It’s ideas and people that count

~by: Raymond Anthony Fernando~

How much difference can one person make? Imagine the impact of the entire nation working together to improve the community.

If you have been to IMH for meetings or attended talks there, you will find the word "KAIZEN" written on one of its rooms. So, what is "Kaizen" and how is it related to this issue?

"Kaizen" was created in Japan following World War II. The word means “continuous improvement”. It comes from the Japanese words “kai” which means change or to correct and “zen” which translated means good.

Kaizen is a system that involves every employee – from upper management to the cleaning crew. Every worker is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a monthly or yearly activity, but a continuous year round process that encourages employees to submit ideas to improve the company's performance. Japanese companies such as Toyota and Canon have staff submitting 60 to 70 suggestions a year.

I found the Kaizen system very useful and applied it in my own scope of work during my stint with a big media company, as well as in the community work which I have been doing.

Here are 3 proposals that I submitted to the government when I was serving in the government feedback focus groups.

1. Setting up a Singapore Wish Foundation – Idea submitted to the late President Ong Teng Cheong on 9 June 1999

I was deeply moved by a movie which I watched on the Malaysian TV network on May 1999. The film was based on a true story about a young American child by the name of Missy who was stricken with cancer. Missy, who was dying from the deadly disease, had one wish before she closed her eyes – she wanted to visit the White House in Washington. Her request was made through the American Wish Foundation – an organisation that was set up to fulfil the dying wishes of children stricken with terminal cancer.

Even though it was not easy to grant Missy her dying wish, given the high security at the White House, the staff from the American Wish Foundation went out of their way to grant Missy her wish and the child even got the rare opportunity to meet former U.S President Bill Clinton. The joy and happiness Missy experienced was indescribable and before she passed on, she was all smiles.

Doris and I couldn't stop crying throughout the movie. “It's so depressing to see children dying from cancer,” my wife said, fighting back tears. Missy's story played on my mind for one solid week.

Then an idea struck me. “Doris, remember that movie we saw last week about that cancer child. Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could start a movement like that here in Singapore to benefit our own child citizens?”

“You're always full of ideas and you care for children so much, Ray. Okay, draft that proposal and I'll get it typed for you,” Doris smiled. “Who are you going to sell the idea to? Not easy to get it implemented, you know?”

“Our very own President, His Excellency Mr Ong Teng Cheong?” I told Doris.

“President Ong! Are you serious, Ray?” Doris was stunned.

“Yes, President Ong,” I repeated myself. “He is a very caring person,” I assured Doris.

June 1999

My three-page proposal was submitted to the President on 9 June 1999. His three paragraph reply to me dated 14 June 1999 through his Principal Private Secretary was most encouraging. The letter mentioned that the President was touched by my proposal and my concern for terminally ill children. My suggestion was then sent to the appropriate organisation to consider.

However, the suggestion was not implemented at the time as the agency concerned felt that there was no need for a Singapore Wish Foundation during that period. However, based on my proposal, the agency did agree to facilitate the receiving of such wishes if the need arose. I was pleased to hear this.

I prayed that one day this idea would be implemented because I have a strong affinity with children. And that movie haunted me for months.

June 2002

A few years later, a group of professionals including doctors, lawyers and consultants submitted a similar idea, and it was implemented. I was happy that at last our terminally ill children would benefit from a suggestion that I had first mooted.

That aside, perhaps the civil service could have a system in place to keep useful ideas/suggestions on file, and then review it periodically to assess the suitability for their implementation. This will encourage and motivate Singaporeans to come forward with useful suggestions that can make our country a better place to live, work and play in.

2. News captions for the hearing-impaired – Idea submitted to the then-Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong on 3 November 1998

Sometimes my wife and I will brainstorm for ideas that can improve the quality of the lives of all Singaporeans. The hearing-impaired is certainly one group that needs to have a better quality of life.

It can be very frustrating to be hearing-impaired. People do not usually understand the disability and communication can be difficult. We must understand that the hearing-impaired can be intelligent functioning adults.

Having seen how hard it is for this group to lead a normal life, we decided to put up a proposal that could help the hearing-impaired keep abreast of current affairs.

We drafted a proposal – “News captions for the hearing-impaired” and submitted it to the former Prime Minister – Mr Goh Chok Tong.

Mr Goh came from humble beginnings and I hoped he could resonate well with those in need. The idea to put out simple news captions during the daily news on local TV stations, which we viewed as a community project, was to enable the hearing-impaired to relate to the world around them by keeping abreast with current affairs, these less fortunate members of society would not lag behind. We proposed that captions need not be too wordy- simple one liner that could spell out what the visuals were screening. For example, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the news caption could read: “PRINCESS DIANA DIES IN CAR CRASH”.

Statistics were produced to justify why the above suggestion could improve the lives of 5,009 registered deaf persons in Singapore. On 3rd November 1998, the idea was presented by Doris to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

We were pleasantly surprised and pleased that the idea was considered for implementation when the Government Feedback Unit wrote to my wife on 7th January 1999 to break this good news.

Today, our hearing-impaired can keep in touch with news and current affairs on national television because we fervently believed that this idea was workable and that every citizen should have a place in society.

3. Using technology to enhance the lives of prisoners – Idea submitted to the then-Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong on 5 March 2004

Several years ago, I was requested by a lady friend to give moral support to a man who was arrested and put on trial for a crime. The accused parents would fly in from India each time the trial convened. Before the trial commenced, the accused would go on his bended knees and ask for forgiveness from his parents. I felt sorry for him as well as for his parents. It was costly to fly in and out of Singapore to give their son moral support. Not to mention the lawyer's and court fees. If the accused was convicted and given visitation rights, his parents would once again have to fork out more money to fly over. Prisoners, I was told, are given limited number of letters to write to their families.

As I left the court, an idea came to mind. I decided that given the limited access that families have with their imprisoned relatives, it would be helpful to use technology to enhance the lives of those who are separated from their loved ones. Many a time when ties are restricted, spouses and children, who may have to wait years before the prisoners are released, can go astray.

I presented my proposal – “Using technology to improve the lives of prisoners” to former Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong on 5 March 2004. In my proposal, I outlined the problems prisoners faced when they are given limited access to their families and highlighted the government's good intentions of giving prisoners a second chance. I suggested that the prison authorities could allow prisoners and families to link up with each other through emails. Carried out weekly, these online letters could be screened by a moderator from the prison departments. Computers could be given by corporate sponsors and seeing that this would be a community project, I had every confidence that such sponsors would readily step forward. Once families stay connected on a regular basis, the chances of marriages falling apart and children going astray would be significantly reduced, I concluded.

I was delighted to receive a letter from Mr Adam Chew – a staff officer from the prisons department on 17 March 2004 informing me that the feasibility of my suggestion would be reviewed and explored for possible implementation.

I'm not too sure if my idea has been implemented, but I fervently believe that our prisoners and their families will benefit if the proposal is eventually accepted. Certainly, it can put Singapore on the world map. And if the implemented idea is proven to be successful, our Government could promote the scheme to other countries through diplomatic channels.

I am confident that once prisoners in all parts of the world are given more opportunities to interact with their loved ones we will indeed be giving ex-convicts a second chance and in the process there will be less social problems everywhere – by way of fewer broken marriages, less children becoming rebellious, and a reduction in dysfunctional families. Won't we then make the world a better place to live in? In seeking to improve the lives of all those who are marginalised, maybe, we need to dream… the impossible dream.