Life as a single mother in Singapore has unique challenges – challenges often hidden from plain sight. From the unrelenting caregiving responsibilities to the weight of financial burdens and the pangs of social isolation, single mothers quietly persevere, often seeking a helping hand that’s tough to find.
In the final episode of Growing Pains, we chat with Kanak Muchhal, senior manager of Programmes at Daughters of Tomorrow, a non-profit organisation in Singapore dedicated to lifting the prospects of underprivileged women in Singapore. These resilient women face daunting hurdles, from limited access to education to the relentless grind of high living costs.
Discover the strength of single mothers and the challenges they face in Singapore. Learn about the importance of uplifting single mothers in Singapore, especially those in low-income families and underprivileged situations.
Time codes for key talking points in this podcast episode
00:00 – Welcome to Growing Pains
01:20 – Supporting underprivileged women in Singapore
06:23 – Challenges faced by single mothers in Singapore
13:57 – Flexible work arrangements and financial stability for single mothers
17:50 – Empowering women through education and support
24:52 – Empowering women and girls through the non-profit organisation Daughters of Tomorrow
31:02 – Gender equality and volunteering in Singapore
- Angela Neo, host of the Growing Pains podcast and mother of two.
- Sufyan Saad is a lifestyle writer at The Honeycombers. He was previously at HoneyKids Asia.
- Kanak Muchhal is the senior manager of Programmes at Daughters of Tomorrow, a non-profit organisation in Singapore which runs programmes and initiatives to facilitate livelihood opportunities for underprivileged women and support them in achieving financial independence and enable social mobility for their families.
Growing Pains is a modern parenting podcast where we tackle the constantly changing landscape of parenting in Singapore. This season, we dive deep into modern parenting challenges: navigating the digital age, teen mental health and more during our candid conversations with parents and experts on this Little Red Dot. Tune in now! Follow the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
In a world that is constantly spinning, single mums can find themselves shouldering the mental, financial, and caregiving load all on their own. It can be isolating, lonely, and exhausting. Today, we get an intimate look at the struggles of being a single mother in Singapore.
Welcome to the final episode of Growing Pains season 4, a podcast by HoneyKids Asia that explores the challenges of modern parenting and provides a safe space for parents to navigate the ever-changing landscape of parenthood.
My name is Ange, I’m a mum to two boys – Xavier, who’s 11 and Marcel, who’s 9.
In this episode, we chat with Kanak Muchhal, senior manager of programs at Daughters of Tomorrow, a charity organisation in Singapore whose mission is to facilitate livelihood opportunities for underprivileged women, and support them in building financially independent and resilient families
We’re going to hear some stories from single mothers in Singapore and learn about the often invisible struggle of being a single parent.
Hi, Kanak. It’s so lovely to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for joining us.
Sure, of course. First of all, thanks for having me [and] Daughters of Tomorrow. [I am] so delighted to be here.
Now, for the benefit of our listeners, could you elaborate on Daughters of Tomorrow? What is the organisation about? When was it founded? Who are its beneficiaries? Give us all the good details.
Of course, I’d love to. So we are a local charity. We were founded in 2014 by Carrie Tan, who is currently MP of Nee Soon South. Since then, I think we have grown leaps and bounds. Currently, the charity’s vision is to enable women who [come] from low-income or underprivileged backgrounds and give them the tools and support to [return] to the workforce and enable them towards financial livelihood.
Because we feel that once we have that in place – that’s the beginning or the building blocks towards true freedom of choice. If you don’t have the resources or you don’t have the money, even if you want to do a lot of things, you are limited by nature, right? So what we found as an organisation was kind of the first step.
Since then, I think we’ve realised that it is really the first step because so much more needs to happen to enable true social mobility. That’s some of the new programs we’ve been developing more recently.
That’s incredible. We know that underprivileged women [and] low-income families exist in Singapore, but many people may not be aware of them. Why is that?
Coming here myself, I didn’t see it either. I think it’s not obvious. Like, on the streets, when you’re walking around, [it’s] very different from your experiences in Africa or India, where you can see poverty as you walk around, right? I think because it’s not visible or in your face in Singapore, you’re not aware of it.
If you were to go into some of the rental blocks, which are located all around Singapore – these are public rental housing – if you go in and walk around within the complexes, you will see that the apartment sizes are actually really small. They’re one-room flats, which means it’s just a studio. There’s no space.
Sometimes, you’ll have four to five people living in that space. That is really challenging for a lot of families space-wise. And then, look at the price increases that are going on in Singapore. I think everyone’s finding it hard to kind of get by right now. I’ve been talking to so many friends. They’re saying the rents have gone up by 60-70%.
And food prices have really gone up.
Absolutely. During COVID, you saw that spike. It [hasn’t] been abating. It’s continuing. If you reflect personally on what you’re experiencing right now, you factor in the fact that most of the women we’re working with earn less than $650 per month. You think about how much you’re spending in Singapore, and it’s really hard to stretch that dollar. How far can you stretch $1?
Particularly when you have dependents as well, and potentially not the most wonderful support system around you in certain circumstances? So how can [there be a] support system for underprivileged people, particularly women, because that’s why we’re here and obviously talking to Daughters of Tomorrow today? How can that be improved in Singapore?
So, I would say there are so many ways [to] get started. But from DoT’s perspective, because we are looking at financial livelihoods as enabling, I think the first step is getting people to trust you to try and make a change. So, investing in building personal relationships or connections is the first step. So when you meet people, go out of your way, lend a listening ear and try to be that encouraging kind of force within your community.
Once they trust you or find some affinity there, [we can share about] training opportunities for women [to upskill]. Because currently, when we look at the demographic of women we’re supporting, about 50% have less than N-Level [qualification], which is secondary school education. So, with limited formal education, it’s very hard to think about what kind of jobs you’re qualified for. A common sentiment that I hear from the women that I’m working with is, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough qualifications; I can’t even think about applying for that job.’
So I think one of the things that we can do as a community, or at many different levels, is to make training opportunities more accessible. That’s actually what DoT does. When we offer our workshops, we build confidence. We offer [IT and financial literacy workshops]. We offer it in the evenings so you could come by afterwards even if you’re working. And we actually offer child minding services as well.
Oh, that’s so helpful. The hardest part of going to anything, when you’re a mother or a parent without someone to watch the child, it’s just practical, isn’t it?
Absolutely. Many of the women we support don’t have that social support structure, so they could be single moms, or both husband and wife are working long hours and may be estranged from extended family. So [for them], being able to bring their children makes a huge difference. It actually makes the courses, programs and workshops more accessible for them.
So I would say that’s the first thing we could do. The second thing would be – once you’re trained up and ready to go, you recognise your strengths, you’re excited, you’re inspired, [looking for] job opportunities that are flexible enough so that you can balance your caregiving duties with your professional aspirations. As a mother, I can say that for myself [it] has always been a big struggle to find that balance.
It’s a never-ending challenge, isn’t it? Because you want to be fulfilled as a human being. But you also want to be there for your children. There’s always that guilt associated with whichever way you’re leaning into more.
So if you’re spending more time in your career, there’s that guilt that all the kids, ‘Have I been there enough?’ And then if you spend too much time with the kids, it’s like, ‘but I care about my career or awesome aspirations for myself as well.’ I don’t have any answers.
No, you’re absolutely right. I think most working moms are juggling [with] that day in and day out. And, like you said, it changes based on the day or the season. But for our moms, there’s an added layer of necessity to work because you need the income.
You’re the sole breadwinner. And so, how are you able to juggle that? And if you do [choose], ‘Okay, I’m going to work full time or multiple jobs to make ends meet?’ – which is what some beneficiaries do.
Yeah, they don’t have the luxury of choosing, right?
Exactly. Then what’s the implication of you not being there for your kids? What happens to their upbringing, support system, and the choices they make is something that the women must grapple with again.
So, on that note, we know that single mothers face this uphill battle when it comes to navigating parenthood. Could you, perhaps for our listeners, highlight some of the challenges they face here in Singapore?
Yeah, absolutely. I think all parents can kind of relate to this. [There’s] no respite. You’re just constantly [switched] on because you are the sole provider [and] caregiver. There [are] not many people you can lean on unless you’ve got strong familial relationships or a strong network [of friends]. For most of the women we talk to, that’s not present.
So if it’s you fronting all the caregiving, the choices, and housework on top of your actual job, [we are going to see] high rates of burnout, stress and anxiety. I don’t have the research to back this up, but I am pretty sure that [also] affects your physical health when you’re constantly under that much stress.
And so I think that is one of our single mothers’ hardest things. I think the second thing [we discussed] is the caregiving responsibilities, right? So if you are not just taking care of your kids, but maybe you’re taking care of your aged parents – what they call sandwich generation, right? So that’s another kind of lever you must juggle with your other responsibilities. We see that a lot as well.
How can we help these women?
I think it’s about creating more [flexible] roles and understanding the [issues] these women are facing. So recently, a very promising conversation that we had [was] with Kim Underhill. She used to be the president of DoT.
Since then, she’s created her own women’s networking organisation, She Brilliance. Pulling from her journey, she realised [there was] a big demand for personal assistants in Singapore. So we’ve been working together to figure out how to provide that service [in a] remote setting, so it’s a work-from-home opportunity.
So, could we train our beneficiaries to be able to fulfil that role, but they do it from home? That way, they might be able to manage all those other responsibilities better. I think it’s coming up with innovative ideas that can change the landscape of the available jobs.
We’ve also had much success talking to existing employers in the landscape. Through our advocacy, sharing, and sensitising them through our workshops, employers themselves are coming to us and saying, ‘We actually want to be more inclusive; we want to hire DoT beneficiaries who are eager to join the workforce, who are motivated and we’re willing to change kind of our HR practices to enable that to happen.’
I think that’s amazing. We are so lucky to have such supportive employer partners around in our community. For example, [when] you think about any big retailer or F&B outlet, they normally have rotating shift work to be able to open at 10 am and then stay open until 10 pm, right? But because most of our beneficiaries are moms, they must pick up their kids from childcare by 7, right?
So you can’t make [that] schedule work. But what some of our employer-partners have been willing to do is they’re like, ‘Okay, well, we understand that.’ So it’s that deeper understanding that has led them actually to change their staffing policies. They can give our beneficiaries core and stable scheduling, which means they come in at 10 and leave by 6 every day, Monday through Friday.
[It works] with the childcare hours. These organisational shifts and openness to doing that – which takes a lot of work on their part, with the scheduling behind the scenes – are steps in the right direction.
Also, there’s a skills shortage. There’s also a manpower shortage in Singapore and many other parts of the world. If you have this resource of part-time mothers, you should be utilising that because some places can’t fill their jobs. They are becoming inflexible regarding the type of person they’re looking to employ.
In my mind, I think flexible working will just get bigger and bigger as we continue. And I hope this provides more opportunities for mothers, who seem to need to work more flexibly, particularly when their children are young.
Just adding on to that, I think that’s where we see the industry or the economy going as well. But on the flip side of that, what we’re also trying to understand is if the gig economy keeps on going, or we have more contract work, which is short-term – what does that do for financial stability? Then how do you plan? It’s not just about having a job now; you need that steady income coming in [to] plan for the future.
That’s right. So if it’s a guaranteed part-time role, and there’s a conversation about when you’re ready to increase your [salary], we can make allowances. But, if it’s a way for [companies] not to pay entitlements and have a lot of casual workforces, which a lot of companies are looking at the numbers and going that that could be a financially viable proposition just in terms of how much they pay in payroll and benefit.
It will not sustain these women we’re talking about today. It’s said nowadays that women are more financially literate than men. What more can be done to close the financial gap? So women may be better with handling their money or more understanding of where they’re spending their money in terms of this question, but how do we close that financial gap for them?
I wish I knew the answer to that question. This is my personal opinion. I think it stems from the gender inequity, right? Because moms are, especially in this society – maybe other societies are different – primarily the main caregivers, right? So you have to take that time off, or many women choose to take it when they have children. I certainly did.
I know of many others who did. So when you choose to come back to the workforce, you either have to take a pay discount, or you are only taking on part-time hours, so your pay is reduced. Then your promotion track or your career advancements also get affected. So then you’re playing catch up to the men [with] similar professional qualifications, but because they’ve just maybe been working for that year longer, somehow, you’ve lost steam.
So I think [it’s about] figuring out how [as a] society we can change that caregiving role to be more equitable between men and women. It’s a very hard thing to do societal change. I don’t think it can happen overnight. It’s very much based on culture and expectations, and gender norms and all of that. But there are countries like Norway and Sweden where you have seen it happen. So we know it’s possible. The question is, how do we get there?
From an affordability perspective, how do we have the ability to afford to support that for some of these Scandinavian countries? It’s great, but they actually tax you much higher. So that becomes a tax chain kind of situation, which is highly complicated.
Now, in terms of the programs that Daughters of Tomorrow runs, we touched on it earlier slightly. But could you share more about the types of programs that you offer for women?
Yeah, absolutely. [Initially], [we found that] for women who have not worked in a long time, [they had that] lack of belief in themselves, or the lack of confidence were the main [hurdles] to starting that journey back to work. So that’s why we offer DoT’s Confidence Curriculum most frequently. We run it island-wide. It’s an eight-week program where women come together. It’s a live class of around 10 to 15 women, and they [are] in a safe space to know more about each other.
They get to know more about themselves in terms of what their strengths are. They talk about what’s been hard previously and what the challenges are. [Also], I would say there’s a lot of peer learning, so they are helping themselves. We’ve got our volunteer trainers to help facilitate and give them tools and frameworks we’ve developed.
That combined discussion really lends to a shift in terms of their readiness to [join the workforce], how they feel about themselves and what they’re looking for in the future. Then, as they’re going through that program, we’ve [factored in] another layer of support through our volunteer befrienders, which is how I joined DoT initially. We connect them. It’s like a one-on-one relationship, a friendship.
The befrienders get to know the ladies as well. Get to know them on a much more personal level so they can really understand what’s going on in their lives. [The befrienders also learn] what specific support that woman needs because in a class setting, you can talk about things generally, but you might not do a deep dive into her unique situation. So through that kind of friendship, we can activate other resources within our ecosystem because we don’t work in a silo. We have great relationships with social service agencies in Singapore, so we can pull them in as and when required. I think [that] is the journey towards employment.
Through the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve realised that getting a job is not enough. [For example,] making sure that you have enough money to make it till the end of the month can be challenging when you first start work. [That’s why] we also worked with Aidha to develop a financial literacy course that we run for our women. They can learn the basics of budgeting, which [like] you said women are really good at now, right? Just to fine-tune that a little bit, because you are working with a shoestring budget, right? So, how do you really make it work? How do you save? What are you trying to save towards?
How do you get your whole family’s support towards your financial goals, because otherwise, it doesn’t work, right? Having conversations around money doesn’t come naturally to many people. It’s quite sensitive; it’s quite hard. So those are the kinds of things that we cover in the course. And then, to make it doable or get the ball rolling, we also offer a financial matching [service]. So, after they’ve learned how to do it, they have six months to try it out. So whatever they save, we match one for one up to $100. So that really jumpstarts that saving process.
And they can see immediate rewards. [That’s] really positive behaviour. We’ve seen a lot of success there. As women were starting work, the other gap we saw was IT skills. Some of them don’t have a lot of professional or formal education. So, they may not feel as confident with digital literacy. In the workplace, you need [those skills] for everything, whether it’s an app, the laptop, or iPad; you’ve just got to be savvy, right?
And they’ll often tell me, ‘Oh, my kids are teaching me how to do it.’ I was like, ‘That’s great! Learn any way you can. That’s wonderful.’ We also run a basic and advanced IT course so that women who want to get better [and] feel more confident, whether it’s in their personal life or at work, can work on that with us as well.
I assume the journey with some of these women has stretched since the inception of Daughters of Tomorrow.
Yeah, it’s true. I can [speak] for myself. While I was a volunteer befriender in 2016, I’m still in touch with [the] beneficiaries. We still chat [and] meet up for coffee. I’ve had the opportunity to see their journey. [There have been] ups and downs through multiple different jobs.
But the fact is that we’re still in touch, and we still connect. I think that’s the beauty of working in this sector, especially with Daughters of Tomorrow. It is about relationships and making your lives richer. So it’s not just the beneficiaries but also as a volunteer. Yeah, as part of the organisation.
Why is it so important for women to lift each other up? And how do we do it?
I think you’re doing it right now through the podcast. It’s all about supporting each other and learning from each other, right? That starts happening through listening, so if you’re able to be authentic, and be present, and hear and understand through that whole process.
Even if you can’t give anything or do anything to change their circumstances, just being there and listening, you have helped ease whatever they were trying to convey or that they were worried about. That is actually the ethos of DoT’s Befriending program we’ve developed over time.
I hear of many volunteers coming in, and they’re like, ‘But I don’t know anything about the space. I don’t know anything about what other resources are out there; what will I do?’ And it’s just paring it back down to this very basic theme: you must be present, authentic, and vulnerable to create a connection.
Then, through that, you can inspire [and] mentor each other, which is great. I think when you do see a gap somewhere along the journey, while you’re connected. If you have the ability or resources to do something, take action as well. But I feel it’s not necessary.
I love that. I also think just no [having] judgment on anyone else’s life and journey and the fact that a lot of us are born into a type of privilege that other human beings aren’t—and just having that understanding that things will always be easier for some people and harder for others.
And there’s an acknowledgement of that and an understanding that we can do what we can to help people who aren’t in the same situation that others were born into, right?
I think once you start doing this work, even that drops away. Because you’re just authentically there for each other. I think you’re absolutely right.
What about some of the invaluable lessons you’ve learned throughout your time with Daughters of Tomorrow? How has being involved with the organisation and the beneficiaries changed you?
I think we touched upon that. It’s just the power of listening. As long as you’re authentically there – that’s what’s really valuable. You don’t have to bring other things to the table – just yourself. I meet so many amazing individuals, the beneficiaries. They’re so strong and have gone through so much.
When I hear their stories, I’m so privileged that they would share [them] with us. I can see the inherent strength within them. But then, as you stay connected and see them realising [that for] themselves, you see that ‘Aha’ moment within them, which is really magic for me.
And it’s why I keep doing this work because that’s really powerful. I think the quote I have on my email sender. It [goes], ‘Every woman already has a voice.’ It’s just how do you enable them to use the voice.’ It’s that sentiment in a way that I see on a regular basis through this work that we’re doing at Daughters of Tomorrow.
Have there been some tough days? Working in this space is rewarding. But there are days when it’s heavy when something that you hope would go well for someone doesn’t. How do you [cope with that]?
How do you protect yourself from getting too emotionally attached? To remain as positive as you are and able to talk about all the great things when there are. There must be really hard days.
No, you’re absolutely right. There have been stories and instances where it’s heartbreaking and it is hard to process. I think the key for us at DoT is that we have an amazing team on the ground. We’re really there for each other. That has been the case since I joined, and it remains the case today. So, knowing that you can meet up for coffee, pick up the phone, and have someone who will understand what you’re going through.
I feel like a broken record. But listen to what you’re actually feeling and feel it with you, right? That’s why I keep going. At home, I have a very supportive spouse. I’ve got an amazing support system. Even if I am drained or busy or whatever it is, knowing that the kids are well taken care of gives [me] peace of mind. Am I doing enough at home versus how much am I putting in at work? I think that has allowed me to continue doing this work.
Now, [here’s] a bit of a fun question to end on. Do you really believe that girls run the world?
I think we run it together with the boys, but we make it run more smoothly.
Well, Kanak, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. It was wonderful to learn more about Daughters of Tomorrow and your journey as well.
No, thanks so much for having us. We’d love to be back any time you’ll have us. Haha. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Kanak, for our chat today. I am now joined by our Podcast Producer, Suf, to have to chat a little about today’s episode. Hey, Suf.
So, what did you learn today?
I like the quote in her signature: ‘Every woman has a voice, it’s just how you uplift them’ – I thought [that] was very inspiring. As a male in Singapore, I think it’s very important that we play a part in uplifting women. That’s how we achieve gender equity.
I’m already very aware of these issues about Singapore’s underprivileged women and low-income families. This needs to be talked about a lot more. It’s nice to have charity organisations like Daughters of Tomorrow bringing these issues to light because even locals are unaware that there are underprivileged single mothers. So, this is something that needs to be brought to the forefront.
Yeah, and it’s really impressive; I had no idea the number of volunteers and the magnitude of the impact they must be having now. It’s so admirable to start something from the ground up and grow to that level. Think about how many women are being impacted in a positive way through their interaction with this organisation.
I think it’s great that everyone’s playing a part in lifting women because the percentage of low-income families is around 20% or more. And if people don’t talk about it or do something about it, I think they will always be stuck there. People always assume they’re not doing all they can to help themselves, right?
It’s not that there is a lack of opportunities for them. So, it starts with you because you come from a place of privilege. And when you can help someone, you have a lot more. It’s like a trickle-down effect. Ange, as an expat in Singapore, I want to know [if] you were aware of these issues.
So, I used to volunteer at ANZA. It’s the Australian New Zealand Association, and they have a charity group that raises money for various causes. So I was made aware of this quite early on because a group would go in and help some elderly residents and things, and we actually worked on a charity event.
I helped out in a small way, which was a bit of fun. A few years ago, before COVID, a group of girlfriends and I used to go to a women’s shelter and play with the kids so that the moms could have a little break for a few hours once a week. So I have seen it. I am really motivated by the impact of continued support.
So we can all dip in and out in terms of helping to volunteer. I know that it’s something that I do to dip in and out. It’s quite inspiring to see Kanak and the group of women persevere over the years. It’s something that I’m definitely going to reflect on after today.
I think it’s also important that regardless of your nationality, whether you’re local or an expat, you help people who don’t have a lot of privilege in the country that you’re living in; it speaks a lot.
Yeah, you are helping them, and they’re paying it forward. They will remember their gratitude and being able to get out of that system and do something for themselves.
And for everyone listening today, if you feel inspired to help in a voluntary way or any way or just learn more about Daughters of Tomorrow, we’ll make sure there’s a link in our show notes. Well, I guess that’s it for today. So, thanks for chatting. Thanks, everyone, for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Thank you for listening to Growing Pains! Season 4 is over, but be sure to tune in to the episodes as and when you feel like it while we wait for the next season!