The Guardians of Singapore's Lost Mail

On the eastern end of Singapore stands an imposing Singpost building. Make your way through the lobby, security check, wait for an escort, go through three more secured doors, and you'll find yourself standing before a grey door. 

'Return Letters Unit', a sign announces. 

Inside this mysterious unit are thousands of mysterious letters and objects – no names, no addresses, no stamps. Yet, surely they belong to someone out there. Or maybe there's a sentimental letter that means a lot to someone. And maybe one day, someone will come looking for their lost mail. For all these 'maybe's and possibilities, the Return Letters Unit exists. 

 

Every single day, four thousand lost items are entrusted in the custodian of this Returns unit. Out of that, up to three hundred lost letters will be successfully returned. When it comes to parcels, the success rate is lower – only three or four are returned a day.  

What happens to the unreturned, unclaimed letters and parcels?

They are methodically filed into a state-of-the-art vertical storage system called the Logimat. Inside the towering grey machine are 29 trays holding thousands of letters and parcels. 

Lost Parcels

 

When customers call the general hotline asking for their lost parcel, an email is forwarded to postal officer, Jumali bin Tangat. He then searches through the haystack for said item. 

Yet, those are rare occurrences. More often than not, people forget about their letters and mail. Ordinary mails are kept for three months and registered mail, six months. When their shelf lives are up, the letters are destroyed. "Letters are sent to vendors for destruction," operations manager Ong Eng Chiew adds. For privacy's sake, no one is allowed to open the letters.

Parcels are, however, opened up. Necessities like clothes, shoes, watches are donated to charitable organisations. The remaining items are sent for destruction. 

 

Beyond formal letters and parcels, the Returns unit also deals with absurd items that can't be mailed. "Vegetables, underwear, currency – with the address written on it," Ong sniggers. "Fidget spinners, obviously." 

"Last night we received a Tiger Beer bottle with the address [stuck on], but it crashed. We cannot send it. We just leave it at the RLU," he roars into laughter. "It might hurt others along the way." 

Keys, car keys, teeth whitening kits, boxes of La Prairie creams, contraband items, wallets, birth certificates, and identity cards. "We receive wallets every day."

 

It happened once, a person dropped a stack of cash into a post box by accident. "Seven thousand dollars, the person called very fast!", the 62-year-old Tangat (pictured above) recalls. When the owner called and alerted Singpost to it, the Returns unit jumped into action. They contacted the postman, who singled out the mailbag. The bag safely arrived in the Returns unit, and the team retrieved the cash.

Wedding rings are another commonly lost item. "They intend to post letters, [but] accidentally drop it into [the post boxes]" Tangat continues. On another occasion, Tangat received a styrofoam box full of ice from a Japanese company. It was a trial for the insulation box. "Testing whether the ice melts or not. Testing only. We send back to them... That one very interesting." 

"Sometimes we have bananas," Ong cuts in.

The team giggles as Tangat echoes in disbelief, "They even post bananas!"

Lost Letters

Ridiculous items aside, the postmen often come across impossible addresses – Santa Claus, North Pole, God. Just a couple of days ago, in light of the North Korean nuclear missile tests, there was a letter addressed to Kim Jong-Un, North Korea. "We don't know where [it] goes. It ends up here," Ong shrugs. 

 
 
 

Ong, Tangat and team crack their heads trying to find ways to post letters like these. "We do come across kids sending mails to Santa Claus – usually in the festive months. They did not write the address, but on goodwill, we send their mails to Finland. There's an office there," Ong continues. In fact, there are a couple of official Santa Claus offices across Alaska, Lapland, and Finland. 

Lost in Translation

WIth global addresses comes numerous languages. In Singapore, letters with addresses written in Tamil, Malay, and Chinese are handed to the Returns team. Tangat and his fellow colleagues help translate the Malay and Tamil lines to English. The Chinese letters are passed on to 73-year-old Swee Heng Chye. 

 
 

"Most of the addresses are not official addresses. The older folks they use colloquial names of the streets," Ong explains. Hokkien names like Si Bei Lor, for instance, has to be translated into Waterloo Street.

When we visited, Swee (pictured above) seems to be sifting through his translation in a leisurely pace. Come October through January, traffic will pick up and he will get busy. 

"October onwards is the start of peak [season]," assistant operations manager Mohammed Johari bin Salim quips. "The busiest will be December." Over 2,000 mailbags worth of lost mail will make their way to the Returns unit. The rise of e-commerce has made gifting easier for consumers. "They order online overseas. Especially now with e-commerce coming up. We receive more – accessories and gifts.... We have to call additional hours in order to clear all these." 

Even so, the Returns team has no qualms. In their work, no two days are alike. "A very interesting job, that's why I can stay long!", Tangat laughs as Salim chimes in. "Especially when they start to dispose of things, then we find out the contents!" 

There are thousands of unboxing videos on Youtube. There's even a channel titled Unbox Therapy. It all boils down to the sheer wonder of opening up a parcel. It's thrilling. Now, could you imagine, the Returns team unboxes gifts for a living. Of course, they are always in such good spirits. Tangat grins, "You want you can join!"

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Photographs by Felicia Yap