose now.”