Liyana Dhamirah
Photograph: Delfina Utomo

Liyana Dhamirah: author, entrepreneur and GE2020 candidate

From being homeless to becoming an entrepreneur who's contesting for Jurong GRC, Liyana Dhamirah breaks down stereotypes and is a voice for the marginalised

Delfina Utomo
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Life in Singapore can sometimes appear perfect. We've got clean, litter-free streets and upstanding, educated citizens with a job and family. But beneath this polished surfaced lies certain hard truths.

Published in 2019, the first nationwide study on the scale of homelessness in Singapore found that between 921 and 1,050 sleep rough on our streets. The research by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore also revealed that these homeless individuals did not fit simple stereotypes of what we'd imagine them to be.

Liyana Dhamirah was one of these people. In 2009, she was living out of a tent on the beach at Sembawang Park. She was 22 and pregnant with her third child.

Like most people in her position, her situation was chronic (lasting six years or more). 11 years ago she was homeless – she's now a homeowner, mother of four, published author, entrepreneur and an aspiring parliamentarian. This is her story.

The publishers did not want the word ‘homeless’ in the title

"When we first published the book, Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore, so many people asked me if I was responsible for the title. And the answer is yes! Initially, my publishers had reservations about using the word ‘homeless’  in the title, but I was adamant and I wanted the word as the title and at the front of the book. It is my personal experience and writing this book means so much to me and I wanted to keep the narrative my own."

Singapore is too focused on the success story narrative

"There’s always a fixation on stories that are polished and sometimes you have to take a step back and ask: “What message are we sending to our youth?” There are children thinking about how much they want to earn and what kinds of houses they want to live in at such a young age. But nothing ever goes according to plan. When my peers and people around me were complaining about university, I was trying to survive and get by. Everything in life teaches you something. I’m still learning so much at this age – I feel like I have battle scars but I’m proud to just be me."

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Learning about rejection early in life

"I think I'm so accustomed to rejection because I came from the sales industry – we have to be comfortable with rejection. But there are days that turn into dejection. When I was homeless, the darkest point was when I felt that I had exercised every option but there was still no light at the end of the tunnel. I became depressed and spent two weeks in the tent sleeping."

"When I was homeless, the darkest point was when I felt that I had exercised every option but there was still no light at the end of the tunnel."

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No more beach life

"While I was still homeless, I met a few editors of an independent news site on the beach who asked me many questions about my situation. One of them (Ravi Philemon) helped write a three-page letter to appeal for housing on my behalf. That led to an interim housing solution where I had to live with other families. I knew again that I had to work hard to get a bigger house for my children."

Finding hope

"When I finally had a social worker on the case, I had to stick to a process – and at the end of the process, the ultimatum is that you have to find a job. That was when I did some research and came up with the idea of starting a virtual assistant firm. I think my courage to pull myself out came from the realisation that I was at rock bottom had nothing to lose."

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On being a single mother

"I know my journey is not very conventional – and I’m well aware that I could have just accepted a desk job. But let’s be real, I was a single mother at the time and an office job was not feasible when I had young children to raise and no funds for childcare. Nothing has been easy. I've experienced discrimination getting back into the workforce after my third child and also while going through a divorce. 

So far it has worked out. My kids are the most understanding – when my eldest child was 12, I felt that he was at an age where he could be independent and I take on more responsibility like caring for his two younger siblings. I had a system in place based on trust in my children and I hope I have imparted skills of being independent to them.

"From the start, my intention has always been to help others"

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Never underestimate a woman

"What I really believe in is empowering women experiencing hardship. I want them to know that this is temporary and that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. As women, we sometimes don’t even realise our strength and potential, especially when faced with so much adversity. Not only do we have to deal with how society can discriminate against women but also women trampling on other women. I hope that sharing my story will help encourage and empower them. I want to remind them that there are small victories we can celebrate on this journey."

Running for parliament

"Ravi approached me in May 2020 about Red Dot United. I got to know Michelle Lee and the other members and felt more compelled to serve the people of Singapore alongside them. We may be new but we have been on the ground and involved with the social and political life of Singapore for more than 10 years. With my experiences, from where I am, I hope to speak up for the unheard and voiceless."

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