by Wilson Chan (15A01C), Christopher Liew (15S06E), Martin Lim (15A13A)

As Singapore pulls ahead in its modernisation and globalisation efforts, we can no longer exist in an insular vacuum and remain oblivious to the issues that the global community faces. As such, our potential and obligation to contribute to the needs and development of the societies in our region have correspondingly increased. In RI, students are continuously encouraged to lead and serve the community (it’s in our school mission, no less), so it is not surprising that thrown into this mix of high expectations is the fact that we are compelled to undertake cross-boundary projects. After all, they are not a rare sight here. We are not only constantly deluged by a stream of fundraising concerts and advocacy videos that highlight this very notion of international service, but we also have a Year 5 elective programme dedicated to helping the less fortunate overseas.

However, do these imperatives provide enough justification for Rafflesians to reach out abroad by utilising resources that could otherwise be spent on local charities? Can a new generation of cosseted youth, who have had little experience of privation and destitution, effectively engage in overseas service if they have not cultivated empathy for the less fortunate at home? While this is not to belittle the efforts of those who have done good work overseas, there is the ever-present pitfall of a ‘volun-tourist’ mindset that values the vacation more than the community that is ostensibly being served.

 

A CHANGE OF FOCUS

Thankfully though, instead of blindly jumping on that particular bandwagon, some are realising the meaningfulness of local service and are becoming active participants in the community. The factors for this shift to the local arena could just boil down to an ignited sense of nationalism and patriotism. As SG50 approaches, there is a growing desire amongst Singaporeans to rediscover our cultural and historical roots, to create a shared narrative and establish some sort of national identity, such as with the Singapore Memory Project. And that is exactly what one project here seeks to do: a team of heritage enthusiasts from Years 1-6 collaborated with various community groups to uncover the history behind Bishan, under a project called Becoming Bishan.

Through their extensive research, the team has unearthed numerous insights into the heritage of the Bishan neighbourhood, ranging from authentic gravestone remains as well as oral histories of former and current residents. Building upon their enthusiasm and curiosity about the area’s heritage, this pioneering effort to play the role of storyteller and documenter has provided the team with the opportunity to bridge the gap between the past and present, and be a part of this wonderful rapprochement with history. One of its members, Isaac Leong (15A13A), jokingly noted that he was partly inspired by supernatural tales he had heard whispered around the school. Michelle Lim (15S03R), another member of Becoming Bishan, opined that the members ‘experienced the significance of the past to [the former residents]’ and ‘were connecting the pioneer generation to the Bishan residents’ as ‘a continuation of the past’.

Students found Peck San Theng cemetery boundary markers along the perimeter of Catholic High School and that of Pemimpin Estate
Students found Peck San Theng cemetery boundary markers along the perimeter of Catholic High School and that of Pemimpin Estate

While not a typical service-learning project, where the aid that the beneficiaries receive is much more tangible, Becoming Bishan promotes community cohesion in a different and more unique fashion. Isaac remarked that it is ‘more of an outreach project to encourage an awareness and appreciation of a common community heritage’ as opposed to helping any disadvantaged group in society. This project is their way of contributing to the Bishan community by cultivating an appreciation for the history of their own backyard, as well as strengthening their communal identity.

To many of us, the ubiquity of HDB flats is often viewed as a metaphor for the mundane and uninteresting nature of Singapore’s heartland communities, especially when compared to the rich histories and cultural legacies of other cities. But from the largest of architectural wonders to even the smallest grove of trees, each place has its own captivating backstory, if one only has the patience to seek it out.

Oral Interview with Mr Foong Hoy Kwang for the Becoming Bishan project
Oral Interview with Mr Foong Hoy Kwang for the Becoming Bishan project

But students cannot be motivated to focus their energies on local community projects by an insatiable thirst for knowledge alone. Such projects could end up being driven by technical research that plays no larger role in the society. What is more significant is the means to an end, rather than the end itself. The funds one raises at an event, the volunteers one manages to gather—these are necessary for the smooth running of a project, but are not the final goal.
Service-learning activities must become a channel for different groups to rally together for a common purpose, be it helping the disabled or simply reliving the memories of yesteryear: in so doing, we actively forge the solidarity that a strong, connected society requires.

 

A GOOD KIND OF SELF-INTEREST

What drives these students who have been focusing on local projects is not a typical sense of satisfaction from altruism. The emphasis on service is almost always placed on supporting others that we sometimes forget that it includes an aspect of discovery and enrichment for oneself, and it is this spirit of inquiry that pushes students to embark on such activities. Michelle explains that after attending a speech by Mr Lam Chun See, an active blogger and writer about Bishan’s kampong days, she ‘felt so ignorant about her surroundings’ after having ‘gone to a school in Bishan for six months and remaining so clueless about what Bishan was like.’

For others, these projects become a magnifying lens to the world around them, as they see past the façade of the urbanised housing and delve deep into the social problems that some Singaporeans face on a daily basis. Yap Li Yin (15A01C) is part of the organising team of Habitat for Humanity (HFH), which aims to provide a clean environment for the elderly to live in. Her first few visits were especially memorable, as she was absolutely taken aback by the deplorable conditions that these people were living in. She recalled, ‘It definitely was eye-opening as well because prior to this, I’ve never entered a one-room flat and I wasn’t aware that there are people in Singapore who lived in this way and needed help so desperately.’

By providing immersion experiences that expose students to harsh realities, these local service-learning projects widen their limited and narrow perspectives of poverty or hardship in Singapore. Bryan Chua (14A01A), who was a member of The Humanz Initiative (THI), also commented, ‘We see what the real world is like—the world for everyone else outside of the bubble wrap we have a tendency to wrap ourselves in. What we get is a reality check, which is so much more important for those of us who’ve been privileged all our lives, to see that our standard of living is not the norm for everyone else.’

In fact, we don’t register any shock when we view images of suffering in other less developed countries, but when it strikes so close to home, we become aware of the extent that we are shielded from these truths. Many students thus take advantage of these opportunities to gain insight into the lives of others in the community.

Habitat for Humanity in full swing, refurbishing an apartment unit
Habitat for Humanity in full swing, refurbishing an apartment unit

Acknowledging this deficiency, and facing the fact that they are fortunate individuals that enjoy privileges that others do not, will help students become more broad-minded and less likely to take what they have for granted, especially considering how the people they serve could well be neighbours or friends. While this argument can easily be extended for overseas service-learning trips, the key difference lies in the degree of interaction between ‘giver’ and ‘recipient’. All the students that we spoke to pointed out that what continues to drive them are the memories and experiences that were formed in the course of the projects.

Isaac and Michelle both agreed that listening to the poignant stories of the former residents is by far their favourite experience to date. Michelle recalled fondly, ‘What started off as our quest to collect information about Bishan quickly transmuted into meaningful service when I met the residents. They were exceptionally keen to share their experiences with us. Some shared mind-blowing stories and others spontaneously donated many artefacts.’

Yvonne Yeo (15S06E), who recently volunteered for a home improvement project, tells us of a story that fuelled her motivation to improve the owner’s living conditions: ‘She lives in the house with her children, a son and a daughter as well as her sister; it was made known to me that they are on bad terms, frequently having disagreements and arguments…The most fulfilling aspect of volunteering is knowing that the effort you put in for the organisations or beneficiaries has made a difference to their lives.’

Li Yin shared, ‘Personally, it breaks my heart when it is clear that [the elderly] decline our help because they are afraid that they would trouble or burden us. But when we manage to convince them, it’s extremely fulfilling because these are the apartment units that truly experience big transformations after our volunteers have worked their magic.’

Therefore, for all the criticism about these projects engendering a false sense of feel-good enthusiasm (and leading to students ultimately giving up once the sacrifices made in time and effort do not justify that any longer), it is the little moments of human connection that lay the real foundation for a meaningful service-learning experience.

 

THE TEST OF TIME

Local projects also allow for friendships and ongoing bonds between server and beneficiary to take root and deepen, compared to the all-too-brief, often one-off gesture delivered overseas. Bryan shared his perspective: ‘sometimes, direct service has the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of the people we help. In suggesting that someone cares, and in offering company, for instance, we may help them feel better about their situations and where they are. It has the capacity to give hope and belief to people who may be in positions that seem impossible to get out of. Over time, we make them feel valued—and that, to me, is something that is particularly important in a society that sometimes has the tendency to make us feel that we are less valuable than we really are.’

A quiet shared moment that forms the real heart of service learning
A quiet shared moment that forms the real heart of service learning

On the pragmatic side of things, it is also easier for students to carry out locally oriented service, as resources are generally more available here. Li Yin believes that ‘local community service is also a lot more accessible and requires less planning beforehand which allows us to do more and serve more people’. She explains that her particular project, which targets the elderly, involves sourcing for homes that require cleaning up. Such homes would be difficult to locate and identify overseas. In terms of physical and emotional resources that have to be brought to bear on any project, ‘local projects also has a lot more potential to be sustained, which I think is very important in creating lasting results,’ she said.

 

LOCATING RESOURCES

Isaac adds that the magnitude of their project requires drawing on the charitable help of many organisations. ‘There’s very little research done on Bishan, so we had to work with community partners from the Kwong Wai Shiu Peck San Teng Foundation and St Theresa’s Home (formerly Little Sisters of the Poor).’ He is grateful for being able to liaise with them, as these institutions have been in the Bishan neighbourhood for a long time.
More importantly, social media has empowered advocacy organisations and projects by connecting them with potential collaborators and contributors in the public, building a larger network of local audiences.
‘A lot of volunteering opportunities are transmitted through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that youths often utilise, so they are well-placed to contribute to such activities,’ said Yvonne. As social media becomes exposes youth to a steady stream of civic awareness through the most ubiquitous of mediums, more are encouraged to participate in local projects.

 

A HUMAN CONNECTION

However, it’s not just the students and recipients that service learning leaves an impression on. The Rafflesian is rarely viewed as just a single individual; he is representative of the entire school, at least in the eyes of the public. When students connect with other groups, it also breaks the stereotype of Rafflesians being isolated, elite and indifferent to the needs of the community.

In the case of Becoming Bishan, Isaac observes that collaborating with various community groups has further strengthened our institution’s roots in the area. ‘This project is special because we get to work with the other schools in the Bishan cluster,’ he points out. ‘Focusing on Bishan makes us feel a bit more connected to this community we’re part of because we understand and appreciate the place. I think doing community projects like these also make us more relatable for the Bishan community—their interaction with RI students are limited and doing such a project helps put a human face to their impressions of us.’

Mr Lee Chee Keong, our Assistant Department Head of Community Education, agrees. ‘Our students have much to learn from the people and organisations in Bishan, and we also have much we can offer or give back in terms of making a more conscious effort to share our resources with those around us. Basically, we want RI to play a positive role in our neighbourhood—to be welcomed and not resented by our neighbours’.

There’s nothing wrong with overseas service or global campaigns, especially given Singapore’s globalised nature. However, what both should invoke is that same spirit of generosity, regardless of the recipient. Once we subscribe to the perception that overseas causes are somehow more worthy, we blind ourselves to the many meaningful chances for service here on home ground.
So let’s welcome this shift of mindsets. In the end, success does not only lie in the long-lasting impact the local community projects will have on those who need help, but also the transformative impact they will have on the volunteers.

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