Once homeless, 27-year-old Zulhaqem Zulkifli has gone from collecting cardboard boxes and scrap metal to sell with his father on weekends to enrolling in the prestigious University of Oxford.
Zulhaqem and his younger siblings went from having a normal life in their four-room flat in Henderson Crescent to sleeping in the void deck when their parents went through a sudden, messy divorce in 2010. That same year, their father lost his job as a technician and the family became homeless after they sold their home to make ends meet, in 2011.
The four children and their mother went to live with a relative but tensions with the relative’s family meant that the children and their mother often slept at the stone tables in the void deck under the HDB block.
Eventually, the family were given shelter at an interim Housing Board four-room flat in Sims Drive while they awaited a rental unit. Three years ago, however, the children came home from school one day to discover that their mother had abandoned them.
The siblings later discovered that their mother – who held an administrative job at a hospital – had packed her belongings and left her children without notice as she wished to recuperate alone after suffering a stroke a few days prior.
Saddled with the mounting bills their mother had left behind, the school-going siblings eventually approached their father for help. Agreeing to support his children, despite his meagre salary as a cleaner, Mr Zulkifli moved in with his children and the family gradually managed to pay off their debts.
On the weekends, Zulhaqem accompanied his father to go through dumpsters in the hot sun, in search of scrap metal and cardboard boxes they could sell. Determined to succeed, Zulhaqem was determined to do well in his studies and applied for scholarships and bursaries to ease the financial burden of his education.
Striving to help his father and siblings, Zulhaqem also worked multiple part-time jobs while he studied to supplement the family income.
Today, Zulhaqem’s younger sister is a social work associate and his brother is a pastry chef, while their youngest sister works multiple part-time jobs.
Zulhaqem, who aims to become a civil servant so he could help improve the social work system in Singapore, was awarded the Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarship this week, allowing him to pursue a master’s degree in Buddhist studies at Oxford University.
Revealing that it was his father who urged him to apply for the PSC scholarship, Zulhaqem told the Straits Times that his now 59-year-old father always told his children to read voraciously to gain knowledge, to stay humble, and reflect on their lives by looking at nature and thinking about the lessons and meaning they could derive from it.
He recounted to the publication: “He would say to me: ‘The next time you think that you are all high and mighty, remember that you used to sit here and pick up rubbish’ He would also say, ‘Now you suffer, so next time, you make sure other people don’t go through this suffering’.” -/TISG