Community Focus

Angels in our midst: Caring for the less fortunate in Singapore

Madam Tan Ow Lang (right), 73, with Madam Tje A Sui, 52, at the Hannah Seniors Activity Centre. Madam Tan visits Madam Tje, a former stroke patient, up to twice a week to provide emotional and practical support.
Madam Tan Ow Lang (right), 73, with Madam Tje A Sui, 52, at the Hannah Seniors Activity Centre. Madam Tan visits Madam Tje, a former stroke patient, up to twice a week to provide emotional and practical support.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singaporeans give time and money when called upon, but do they care enough to know their neighbours? In the first of an occasional series supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Theresa Tan explores the nature of caring in Singapore.

She may have retired from her job as a nurse, but Madam Tan Ow Lang, 73, still makes it a point to help strangers in need.

Over the past year, she has been visiting Madam Tje A Sui, 52, up to twice a week to provide emotional and practical support, such as accompanying her to the doctor.

The younger woman, who finds it hard to walk after suffering a stroke over 10 years ago, sees Madam Tan as her older sister and is thankful for her presence in her life.

Madam Tan, a volunteer befriender to the elderly served by Presbyterian Community Services, said: "I befriend (them) and talk to them, so they are not so lonely. I also feel good if they get better."

Volunteers such as Madam Tan are the angels in our midst, quietly offering their time and money to help those who are less fortunate.

More of them can be found these days, going by a nationally representative survey every two years that found a rise in volunteerism and philanthropy in the past decade.

The latest edition of this survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) polled about 400 people in 2016.

About one in three people in Singapore has volunteered in 2016 - double the rate of about one in six in 2006. The 2016 survey also showed that almost two in three offered their help occasionally, and many did so informally without going through any group.

Singaporeans are also big givers.

In 2016, they donated $2.2 billion to the charity sector, which includes religious groups. Each person gave an average of $910. This was over six times more than the $341 million and the average of $125 from each donor in 2006.

"We are a very giving and caring society," NVPC chief executive Melissa Kwee said, noting the study results.

Among reasons for the rise in doing good, she said, are more awareness and opportunities to volunteer and give, especially with crowdfunding becoming more common.

It is now easier for people to donate or volunteer, thanks to the SG Cares app which matches do-gooders with causes. Developed by SG Cares, the national movement to promote volunteerism, the app was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Jan 13.

Ms Kwee also noted that more people are looking for meaning in life and contributing to a cause.

Take Ms Anita Fam, 54, a former lawyer who calls herself a full-time volunteer. She volunteers on the management boards of around 12 groups, such as the National Council of Social Service. She initiated the first palliative care programme for terminally ill children at Assisi Hospice and rounded up friends to read to children from poor families.

Ms Fam, who is Assisi Hospice's chairman, said there are many unsung heroes out there, citing those from the hospice's No One Dies Alone programme. These volunteers spend time with those who have few or no loved ones to accompany them in their final hours.

Still, while Singaporeans are generally generous to those in need, they can do better in carrying out everyday acts of kindness, such as smiling and relating to strangers more graciously, said Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

"We forget that people have the need to be emotionally and socially connected. Do you care enough to want to know your neighbours and to create a warmer workplace? Most people will say they don't really care about that," he added.

 

GOOD NEIGHBOUR

I can't see someone who needs help and turn a blind eye. I told my neighbours: 'If you are sick and need help, don't worry, just call me.'

MADAM TAN OW LANG

Building good neighbourly ties is important, he said, in case of emergencies at home for example.

Of late, there has been concern about growing social divisions, as highlighted by a recent Institute of Policy Studies survey which suggests that the sharpest social divide here may now be based on class. People who were polled could easily name a friend of a different gender or age, and even race or religion, but found it harder to name someone from another class.

 
 

The key to bridging these divides is to encourage acts of caring and understanding among different groups, said those interviewed.

One way is to raise awareness of the problems different groups face and create opportunities for people to do something about it, said Ms Kwee. Caring requires one to notice the person or problem, she said. "But we are all so busy. I believe people will respond and help if they notice the problems."

An example, she said, was a lawyer who saw two foreign workers working in the rain, invited them home and gave them clean clothes to change into. Through the encounter, Ms Dipa Swaminathan learnt more about the workers' harsh work conditions. She later partnered the Singapore Kindness Movement to distribute rain coats to foreign workers here.

As for Madam Tan, she is happy to help whenever she can. The grandmother of six said: "I can't see someone who needs help and turn a blind eye. I told my neighbours: 'If you are sick and need help, don't worry, just call me.' "


Volunteering 'not boring'

Ms Nancy Khoo and Mr Johnson Ong visiting Madam Ruhaya Mohd Noor, 58, who is receiving dialysis at the Kidney Dialysis Foundation.
Ms Nancy Khoo and Mr Johnson Ong visiting Madam Ruhaya Mohd Noor, 58, who is receiving dialysis at the Kidney Dialysis Foundation. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Helping others is a way of life for Mr Johnson Ong, who started as a grassroots volunteer in his youth.

Now 54 and a management specialist at logistics firm UPS Asia Group, he is so enthusiastic about helping others that he started a volunteer group in 2012.

UCares Volunteers, which is not affiliated to any organisation, has about 350 active volunteers who are mostly in their 40s and 50s and from all walks of life.

Said Mr Ong: "It's a satisfaction to be able to help others and meet others with the same passion. When you volunteer, it's also a way to keep yourself active and healthy."

The group offers opportunities to volunteer each week, from befriending dialysis patients to organising activities for the elderly poor to encouraging Singaporeans to return their trays at food centres.

Mr Ong, a father of three children, said: "If we do the same thing each time, people will find it boring and leave."

An activity that was hardly boring was a beauty pageant held by the group last year for the elderly poor, who wished to dress up as they hardly had the chance to do so.

The 23 elderly women who took part were dressed in cheongsam and ethnic costumes, and had photos and videos taken of them as keepsakes. The oldest among them was 87.

Ms Nancy Khoo, a UCares volunteer in her 60s who hosted the pageant, said: "They felt so happy to have the chance to dress up and even do the catwalk."

Ms Khoo, a mother of four, also volunteers to sing at charity events and fund-raisers. Once a month, she would visit the Kidney Dialysis Foundation to befriend dialysis patients and bring them food.

She said: "I have free time and I want to do meaningful work. I feel happy if I can help lift a person up (from his or her troubles)."


Giving back through sport

Nurul Lisa Mohammad Syahrin at a game of bubble football at a SportCares camp last month. The teenager wants to give back after having benefited from the SportCares scheme, which uses sports to help those who are disadvantaged.
Nurul Lisa Mohammad Syahrin at a game of bubble football at a SportCares camp last month. The teenager wants to give back after having benefited from the SportCares scheme, which uses sports to help those who are disadvantaged. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Nurul Lisa Mohammad Syahrin, 16, sees volunteering as a way to make new friends and grow as a person.

She wants to give back after having benefited from the SportCares scheme, which uses sports to help those who are disadvantaged.

The avid football player has helped out by teaching people how to play wheelchair tennis at an inclusive sports festival.

She has also helped to raise funds by getting people to do burpees - donors gave a certain sum depending on the number of burpees done.

Lisa, who is waiting to enter polytechnic, said: "Through volunteering, I have learnt discipline and it helps me to be more mature. It has also opened my eyes to people from all walks of life."

She is the second of four children. Her father is unemployed, while her mother is a clerk.

While her family is of modest means, the SportCares scheme has given her a wealth of opportunities, such as the chance to be trained as a youth leader as well as to go on a cultural exchange trip to Taiwan.

SportCares is run by Sport Singapore, the statutory board that promotes sports.

It teaches children from low-income families life skills such as resilience and empathy, through outdoor adventure activities, for instance.

Since 2013, when the first SportCares initiative started, 16,000 children and young adults have attended the programmes.

Lisa plays football regularly under SportCares' Saturday Night Lights programme, which aims to instil values such as discipline and responsibility in at-risk youth through the sport.

The teenager, who plays as a midfielder, said: "My goal is to play for Singapore one day."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Angels in our midst'. Print Edition | Subscribe