By: Bryan Chua (14A01A), Chloe Wong (15S06N), Tan Yi Chern (15S03N), Tan Su (15S07A) and Chu Phuong Anh (15S06C)

Many Rafflesians talk about wanting to be engaged with the wider community, and to do their part by giving back to society, but how many of us really feel for the causes that we serve?

A common criticism of Rafflesians is that we tend to live in a bubble among ourselves; we are unable to relate to the broader community, and often don’t make the attempt to do so. The term ‘slacktivism’ is bandied about to describe certain kinds of Rafflesian participation in service projects, such as taking part in flag days or performing in concerts as a means of racking up CIP hours or displaying their talents. One might argue that this problem has been exacerbated by society’s meritocracy-based system, wherein those who achieve more or are seemingly more capable are better rewarded. Or it could perhaps be the result of the school system requiring a minimum number of CIP hours.

It would not be unfair to classify some students as having little or no feeling for the community—one went as far as to say that ‘I only do as many service hours as I need to (12)— it’s a waste of my time.’ One Year 6 student tells us, ‘Because of this need to earn CIP hours, many students find themselves doing just enough to reach a certain benchmark of hours, which detracts from the actual purpose of doing community service in the first place.’

Not that these acts aren’t important, but there are undoubtedly many of us who participate in these charitable activities without the appropriate motivation that should follow it. The fact of the matter is that these projects become convenient ways of convincing ourselves that we are doing our part for society—but are we really?

In fact, there are a few students who don’t do service at all, due to a complete lack of interest. Several students mentioned how often they just ‘couldn’t be
bothered,’ and that there was ‘no point’ to doing service. But is the problem that Rafflesians don’t care at all, or is it that with the various requirements that we have to fulfill, Rafflesians have lost the concept of what service actually is? In some ways, Rafflesians can be quite sheltered, and face very little encouragement or necessity to break out of our comfort zone and interact with the world outside our immediate social circle, and thus we often trap ourselves within a bubble of apathy and self-centredness.

Of course, this isn’t the full picture. There are many other Rafflesians who genuinely have a heart for the less fortunate, and have selflessly given their time to improve the plight of the needy. These Rafflesians believe strongly in their causes and want to build empathy and instill the same passion in others, initiating several projects that range from telling stories, to performing direct service and organising events that encourage the rest of us to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’.

Story-telling

Groups such as Faces of Singapore, The Storytelling Workers (from the Raffles Community Advocates) and a group that conducted a service project with the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association (SILRA) titled ‘Our lives are bad, but our luck is good’ have made use of stories to reveal the lives of those whom we don’t often see in society. As Carol Yuen (14A01A) from Faces of Singapore says, ‘We believe everyone has a story to tell.’ These stories help us to understand the plights of those less fortunate than us—those suffering from diseases or who have been maligned by society.

The Story-telling Workers
The Story-telling Workers

The Storytelling Workers is a project started by the Raffles Community Advocates that shares the personal stories of migrant workers in Singapore, and aims to encourage respect and recognition amongst Singaporeans for their contributions to our country.

‘Our lives are bad but our luck is good’ was the title of an exhibition by SILRA earlier this year that featured quotes from people suffering from leprosy on their struggles in battling this incredibly isolating illness. Stories such as those of Lim Ah Hin, who said, ‘I couldn’t stand it—the whole body is swollen after that, you know,’ with reference to the Tai Fong Chee oil injections he had to endure in 1949 at the tender age of 16, or Ow Ah Mui, who struggles to return to her family since contracting the illness, who said, ‘How dare I go back? Wouldn’t my elder brother be afraid? His wife didn’t like it.’

SILRA
SILRA

These stories are as difficult to read as they were to uncover—and it is this chilling sense of discomfort that these stories strike in us that truly make us understand and empathise with the plights of these maligned figures in society. Leong Yee Ting (14A01C), one of the members of the Leprosy Home project, tells us of one particular person whose story really touched her: ‘Ah Hin is a brooding elderly man who’s always pondering philosophical question and existential question whilst remaining humble and eager to learn—he taught himself how to read the newspapers, and asked one of us to teach him how to play the harmonica—sometimes it makes me think, if he can’t even find the answer to those questions at his age, what makes me think I can?’

Annie Teo, a feisty old lady interviewed for Faces of Singapore, shared her life story—she dropped out of RGS after two years of studying to be with her gangster boyfriend, married him, and endured great hardship bringing up their three children after he passed away at an early age. Deeply touched by her story, the interviewing students shared: ‘At the end of the day, we found ourselves rooting for and even (dare we say it?) desiring to emulate this spirited brazenness that is distinctly hers, that is distinctly Annie Teo.’

Annie Teo
Annie Teo

Engaging Directly

Another avenue that some service groups have been building empathy in students is through the act of direct service. Groups such as the RI Chapter of Habitat for Humanity and The Humanz Initiative (THI) have engaged in direct service with several groups of people—from helping to improve the living conditions of the elderly living in one-room flats to spending time with elderly living on their own, or helping children with mental or physical disabilities. As the THI organising team tells us, ‘We believe that direct service is a key part of giving back to the community, and so we strive to find ways and means for students to take part in meaningful service opportunities aside from the usual concerts and flag days.’

The Humanz Initiative
The Humanz Initiative

Many of the students involved were greatly moved by the plight of the people living in these situations. The Habitat for Humanity team tells us that ‘those who require the most help in improving their living conditions were (often) unwilling to seek and accept our assistance. During many of our door-knocking sessions, it was very heart-rending to see such needy households slam their doors on us. But our work also opened our eyes to one very apparent need in lives of these elderly living alone—a need for company.’

This sentiment is echoed by those who have been involved in one of THI’s service opportunities, the Adopt-A-Grandparent-Scheme (AAGS), which works with Block 5 Care Corner Senior’s Activity Centre (Toa Payoh) to provide company for the elderly who are living alone. Gao Wenxin (14A03A) tells us of the ‘grandparent’ her group adopted, Mr Lim, who would ‘offer to treat us to meals at the nearby hawker centre when our exams were over, even though it’s difficult for him to walk. Mr Lim lives alone and doesn’t have a close relationship with his family, yet he exudes a sort of selfless spirit that comes from within and that I aspire to one day.’

THI is also involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association Singapore (RDA), which works with children with physical and mental disabilities who make use of horse-riding as a form of physical rehabilitation. Neo Xiaoyun (14A01B) tells us that the most meaningful part of serving with RDA has been ‘the joy of seeing a child’s face break into a smile and becoming more independent with every session, which has kept me going.’

Ultimately, direct service provides our students with a crucial perspective into the needs of the people they are serving, and inspires them to continue to do their bit for the community as it allows for them to be directly involved in the lives of those they have helped. As the RI Chapter Habitat for Humanity team tells us, ‘Our parent organisation, Habitat for Humanity, likes to cite the figure that there are some 35,000 vulnerable elderly living alone and uncared for in Singapore. It is a constant reminder that there are people amongst us who have been overlooked, and that we have the capacity to try and do something about it.’

From Another Perspective

Finally, another form of empathy-building in service projects are the events—such as Raffles Interact’s Dine in the Dark, Raffles Community Advocates’ Hair for Hope and No Shoes Day (as part of Heartware 2014) and Walk for Water—which are meant to encourage students to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’. While we cannot expect to replicate the exact same situations that the underprivileged are in, the focus lies in the experience and in gaining a personal awareness and understanding of the hardships that they face as a part of daily life.

Dine in the Dark, for instance, involved participants engaging in activities such as drawing a face and a house in the dark and eating in complete darkness, simulating the experiences of the visually handicapped. A member of the organising team, Hannah Goh (14A01E), tells us that ‘it was heartening to see that the participants learnt from the event and realise how difficult it is for the visually handicapped to do what we view as simple daily tasks.’

Likewise, the team of students who organised Walk for Water, as part of Water Week 2014, aimed to ‘provide an experience would give us a glimpse into what the people in Ethiopia are going through.’ Participants went on a five-kilometre walk at MacRitchie Reservoir to simulate the daily journey Ethiopians typically have to make to collect water.

Walk for Water
Walk for Water

Ultimately, these different forms of service converge into the central notion of building empathy in Rafflesians—most of whom have been brought up in a privileged, sheltered environment. The art of telling stories appeals to us on an emotional platform, to spread the narratives of the struggles many of them have faced; direct service provides us with a platform to immediately see and understand the problems they face; and activities of empathy building give us a taste of what the lives of these people are like, to help us better understand and feel for them. As Hannah tells us, Doing service acts is not so much about how we like things to be, but how it would benefit the people we are serving.’ Empathy plays a key part in breaking us out of our privileged bubbles, and ensuring that we retain the meaning in the service that we do.

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