Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Singapore has 'lost glue that binds community'

People here have forgotten how to look after one another, says NVPC chairman
By Jennani Durai, The Sunday Times, 4 Dec 2011

Among Mr Stanley Tan's sharpest memories of his kampung days - he grew up in Kampung Liew Lian - are the neighbours with the television set.

'There was only one family with a TV set, and they would leave the door open so the rest of us could watch it from outside,' says the chairman of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) with a laugh.

This small act of kindness made an impression on him because it showed him that his neighbours were quick to spot the needs of others in the community.

'If I didn't have a meal one day and my neighbours noticed it, they would just invite me over,' recalls the 55-year-old. 'They wouldn't say, 'What is the Government doing about it? When is the next Meet-the-People Session?''

Speaking to The Sunday Times ahead of International Volunteer Day tomorrow, the affable chairman talks with great gusto - by turns serious and mischievous - about his pet topic: the lost soul of Singapore.

'We've had a very busy 47 years as a country, which has provided a very liveable, urbanised environment. But along the way, we've given up the community glue that existed when the environment was undeveloped,' says Mr Tan, who took over as chairman of the centre in 2007.

The NVPC works to promote giving in Singapore, and runs online platforms that give donors and volunteers a wide array of organisations, causes and activities to choose from.

The chief executive of Global Yellow Pages previously helmed Beyond Social Services and served as a vice-chairman with the Singapore Red Cross Society.

While he concedes that this is the natural cost of growth, he stresses that it should 'still be something we try to arrest and reverse'.

'Why should helping be somebody's job rather than everybody's job?'

Singapore has essentially become like a nice hotel, says Mr Tan. 'We think we are guests, and when something doesn't work, we start abusing the manager. If it were your home, you wouldn't behave this way,' he says.

'I'm fearful that people don't understand that our home is not just the small place we live in.'

He is quick to clarify, however, that Singaporeans are not stingy - on the contrary, they are 'a very generous society'.

'If Singaporeans see someone getting hurt, we always come out and give. That's not misplaced. That's just how they understand giving,' he says. 'We just need to change the definition of giving to include caring for our neighbours.'

Caring for those around us is a privilege that we give away to our Members of Parliament or aid agencies, he says.

For example, if one resident in a block of flats cannot pay his or her utility bill, Mr Tan suggests that other neighbours raise the money among themselves.

'That will empower the tenant far more than getting the money from the community development council, because it comes with love from his neighbours,' he says.

'We lose so much by not helping. The community is us, and we destroy it by disowning it.'

The results of a recent NVPC survey - showing the volunteerism rate at an all-time high of 23 per cent - are dismissed with a wave of his hand.

'Look around you. Do we really need a survey to tell us the health of giving?' he says. 'We can't be too academic about it.'

Mr Tan himself started volunteering at the age of 10, when he would visit St Andrew's Mission Hospital and Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home with his church's youth group.

The experiences stuck with him, even as he decided to quit school after his O-level examinations at St Patrick's Secondary School to get a job as an auditor. By the early 1990s, he was a self-made businessman and started serving on the boards of volunteer organisations such as the Red Cross. He also started the child-related group Hope Fund, which gradually evolved into the Mainly I Love Kids (Milk) Fund.

Noting that the current survey results take into account both informal and formal volunteering, Mr Tan expresses a wish for the formal volunteering rate to drop to zero, but for everyone to be helping one another at home and in their own communities.

'That is the way it should be. Then we'd have no need to give to voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs), because there would be no need for them,' he says.

He jokes that the volunteerism rate during his kampung days was 100 per cent.

'If you didn't help, you'd be whacked by your neighbours,' he says with a laugh.

Quickly sobering up again, he adds: 'There is unlimited space for unstructured volunteering. But it will take a sustained period to raise the volunteerism of society.'

He warns that Singapore could become a dysfunctional society if it continues this way. But it is not too late.

'These are scary symptoms, but they may not lead to a fatal disease yet,' says Mr Tan. 'We're reaching a flabby stage, and we need some discipline and exercise.'

To do this, Singapore needs to go back to basics, he says.

'Our value system must be part of our DNA, not something to deliberate over. We need to build it into society again, and that means going back to parents, and to schools.'

Parents, he says, must want their children to grow up to be good people first, not scholars, ministers or businessmen. 'If we start with that, the solution is simple,' says the father of two adult daughters. He is also heartily in favour of the new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum to be introduced in schools, but hopes it will not be done in a clinical way.

The way the Community Involvement Project (CIP) is carried out in schools could also be improved, he says. For a start, each student could choose community projects that utilise his own strengths, an approach the NVPC is trying to seed in schools.

'CIP is a wonderful start to having an avenue to reintroduce an old-fashioned value system. And what better way to get students to contribute than in the way they are most able to?' he says. 'We get people engaged where they are most passionate.'

A change in the message that schools convey to children is also necessary, he adds.

'The Americans do it well. In the US, from a young age, everyone is taught about giving back. They want to change the world, and this messaging starts when they are very young,' he says.

'The messaging in our schools emphasises achievement, and that's never equated to whether you make a difference or contribute during your academic life.'

Giving contributes to the identity of a society in the same way that culture, sports and health do, he adds, but it is not given the same prominence.

'If a sportsman were to win an Olympic gold medal, he would be worshipped like a hero,' he says. 'And we celebrate the achievements of people like entrepreneurs and politicians. But a volunteer? Or a donor? People say, you must have too much time or money on your hands.'

We debase contributions to the social sector by implicitly saying they are not of equal value, he says.

'We say the Olympic gold medallist is worth more than the foster mother who has taken care of 30 kids in her lifetime. We don't celebrate the foster mother,' he says.

Mr Tan is cautiously optimistic about the future, but adds that the nation's next steps will be crucial.

'We are not yet at a bad state. But we are at a crossroads. Do we think this is important enough? What are we doing about it?'

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