Zulayqha Zulkifli, 25, Social Work Associate

As a social work associate, Zulayqha regularly meets people who face multiple challenges in their daily lives. And it’s easy for her to empathise with most of them because she has already walked a mile in their shoes. This CLEO Change Maker used to struggle with homelessness.

When she was 16, her parents divorced and sold the marital flat. Zulayqha and two of her three siblings followed their mother and moved in with relatives, but it wasn’t long before tensions arose.

“It was a mistake to rely on my relatives because they weren’t self-sufficient themselves. There were seven of them and they were residing in a small public rental flat,” she says.

“All of us were cramped into an L-shaped housing unit and there wasn’t a lot privacy, so even though we were paying them, they eventually told us to move out.”

Tough times

Her mother was unable to afford renting a place elsewhere. As such, the four of them started sleeping at a void deck in Bishan.

“My older brother was living with my father but he’d come to join us to provide moral support. We’d all take turns to stay awake and keep a lookout for trouble.”

She explains that her father and brother were unable to take them in as they were renting a single room. And since they didn’t have mobile phones to entertain themselves, they’d spend a lot of time studying in school or participating in co-curricular activities till dusk.

The family would use the toilet at a nearby Senior Activity Centre and wash their clothes at a coin-operated laundromat, and such was their living arrangement for three months before her paternal uncle eventually decided to open his house to them. They stayed with him for close to two years before moving into their own interim flat.

But just when things seemed to be picking up, everything started falling apart again. Zulayqha was 18 and about to complete her studies at an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) when her mother walked out on the family.

“She was facing a lot of pressure from various challenges and felt overwhelmed, so she decided to leave without even saying a word,” she says. “We were angry. I thought to myself, ‘We went through everything with you but you walked out on us just like that.’”

“We then got in touch with our father, who was living in a storeroom at his workplace at that time. He started to meet us every evening to give us pocket money. I felt like since he didn’t have proper accommodation and was putting in so much effort to see us, he should just move in with us. So he did.”

The family eventually moved out of their interim flat and into a public rental flat to save costs. According to Zulayqha, rental of an interim flat can be at least $600 a month, while a public rental flat is about one-third of that price.

She has been living with her father and brothers since and proudly shares that she is now “very close” to them.

zulayqha zulkifli CLEO Change Maker
Cotton dress, A.W.A.K.E Mode from Yoox. Knit dress (worn underneath), H&M. Boots, stylist’s own.

Performing under pressure

What’s most inspiring about her, though, is that in spite of all that she was going through, she managed to ace her ITE course in community care and social services with a 4.0 Grade Point Average and emerged as the top student of her cohort.

She then went on to pursue a diploma in social work at Nanyang Polytechnic, and now works full-time as a social work associate at Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore while studying for a bachelor’s degree in social work.

A social work associate assists a social worker in providing emotional support and pairing those in need with the relevant community partners, including SG Enable and various social service offices. In Singapore, it’s necessary to have a degree in social work in order to become a social worker.

And if you’re wondering: yes, she chose social work because she wants to help others who may be experiencing a similar situation. Her current job scope includes her facilitating financial assistance requests and organising retreats for caregivers.

Looking ahead

Understandably, Zulayqha used to harbour a lot of resentment towards her past circumstances. But she has very consciously chose to let go of the bitterness.

“Of course I used to be angry,” she admits. “But I asked myself, ‘If I’m going to indulge in self-pity, then how different am I from my parents? How am I going to progress? Because ultimately, I want to progress. I want to break out of the poverty cycle that my parents built.’”

There’s no doubt that her life experiences have shaped the person she is today. Plus, they also help her relate to the people she helps in her work.

“When clients tell me I don’t understand their family situation, I smile and tell them, ‘No, I completely understand what you’re going through’ so they know we have some sort of connection.”

CLEO Change Makers 2019

Read more about the CLEO Change Makers here. For more career advice, money tips, and general guides to adulting, check out our Change Makers digital issue.


Photography: Brendan Zhang
Styling: Cheryl Chan
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee
Styling Assistant: Melissa Lee