Hundreds of instant noodle packets, enough to fuel a dozen undergraduate careers. Bottles of condiments and other canned foods, enough to fill up a bowling alley.
This viral post of an old man’s house stockpiled with the aforementioned donated items exemplifies the state of charity and social work in Singapore. People want to donate and help, but often these gestures don’t actually benefit the lives of marginalised Singaporeans.
It becomes a spectacle or a PR move, but ultimately leads to waste.
This happens because those who are privileged don’t understand the actual needs and contexts of the disadvantaged communities they want to help.
For instance, corporate sponsored events are scheduled at unrealistic timings—3 PM on weekdays, or 9 AM on a Saturday—when parents need to care for their children. Excursions are arranged only for children, ignorant of the fact that many parents might want to join in, since they hardly have opportunities to spend time with their family.
Further, social workers and volunteers don’t actually want to position the poor as needing to receive services and donations, because it cultivates the myth of the lazy and entitled poor person, and might even inadvertently encourage dependency.
If we, the public, truly want to help, the best solution is often the simplest one: to listen and pay attention to the communities we are already a part of.
Their current framework is one of community development similar to Asset Based Community Development. They empower communities to tap into their own resources and strengths to take charge and collectively solve problems, rather than letting social workers or external institutions prescribe solutions.
Beyond largely serves as a resource mobiliser, or to connect disadvantaged communities to external parties who want to help. Their social workers then collaborate with neighbourhood leaders—volunteers who live in these communities and act as organisers on the ground.
Leaders like Amy, a mother who nearly had palpitations just thinking about being interviewed by yours truly.
Amy lives in Jalan Bukit Merah (JBM), a neighbourhood housing low income families in one- and two-room rental flats. Accompanying her is Priya, a community worker with Beyond who’s worked with JBM for 3 years.
Despite being soft spoken and anxious, Amy is your archetypal mother hen who’s larger than life. She’s often on the lookout for the youth and children in her neighbourhood, asking after them and offering to take them under her wing. Often, she reaches out to their parents too.
In a country known for being awkward and sometimes unfriendly, where a stranger chatting you up on public transport is everyone’s worst nightmare, it’s refreshing to see her unabashed concern.
Beyond finds these proactive, selfless citizens through the long-term process of relationship building. As Priya describes, there’s no other way to gain the trust of the community than by truly understanding their worries; through knocking on doors, visiting homes, and showing one’s sincerity to help. Eventually, there will be those willing to step up who become organisers in their community.
Priya’s team of 3 can never meaningfully hope to be in charge of so many families, but through a network of neighbourhood leaders like Amy—one of 10 neighbourhood leaders across 4 blocks in JBM—the community can run on autopilot and take ownership of their own problems.
“They would have often already done their own surveys and spoken to other people,” Priya muses. It’s a stark difference from traditional models where disadvantaged communities are dependent on social services.
“By the time they come to us, there’s already a solution. They’re either reporting it to us, or requesting resources to make these initiatives a reality.”
Tucked away in Buona Vista is the lively neighbourhood of Ghim Moh, where my own family goes to do wet marketing and get haircuts. Aidah, along with Riani and Zilah, are the neighbourhood leaders here in partnership with Beyond.
Recruitment was done—as most things are in these communities—by word of mouth. Whenever Aidah saw youths loitering about, she’d ask if they wanted to join and learn the sport, to channel their free time and energy into something productive.
Now the team convenes three evenings a week. There are only about 10 members now because many are in the midst of exams. Come late October, the full strength of over 20 will return.
The takraw team was originally funded from the couple’s pockets—Aidah works in online sales and her husband is in food delivery. They wanted to cover basic necessities such as water and bread, to be provided after training, but even this puts a strain on lower income families.
It was nearly discontinued, but after speaking to Susie (a Beyond community worker working with Ghim Moh) about their financial situation, they managed to find sponsors to adopt the program.
“I’m so glad!” Aidah exclaimed. Although this episode has long passed, I can still see the relief in her smile.
This initiative is the poster child for Beyond’s community development model: a neighbourhood leader identifies an issue, comes up with a solution, and only seeks Beyond’s help to make her vision a sustainable reality.
But the focus of the takraw team goes beyond sports and getting youth off the streets.
“When the kids have problems and can’t talk to their parents they come to us,” Aidah tells me, stating that these youth lack attention and understanding. They often tell the adults their life stories, and the volunteers serve as both a listening ear and as intermediaries.
Because intergenerational gaps are rife in any family, these volunteers help to illuminate the mindsets of parents while also empathising with the plights of the children.
“We were all troublemakers once,” Aidah laughs.
And as far as possible, they bring the parents in to discuss these problems. Aidah shares one situation of a mother being unable to handle her kids. But after taking them into the takraw team and forging bonds with the children, their attitudes changed and they became better behaved.
In another incident, one parent was skeptical at allowing their son to join the team, afraid that he wouldn’t come home after.
So Aidah negotiated solutions with this parent—when the son is leaving, Aidah texts the parent. If he plays truant, he can be banned, or the parents can come pick him up themselves.
Through sheer force of will and seemingly effortless candour, Aidah and the other volunteers are able to solve problems by accruing something very difficult to come by these days: trust.
“We used to focus too much on the youth and left out the kids,” Priya tells me. This manifests in an initiative called Funfit, which is a weekly exercise session hosted by an external volunteer, Richard—affectionately called “Papa Rich” by the children.
He’s a coach from Evolve MMA, and the program started off in Bukit Ho Swee wanting to engage older youths by teaching them self defence. But through conversations with parents, youth and the coach, they decided that martial arts wasn’t suitable given the potential for abuse and using it to fight.
So it was turned into a fitness program for children. Now, Funfit has been running for over 3 years in JBM, and is run in 3 other neighbourhoods as well by Coach Richard and other volunteers.
None of this would be possible without the help of the neighbourhood leaders. Like Aidah and her takraw team, Amy actively recruits children into Funfit and acts as a chaperone and overseer. These initiatives become something the community takes ownership of, with little handholding from Beyond.
“At first they just did it for fun, but now they want to win,” Amy tells me.
Every quarter, inter-community competitions are held—prizes be damned. It’s all about the glory of being first, and Amy giggles as she recounts Rich fanning the flames of competitiveness by egging each neighbourhood on.
Again, this allows the children to channel their energies into something positive, and fulfils their social and emotional needs. Instead of cultivating delinquency and hanging out with the wrong crowd, they’re learning how to skip, and training to get stronger in tug of war. They needle their parents to exercise with them, and cheer each other on during the uproarious competitions.
By starting young, it’s easier for the children to develop relationships with adults in the community. To have respect for these volunteers who were a part of their growing up, and identify with community members who cared and continue to care for them. This personal touch is much more effective than any professional intervention.
Hopefully, when these children grow up, they’ll continue to stay out of trouble, and stay in school at the behest of their elders. As Priya tells me, education is the great leveller that might be the only way to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Just last month, the Rotary Club of Marina City wanted to do something with the volunteers. Together with the Ghim Moh neighbourhood leaders, they co-organised a family day picnic.
Gathering at a HDB void deck, they eagerly divided responsibilities and planned the itinerary—the venue, food, games to play.
“They got really excited,” Grace grins.
“Like organising a class outing in secondary school.”
School is an apt comparison, because just like these events, they are a platform for different people to interact with each other. Many of us grumble when we enter the working world or even university, and find it difficult to build genuine relationships. Because of the lack of structure—having a form class or twice-weekly CCAs—imposed, it’s very easy to become isolated if you’re not proactively reaching out.
Events like the picnic then become a perfect way for families and communities to bond, and also help to reach out to more people, and bring them into the loop. Communities then grow out of their bubbles, crossing various demographic divides of class, race, and generation.
This is the ultimate goal of any activity—for various communities to interact with each other, and even with the general public. This can be seen through the Funfit competitions, and even the Ghim Moh takraw team competes in friendly matches partially funded by ActiveSG.
And the picnic? I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Multiple times during our interview, a convoy of bikes and PMDs would pull up next to us, as though reporting in to a checkpoint. These are Aidah’s children, and her youngest constantly cries out for his mother, his tiny hands pawing at her from his seat.
It reminds me of the gender imbalances and stereotypes that plague caregiving and nurturing. There’s no surprise social workers and neighbourhood volunteers tend to be women, and especially mothers.
Hence, these stories don’t just highlight the importance of actively listening to communities. They also present a model for community engagement: how to organise on the ground and connect with others, and make society a more equitable one.
Firstly, more men have to step up. There have been very active fathers among the volunteers, but these are few and far between. We can’t always be relying on women to mother us.
Secondly, despite our increasingly digital world, physical space still matters. Given that we are still beings of flesh localised in a geographical context, it’s the people who live around us who will support us.
Amy often goes down to various children’s and parents’ places to check on them, and whenever a parent is unable to care for their child—like working the night shift—she volunteers to take them into her house.
“The older children will look after the younger,” she justifies. If it’s just being watchful and occasionally feeding them, she can manage that much.
Similarly, Aidah’s house is open 24/7 for neighbours and community members to approach her.
When we’re constantly pigeonholed by our four walls, we often forget that when we open our doors we invite our homes to get bigger.
“Sometimes a village sounds like an understatement,” Priya chuckles. Beyond parents, we also need relatives, neighbours, friends, sometimes even colleagues, teachers and other social workers to all come together to share the burden of caregiving.
Priya describes the Family Group Conferences that Beyond holds, where not only family members but neighbours and other members from the family’s circle are brought in and given a platform to address certain family problems.
Since the 1980-90s, our government has pushed for family to be the basic unit of society. But focusing on a single household can be too myopic. Sometimes, the issues of a single family cannot be adequately solved on their own, and others have to be involved in finding solutions, to support a plan of action.
This underscores one of the most basic facts about humanity: that we are stronger when we are many, and that diversity is our greatest virtue.
It could be by offering to walk a neighbour’s kid home because both your children go to the same school. Or banding together with other parents to tutor all your children and spread the workload. With more hands on deck, there’s a synergistic effect that reaps greater benefits for all involved.
Helping the disadvantaged isn’t just the purview of social workers. The burden shouldn’t even be solely borne by communities in need.
Everyone is responsible because we’re interconnected as a country. Society is built on the backs of giants, and when we lift up those most in need, we can all have the same view.
In an increasingly fragmented world, we have to hold on to our communities more than ever, not only because it’ll enrich our lives and widen our world views, but because we all deserve to lead fulfilling lives.
After all, what is community? It’s two people or more committed to building a lasting relationship. It’s a sepak takraw team, or uncles following a season of soccer at a coffee shop, or strangers-turned-friends embarking on Pokemon Go raids together.
Or it’s a handful of women huddled around a table at the void deck, laughing and dreaming about a better future for their families.
“Going Beyond Social Services, Safeguarding Community” is written by Stephanie Ho and chronicles Beyond’s evolution from its inception until today. You can order your copy here.
What communities would you like to be a part of? Write in and be a part of ours at firstname.lastname@example.org.