Tom White is a photographer from Bradford, England based in Singapore. He studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, and Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. More of his photography unveiling Singapore’s grittier side can be found on his website and Instagram.
Despite its image as a clean, safe, rich nation, you don’t have to look hard to find a grittier Singapore – one of noise, chatter, laughter and grime, a cacophony of cultures. The following pictures go beyond the luxuries of the financial district to reveal a grittier side of Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouse.
Ordinary people struggle to make ends meet, to own their own patch of sky on a 99-year lease in the shadow of glass and steel high-rises and haute couture-filled malls.
The city-state of almost 6 million people is home not just to well-heeled shoppers toting Louis Vuitton handbags, but also to migrant workers who listen to the radio late at night in a wholesale warehouse shuttered after dark or watch TV on a worksite where they also sleep, and domestic workers who take public transportation to the city centre to mingle with shoppers on Orchard Road.
Cardboard forms a thin mattress in a quiet corner; not far away, a discarded mattress makes a bed. Many souls are sleeping rough tonight. Streaks of red paint run down the door of a flat in a public housing block, marking it as a household in debt to loan sharks. This, a public shaming, is the consequence of failing to pay debt incurred in the informal economy. The poor, the elderly, the migrant – all are vulnerable.
Tattoos received long ago cannot hide the marks of age. Textured skin, textured walls. Many of these photographs were taken in the dark, in the shadows baked by the harsh tropical sun, in the night. With its 21st century glamour on full display, Singapore can feel like an anomaly in a chaotic world, where the struggles of its residents are as real as those of any nation.
Despite being one of the world’s top-10 wealthiest countries – Singapore’s millionaires per capita sit only behind Switzerland and Monaco – the country is quietly hosting its own poverty and deprivation. The island nation also had in 2018 the third-highest levels of income inequality in the world, only topped by the UK and the US. But unlike those other countries, the city-state of Singapore has a land area of just over 720-square-kilometres, meaning intense wealth disparities can exist in tight quarters, creating very different lived experiences among neighbours.
Hardship isn’t reserved for native Singaporeans though, and there’s plenty to go around for the almost 1.4 million foreign workers who also call the island home, essential to the city-state’s growth. Many of these workers – who mainly come from India, China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as nearby Southeast Asian countries – are engaged in the construction, manufacturing and domestic service industries. Labour rights groups say this work can be low-paid and dangerous, with some workers earning as little as $15 per day, a paltry wage in a city with among the most expensive costs of living in the world.