The Lesser Seen

It’s been a long time since I last posted on my blog; I’ve been quite busy with university applications, scholarships, exam preparation, meet-ups with friends (before they head off to college this September!) and the works.

But this holiday I’ve found the time to return to the weekly Wednesday Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS) at my local constituency (Holland-Bukit Timah), and gradually I’ve come to realise that this has become quite an integral part of my week, something that keeps me determined, passionate, and engaged. For those of you not in the know, MPS are quite unique to Singapore – during these sessions, Members of Parliament meet individual residents and help them address their problems. My role in this, along with other student and adult volunteers, is to meet these residents and then subsequently write letters on behalf of MP Sim Ann to respective ministries and organisations addressing the problem.

The cases are varied; just this last week I assisted an elderly woman who had taken a year off her part-time job at NTUC due to her colon cancer and had returned only to find that her manager was unwilling to hire her because she was “too old.” Right after that I met a young (and bright) polytechnic student who had declined an university offer from the course of his choice in the hope to get into a cheaper (and more prestigious, therefore unfortunately more competitive) university, only to be rejected and subsequently find out from us that he could have received financial aid for his course. A few moments later, an affable, benevolent Korean man ushered in his entire family of five with adorable kids in tow, hoping to appeal for permanent residency after staying in Singapore in 11 years and making numerous contributions to Singaporean society. Cases can also be more technical (and therefore usually more complicated). Quite a few times now people have approached me regarding HDB loans under atypical family situations (eg. divorced parent, divorced child wishing to live together, but with one having sold his HDB flat to his ex-wife, raising questions of eligibility, etc, etc.) which really compelled me to do some research into some of these policies. In other cases, minute but critical differences in schemes (eg. eligibility for Long Term Visiting Pass vs. Long Term Visiting Pass Plus) made me realise that our societal construct is way more complicated than I had imagined.

Sometimes these sessions stretch to the wee hours of the morning (past midnight), but no one minds. Perhaps my enthusiasm is slightly self-centred, in that I feel alive because I’m actually doing something. Something that I know will make a difference, right here and right now. You have to give it to the government for being so efficient – most of the letters we send out are replied to within the week (with exceptions of course). Not only that, but I feel like I’m learning something (seeing that we’re going into exam period, real learning has pretty much stopped in terms of normal schoolwork). For me, every session is a learning opportunity – every day I see something of Singaporean society that I had not known existed.

We live in a sheltered enclave of privilege – and by ‘we’ I mean the middle-class Singaporean. Especially studying in an international school, the cohesive environment we live in sometimes tends to be contained within itself. Despite being more involved in the service aspect of community than most schools (such as Challenge Week), and even with an unparalleled spirit of service (exemplified by the astounding 160 participants in Hair for Hope & Beautiful Lengths, with over one hundred thousand raised – yes, shameless school promoting right here!), we’re still detached from the local community.

I think in May there was a brief uproar on social media over MP Ang Wei Neng’s suggestion that the MoE should send Singaporeans on compulsory trips to poor communities in neighbouring countries in order to show them how lucky they are to live in Singapore. Going overseas to serve is a good cause, definitely. But to make it seem as if our less privileged neighbours are some sort of specimen to look at in a petting zoo doesn’t engender empathy; it simply elevates our sense of detachment from the situation. Going to poor communities overseas should be a service we provide, not a showcase we demand. As for truly appreciating how fortunate we are – there are plenty of situations that I have come across during MPS that remind me how ridiculously lucky I am to come from a stable background and have ample educational opportunities. We don’t need to leave Singapore to recognise our privilege, and our value, within this society. (Although, I’m all for exposure and internationalism; I would be a very different person at present if I had not been brought up in Shanghai… But I digress.)

Just one session at MPS will tell you the lesser seen side of Singapore – a side that is out of sight for the privileged, but a daily reality for many.

That being said, volunteering at MPS is not about recognising how fortunate we are. The initial revelation of that tapers down after the first session, and is definitely not the point of the service. But it’s about recognising that there are issues that need to be dealt with in our society; it’s about understanding resident’s concerns and providing them with a medium to address those concerns; it’s about building relationships within the community.

I know we’re heading into a busy period, but this is something that is truly worthwhile. There will never be enough time, but we have to make time for the things that truly matter.

So take a moment to search up the MPS dates for your constituency’s MP, and drop in to see if you can offer your help. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you can.

You won’t only help the lives of others, you’ll change yours.

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