Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said that while many civic-minded and compassionate Singaporeans organise overseas missions to help the less fortunate there, we should not forget the underprivileged in our own backyard. He added that if a nation doesn’t care and the people are driven only by individual ambition and materialism, the basis of the nation may not last very long. Then, in the same breath, he said that even though the Integrated Resorts may have caused some social problems, it was a “necessary judgement call” on the part of the Government to serve as an economic anchor in the region.
Yes, wealth and compassion are not mutually exclusive. There are some very rich and very compassionate people out there. They perform public service without being properly paid and they even risk their own lives to help others. But when is sacrificing others like a pawn on a chessboard a “necessary judgement call” (or necessary evil if you will)? Yes, even without our casinos, people will find a way to gamble if they want to gamble — like going on online gambling sites, or going to neighbouring countries. And even without opium dens, people can still get drugs, children can still get cigarettes. So why not …. because two wrongs don’t make a right.
While it’s true that there is no once size fits all solution to help the needy and less fortunate here, there are common issues that affect all of them – like the high cost of living, like the inability to meet CPF minimum sum. Such issues affect all low income Singaporeans from bankrupt punters, drug addicts, the chronically ill to autistic or disabled people. They need different forms of help to get them back on their feet, but cheaper housing, transport and utilities will be universally beneficial. How much can we volunteers do for for these unfortunate folks? Build them some cheap houses/shelters? Help them dig a pond so they can rear some fish? Help build some farms to grow vegetables and rear cows/chickens along the green corridor? Help them set up some solar panels, water-collection devices and deprive SP of some accounts? Bring them some gadgets that can turn used cooking oil into engine fuel? Gosh, I’m not even sure if the last one is legal here. Suffice to say that a simple hydroponic system that can help improve the life of some Arkha villager in the mountains of Chiangrai can also help some of our unfortunate citizens get by in life – provided we have the same sandbox to work on.
I have to say that I do not support the majority of these projects for two reasons. 1) The lack of continuity can be more damaging than not doing anything. 2) Some of these volunteers have religious agendas. A minor reason is that the locals might be able to do a lot more with the total trip expenditure donated as cash.
One can of course argue that the volunteers are buying an experience. Still, it needs to be pointed out that most of the projects that our good Samaritans are involved in overseas require simple permits and minimal government supervision, if at all. The volunteers who descend on the pristine environment have the opportunity to test a new technology and the room to exercise their creativity without the need to invite some guest-of-honour for the grand opening. Back home, you not only need to ensure that your volunteers have the necessary qualifications, you also need to be careful that you don’t invite the “wrong” guest-of-honour. Very importantly, nobody in India, Nepal and Myanmar complains (or makes police reports) over minor glitches. The effort of the volunteers go further and the beneficiaries also tend to be more appreciative.
Choosing the right community to make your contributions could make a difference between a cost-effective, meaningful, fulfilling programme and one that results in criticisms and heavy fines.
These factors should be borne in mind before we try to redirect this passion and compassion back home. There is a world of difference between running on an open field and walking a tightrope. What’s the use of teaching people to fish if fishing is not allowed?
True compassion and love in the context of training of the mind is based on the simple recognition that others, just like myself, naturally aspire to be happy and to overcome suffering, and that others, just like myself, have the natural right to fulfill that basic aspiration. The empathy you develop toward a person based on recognition of this basic fact is universal compassion. There is no element of prejudice, no element of discrimination.
© Chan Joon Yee