by James Leong
A Facebook post by local welfare organization Keeping Hope Alive went viral after its volunteer found a sea of unopened soya sauce bottles and instant noodles occupying an elderly’s flat. The volunteer wrote, “Are we giving what the recipients need? Or are we giving just to comfort ourselves that we have a done a ‘good’ deed? Think again.”
The volunteer is spot on. We need to think hard, too, and ask, “How does soya sauce and instant noodles, which contain high levels of sodium, help the receiver who is possibly ill and does not even cook? Surely the adage that there is more joy in giving than receiving does not apply here?
I think this post went viral because it pricks our conscience and raises moral questions on our attitudes towards helping the needy. But a more compelling question is whether this reckless act of giving is modelled behavior existing at all levels of society and indicative of a country’s glaring but unspoken values.
According to Associate Professor Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and expert on Singapore politics, society and culture, the Singapore model of development and governance are described as pragmatic. He explains that pragmatism is the fig-leaf for naked capitalism, elitism, power and status quo aimed at the economic growth of a vulnerable nation, but it also dehumanises and has little patience for intangible values.
In non-academic speak, we are “kiasu.” Are we so afraid of feeling left behind that we unthinkingly offload groceries to the needy so we can feel better about ourselves for just one day and return to our daily pursuits?
For guidance, perhaps we should look to educational institutions and professional bodies of help, which include government agencies, voluntary welfare organisations and independent charities.
Sadly, despite the best of intentions, there are professional do-gooders who are not spared these fig leaves, either.
Back in 2005, the National Kidney Foundation was exposed for the misuse of funds. Just this July, in a strongly-worded interview with mainstream media, Nicholas Aw, ex-president and advisor of the Disabled People Association, publicly announced his resignation, citing dispassionate social leaders lacking empathy, courage and focus. Then there was NUS’ mishandling of student Monica Baey, who was filmed while showering.
Aw and Baey are not alone in their frustrations. My own experience working in a charity has seen board members absent from key meetings and fund-raising events. I also cannot fathom why its chairman would choose to drive his Porsche convertible to a fund-raising gala. Is he more interested picture-taking with VIPs for his Facebook page than engaging with beneficiaries?
I ask difficult questions and cite examples not to shame, but to make us feel uncomfortable in the hope that we refocus.
The Many Helping Hands Approach to addressing social issues was conceived by the government in 1997 to promote self-reliance through partnerships with concerned citizens, corporations, and community organisations. It’s been 22 years now but have these fig leaves getting in the way of our true purpose?
Just last month the Samaritans of Singapore revealed that the number of people taking their own lives rose across all age groups, except for the elderly. What’s more shocking is how young teenage boys taking their own lives reached a record high last year. This frightening trend does not consider the many stories told in the privacy of counselling rooms, which are not part of statistics and won’t make headlines.
It’s easier to allude problems from a distance to complex government policies but much harder to look at ourselves and question our own motivations. For example, do problems working in the social service sector have less to do with messy, slow-moving and complex structural issues than how being kiasu and our values placed in elitism, power and status continue to stay with us?
The Keeping Hope Alive volunteer challenged us to think again the next time we want to help. After all, it’s less about ourselves than the people we are serving. It’s really not that complex, is it?
James Leong is a private counsellor who addresses fear and anxiety at listenwithoutprejudice.org