#Opinion Of The Day

Going out of the way to make an impact on the world

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good person.

I don't mean just doing one-off "good deeds" that anyone who is a half-decent person should be doing anyway, such as giving up your seat on the MRT to the pregnant or elderly.

What I mean is going out of your way - even out of your comfort zone - to make an impact on someone else or on the world, on a longer-term basis.

I started thinking about this a few months ago, when I was tired and moody and walking towards the MRT after a long day of work. On the way, I was intercepted by two cheery faces carrying clipboards and the hopeful looks of volunteers seeking donations.

Instinctively, I put on my best deflective smile, mumbled an excuse about not having any time and made my way past them into the station.

About a week later, volunteers doing fund raising for the same organisation waved to me as I exited the MRT station near my home.

Again, I was exhausted, hungry and focused on dinner. But, this time, I did something worse than simply avoid eye contact.

I lied.

In an increasingly egocentric world, it's easy to disconnect from the people around us and bury our heads in our mobile phones, but it's not so hard to help an uncle carry his heavy bags or pick up stray litter to keep our neighbourhoods clean, either.

When the young man asked if I cared to make a donation, I looked him in the eye and, without hesitating, told him I was already a donor.

I regretted the words as soon as I said them, but there was no taking them back. The young man thanked me earnestly for my donation as I awkwardly walked away, like a wolf in good-people clothing.

Honestly, I was baffled by my own behaviour. The truth was that I did actually want to donate. The volunteers were collecting money for the Bone Marrow Donor Programme, which helps build a register of Singapore bone-marrow donors and provides financial aid for needy patients.

This hits close to home for me because my father's mother, whom I never met, died of leukaemia when she was only in her 40s.Because of her, I registered as a bone marrow donor when I was in college.

Yet these good intentions were being undermined by my own tiredness and reluctance to inconvenience myself. But I promised myself that the next time I saw the volunteers, I would stop and take the time to actually donate, no matter what.

And I did. A few weeks later, as I was exiting yet another MRT station, I saw two young men holding what were by now the familiar orange-and-white pamphlets.

I walked up and asked them what I could do, and committed to a monthly donation on the spot. I left relieved, happy and hopeful that my contribution might have some part in helping to save someone's life.

This series of events got me thinking quite seriously about the ways in which I contribute.

I started to question why I was not doing more to support the causes I care about. What was I doing for the greater good?

The reality is, not much. Though I once championed sustainable living, and helped lobby for clean water and the clean-up of toxic waste sites in the United States, now I hardly even recycle.

Even though I think that protecting the environment is essential and helping people in need is an imperative, I have not made a conscious effort to do either.

So I started to pay more attention to my garbage, carefully rinsing and disposing of paper, plastic and glass in their appropriate bins.

It was a simple act, but it was tangible, accessible and immediately rewarding.

All of a sudden, I had a pile of recyclables which would, fingers crossed, escape the incinerator and be put to good use.

It might sound silly, but the more I recycled, the more I became aware of what I bought, what I consumed and how much I waste, and the more I began to re-engage with the world.

I've started to conceive of other projects I can undertake and initiatives I can join to benefit others. I now think much more seriously about what good I can do every day.

I don't think any of this makes me a "good person" per se, but I'd like to think that I'm on my way to becoming a better person than I was before.

The truth is, this is just the easy part. What happens when doing what's right means changing the way I live my life? What if I finally decide that, on environmental and ethical grounds, I can no longer justify eating meat?

Would I ever follow in the footsteps of Singapore TV host Anita Kapoor and voluntarily check into a nursing home for two weeks in order to understand and expose the daily lives of patients there?

To me, a good person is someone who values other people's well-being as much as she values her own. It is someone who makes personal sacrifices for the benefit of others. Someone who stands up for what's right, who helps another, even at the risk of harming herself.

Yet, in Singapore, sometimes I look around and I feel like we are so lost in our mobile phones that we can't even be bothered to smile and hold the door open for each other. Why?

In an increasingly egocentric world, it's easy to disconnect from the people around us and bury our heads in our mobile phones, but it's not so hard to help an uncle carry his heavy bags or pick up stray litter to keep our neighbourhoods clean, either.

Yet, what could be more important than these simple acts of kindness? The small ways we show consideration for one another reveal most clearly what we value.

They are the thread which become the fabric of our society. When woven together over time, these threads reveal the pattern of who we are.

These acts of decency are how I am now trying to make a difference, however small.

I don't really feel like a good person yet, but slowly, surely, I'm working on it.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Going out of the way to make an impact on the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe