Most young Singaporeans see their early 20s as a time for graduating, starting their first jobs and looking for their own homes. But when Liyana Dhamirah was 22, she was pregnant with her third child and living in a tent on Sembawang Beach.
This was 10 years ago. Liyana, 32, is now a business owner with a four-room Housing Board flat. But she cannot forget the experience of hitting rock-bottom.
She has written about this in her memoir and debut book Homeless, with which she hopes to raise awareness about those living without a roof over their heads in the same country which Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (2013) is set in.
“I think there are still those who have trouble acknowledging there are homeless people in Singapore,” she tells The Straits Times at the office where she runs a virtual assistant start-up. “They can’t fathom it. You think they are all haggard and carrying cardboard, but actually the homeless put in a lot of effort to look like ordinary people.”
Liyana’s troubles began when her parents got divorced when she was 12 and her family lost their flat. Though she and her brother did well at school, her mother struggled to make ends meet with a series of meagre desk jobs.
At 16, she got pregnant. Though her boyfriend at the time agreed to marry her and they had a second child, the marriage ended up on the rocks because of his cheating.
Things came to a head during Hari Raya in 2009, when her mother-in-law, with whom she had a strained relationship, threw the young couple out of her flat. Their sons were living at the time with Liyana’s mother in Johor Baru.
The couple spent three months living in a tent on the beach. Liyana’s sons were staying with her when she met by chance journalists Ravi Philemon and Andrew Loh.
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Mr Philemon brought her case to the attention of her constituency’s Member of Parliament, Minister for Law K. Shanmugam, and Mr Vivian Balakrishnan, who was then Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). Social workers swiftly stepped in to help Liyana and her family move from the beach into a transition home.
“Without this help, I might have delivered my baby and raised her at the beach,” says Liyana. “But there are still people out there who need help and we can’t just wait for them to be discovered by journalists.”
While homeless, Liyana turned to books for solace. Sembawang Public Library was her only source of entertainment. But she could not find any books on homelessness in Singapore. The only books she could identify with were ones such as The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ young-adult dystopian trilogy. “I guess because I was also trying to survive,” she quips.
Since then, she believes things have changed. Sociologist Teo You Yenn’s bestselling book This Is What Inequality Looks Like sparked a national conversation on social inequality last year. The winner of last year’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize was Yeoh Jo-Ann’s novel Impractical Uses Of Cake, about a man who befriends a homeless woman.
Liyana hopes her first-person account will help to challenge the stigma against the homeless. “People look at the homeless and think, oh, they made bad life choices, they aren’t wise in their decision-making process.”
In her book, she describes her own attempts to seek help from a Family Service Centre, Meet-The-People sessions and HDB. She recalls how, six months pregnant, she went to the headquarters of MCYS, but was told by a social worker there to try a Geylang backpacker hotel for $12 a night. The experience left her in tears.
She filed for divorce in 2011 and remarried in 2017. She and her husband are expecting her fourth child, a daughter.
She began writing her memoir in 2013, working at 3am while her children slept. With the help of her friends, writers Manisha Dhalani and Khai Anwar, she polished and expanded the manuscript, which was accepted last year by publisher Epigram Books.
She says: “I would like it to help other single mothers going through the same experience or those who are in a rut, who are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Homeless ($20.22) is available at major bookstores.
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Text: Olivia Ho, Straits Times / Additional reporting: Natalya Molok