AIDigression: How a Sudden Social Initiative Taught me About Volunteering’s Timeless Legacy

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The Call to Adventure 

“This sounds like it’s going to be a huge waste of my time.”

That’s what I thought to myself last August, seated at a table in the Canopy, an alfresco restaurant nestled in the heart of Bishan Park, about a 15-minute walk from my home. 

Facing me was Jason, a close companion for the past 5 years. In May, he and his friends had launched REACH Academy, a student tutor agency committed to making tuition affordable and accessible for all. 

As a former MediaCorp actor, Jason was an outspoken, social butterfly, always looking for a new way to leave his mark on the world. He stood in stark contrast to myself, a reserved bookworm more inclined to solitary pursuits. 

We formed an unlikely duo, in spite of our personalities being worlds apart. At the time, I had even helped him put together the notes and resources necessary to get his project started.

So it was only natural when on that warm and sunny morning, Jason raised an idea that I would, to my surprise, come to fully commit to for the next six months.

“Why don’t we launch a social initiative together?” 

Volunteerism – Overwhelming Opportunities

“Volunteering is a voluntary act of an individual or group freely giving time and labour for community service.”Wikipedia

Volunteering is an activity that all Singaporean students should be familiar with, seeing as MOE has succeeded in institutionalising it across all schools, first through the Community Involvement Programme (CIP) in 1997,  then the Values in Action (VIA) programme in 2012. 

Volunteerism has been touted as essential in strengthening the social fabric and inculcating students with values such as generosity, compassion, and  “公德心” (civic responsibility, for those like me who have renounced our Chinese heritage). 

Perhaps due to this social conditioning, there were many like Jason who shared his pious ideals.

To cite just one example, in 2017, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) collaborated with the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth (MCCY) to launch the SG Cares App, a digital portal that gathers various charitable causes with the aim of garnering support and funding from donors across the country. A quick glance at their site reveals 30 participating agencies, and close to 100 available volunteering opportunities.

Even large corporations have demonstrated tremendous enthusiasm for helping the disadvantaged in society. The Company of Good, launched by the NVPC in collaboration with the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) in 2016, has today brought together over 1000 corporates that leverage on each others’ resources to launch more effective Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects led by their very own employees.

Given the sheer magnitude of opportunities available, one might expect Singaporeans to be lining up to be ardent, die-hard volunteers. 

Truth can be stranger than fiction, though.

A Limiting Factor

“It [is] found that 70% of Singaporeans are keen to volunteer, and over 60% of them make donations in cash or in kind. Yet Singapore’s national volunteerism rate stood at just 29%, and among those who volunteer, merely one-third do so regularly.”
“Volunteers don’t just give, they gain”, TODAY, June 2019”

Examining the significance of volunteering in Singapore more closely leads to an intriguing discovery.

Monetary support for altruistic and charitable causes is abundant. I’ve seen more President’s Challenge Broadcasts on Channel 5 than I can count, but I would bet that every single one in the past two decades has raised millions of dollars for their beneficiaries without fail. In a similar vein, donation websites like have received $93.4 million in donations, funding hundreds of charities. 

Yet, when it comes to the act of volunteering, less than a third of Singaporeans are actually participating. And only a third of that third does so on a regular basis.

Granted, this does place us in the top 10 countries in terms of volunteer time accumulated in 2018, according to a World Giving Index report.  However, across the last decade, we have performed less favourably, ranking 59th, behind many of our neighbours in the region, such as Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

In a nutshell, when it comes to volunteering,  Singaporeans put their money where their mouth is, but fail to walk the talk. While we readily offer generous funding, we fall short when it comes to contributing time and energy to charitable causes, actions which make up the essence of volunteering.  

The Challenges of an Aspiring Social Initiative 

The social initiative which Jason pitched to me that day would be called project AID, an umbrella term for the several initiatives which we would launch.

Its aim was simple – benefiting underprivileged students in the Bishan community. By setting up flagship services in a localised area, we hoped to provide ample opportunities for both the needy and the compassionate to contribute to promoting goodwill within our society.

While statistics may be insightful in giving us a broad overview, it was through pioneering these programmes that I could experience firsthand the challenges – and triumphs – of volunteerism.

First, there was the issue of reaching out to our target group. As a young initiative with no prior track record, we lacked both the resources and audience to leave a significant impact. 

This we resolved by collaborating with the People’s Association, who could provide us with the facilities and guidance necessary to find our footing. Bishan Community Club in particular served as the hub of our operations.

With their help, we launched project renewABLE: a donation drive to acquire useful items such as textbooks and used school notes to distribute freely to families in need. Appealing to local news outlets like Mothership and RICE Media also allowed us to receive considerable publicity, a crucial factor that contributed to the project’s success.

Then, there was the struggle in attracting regular volunteers. 

Many of the youths we approached and worked with juggled several commitments; university, national service, and internships, to name a few. Given their hectic schedules, most could only spare just a few hours on weekends.

Undeterred, we went ahead with the Bishan CC Homework Clinic: an ongoing series of weekly volunteer consultation sessions that allowed academically struggling students to receive the help they needed from dependable seniors, all year round.

To accommodate our volunteers, we developed a roster system that allowed a pool of volunteers to select their most available time-slots, and offer guidance in subjects they were most confident in mentoring others in. 

No doubt, planning these initiatives was tedious and tiring work. Yet, knowing that I was contributing to something bigger than myself, without expecting compensation, was uplifting.

It felt like I was bringing hope to the people who needed it most.

Fulfilling a Legacy 

“Over half (53%) of former volunteers indicated that their volunteering experience had not met expectations, with the most commonly cited reasons being a lack of flexibility (28%) and a perception that the activity created little impact or meaning (25%).
– NVPC IGS 2018 

It is an oft-recited trope that Singaporeans are a pragmatic breed, concerned primarily with attaining security and stability, followed closely by power and glory.  

Personally, I find that I tend to weigh my own needs greater than those of others, if only so that by satisfying them, I may be better equipped to serve someday. This often leads to volunteering being low on my list of priorities. 

Similarly, some people see no place for volunteering in their ideal lifestyle. Others are willing, yet are dissatisfied with the work. We seek a higher calling but are bound by not just our commitments, but also a skepticism towards volunteering as a means of realising our goals.

Yet, if we never learn to look beyond our own day-to-day tasks and reach out to those in need around us, we risk becoming narrow-minded. In the pursuit of wealth and status, we may give up more and more of ourselves, only to realise at the end that we are not only unsatisfied but have no one with whom to share the fruits of our labour with.

And to me, that sounds incredibly disheartening. In a world beleaguered with disease and polarised by racial, religious and political debate, how can we hope for a more compassionate world if we aren’t prepared to put aside our self-interests for just a little while?

Looking back now, I came to realise that the idea Jason had advocated for sprang from a desire to leave an indelible impact on society, by re-embracing volunteerism and its potential to spark great change and growth. 

It’s naive and wishful thinking, but a belief that resonates with me all the same.

Therefore, I encourage you to think hard about what kind of legacy you’d like to leave in the world, whether in school, at home, or in the wider community. What would you like to be remembered for, and how can you start working towards it? 

Maybe, heeding the call to adventure that volunteering offers could lead you to discover something that changes your outlook on life, as it did for me.

Because ultimately, volunteering isn’t just a digression – it’s an end worth pursuing.

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